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Why is Trevor Rosenthal struggling as the St. Louis Cardinals closer?

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ERA vs. FIP vs. xFIP

Dilip Vishwanat

With the St. Louis Cardinals leading the San Diego Padres 7-4 in Sunday's series finale, manager Mike Matheny called on closer Trevor Rosenthal in the top of the ninth. "Closers are closers," the manager told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Derrick Goold a week before when interviewed for an article on the manager's high level of usage of the young righty. "And they go out and close the game, and if something comes up they push through and still do it." So it was unsurprising that Matheny called on Rosenthal with the Cards leading by three runs in the ninth.

In his must-read article, Goold notes that Rosenthal is on pace to set the Cardinals team record for saves in a season. And it was Rosenthal's save total that Matheny used to justify the way he has deployed the flamethrower. Closers close, and Rosenthal's save total speaks to his success at doing what it is closer's exist to do. But a focus on Rosenthal's results—specifically, his save total—belies a process that has left Cardinaldom uneasy of late when the righty is called from the bullpen to close out a close game.

Rosenthal put that nerve-fraying process on display against the Padres at Busch on Sunday. He walked Will Venable on five pitches to lead off the inning. Four straight balls resulted in a free pass for Alexi Amarista. After a four-pitch K of Rymer Liriano for the inning's first out, Rosenthal issued a walk to Yangervia Solarte—who gave no indication that he was even considering the act of swining—on five pitches. Matheny had seen enough. The manager pulled his closer after 18 pitches and just six strikes with the go-ahead run coming to the plate.

The outing was a microcosm, warped to hyperbole, of Rosenthal's season to date. Inefficiency manifested by walks, which leads to baserunners that make outings far more interesting than need be.

Trevor Rosenthal Career Stats

Year

G

IP

BABIP

LOB%

K%

BB%

HR/FB

ERA

FIP

xFIP

2012

19

22.2

.222

53.7%

28.1%

7.9%

11.1%

2.78

3.09

3.11

2013

74

75.1

.341

76.7%

34.7%

6.4%

6.5%

2.63

1.91

2.34

2014

58

57.1

.343

74.8%

29.3%

13.4%

2.1%

3.61

2.76

3.57

Total

151

155.1

.324

76.0%

35.1%

11.8%

5.5%

3.01

2.40

2.91

Rosenthal has a 3.61 ERA this season that he has paired with a 2.76 FIP. So better days should be ahead, right? Not necessarily.

Fielding Independent Pitching or FIP is calculated by using factors that are completely within the pitcher's control: strikeouts, walks, hit batsmen and home runs allowed. It's calculated as follows:

FIP = (( 13 x HR ) + ( 3 x ( BB + HBP )) - ( 2 x K )) / IP + Constant

Rosenthal has an elite strikeout rate. He always has and, with his repertoire, probably always will so long as his velocity sits in the mid-90s. Last season, Rosenthal struck out batters at an otherworldly rate. This year, the righty's K rate has fallen a bit, but it's still excellent. Strikeouts form the bedrock of his success.

The most troubling aspect of Rosenthal's season has been his control. Rosenthal's walk rate has more than doubled form 2013 to 2014. Nonetheless, his elite strikeout rate helps make up for some of these walks, especially when paired with allowing barely any homers. And home run rate is the third leg on the wobbly Rosenthal FIP stool: a minuscule 2.1% HR/FB rate that is less than half his career rate. That's why his xFIP, which substitutes the league-average homer-allowed rate for an individual pitcher's, is so much closer to his ERA than his FIP.

On Monday night, Matheny once again called upon Rosenthal for the ninth inning in a save situation. After a strikeout, Rosenthal walked Billy Hamilton, who then stole second base and advanced to third on A.J. Pierzynski's throw into the outfield. Jay Bruce drove in Hamilton and the Cardinals' lead was gone—the save blown. Once again, a baserunner who reached via a Rosenthal-issued free pass came back to bite him. And the murmurs grow louder about whether it's time for a change at the closer position in St. Louis.