Just to refresh anyone's memory, when Kyle McClellan reported to the Cardinals' training camp this spring, he 100-percent expected to throw around 75 innings this season as a relief pitcher, if only because that's what he's always done before and nobody seemed to expect anything different from him. In fact, McClellan hadn't been a starting pitcher since 2006, when he started three games in rookie ball while recovering from an injury. What's more, when McClellan had started in the minors, he wasn't particularly effective.
None of that would stop Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan, though. When Adam Wainwright went down in March with a season-ending elbow injury, the brain trust turned to McClellan, who does feature the five-pitch repertoire more typical of a starting pitcher than a reliever. Given the Cardinals' options -- plucking someone from the minors, making a trade, or signing some castoff like Freddy Garcia or Bartolo Colon (hey, who could know?) -- giving McClellan a shot seemed less than crazy, especially considering Duncan's historical success rate with unorthodox moves.
Of course, all the Cardinals wanted was a serviceable No. 5 starter. They couldn't have in a million years hoped, let alone expected, that McClellan would, after eight starts, lead the major leagues with six wins and boast a 3.43 ERA. Not in a million years.
Can he keep it going? Well, he's obviously not going to finish the season 18-3. So the real question is about his ERA, and the answer is no, he almost certainly cannot.
While McClellan's ERA ranks 21st among the 59 qualifying National League pitchers, his strikeout-to-walk ratio ranks just 49th; his strikeout rate, 57th. He's given up six home runs in 58 innings, which is good enough for the middle of the National League pack.
Now, you might be nodding (or shaking) your head and saying, "Yes, yes ... But what about the ground balls? Doesn't Dave Duncan teach the ground balls? And might not that explain McClellan's success despite the low strikeout rate?"
Yes, yes ... Duncan does teach the ground balls. And McClellan is indeed somewhat accomplished at inducing the ground balls. Just not enough to explain his ERA or his six wins. This season almost exactly half the batted balls against McClellan have been grounders, which isn't surprising because that's almost exactly what's happened in each of his three previous major-league seasons. And "half" is just slightly more than the National League average.
Real ground-ball pitchers -- guys like Derek Lowe, Charlie Morton, and McClellan's teammate Jake Westbrook -- hover in the 60-percent range. They can, to some degree anyway, survive with low strikeout rates because they give up few home runs and get lots of double plays.
Kyle McClellan hasn't really done anything well this season ... except not give up runs. That's an admirable performance, but it's not a quality. He might, for the rest of this season, be a perfectly acceptable No. 5 starter. But unless something changes, that's all he will be.