After the 2016 season, the Cardinals made a splash in the reliever market, signing a lefty by the name of Brett Cecil to a 4-year deal worth over $30 million. The deal, somewhat surprisingly, also included a no trade clause. Cecil was coming off a mediocre season with an ERA dangerously close to four and a FIP of 3.64.
Although the no trade clause looks surprising after his 2017 performance, it is clear why the Cardinals offered it to him in their contract proposal. What earned him the significant contract was not his 2016 performance, but rather his production in 2015. And 2014. And 2013.
Over these three years, he had ERA’s and FIPs under 3 and a K% above 10%. It was a remarkable stretch. He was not only a run-stopper, but a consistent option out of the ‘pen, throwing almost 160 innings over that three year period.
His dominance from 2013-2015 can be summed up well with this table:
Brett Cecil splits vs. R and L 2013-2015
He was virtually un-hittable when facing lefties with the Blue Jays. However, his splits were mediocre in 2016 and last year in St. Louis he was actually more successful against righties than he was against lefties—not the ideal scenario for your lefty specialist. Batters from the right side only managed an average of .205 against him, while batters from the left side hit .333 with an OBP of .397. In addition, his K/9 dropped to a career low as a reliever: 8.82.
While fans grew frustrated with Cecil, and rightly so, 2017 was certainly a step backward, it does seem to be more of a blip on the radar than a representation of the lefties actual talent level. Although nowhere near the youngest player on the roster, at 31 he is not old enough to have truly regressed as much as the statistics indicate.
In discussing the 2018 season Cecil said “Now I know everybody on the team—I’m not trying to guess anybody’s name. I’ve got a season under my belt with these guys, so it’s going to be a little easier this year.” As fans, we certainly hope so.
One of the biggest differences, not only in 2017, but also in 2016, was Cecil’s curveball. According to Fangraphs pitch values, it went from 9.1 runs above average in 2014 and 2015 to just 1.2 in 2016. In his first year in St. Louis, his curveball again dropped to just 1.0 runs above average—an astonishing dive for a pitch that was far and away his best for years.
When his curveball peaked in value, it is no coincidence that it also peaked in release speed. Simply put, Cecil’s curveball was not effective in 2017.
In 2017, the release speed was a full two miles per hour lower than it had been in 2014 and in 2015. In other words, Adam Wainwright isn't the only Cardinals pitcher with a velocity problem.
In 2013, at a similar release velocity, Cecil’s curveball accrued a value of 2.7 runs above average, almost 3 times the 2017 value. Despite the decreased velocity, Cecil has shown he can still use his curveball effectively. And if he is to have a successful 2018, that is the change he will need to make.