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Something is Afoot in the Bullpen

A trend is emerging in the type of readily available bullpen talent the Cardinals are adding to the organization.

New York Yankees v Washington Nationals - Game Two Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

If you blinked, you probably missed a small move the Cardinals made earlier this week. On Monday, they picked up Ryan Meisinger off waivers from the Orioles. Like most players of Meisinger’s ilk, you probably had to pull up his Fangraphs or Baseball-Reference page just to figure out who he is and how he has performed. Doing so shows that he’s indicative of a growing trend in the type of lower profile relief pitchers the Cardinals have acquired.

To show you what I mean, I’ve collected two separate lists. The first list is every minor league pitching season, from A ball on up to AAA, since 2013. For each pitcher, I compared their peripherals to level-wide averages for the given season, and placed it on a 100 scale. Specifically, the metrics I’ve used are FIP, strikeout percentage (K%), and strikeout minus walk percentage (K-BB%). A pitcher with a 25% K rate in a level with a 20% league-wide K rate would thus have a K%+ of 125, or 25% better than average. Note that I did not perform this exercise with FIP, instead opting to leave it as is.

The second list I compiled is every pitcher the Cardinals have acquired since the end of 2014, from Miguel Socolovich all the way up to Meisinger. For now, I’ve left out MLB-ready pitchers in that time frame. That means you won’t see Jonathan Broxton, Brett Cecil, Matt Belisle, Steve Cishek, Carlos Villanueva, Seunghwan Oh, Jerome Williams, Zach Duke, Juan Nicasio, Luke Gregerson, Brett Cecil, Dominic Leone, Bud Norris, Greg Holland, Tyson Ross, and Chasen Shreve. For each pitcher, I have an acquisition date and an age for the season for which they were acquired.

There are four other pitchers I had to exclude simply because they never actually pitched for the Cardinals after signing- Daniel Schlereth, Jayson Aquino, Jason Motte, and Joe Colon. Three others had to be excluded because of insufficient minor league data leading up to their acquisitions. John Brebbia, unfortunately, is one such pitcher, having pitched in the indy leagues prior to arriving in St. Louis. The other two- Daniel Bard and Preston Guilmet- had extremely limited data for the two years prior to acquisition.

Finally, I plugged in the FIP, K%+, and K-BB%+ for the two years prior to acquisition for the remaining acquisitions. Since FIP isn’t available on a year by year basis, I simply did a weighted average based on innings pitched at each level in their two year window. Here’s what we’re left with.

Cardinal Pitcher Acquisitions, 2014-Present

Name Date Age K%+ K-BB%+ FIP
Name Date Age K%+ K-BB%+ FIP
Miguel Socolovich 11/11/14 28 132.4 171.5 3.46
Deck McGuire 11/18/15 27 112 130.7 3.65
Matt Bowman 12/10/15 25 87.3 89.7 4.17
Zach Phillips 11/18/16 30 153.4 175.5 2.5
John Gant 12/1/16 24 128.7 149.7 3.22
Josh Zeid 3/21/17 30 95.6 62.1 4.63
Sean Gilmartin 6/11/17 27 99.9 114.8 4.29
Connor Greene 1/19/18 23 75.6 25.8 4.45
Eduard Mujica 2/2/18 34 98.9 136.8 3.16
Tommy Layne 6/15/18 33 67.3 -16.5 6.43
Tyler Webb 6/29/18 27 145.8 200.9 3.29
Seth Elledge 7/27/18 22 173.2 215.2 2.27
Giovanny Gallegos 7/29/18 26 187 266.2 1.99
Genesis Cabrera 7/31/18 21 105.3 94.8 3.85
Roel Ramirez 7/31/18 23 102.9 113.4 4.08
Ryan Meisinger 12/10/18 24 128.2 154.3 2.85

There’s one last small hurdle here. Genesis Cabrera is a starter, and starting pitcher peripherals aren’t the same as relievers. There’s no doubt his K rate and probably K-BB rate would look much more imposing if he were to move to the bullpen. The same goes for John Gant, who was exclusively a starter before he came to St. Louis. For now, let’s take them out.

Since the end of 2014, the Cardinals have acquired six pitchers with a K-BB%+ of 150 or higher. Four of the last five acquired hit that benchmark. Roel Ramirez, acquired in the Pham deal, is the only pitcher acquired since the end of June who doesn’t qualify. Seth Elledge, Giovanny Gallegos, and Tyler Webb especially racked up eye-popping K-BB%s compared to their respective leagues. Meisinger isn’t quite as impressive as the others, but a K-BB% that’s 50% better than league average is still impressive.

It’s a similar trend with raw K rates, absent of walk rates. The Cardinals have acquired six relievers with a 25% or better K rate compared to their league since the end of 2014. Elledge, Gallegos, Webb, and Meisinger are two-thirds of the list. Socolovich and Zach Phillips are the lone exceptions.

Naturally, combining all of this into FIP yields similar results. We can limit it to a sub-3.00 FIP. This time, Webb just misses out, and so does Socolovich. That leaves Meisinger, Elledge, Gallegos, and Zach Phillips as the only sub-3.00 FIP acquisitions.

It’s not just the gaudy peripherals that make up the trend. The age of these acquisitions is slowly trending downward. For all of their peripheral success, Phillips and Socolovich were 30 and 28 years old, respectively. Peppered in between Socolovich and Webb, you’ll also see Josh Zeid (age 30), Edward Mujica (34), and Tommy Layne (33). Starting with Webb, they’ve all been 27 and under. Elledge, Ramirez, and Meisinger are under 24, and the old man of the bunch- Gallegos- is 26.

For what it’s worth, I wrote this before the Cardinals acquired John Fasola in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft on Thursday. Fasola was limited in 2018 because of a knee injury, which ended his season after just 26.2 innings. His 2018 numbers in the table above were more in line with Roel Ramirez. However, his 2016 numbers- spread across A+, AA, and AAA- were somewhere between Elledge and Meisinger. In short, when healthy, he very much fits the new trend.

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

What about at the Major League level?

Let’s perform the same exercise with MLB acquisitions made since the end of 2014. Here’s the table:

Cardinal MLB Pitchers Acquired, 2014-Present

Name Date Age K%+ K-BB%+ FIP
Name Date Age K%+ K-BB%+ FIP
Matt Belisle 12/2/14 35 90.2 100.9 3.36
Carlos Villanueva 2/4/15 31 100.5 108.5 3.58
Steve Cishek 7/24/15 29 132.0 145.8 2.61
Jonathan Broxton 7/31/15 31 121.6 147.1 3.478
Jerome Williams 6/3/16 34 65.3 56.2 5.056
Zach Duke 7/31/16 33 126.2 113.0 4.016
Brett Cecil 11/21/16 30 150.5 198.4 2.86
Juan Nicasio 9/6/17 30 122.9 137.3 3.52
Luke Gregerson 12/14/17 34 130.2 154.5 3.83
Dominic Leone 1/19/18 26 120.0 132.6 3.86
Bud Norris 2/14/18 33 117.7 113.8 4.41
Greg Holland 3/31/18 32 137.6 142.9 3.72
Chasen Shreve 7/29/18 27 129.0 123.7 4.746
Tyson Ross 8/5/18 31 84.8 52.9 5.01

There’s no clear trend here. I suspected there would be simply because of the extreme K/9 rates for recent acquisitions like Dominic Leone and Chasen Shreve. Both had double digit K’s per 9 innings pitched before coming to St. Louis. However, Leone’s 2016- two seasons prior- wasn’t as dominant. Shreve’s fairly large walk rate and ordinary amount of hits allowed mean that his K/9 and K% aren’t completely aligned.

Other than Jerome Williams and Tyson Ross, each acquired out of necessity in the middle of a pennant race, and Matt Belisle and Carlos Villanueva pre-2015, Cardinal relief acquisitions have possessed above average K%s and K-BB%s. Even the players who have given fans fits with poor performances- Jonathan Broxton, Brett Cecil, and Greg Holland, to name a few- have had very solid strikeout rates and K/BB rates. The FIPs have been all over the map.

On the other hand, for all of their solid peripherals, they aren’t running up the cartoonish K-BB%s of the better minor league acquisitions. Gallegos, Elledge, and Webb had K-BB%+s over 200, a feat achieved by just 12 pitchers last season in all of baseball (minimum 40 IP).

Bullpens are always a crapshoot, a fact borne out by the 2018 Cardinals. Fortunately, a new strategy has led to an influx of intriguing, low-cost options that might solve the organizational riddle once and for all.