In 2017, St. Louis Cardinals reliever Brett Cecil was just kind of there. He had a high-threes ERA, a low-threes FIP—it was the kind of season that if it were had by a mid-twenties rookie making the league minimum and coming out of the bullpen, you wouldn’t give him a second thought. It was actually an improvement by ERA and FIP (and innings), so one might even think Cecil had a bit of a breakthrough in 2017.
This was not the perception of Cecil’s season by and large among Cardinals fans. When the former Toronto Blue Jays reliever was signed in November 2016 to a four-year, $30.5 million free agent contract, expectations were that Cecil would emerge not necessarily as a closer, but as a stalwart member of the bullpen. By the standards of expecting excellence, Brett Cecil was somewhat underwhelming, though he was hardly a disaster—he struck out 8.82 batters per nine innings and walked 2.14 per nine. Additionally, he became something of a reverse-splits monster, allowing a .230 wOBA against righties (versus .392 against lefties).
The nature of a relief pitcher season is that quick bursts of poor performance can dramatically impact the perception of the season as a whole. In his second game as a Cardinal, Pham allowed four earned runs and recorded zero outs. If you remove only that performance, Cecil’s 3.88 ERA is cut down to 3.34. There is a huge difference in perception between a 3.88 ERA and a 3.34 ERA.