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VEB Editors' Roundtable: Who should close?

Trevor Rosenthal has struggled recently. Is it time for a change in the back of the bullpen?

Dilip Vishwanat

After Trevor Rosenthal's latest mishap, in which he walked BILLY HAMILTON in a one-run game, I removed the drawer of my desk and reached way back until I found what I had hidden there months ago. You see, the day I signed my contract to become one of the editors here at VEB, Ben Humphrey mailed me a package containing mountains of bubble wrap and a tiny box with a tiny red button that I could only press once per season, and only in the most dire circumstances. Walking BILLY HAMILTON in the 9th inning of a one-run game is dire. I opened the box. I pushed the button.

Immediately, the air swirled around me and I saw a bright light, then darkness, and before I could blink I was sitting in a small room deep within the blogging cave, located in (redacted) just North of (redacted). There were lots of computers and some potato chips, and Ben was there, in red silk pajamas with a vintage Cardinals logo embroidered delicately over his heart, and Joe was there wearing a ragged Butler University t-shirt and bunny slippers. Eric M. Johnson was there too, thankfully just tying closed a crushed velvet smoking jacket, and Craig was wearing jeans and a flannel shirt and looking ever so much like Wayne Coyne.

They all knew why I had called for an emergency VEB editors' roundtable. I didn't even have to ask the question. Immediately, they began arguing about the best way to deal with the developing Trevor Rosenthal situation. After breaking up several laughably harmless physical fights, I asked them to gather their thoughts and make their cases one at a time. Here are their solutions.

Ben Humphrey: Pat Neshek

As Eric noted over the weekend, Pat Neshek is having a historically great season as a reliever. Not just in terms of Cardinals history, but MLB history. He's striking out batters at a nearly 30% clip while issuing walks just 3.2% of the time. The sidewinder's strikeouts are on par with Rosenthal's, his walks occur just one-fourth as often, and his homers allowed take place at about the same rate. Put simply: Neshek has pitched better in relief this 2014 season than Rosenthal.

Rosenthal has struggled with his control most of the year. This while manager Mike Matheny has called on him often. This is part of a Matheny pattern. He leans on the bullpenners he trusts, the closer in particular. So the young flamethrower has shouldered a heavy workload these last two seasons. To me, this is the single biggest reason to demote Rosenthal from the closer job—not because of his effectiveness, but because of Matheny's frequent usage of him. Save the young arm under team control for several years into the future a bit and let Matheny grind Neshek into dust like the manager did with Edward Mujica and Kevin Siegrist a year ago.

Craig Edwards: Carlos Martinez

Carlos Martinez is probably one of the Cardinals' best four or five starters at this point, but they are not likely to abandon Justin Masterson after three weeks and permanently removing Shelby Miller does not favor the Cardinals' pattern of following the "path of least resistance". I choose to believe El Gallo's callup is a sign that the Cardinals have confidence in Michael Wacha's return in the next month, safely putting Martinez in the bullpen for remainder of the season.

In the 2013 playoffs, Martinez struck out 11 against just two unintentional walks in 12 2/3 innings. He struggled somewhat to begin the season after "losing" the fifth starter competition, but in all appearances (including minors) this season, he has unintentionally walked under 8% of batters while striking out close to a hitter per inning. Trevor Rosenthal's recent troubles, inefficiency and walks, have been no problem for Martinez of late. He averaged under 13 pitches per inning in Memphis with just one walk in over ten innings, and in his two-inning stint on Monday needed just 24 pitches to go along with two strikeouts and no walks to keep the Cardinals in the game.

Putting Martinez in as closer puts the Cardinals most talented reliever in the highest leverage situation, allows the other relievers to stay in their roles and would give Rosenthal time, rest, and lower leverage situations to work out his control issues. A shutdown Rosenthal should return to the closer role if he can work out his issues, but until then, #VivaElGallo

Eric M. Johnson: Trevor Rosenthal

Despite the struggles this season, I see little reason to demote Rosenthal from the 9th inning. Despite the high walk rate, his control isn't much worse that it was last season if you look at his heat maps (h/t 2014 is on the left, 2013 on the right.

As you can see, it's not so much that he's missing the strike zone more often (actually, he's throwing slightly more strikes overall this year than last year: 47.8% vs. 47.2% in 2013), it's where and when he's missing that's more important.

Clearly, he's pitching to the top half of the strike zone more than he was last year. He might be overthrowing, or he might actually just be pitching up in the zone more this season -- intent in hard to measure. What's really changed are two things:

1. Rosenthal is no longer getting ahead in the count, as evidenced by his first strike percentage decreasingfrom 63.3% last season to 54.6% this year. That would seem to indicate an issue with command as a pitcher likely wouldn't fall behind on purpose. That would, quite literally, be the worst thing any pitcher could do.

2.Hitters aren't swinging at pitches outside the strike zone at near the rate they were last year: 37.3% in 2013 vs. just 28.8% this year. This could be due to pitching up in the strike zone more often since pitches up are generally easier for hitters to lay off of than pitches in the lower half of the strike zone. It also could be due to not pitching ahead in the count near as often as he did a year ago.

Regardless, all the rest of Rosie's peripherals are either as good or better than his performance from a year ago. Yes, he's been a bit lucky with his HR/FB rate (2.1%), but he's also getting crushed on balls in play (.343), which he was also a bit unlucky with last season too (.341 in 2013). I think this is a case of "reliever-ness": A couple of short term drop offs that look like something major, but really aren't anything other than some small sample size fluff. It could be as simple as just pumping a first pitch fastball down the pipe on strike one every single time. He's throwing his four seamer to start an PA 86% of the time anyway.

I also have another theory: Trevor Rosenthal is getting used far to often this season, especially in back-to-back games or pitching three times in four nights. VEB member hazel had a great comment regarding this in yesterday's Rosenthal thread:
Pretty damning, no? So maybe stop running him out there with a 3 run lead and the bottom of the order coming up and let Seth Maness or Sam Freeman throw that inning instead. Just because it's a save situation (the stupidest term on earth) doesn't mean that one guy absolutely has to pitch. Get some rest and get strike one. That's my advice, not replacing the closer.

Joe Schwarz: Committee

For the foreseeable future, I believe Mike Matheny should take a "closer by committee" approach. As Ben noted yesterday, Trevor Rosenthal is struggling right now, but I wouldn't give up on him completely just yet. He will obviously still play an important role down the stretch, and if the Cardinals want to make a deep run in the playoffs (should they get there, of course), they could use a high strikeout guy (29.3 K% in 2014) closing out games.

Thus, I think the closer should be decided on a night-by-night basis, based on favorable match-ups. If particularly bad fastball-changeup hitters are due up in the 9th, give Trevor a shot. If this year's Pirates are anything like last year's Pirates, they had a ton of trouble against changeups last season, so this would be a particularly good time to use Rosenthal.

Now, if at least two left-handers are due up in the ninth, I would like Mike to at least start the inning with Randy Choate. Sure, his 11.1 BB% is not ideal for a 9th-inning pitcher, but he has been nothing short of spectacular against lefties (.105/.239/.182) so far in 2014. If righties are due up and they aren't the type of hitters I just discussed in the Rosenthal-situation, Mike can always turn to Pat Neshek. Ideally, Neshek remains in his current high-leverage role where he has thrived all season, but if there are two outs in the eighth with runners on base and a righty at the plate, Neshek would be a perfect candidate for a four-out save opportunity. In the back of my mind, I would also like to see Carlos Martinez get some save opportunities as well, but I just don't think it is a reasonable consideration at this time.