Use Your Illusion: Edward Mujica is Your For-Now Closer

Scott Rovak-US PRESSWIRE

The rotation is really good, and the bullpen is really unlucky. Nothing new to see here.

The Cardinals rotation is off to a fantastic start. Through last night, the Cardinals' starters have the best ERA and the best FIP in the majors, with a 2.38 and 2.74 respectively. They've also pitched more innings than any starting rotation, except the Reds. On that front, our rotation looks, early in the season, like everything we could have hoped from them.

The bullpen has been the source of much complaint, some of it deserved, some of it not. The bullpen has the next to worst ERA in the majors, after the Mets, but the bullpen's FIP is decidedly middle of the pack, at 3.69. Somehow, I doubt the bullpen's 65.2% LOB rate and the .341 BABIP-against are going to last.

Sure, it's frustrating, but it's not likely to last.

The big news has been the victor-by-default in the closer race, following Jason Motte's injury. Edward Mujica managed to be the least terrible of the candidates in the bullpen and pulled off three saves in the Cardinals' recent sweep of the Nationals.

And there's really nothing to complain about there. Mujica is pretty palatable as an option. He's a fine pitcher. He's probably not meaningfully worse than any other option. The fact that he is taking the role at least as much because he has somehow stranded 100% of the runners allowed and currently enjoys a .200 BABIP against, as because of his aptitude just reflects baseball's inherent disconnect between process and results in an 8-inning sample size.

If he's not really any worse than any other option, he's not really remarkably better. He has a career 3.76 FIP, and projects by ZiPS to have a 3.46 FIP for the rest of the season. By contrast, Fernando Salas has a career 3.53 FIP and projects to have a 3.31 FIP for the rest of this season. Joe Kelly has a career 3.81 FIP as a reliever (in a small-ish 21 inning sample), and projects to have a 4.07 FIP (although mostly modeled as a starter, which will inflate his FIP compared to relieving). Mitch Boggs projects to have a 3.73 FIP for the rest of the season and owns a career 3.78 FIP as a reliever. Marc Rzepczynski projects to have a 3.95 FIP for the rest of the season and has a career 3.69 FIP in relief.

The only real stand-out is Trevor Rosenthal. He's a comparative neophyte in our bullpen, but he throws at top velocity, touching 100 mph at times. In his brief career as a major league reliever, he owns a 2.83 FIP. ZiPS, which tends to run conservative on youngsters, only projects him for a 3.74 FIP for the rest of the season. I'd put good money on him to beat that projection by a lot. I believe he's got the true talent to strike out a guy every inning or better. I realize that, as a rookie, the club doesn't want to put that kind of weight on him, especially early in the season. I would not be surprised to see him work into a lot of ninth inning situations later this season, assuming Jason Motte has surgery (you'll note that we haven't heard any reports of how good Jason is feeling and how optimistic he is about joining the club on May 1).

I don't have a great theory about what's going on with Mitch Boggs, other than noting that his velocity is off in ways that are consistent with his arm warming up as the season goes on. His four-seam and his power sinker have started off slow each season and increased in speed after April. I'm not terribly worried about him, but then I never thought he was a stand-out reliever in the bullpen anyway. He's rapidly approaching 30 and the later, more expensive years of club control. As the crowd of arms in the high minors sorts itself out, he may find himself wearing a different jersey soon. Not too soon, I hope, since his value is pretty low right now. But I would hope and expect that he won't be in spring training next year.

On a pure numbers basis, especially if you exclude Rosenthal on grounds of youth and rookiehood, there's a pretty good argument that Fernando Salas is the best candidate for the closer role. He has one of the best historical FIPs on the bullpen staff and projects better than anyone else. It's funny how quickly the fanbase fell out of love with Fernando. He doesn't look like a traditional closer, and he certainly doesn't carry the typical closer velocity.

But I think that arguing for Salas before Mujica is pretty nitpicky. With Motte gone, there's not much of a case for any particular candidate. Picking the guy who has the 100% LOB rate and the .200 BABIP against after 8 innings is just as good (or just as bad) a way to pick your closer among this crowd as anything.

******

If you all missed it, you should definitely read Joe Posnanski's encomium to Rick Ankiel. Joe pretty much nails what made Rick special and gets you, briefly, excited all over again for the 20 year old who struck out pretty much everybody. AND OH GOD THAT CURVE.

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