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The Cards’ High-Strikeout Bullpen Gamble

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El Birdos have largely overhauled their bullpen, and seem to have targeted a specific type of pitcher in doing so.

San Diego Padres v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images

There has been a lot of hand-wringing and general consternation over the Cardinal bullpen this offseason. To a certain extent, that makes sense; while the Cards’ relief corps in 2017 was, in aggregate, a fairly average sort of unit, or at least an innocuous one, the Redbirds’ record in close games (particularly, ahem, against the Cubs), seemed to magnify every misstep of the ‘pen.

Probably no other reliever from the ‘17 squad exemplifies more fully this dichotomy than Brett Cecil. For the season, Cecil was ultimately worth a little over a win by FanGraphs’ version of WAR, which is pretty good for a reliever. He threw 67. 1 innings, posted a 3.88 ERA, and a 3.26 FIP. More importantly, if we look at the context of those numbers, Cecil’s ERA- was 92, meaning his ERA was 92% as high as the league average ERA. In other words, Cecil wasn’t great, but he was still a better than league-average pitcher. Now, admittedly, as a reliever the bar is a little higher for that subset to be considered successful as opposed to all pitchers, starters included, but the point stands. If we look at Cecil’s FIP-, meanwhile, we find even better news: Cecil put up a 76 FIP- last year, which is very solid. In terms of run prevention, Cecil was average, maybe a little better, while he was significantly above average in terms of the fielding-independent stuff that tends to be more predictive.

And yet, for all that, Brett Cecil in 2017 was, in the minds of many Cardinal fans, a disaster. That 3.88 ERA isn’t, “slightly better than league average,” it’s, “an ERA close to four.” Which, yes, is true, but lacks context. He authored six blown saves last season, compared to thirteen holds — not a great ratio — and suffered a low strand rate which largely accounts for the FIP underperformance.

Quick side note: we really, really need to come up with some name other than ‘blown save’ for when a reliever loses a lead. Why? Because ‘blown save’ contains the word ‘save’, which makes people think of the ninth inning and closers. Blown saves occur literally any time a reliever loses a lead in what is considered a save situation, no matter what inning. It makes it sound like the team literally lost 35 games in the ninth inning or whatever, when it reality what that means is over the course of the season the bullpen lost 35 leads at some point in the game. How about just ‘leads lost’, LL for short? The whole blown save thing is really stupid, and creates a confusing narrative for fans to grapple with.

Anyhow, the overall point is this: the Cards’ bullpen in 2017 was a decent unit, with some really frustrating moments. The collapse of Seung-Hwan Oh -- who, in case you haven’t heard, appears to have arm issues which would seem to explain his sudden decline, at least in part — unsettled the back of the ‘pen, the presence of Jonathan Broxton and Miguel Socolovich early (full disclosure: I thought Socolovich could be a quality MLB middle reliever), created a sense of roster spots being wasted, and just the general feeling of scrambling for relief pitching all season long created a supremely unsettled experience for fans in the late innings last year, even if the overall numbers for the bullpen were basically fine.

And so, the winter of discontent for Redbird fans, in which the clamouring for a Proven Closer has been near-deafening, and seemingly reasonable people have resorted to argument tactics like adding blown saves to win totals. That’s...just not how it works, people. The Cardinals, for their part, have not signed Greg Holland, who is a Scott Boras client and a well-known Proven Closer, as well as one of the more high profile super relievers of the past half decade, due to his part in the Royals’ ascension, which means he has to be great, right? They also did not sign Wade Davis, the other most-famous of the Royals’ penpocalypse group, allowing him to go to the Rockies. They also also did not sign Brandon Morrow, who had an admittedly incredible season with the Dodgers last year, and who inked a contract with the hated Chicago Cubs, making Redbird fans howl about the opportunity lost. (Never mind Morrow’s 2017 was the first season he’d been healthy and good since 2012, and never mind how unlikely it is he’ll go through another 40+ inning season without giving up a single home run, which is why he was so phenomenal last year.) In other words, the Cardinals have yet to properly address their bullpen issues of a year ago, which is to say they did not throw the biggest name on the market at the problem to appease the shortest of attention spans.

What the Cardinals have done, instead, is heavily revamp the bullpen with a number of low- and medium-cost arms, attempting to solve the ‘pen puzzle through throwing a large number of arms at the problem. And it seems the Cards have focused in on one stat in particular in trying to identify effective arms to employ in this strategy. That stat is the strikeout, which would seem a fairly intuitive thing to look at, but is perhaps a bit underappreciated all the same. The simple fact of having lots of pitchers capable of getting swings and misses in the late innings is a simple way of trying to take some of the unpredictability out of said late innings.

I posted some of this stuff in the comments section of the post announcing the Bud Norris signing, but I think it bears a bigger examination as well. Here are the most likely locks for the bullpen at this time, along with their 2017 strikeout rates:

  • Luke Gregerson — 26.6% (29.1% in 2016)
  • Tyler Lyons — 30.9%
  • Dominic Leone — 29.0%
  • Brett Cecil — 23.8% (28.7% in 2016)
  • Sam Tuivailala — 19.9% (projected for 23.4% in 2018)
  • Bud Norris — 27.7%
  • Matt Bowman — 18.6%

and a few of the guys more on the bubble:

  • John Brebbia — 24.4%
  • Josh Lucas — 21.9% (just 7 innings; 27.4% in Triple A)
  • Ryan Sherriff — 25.0%
  • John Gant — 14.5% (projected for 21.7% in 2018)
  • Alex Reyes — 27.5% in 2016; 30%+ in the minors 2015/2016

What we have here is a group that does, in fact, lack one ungodly hammer reliever, an Andrew Miller or 2015 Wade Davis or 2013 Koji Uehara, but has a ton of arms capable of missing bats at an above-average, sometimes well-above-average, level. The Cards are placing two bets on Luke Gregerson and Bud Norris, both of which are predicated on the idea that even with uneven and/or injury-affected performances in 2017, these are pitchers who still struck out large numbers of hitters, and betting that number is more indicative of what should be expected than any other single factor.

There are a few interesting numbers even within this set if we look a little. First off, I think it’s worth reiterating just how remarkable Tyler Lyons was in 2017. His performance got lost a little bit, sitting first in the shadow of Trevor Rosenthal’s resurgence, and then coming in an ultimately futile push for a playoff spot, but it bears noting that Tyler Lyons was absolutely phenomenal last season.

  • For the season, Bud Norris struck out over 30% of the left-handed hitters he saw. This is notable because, of course, Bud Norris is a right-handed pitcher. He walked lefties at a higher rate, but also struck them out remarkably often. His knee injury seems to have significantly hurt his performance; his first half K rate was 32%, while his second half strikeout rate was just 22.5%. That is a stark difference, and certainly worth paying attention when placing a bet that a guy is healthy and closer to one version of himself than another.
  • Brett Cecil struck out right-handed hitters at an elite rate last year (29.2%). The problem? He struck out just 16.4% of the lefties he saw. That isn’t a career-long pattern for Cecil, and combined with an elevated walk rate to same-handed hitters in 2017, makes me think something mechanical was going on with Cecil’s release point and/or comfort level in pitching to lefties last year. Having two pitchers in the same bullpen with big reverse platoon splits, even for just one season, is very strange.
  • From the beginning of July through the end of the season, John Brebbia struck out a hair under 28% of the hitters he faced. He also walked less than 6%. It’s concerning that Brebbia gets literally no ground balls, ever, but his non-contact skills appear to be excellent. And if he’s really a heavy ‘medium’ contact guy in the air, that’s a whole lot of ~280’ fly balls that Tommy Pham should run down, and maybe Brebbia is a legit xFIP beater.
  • Alex Reyes’s strikeout rate in relief situations in 2016 was 33.8%. Now, I’m personally somewhat conflicted over how good an idea I think it is for Reyes to work out of the ‘pen this coming season at all; part of me thinks he should remain a starter and keep trying to develop, even if it keeps him at Triple A. But I have to admit, it’s tempting to think about what kind of an impact he could have throwing a couple innings at a time a couple times a week as part of an overall aggressive bullpen strategy.

In the end, the Cardinals have a very interesting bullpen mix going into the 2018 season. They didn’t do the simple thing and invest in one big name to instantly fix the ‘pen (probably because it’s very rarely that simple, as we’ve seen with countless other teams over the years), choosing instead to bring in a volume of pitchers, all of whom possess a similar sort of skillset. At no point in a given game will the Cardinals be bringing in a 35%+ strikeout reliever, a la Kenley Jansen or Craig Kimbrel (unless you think Reyes could really do some damage out of the ‘pen), but what they could potentially be capable of is stacking four, five, maybe even six guys in the bullpen who strike out over a quarter of the hitters they face. That sort of gauntlet would require Brett Cecil to bounce back a bit in terms of his pitching to lefties, in order to push that K rate back up to where he had been in the past, good health and performance from most or all of the pitchers the Cards are betting on, and probably the sort of breakout from Sam Tuivailala that I predicted as my own spring surprise this year.

These things are not guaranteed, of course, and I can see the appeal to a lot of people of just wanting the big name, the easy path, the seeming guarantee of performance. But having a good bullpen always requires more luck than I think many of us are comfortable admitting, and with some good luck this season the Cards have a group that, while it may not have the single terrifying presence that fans have clamoured for, could very well shut games down from inning six on most nights.

It’s a part of an overall strategy we saw this offseason, of taking riskier gambles than the team has in the past, that seems to suggest they see the high-floor, low-ceiling roster construction approach as a bit of an issue as much as we do. This bullpen has real collapse potential, if Gregerson continues to age and lose stuff, Norris comes in and can’t stay healthy, Brett Cecil can’t get his mojo back against lefties, and Tyler Lyons forgets how to do his Andrew Miller impersonation. In order for this to be a top grade, elite level relief corps, lots of things have to go right. A whole series of things, in fact. The payoff, though, could be huge. I can’t say for 100% certain that stacking five 25-30% strikeout relievers is as effective as having one or two 35%+ guys, but I’d be willing to bet it can be. Maybe even more so.

But then again, there’s also the possibility a couple of those bets fail to come through, the ‘pen is a problem again to some extent, and we’re talking about trade deadline reliever pickups once again this year. Or, legitimately, it’s possible the ‘pen could collapse so badly the Cards are not really even contenders by the time the deadline rolls around. That’s not a feeling I usually have, but in building this higher-variance roster, the Cardinals have created more collapse potential than they’ve had in quite a while.

They have also, however, created what I see as a much higher potential upside. And that is really what I wanted to see them do this offseason. They just got there in a way we maybe weren’t expecting.

As they pretty much always do.