On October 31st, one of the best Cardinals of the 2010s signed a contract with the Washington Nationals. That’s surprising enough, on its face. How did the Cardinals let him get away?? What’s even more surprising to me is that there was no rending of garments in St. Louis. If you weren’t paying close attention, you might have not even seen the signing. There was still actual baseball going on, after all. Trevor Rosenthal hasn’t been a member of the Cardinals for around a year, so it’s easy to forget what an integral part of the 2013-2017 Cardinals he was. Today, I’d like to just point out how amazing Rosenthal was.
It’s easy to forget what a dominant reliever looks like. The Cardinals had two reasonable facsimiles of a dominant reliever in 2018, but Bud Norris faded like Chumbawumba’s post-Tubthumping discography and Jordan Hicks was a walking straw-man argument- what if a bad pitcher threw the hardest fastball ever? Trevor Rosenthal, you might recall, didn’t pitch in 2018. 2016 is another year that happened somewhat recently. Trevor Rosenthal pitched then, but he wasn’t overpowering. He combined a below-average (for him) strikeout rate with a career-high walk rate, and also blew a bunch of leads. He lost his closing role to the delightfully nicknamed Seung-Hwan Oh. It’s safe to say that 2016 was not vintage Rosenthal.
Astute readers might notice that 2016 and 2018 aren’t consecutive years. Now, I’m a fallible narrator, but not that fallible. Leaving out 2017 is what we in the writing business call a setup. In 2017, Trevor Rosenthal struck out 37.6% of the batters he faced, a career high by a lot. He walked 9.9%, not a pristine number but totally reasonable given his strikeout rate. Of the 202 batters he faced, 57 reached base, and that’s over-selling how well they did. He allowed five extra-base hits. Five, like the number just before six. He allowed a .259 wOBA. You want a Cardinals comparison? Conveniently enough, Dexter Fowler recorded a .260 wOBA in 2018 in a -1.2 WAR season. Trevor Rosenthal turned hitters he faced into one of the most disappointing Cardinals of the decade. That’s pretty good!
2017 also doesn’t cover the whole story of Rosenthal. There are tons of relievers who pop up to an elite level for a year and then become, you know, just random guys again. Tommy Kahnle had an out-of-body experience in 2017, striking out 37.5% of batters he faced on his way to a 1.83 FIP. In 2018 his ERA was above 6.00. Anthony Swarzak, of all people, threw 80 innings of dominant relief in 2017, accumulating 2.2 WAR with a 2.33 ERA and 2.74 FIP. Tragically, in 2018 he remembered he was Anthony Swarzak (6.15 ERA, 5.48 FIP). Being good for one year is nothing to write home about. That’s not Trevor Rosenthal, though. Trevor Rosenthal’s career ERA is 2.99. Hey, you don’t like ERA? His career FIP is 2.6. 31.6% of the batters he’s faced in his career have struck out. That is BONKERS. Out of every pitcher who has pitched 200 innings since Rosenthal started his career, he’s 12th. You’ve heard of the guys in front of him. Aroldis Chapman. Andrew Miller. Dellin Betances. It’s nothing but the hits.
Strikeouts aren’t all of pitching. Strikeouts and walks aren’t even all of pitching. Sometimes the ball gets put in play, you know? Well, Rosenthal has excelled there as well. For his career, Rosenthal has allowed a .083 ISO. Since I’m comparing lines to 2018 Cardinals, let’s go with this analogy- opposing hitters have 2018 Greg Garcia power. That’s the kind of power that gets you cut and signed by the Padres. There really isn’t any way to make Trevor Rosenthal’s stats on the Cardinals look any less than dominant. He’s 11th in FIP among relievers since debuting in the majors (for these stats, I’ve excluded 2018, as he sat the year out rehabbing from Tommy John surgery). He’s 14th in xFIP. He’s 9th in WAR. Pitchers of Trevor Rosenthal’s caliber are household names. They’re All-Star closers who kids idolize and managers talk about as Proven Closers (™).
It’s worth acknowledging that all the things I’m pointing out are in the past. Baseball teams make it more clear every year that they’re ruthless about paying for future performance, not past accolades. I have absolutely no idea how good Trevor Rosenthal will be this year. The Nationals are paying a market rate to find out- a $7 million base that could hit as high as $14 million if Rosenthal finishes 30 games for them. Scott Boras, his agent, secured a reasonable deal for his client. The Cardinals were under no obligation to match this deal. Still, I wish they had. I could use a little Trevor Rosenthal in my life. When Rosenthal’s elbow blew out in 2017, I wasn’t a writer for this excellent website. Still, though, I found the occasion momentous enough to write a Fanpost. If you feel like re-reading that, here’s a trigger warning- I used Greg Holland as a comparison for a potential Rosenthal contract.
I’d like to close this article out like any good narcissist would- by quoting my past self. Block quote time:
“The Cardinals have paid Rosenthal just under $14.1 million in his career to date, receiving 7.6 WAR for their troubles. That’s a rate of roughly LOL-are-you-kidding-me per win. Lest you think it’s one of those weird fluky WAR outputs where his performance hasn’t matched his underlying stats, he’s put up a 2.99 ERA (2.59 FIP) and a 31% K rate to go with a 10% walk rate. Simply put, he’s been the best Cardinals reliever of our generation, and I’m going to be sad if this injury nixed his one chance at a big paycheck. Wherever Trevor goes- and I’m hoping it’s the Cardinals, I love watching him pitch- here’s hoping he has enough left in the tank for one last score.”
I still mean all that. I’m sad Rosenthal won’t be on the Cardinals next year. I’m absolutely, 100% rooting for him to dominate. Trevor Rosenthal was one of the best relievers in baseball during his time on the Cardinals. He wasn’t once paid like it. I wish the Cardinals would have paid up to keep him around vaporizing batters with fastballs and putting them to bed with Bugs Bunny changeups. It wasn’t meant to be, but I still hope he goes back to his old dominant self and cashes in. Trevor Rosenthal was an instrumental part of some of the best Cardinals teams of the century. Let’s remember him like it, and root for his success the way we would any other Cardinals legend.