Will Edward Mujica's 'Split-Change' Allow Him To Thrive As The St. Louis Cardinals' Closer?

Drew Hallowell

Since coming to St. Louis at the 2012 trade deadline, reliever Edward Mujica has adopted a new approach. Will it continue to be effective as he steps into the role of closer?

I was confused when the St. Louis Cardinals traded Zack Cox, their 2010 first round draft pick, to the Miami Marlins for reliever Edward Mujica at last year's trade deadline. At first, it was because I didn't know who Mujica was. After looking over his stats online, I was even more bewildered because the righthander hadn't been very good. As if Mujica's numbers weren't undwerwhelming enough, they had also been trending in the wrong direction.

MUJICA STATS AS RELIEVER 2010-2012

Year

Club

IP

K%

BB%

HR%

HR/FB

ERA

FIP

xFIP

2010

SD

69.2

26.9%

2.2%

17.7%

1.81

3.62

3.88

2.65

2011

MIA

76.0

21.2%

4.7%

9.9%

0.83

2.96

3.20

3.17

2012

MIA

39.0

16.2%

5.6%

14.3%

1.38

4.38

4.52

4.11


From 2010 through the end of July 2012, Mujica saw his strikeout rate drop from comfortably above the MLB average of 20.3% for relievers in 2010 to well below the 2012 MLB reliever average of 21.9% while with the Marlins. To be sure, Mujica's 5.6% walk rate in 2012 with Miami was still excellent when compared to the MLB average of 9.1% but it was nonetheless creeping upwards from its microscopic low in 2010. His 4.11 xFIP indicated that, even if he saw his home-run rate fall to league-average levels, he'd still be a worse-than-average reliever.

Despite having had a mediocre 2012 season pre-trade, Mujica proved a revelation for the Redbirds. He filled the seventh-inning roll in the fearsome, three-headed kaiju that was MOBOGMOT. In 26 1/3 regular season innings Mujica raised his K% to about league average, reduced his walk rate, and had the good fortunate to have only one flyball soar over the wall for a dinger. It was a performance he continued in the postseason.

MUJICA STATS AS A CARDINAL 2012

Year

Club

IP

K%

BB%

HR%

HR/FB

ERA

FIP

xFIP

2012

STL

26.1

21.7%

3.1%

4.5%

0.34

1.03

2.34

3.07


While heartening, Cardinals fans have witnessed an enticing July-August-September-October run before. In 2011, for example, lefthander Marc Rzepczynski was dynamite after being acquired from the Blue Jays only to fizzle during the 2012 campaign, a shadow of his formerly lights-out self. Given the fact that Mujica has never really been a high-strikeout reliever, I wrote a post before the season began cautioning folks about expecting the veteran to duplicate his 2012 performance for the Cardinals this season.

In the weeks that followed that post, incumbent closer Jason Motte would suffer a partially torn ligament in his throwing arm and pitch-to-contact reliever Mitchell Boggs would have a rough go of it while pitching as the replacement closer. With these developments, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has once again turned to Mujica to help stabilize the bullpen. This year, instead of deploying the Venezuelan in the seventh inning, he has tapped him to close.

Matheny summoned Mujica in a sink-or-swim moment against the Phillies last Thursday. The Cards led 4-3 in the eighth inning when young fireballer Trevor Rosenthal got himself into trouble. With two on and two outs, Matheny called on Mujica. The veteran recorded a three-pitch strikeout of Laynce Nix to extinguish the smoldering rally. In the ninth, Mujica made his own trouble with back-to-back singles but then recorded three consecutive outs to seal the Cardinals' victory and record his first save in a manner that would make the previous closer to wear No. 44 proud.

After the game, Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote an interesting post on his must-read Bird Land blog entitled "How Mujica Does It." Goold zeroed in on a pitch Adam Wainwright describes as "Nintendo" and Yadier Molina calls a "split." For his part, Mujica maintains he doesn't throw a split-finger fastball. Due to the differing labels, Goold wisely splits the difference and labels the pitch a "split-change." The whole post is worth a read and not the least because it includes a picture Goold snapped of the grip Mujica employs when throwing the pitch in question. The post's most interesting tidbit to me was the following:

Mujica came to the Cardinals around the trade deadline last July, and it was shortly after he joined the team that Molina and coach Derek Lilliquist and others encouraged him to utilize the changeup more often. Mujica said it wasn't a pitch he threw often in Miami.

The wonderful player cards at Brooks Baseball allow us to dig a little deeper into Mujica's split-change usage. For what it's worth, Brooks Baseball classifies Mujica's split-change as a splitter--likely because of its "Ninetendo" movement. According to the Pitch F/X data, at 52%, Mujica has thrown his four-seam fastball most often in his career. Mujica has thrown his split-change more often than any pitch save his four-seamer at 32% of the time.

The following chart shows how Mujica used his repertoire in 2012 by month. As luck would have it, Mujica was traded from Miami to St. Louis at the end of July so all of his games before August 1 were with the Marlins and all those after that date were with the Cards. The following chart shows how often Mujica used his four-seamer (FA), split-change (S-C), slider (SL), sinker (SI), and cutter (FC) from April 2012 through April 2013.

MUJICA PITCH USAGE RATES (APRIL 2012-APRIL 2013)

Month

FA

S-C

SL

SI

FC

APR ‘12

35%

33%

17%

15%

0%

MAY ‘12

44%

43%

7%

5%

0%

JUN ‘12

21%

39%

11%

27%

1%

JUL ‘12

37%

44%

10%

10%

0%

AUG ‘12

31%

58%

9%

2%

0%

SEP ‘12

33%

54%

5%

8%

0%

OCT ‘12

37%

46%

2%

15%

0%

APR ‘13

29%

60%

0%

11%

0%


Mujica's increased use of his split-change makes sense. In 2012, he recorded a swing-and-miss 16.16% of the time when throwing the pitch. The next highest swinging-strike rate for Mujica came on his four-seamer at 8.52%. Mujica has the lowest flyball rate with his splitter, as well, and a groundball rate of 15.69% that is well above his four-seamer (3.79%) and slider (9.41%). Only his sinker (19.30%) resulted in a higher groundball rate. So Mujica's split-change results in more swinging strikes and fewer flyballs. This has made it an effective weapon for Mujica.

Mujica's success with the Cardinals has been based on more than just a change of scenery. The veteran's new approach of relying on his split-change has had a positive impact on his performance. It will be interesting to see whether Mujica's new approach will continue to be as effective as it was over his first three and one-half months with the "STL" on his cap. Gods of Baseball know the Cards could use such results in the ninth.

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