On Saturday, John Mozeliak and the Cardinals made their first splash in the 2017 free agent market, signing left-handed relief pitcher Brett Cecil to a four year, $30.5 million contract. The red baron already provided his in-depth thoughts on the signing, and I am sure you have read others’ thoughts on the move as well. Thus, I am here solely to discuss Cecil’s repertoire — something RB touched on regarding his diminished cutter use — because I probably wouldn’t be too far off in making the assumption that at least 75% of Cardinals fans have never seen the lefty pitch.
No, the preceding statement is not meant to be knock on Cardinals fans, but rather to point out that Cecil is a (converted) reliever on the Toronto Blue Jays — an American League team the Cardinals just don’t face very often. In fact, per Baseball-Reference, Cecil has faced the Cardinals on three occasions — once as a starter in 2010 (24 batters faced) and twice as a reliever in 2014 (five batters faced). Hence, if you have distinctive memory of reliever Cecil facing the Cardinals (nothing too exciting happened: he struck out one, walked one, allowed one single, and induced one double play), color me impressed.
Remember: Regarding horizontal movement in left-handed pitchers, a negative value means glove-side movement, whereas a positive value means arm-side movement. Movement readings are relative to a spinless ball. A good question about visualizing movement was asked and answered here.
First, I must note that I ignored all PitchF/x data from before the 2013 season because Cecil began his career as a starting pitcher. In 2013, Cecil became a full-time reliever (and an All-Star representative in his first season with the new role), so I think the time period of 2013-2016 is a more accurate sample of what to expect from his repertoire going forward.
As you can see from the velocity column, Cecil doesn’t necessarily blow hitters away with his fastball/sinker, but he isn’t a frisbee-flinging Randy Choate-type either. For perspective, 2016 Kevin Siegrist threw his fourseamer, on average, 93.95 MPH. A difference of 0.65-0.81 MPH (I include the later because Cecil’s fourseamer was down to 93.14 MPH in 2016) is not insignificant, but given a superior secondary offering for Cecil, his fourseamer possesses the ability to “jump” on hitters, whereas opponents can effectively “time up” Siegrist’s heater, especially considering it’s a pitch he went to 67.6% of the time last season.
Cecil’s “superior secondary offering” is his curveball, which also happened to be the third-hardest thrown in baseball last season. Over the last four seasons (all coming as a reliever), he has thrown the pitch 40.26% of the time. Its usage rate climbed to a career high 46.12% last season. Normally, when a pitch is thrown roughly half the time, you’d ask the pitcher to dial back its usage a bit, but this isn’t the case with Cecil as it has retained its effectiveness alongside its increased usage. In fact, the pitch is so good, and fortunately, it is generally near the strike zone (wholly unlike Choate’s wipe-away slider off the plate), I would propose throwing it even more frequently going forward. When you possess a filthy hook, don’t be afraid to throw it. Just ask Andrew Miller.
Now, as RB noted in his piece, Cecil took a step back against right-handed batters in 2016 (to the tune of a .481 slugging percentage against). As is the case with single-season relief pitcher statistics, the sample size is tiny — 85 total batters faced — so, I’d much rather place more stock in Cecil’s performance from 2013 through 2015 than 2016 alone.
Either way, RB speculated decreased cutter usage as a possible culprit behind righties having more success against Cecil in 2016. While this may be a contributing factor, I’d like to point out the ridiculous .444 BABIP righties experienced against his curveball (even more prevalent in a small sample size). Even without the cutter, Cecil has a repertoire capable of regularly getting righties out — curveball, changeup (an under-utilized weapon), fastball — and I expect him to return to pre-2016 form while wearing the Birds on the Bat.
Strike Two to Salvador Perez (BrooksBaseball AB)
When answering any questions that may remain regarding Cecil’s curveball, I will simply refer to the above GIF. To put it simply, it is a pitch that can be effective against hitters on both sides of the plate. It can be effective inside or outside of the strike zone. It can be thrown at the beginning or the end of an at bat. It can be thrown once or multiple times in a row.
Strikeout of Brian McCann (BrooksBaseball AB)
After busting McCann inside with a 94.0 MPH sinker, Cecil pulled the string on a low and outside, hard-breaking curveball (87.5 MPH). Based on the helplessness of McCann’s swing, he clearly did not stand a chance against the put-away pitch. Insert Joey Votto, Anthony Rizzo, and Kyle Schwarber into this scenario, and the Cardinals have a season-long weapon against lefties they haven’t had since 2013 Choate.
As I have stated multiple times in the past, I never recommend long-term (i.e. four-year) contracts for relief pitchers. However, if the reports of multiple three-year contracts being on the table are true, that fourth year is likely what sealed the deal for the Cardinals. Cecil not only fills a documented need (left-handed reliever), but is also capable of filling an evolving bullpen role (inning-independent, high-leverage guy).