Kyle Lohse is nothing if not maddeningly volatile.
Five times in his career, he's logged a qualifying number of innings while maintaining a park-adjusted ERA of league-average or better. On the other hand, Lohse in his career has lost 143 games to injury, and in those seasons in which he didn't meet those previous two criteria (i.e., a qualifying innings total and average or better ERA) his combined ERA has been 5.55. In other words, Lohse brings with him a great deal of year-to-year variance. When he's on, his outputs are perfectly useful coming from a guy who tends to occupy the back of the rotation.
In 2012, however, the Cardinals might need Lohse to be more than that. No, he need not be as dominant as he was on Wednesday night against the Marlins, when he surrendered only one run and took a no-hitter into the seventh, but he does need to muster some consistency spiced with occasional excellence.
Last season, Lohse delivered 188.1 innings and an ERA+ of 107 (meaning his park-adjusted ERA was 7% better than the league average). As well, he notched a quality start in the majority of his starts, and he showed no signs of fatigue during the team's impossible September surge. What bodes well for the immediate future are the strides he made with his walk and home run rates last season. Given health, those might be sustainable.
In a likely related matter, Lohse leaned on his changeup more often in 2011. On Wednesday night in Miami, however, Lohse threw 14 changeups out of 89 total pitches (90 by another count), which makes for a percentage lower than 2011 levels. Still, Lohse changed speeds and maintained a consistent release point, and he also, of course, kept all but one run off the board against what figures to be a quality offense in 2012. On all counts, though, sample-size caveats of course apply. (This is one start we're talking about, and Lohse's pitch selection was almost certainly driven by advance-scouting reports.)
Regardless of how Lohse achieves success, the Cardinals badly need him to ... achieve success. Chris Carpenter has a nerve injury, and his timetable will be measured in months. Adam Wainwright is entering his bounceback season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, will be on an innings limit, and, if previous TJ pitchers are any guide, will be some time in recouping the command so vital to his success. Jaime Garcia has faded in the second half in each of his two full major-league season. Jake Westbrook remains, at last report, Jake Westbrook. And, lest we forget, Dave Duncan, the unchallenged Mr. Miyagi of pitching coaches, is in St. Louis no more.
It's too much to say the Cardinals' season hinges on Lohse, but it's not too much to say that Lohse at anything less than his best will make things difficult for defending champs. What we saw on Wednesday night in Miami was Lohse at his best. But what comes next? If history is any guide, not even Lohse himself knows.