Wednesday, June 7

How the Cardinals’ Andre Pallante rocketed into a starting pitcher role

ST. LOUIS — As the days churned along during the Cardinals’ truncated spring training in March, one under-the-radar roster candidate continued to force his consideration for a major-league role. Andre Pallante, a 23-year-old right-handed pitching prospect, had consistently demonstrated command and control of a lethal fastball. With each passing week, more intrigue — and more legitimate contemplation from the organization — surrounded him.

A few days before the end of camp, Pallante was informed he had made the big league club. He was also informed he didn’t just make it as an extra arm to aid an expanded roster. The Cardinals were planning to use him as a multi-dimensional reliever, as part of a wider plan to implement fluid bullpen roles. A starter in the minor leagues, Pallante had the length and the pitch mix for multiple innings. The Cardinals believed he also had the stuff that would play in the majors, regardless of the fact he had only pitched one full season of professional ball.

Yes, the Cardinals knew they would rely on Pallante at some point this season. But perhaps they didn’t know just how heavily, and how frequently, they would need to.

After spending the first two months as one of the team’s most impactful relievers, Pallante was appointed to the rotation as a regular starter going forward, at least for now. He responded by toeing the rubber in front of a sold-out crowd of 45,009 at Busch Stadium on Friday night and spinning 5 1/3 scoreless innings, guiding the Cardinals to a 2-0 win over the Reds. With the victory, the Cardinals overtook the Brewers — who have lost seven straight games — for first place atop the National League Central, the first time they’ve led the division since April 25.

Minus a pair of first-inning free passes, Pallante demonstrated the same composure and tenacity he showcased in the spring to make the team and accelerate up the depth chart. He didn’t walk a batter after the first frame, and scattered four hits with four strikeouts while retiring the last seven batters he faced. His four-seamer, which has above-average spin and an unpredictable, yet controlled cut movement, ticked up to 97.6 mph, and his secondary pitches in his slider and curveball kept Cincinnati hitters off-balance throughout the night.

“He did a really nice job,” Marmol said after the win. “One of the most impressive things is his ability to just slow everything down, and he continues to do that regardless of what situation we put him in. Whether he’s out of the ‘pen, starting, it doesn’t matter. Today was fun.”

Described as a “baseball rat” who loves to study the game by his manager, Pallante has been a rising star in the Cardinals system over the last year, but he wasn’t always as highly regarded as he is now. A fourth-round draft pick out of UC Irvine in 2019, Pallante carded a 2.78 ERA over his first 11 minor league games, but didn’t crack the organization’s top prospect rankings and wasn’t invited to the team’s alternate site in 2020 after COVID-19 canceled the minor league season.

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But that changed midway through the 2021 season, when Pallante says he felt himself become a different pitcher. He began the year as a starter with Double-A Springfield. After notching a modest 3.82 ERA over 21 starts, was promoted to Triple-A Memphis for his final two appearances of the season. His fastball had changed form. The velocity was higher and the cut was harder, and he had an overall better feel for how he could weaponize what he describes as his best pitch. The Cardinals sent Pallante to the Arizona Fall League that October to continue progressing, and he reported to camp that spring with much more allure within the organization than perhaps originally predicted.

“I learned who I was,” Pallante said. “Before 2021, I was a different pitcher. I didn’t throw as hard, I didn’t have as much cut as I had. I really became something else in ’21.

“It was kind of a progression of learning who I was, and how to perfect who I was.”

When evaluating Pallante’s overall development as a pitcher, the uptick in his velocity is the easiest to identify. His four-seam fastball is his best pitch, and the increase in speed, combined with the progression of its movement, allowed the rest of his four-pitch arsenal to diversify behind it. But Pallante learning how to weaponize his fastball and locate it effectively is what led to major advancements in his pitching style, even if the usage differed vastly from how he incorporated the pitch previously.

“Before, I was like, a pitcher needs to throw to every side of the plate,” Pallante explained. “Up, down, slider, curveball, stuff like that. But I learned that my fastball is really good, and I can use that and trust that. My fastball plays really well glove-side, so I like throwing the ball there. That’s where I would primarily focus my practice. If I can hone that side in, then I’ll be successful.”

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The Cardinals have certainly seen that success come to fruition. Through April and May, Pallante had complemented Génesis Cabrera, Giovanny Gallegos and Ryan Helsley as staples in the backend of the Cardinals bullpen. He stifled opposing hitters, owning a 1.07 ERA with 18 strikeouts over 17 appearances. His fastball velocity ranked in the top 25 percent of the sport, and his curveball spin in the top 10 percent. His pitch makeup, his ability to pitch to not be overly splitty and pitch to both right- and left-handed hitters, and his ability to induce groundballs all played into his early success. Not so coincidentally, those traits were the ultimate decisions in stretching Pallante out to start.

Multiple injuries to the rotation over the last few weeks have left the club’s starting pitching sparse, and manager Oli Marmol has felt the pressure to find stopgaps for innings in any way he can. Matthew Liberatore, Packy Naughton and Johan Oviedo have all been called up from Triple-A Memphis to spot start, and Zack Thompson remains under consideration to make his first career start during this homestand. Marmol has finagled with the relievers, leaning toward lengthy outings in contrast to defined, one-inning appearances, in an attempt to cover innings as strategically as possible. But he might have found a key solution, at least for the time being, in Pallante.

“I thought we had something special when we had him join us early on and break camp with us,” Marmol said. “We knew he could be a pretty good starter, that’s what he’s done. We had a need in the bullpen, which he filled nicely, but (tonight) is what he’s capable of doing right there.”

The Cardinals will turn to Pallante as a regular in the rotation for at least the next couple of weeks. Steven Matz, who has been sidelined since May 23 with left shoulder impingement, continues to progress slower than originally planned, though he threw off flat ground at Busch Stadium on Friday. Jordan Hicks is slated to throw off a mound for the first time this upcoming weekend, but there’s no guarantee the Cardinals revert Hicks back into the rotation once he is deemed healthy.

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Of the injured starters, the most optimism currently surrounds Jack Flaherty, who posted four innings of one-run ball on 59 pitches for Triple-A Memphis on Friday in his second rehab start. Flaherty didn’t walk a batter and struck out six, and his only blemish came in the form of a solo home run to Luke Raley to lead off the second inning. If he recovers well, he could be pushed to the 75-pitch mark in his next start and could rejoin the team soon after that.

The next test for the Cardinals will be filling the void that Pallante leaves in the bullpen. The club will need considerably better performances from T.J. McFarland, Drew VerHagen and Nick Wittgren over the next couple of weeks. But until then, the Cardinals will continue to look to benefit from Pallante’s adaptability. After Friday’s win, he improved to 2-0 and has allowed one earned run over 9 1/3 total innings as a starting pitcher. Though Marmol has yet to name a starter for Monday and will need to name an additional pitcher to accompany Miles Mikolas in a doubleheader Tuesday, he did reveal Pallante’s next start will come on Wednesday in the homestand finale.

Whatever the role, whatever the need, Pallante has proved in his first couple of months in the big leagues that he can rise to the occasion. That he’s doing so while simultaneously continuing to learn more about himself and how he responds to different situations, is all the more impressive.

“I think my stuff is a little bit more comfortable as a starter,” Pallante said. “I think I have more time to hone in, because I don’t usually come out the best, I kind of get better as the game goes on. So I feel like throughout the game I get better. But at the same time, (coming out of) the ‘pen, it was a little bit more adrenaline, a little bit more of let the bulldog out. I learned a lot being a reliever, being a starter, and learning how to do both.”

(Photo: Jeff Curry / USA Today)

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