When it was reported that Zach Duke required Tommy John surgery (and subsequently leaving him unavailable for the majority of the 2017 season), the logical next step for St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak was to pursue left-handed bullpen help. Of course, the club already employed southpaw Kevin Siegrist, but his role up to this point in his career has rarely been limited to facing lefties only (in fact, not until this season did he throw a pitch designed primarily for facing lefties). And just as Mozeliak prefers to do during the offseason, he worked quickly and on November 19th, 2016, the Cardinals agreed to a four-year contract with Cecil, totaling $30.5 million.
As you may recall in my post highlighting Cecil’s repertoire, I was initially pretty excited about the acquisition. Sure, four years for a 30-plus year old reliever is rarely recommended, but at least the Cardinals didn’t finish second, right? They specifically targeted a free agent (or so it seemed from the outside looking in), and they got their man. Well, considering we are only 58 games into Cecil’s four-year contract and this is set to be the second negative post about him, it is clear that my excitement has waned rather quickly.
Yes, I understand we are dealing with a small sample size and appreciate the fact that he was terrific in the second half last season, but issues plaguing his repertoire — particularly his curveball — cloud the outlook of his future performance. Unfortunately, the concerns don’t stop at his curveball, either. This graph, from BrooksBaseball.net, shows a troubling development involving the lefty’s velocity since becoming a full-time relief pitcher back in 2013:
Outside of the curveball — which as I’ve already highlighted is completely out of sorts right now — Cecil’s velocity is down — to the point of career lows as a reliever — on each one of his pitches. The one-MPH-plus declines on both his fourseamer and sinker are especially worrisome as neither pitch was considered overpowering in the first place. Pitch analysis should never stop at velocity, though. Location is typically the next step in the process. Well, it requires only two short words to describe Cecil’s fourseamer and sinker location this season:
All of this leads to a historically bad beginning of the 2017 season for Cecil:
Brett Cecil, 2017
Curious as to the meaning of the last two columns? Sit tight as I’ll get to those in a second. But as I’ve written before, I’m not a big fan of the save statistic. I’m not alone in this camp, either. Fortunately, I remembered that FanGraphs tracks two simple, but but what I consider informative statistics — based on Win Probability Added or WPA. A shutdown (SD) occurs when the pitcher’s WPA is greater than or equal to a positive 0.06. A meltdown (MD) is when the pitcher posts a WPA less than or equal to a negative 0.06. Admittedly, these are by no means perfect (as FanGraphs puts it, not all shutdowns or meltdowns are created equal”), but they can serve as quick indicators for the game impact of each reliever, instead of just the set-up man and closer.
And since Cecil isn’t the Cardinals’ closer nor set-up man, “saves” and “holds” don’t even begin to tell the story of his impact. Yet, each time the nearly 31-year-old lefty jogs in from the bullpen, he has an impact — one way or another — on the outcome of the game. As you can see, 38% (11 of 29) of Cecil’s outings thus far have been of the “meltdown” variety. This is three more than any other MLB reliever this season.
According to FanGraphs, the league’s “worst relievers will rack up around 10 to 15 meltdowns in a season.” The league-leader in meltdowns last season was Joakim Soria with 17. Keep in mind, Soria’s 17 meltdowns occurred over 70 appearances. Cecil is already up to 11 after only 29 appearances. With Cecil under contract through 2020, the front office doesn’t have the luxury of cutting ties with the struggling reliever, a move they recently made with Jonathan Broxton.
No, I’m not saying to give up on Cecil entirely because I understand the optics behind sample size and reliever volatility, but at the same time, it would certainly be nice to have something positive to build on. After a few hours of sifting through Cecil’s PitchF/x data, I was unable to find said building block. Here’s to hoping the professionals have better luck than me.