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Breaking Brett

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Brett Cecil is a Cardinal for the next four years. Is that a good thing, or not?

ALCS - Cleveland Indians v Toronto Blue Jays - Game Five Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Have you ever taken the SAT? I took it, once, years ago, and didn’t care for it. The ACT was fine, but the SAT annoyed me for some reason. I don’t why, exactly, but it did. I think they’re more similar nowadays than when I took them (it was the late 90s, and boy bands roamed the Earth), but at the time they felt materially different, and only one I found distasteful.

By far the most well known section of the SAT exam has to be the analogies section, though I suppose people my age and slightly younger will be the last to recall those nightmarish landmines of linguistic trickeration. The analogy section of the SAT was apparently removed in 2005, meaning current and future generations of young people hoping to get into college will never need to learn that hegemony and doughnuts are, in some way no one will ever quite fully grasp, related words.

Personally, I think it’s kind of sad the analogies are gone; that was really the only section of the exam I actually enjoyed. Sure, regattas and oarsmen don’t teach us much about how suited one is to study mechanical engineering, but the tenuous links between various arcane terms never failed to amuse me. And so, it is with a heavy heart, laden with sorrow for the loss of a great American institution, that I offer to you this morning an analogy.

Zach Duke is to Andrew Miller as Brett Cecil is to Aroldis Chapman.

So let me explain. Back at the trade deadline this past season, the Cardinals made a relatively small but quite shrewd, it seemed at the time, move to acquire Zach Duke, a lefthanded reliever, from the Chicago White Sox. Of course, the Cards picking up Duke for the relatively modest price of Charlie Tilson was swallowed up utterly by the gigantic Andrew Miller deal, in which the Cleveland Indians acquired the best left reliever in baseball — probably the best reliever period, actually — in exchange for an obscene amount of prospect value. I wrote at the time that while the Miller trade would garner all the headlines, the Redbirds’ pickup of Duke shouldn’t be overlooked, as the T.J. Maxx version of said blockbuster.

Well, here we are in the offseason, and one of the best lefthanded relievers in baseball is available in free agency, and there’s going to be a whole bunch of ink, digital and otherwise, spilled on the subject of Aroldis Chapman’s new contract when he and the Yankees get around to finalising it.

Side note: I wonder if any of the players who bitched and moaned about players with previous PED suspensions signing big contracts will come out and decry Chapman’s megadeal, in light of the fact he’s almost certainly a garbage human being. I suspect not, since as we’ve observed from recentish tweets by players like Jake Arrieta, 95% of baseball players appear to be raging assholes, to the point I question the life decisions that have led me to care so much about this cesspool of a sport.

And yet, while Chapman’s deal will get the majority of the headlines, there just so happens to have been another extremely effective left-handed reliever on the market this year, and that reliever wears cool goggley-looking glasses when he pitches, has spent the entirety of his career up to this point north of the border, and is now a member of the St. Louis Cardinals. Just as Zach Duke was positioned relative to Andrew Miller in the trade market, so is Brett Cecil positioned to Aroldis Chapman in free agency. (I will allow the reader to draw his or her own conclusions from the fact the Cardinals came in first in these pursuits of second-tier players, as it were.)

There are a few questions we should examine when trying to decide whether the Cecil signing is a good one or not. First, did the team have a need for such a player? That one’s easy; the answer is a resounding yes. Before Duke’s injury, the answer would have been no. But, the Duke injury happened, and the Cardinals found themselves short one high-quality setup arm, and one bullpen lefty. Enter Brett Cecil.

Second, are the terms of the signing acceptable? This one, to me, is much less an easy yes than the first question. Reports are that Cecil had multiple three year offers on the table, and the Cards’ willingness to go to four years on the contract was the determining factor. If that is indeed the case, then the fourth year was necessary to get the deal done, and thus forgivable. That being said, four years for a relief pitcher is a long time. I can’t say I love tying oneself to a reliever for that long a time.

The money, on the other hand, I have no issue with whatsoever. The cost of a marginal win this offseason is projected to be something north of $8 million per; using that rubric, the Cardinals are essentially paying Cecil (assuming the ~$30 million figure being reported is more or less accurate), to be worth about a single win each year. It may still seem shocking to see those kinds of dollars being thrown around for eighth inning arms, but that’s simply where we are in the current market. Would it be better to have developed an internal solution, who would be making peanuts while throwing lots of seventh and eighth innings? Absolutely. But, wishing a team need didn’t exist does not fill a team need.

Third, we must consider what sort of pitcher the Cardinals are getting in Brett Cecil. Is he going to solve the problem the club is paying him to solve? To that question, I say the answer is a resounding, “Weeelllllll......”

Here’s the thing: Brett Cecil was really kind of not great in 2016. He missed a significant chunk of time with a triceps strain, and was very shaky early on in the season. He ended up with a 3.93 ERA, which isn’t particularly inspiring for nearly any reliever, much less one with the reputation as one of the deadliest setup arms in the game.

On the other hand, Cecil’s peripherals were, for the most part, excellent once again. Since becoming a full-time reliever in 2013, he’s struck out 28.0%, 32.5%, 32.7%, and 28.7% of hitters he’s faced each year. In 2016, he paired that still-elite (if slightly down from the previous two seasons), K rate with the lowest walk rate of his career, at 5.1%. So elite strikeout rate, elite walk rate...what’s not to love?

Well, for one thing, home runs. Cecil allowed an appalling number of dingers in 2016, to the tune of 1.47 homers per nine innings. The good news is he was victimised by an abnormally high HR/FB rate of 20%, which should regress toward a more normal number going forward. The bad news is he allowed lots of hard contact pretty much in general. He allowed a 28% line drive rate, and a 37.3% hard-hit contact percentage. In other words, yes, Cecil was very unlucky on fly balls leaving the yard this past season, but he was also just getting hit. Hard.

Perhaps more worrisome, considering the Cardinals are paying him to be a primary setup option to Seung-hwan Oh, Cecil showed a fairly significant platoon split in 2016. After neutralising opposite-hand hitters quite effectively in 2014 and ‘15, Cecil failed to do so this year, allowing righties to batter him for a .481 slugging percentage. He still struck righthanders out at a solid clip (29.4%, in fact), but when he didn’t strike them out they tended to make loud contact.

This is a very concerning development, to say the least. Brett Cecil the all-around dominant setup guy is absolutely worth one win of salary per season; Brett Cecil the semi-LOOGY who really shouldn’t be facing a righty with power late in a game is not. Hopefully, the high K rate against righties is more indicative of Cecil’s true talent than the elevated slugging percentage.

There’s an interesting subtheme in Cecil’s struggles against righthanders: his near-abandonment of his cut fastball. According to Brooks, in 2013 Cecil threw just over 22% cutters. In 2014, it was just under 16%. He dropped slightly in 2015, to 14% cutter usage, and then in 2016 put the pitch in the closet for long stretches of time. Overall, Cecil threw just 9% cutters this season, and having watched only a moderate number of his outings over the years, it seems fair to me to wonder if going away from the pitch which would seem most effective at getting inside on opposite-handed hitters could have led to much more comfortable at bats. Of course, it’s also worth asking if there was perhaps a physical issue causing Cecil to move away from the cutter; a sore elbow or forearm could be a culprit if so. But, without any evidence of such, that’s pure speculation. It’s just as likely he just couldn’t find the feel for the pitch this year and got away from it.

So the answer to that third question, whether Cecil is of a quality to be worth the deal the Cardinals just gave him, would seem to remain elusive for now. Which isn’t surprising, considering how small a sample we’re dealing with. What is somewhat surprising, to me at least, is the fact the Cardinals felt comfortable enough, even with the most recent sample available being more rocky than you might like, to hand Brett Cecil that fourth year to entice him to the Gateway City.

Then again, I’ve been beating the drum pretty loudly over the past year that the Cardinals need to reassess their philosophy, and honestly examine whether they’re being properly competitive in the market, or doing just enough to miss out on the players they really want. They let David Price get away over a few million dollars a year, have come in second in several international bidding wars recently, and failed to land any of the big-name pitchers available a couple years ago, when they should have been interested.

At the trade deadline this season, the Cardinals assessed the market, looked at the very top target, and then decided to shoot for the best bargain closest to that top. This offseason, it seems they did very much the same. They looked at Aroldis Chapman, decided to shoot for the player who would almost certainly be overshadowed by the bigger name sucking up all the air, and then aggressively executed a plan to bring him in. It may not be the earth-shattering move we’re maybe hoping for this offseason, but the front office clearly decided they weren’t letting this particular target get away. And to me, that’s an encouraging development.

Aesthetically, I’m looking forward to watching Brett Cecil pitch for the Redbirds for two reasons. One, I’m all in on relievers with goofy glasses; I really wish the Cards could reaquire Joe Kelly at some point, and maybe look into Dillon Tate as well. And two, Brett Cecil’s curveball is just plain weird. Beautiful, in its’ own way, and incredibly effective, but also weird. He throws it extremely hard; the pitch comes in in the mid-80s, usually, which is very strange for a pitcher whose fastball sits around 92. It also doesn’t have the typical trajectory of a curve, which starts up out of the hand, then floats for a bit before seemingly succumbing to the pull of gravity and falling sharply as it approaches the plate. Cecil’s, though, thrown with a knuckle or spiked grip, is more like that of Mike Mussina, where it comes out of the hand already heading downward, and has a peculiarly....vicious look to it as it approaches the plate. There’s very little delineation between the phase of the curve; it’s just all downhill from the start.

Hopefully this contract isn’t all downhill from the start.