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Holland, Hicks, and Searching for the Edge

The Cardinals are pouring a remarkable amount of resources into the bullpen. Is it wise? Will it work?

St. Louis Cardinals v New York Mets Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Hey there, everybody. Happy Monday to you! No, not Happy Mondays; I don’t mean to take anything away from those lads, but they’re only about my fourth favourite Madchester act, if not fifth. But happy Monday, and I hope sincerely you’re one of those people who embrace the beginning of a new week. Me, I’m more of a Garfield type.

But anyhow, baseball! There’s baseball again! And winning baseball, even! Well, okay, that’s only true in the absolute most technical sense of the word; winning baseball implies a winning team, rather than a team that simply won a game. At this point in the season, though, just getting off the schneid and putting up a pretty box score (and yesterday’s box score, to be clear, was very pretty indeed; pretty like a goldfinch in the spring, pretty like a Garnet Mimms vocal), is plenty enough, even if the components which went into that beautiful box score haven’t all quite come together yet.

It’s been a really strange start to the 2018 season, honestly, from Carlos Martinez’s opening day control struggles (actually, all three of the Cardinal starters struggled badly with command in the opening series, which seems kinda weird, doesn’t it?), to the flurry of moves which took place immediately prior to, and then actually on, opening day. Seeing your team sign a closer on the day the season starts is a fairly rare occurrence, at least in my own limited experience of baseball fandom. Seeing your extremely conservative organisation push a young starting pitching prospect from A ball straight into the big league bullpen is also, it must be said, a rather surprising development.

It is those two moves that are really going to define the early part of this season, I think. Or, at least, the conversations surrounding those two moves are going to. So let’s talk about them.

First, I’ll cop to the fact that, in both the case of Jordan Hicks’s ultra-aggressive promotion and the decision to sign Greg Holland, I am not a fan. I have real issues with both moves independent of each other.

Jordan Hicks is, I believe, too valuable a prospect to waste in relief work. This is a pitcher with real, honest to god ace potential, and sticking him in a bullpen role is just a misuse of talent. It’s the Trevor Rosenthal decision all over again, and while I know there are plenty of you reading this who will immediately jump into the comments to argue with me that Rosenthal was never an elite prospect, never a top flight starting prospect, and bringing him up is revisionist history in its very worst form, I would request you just hold up a second and listen, okay?

Whether or not Trevor Rosenthal was destined for the bullpen or not is kind of not really the point. It’s possible that, no matter what, Rosenthal was just never going to have the depth of arsenal or feel for pitching to be a starter long term. I think we should at least remind ourselves, however, that Rosenthal was not a full-time pitcher when he was drafted at nineteen, having played mostly shortstop and third base for a junior college out near Kansas City, and was discovered when a Cardinal scout saw him hit 97 in a random single-inning relief appearance. He wasn’t a complete novice when it came to pitching, but he also was not a guy who had been working the showcase circuit since he was fourteen as a pitcher. Drafted at 19, in the big leagues permanently at 22, with just about three full seasons of development as a pitcher on his resume at the time. Pushed into closing duties, relied on for big outs in big spots, and never really given any further opportunity to improve or develop. Relievers don’t get to throw side sessions and work on things. They save their bullets for combat, as it were.

The real question, for me, is what Rosenthal might have had the chance to become with, say, two more seasons of actual development time. If, instead of inheriting an important bullpen role for a contending team at 22, he had stayed in the minors through 2012, and 2013, and maybe even part of 2014, how much better could he have been? Trevor turned 24 years old in May of 2014, the season he collected 45 saves as the Cards’ closer. He had been one of the best relief pitchers in baseball the season before, in 2013, posting a 1.91 FIP in just over 75 innings. That 2013 season was the first that Rosenthal’s changeup became a true weapon for him, as he deemphasised the curveball and cutter he threw on the way up through the minors. He went from a four-pitch development piece to a two-pitch bullpen beast, and was essentially cast in stone at that point.

Interestingly, Rosenthal brought back the cutter in 2017, and it was a very good pitch for him. He never did really get the curveball back, leaving us basically one video of Bryce Harper missing a Rosie curve by a foot as proof the pitch really did exist, like the Patterson-Gimlin film in better definition, but the cutter and change were both meaningful weapons for Rosenthal in his resurgence. Interesting he managed to become at least a three-pitch pitcher even as a reliever.

Jordan Hicks is, right now, even younger than Rosenthal was when he was called up. Jordan Hicks, in fact, will not even turn 22 until this current baseball season is drawing to a close. He’s basically a one and a half pitch monster at the moment, with an utterly dominant fastball and a slider/slurve (it’s trending toward being more a true slider, rather than the bigger slurvy pitch it was last year), that’s really good when it’s on, and is on about ~35-40% of the time right now. That will probably improve, certainly, but his changeup is woefully underdeveloped and no longer a priority, and his command and touch are, basically, what you would expect from a precociously talented 21 year old.

Jordan Hicks, right now, is a diamond that has been mined, roughly cut, and is waiting for further cutting and polishing to become a gem worthy of the finest setting. And pushing him into survival mode at the big league level as a late-inning relievers is not going to give him much, maybe any, chance to really develop much further. To my mind, sacrificing a potential 180+ inning number one or two starter in favour of a late-inning relief option who will probably throw 60-70 innings in a busy season is a terrible use of resources.

Now, as for the Greg Holland signing (which I promise I will be more brief about), I’m not in love with giving up even a second-round draft pick for the pleasure of paying a premium price for a one-inning pitcher on a one-year contract. Really, though, the loss of the draft pick sucks, the international pool hit sucks, but I can stomach both of those. Pick 59 is not a huge deal, and while $14 million seems like an awful lot to pay for ~60 innings of relief work, the money just, you know, doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t. fucking. matter. The Cardinals could spend more, should spend more (not just to spend, mind you, but there are opportunities this team has passed on in favour of being more efficient, rather than just better, and I can’t really get behind that), and I don’t care what they pay to make the team better. Just make the team better.

No, my big concern is that Greg Holland may not really make the team better.

The projections for Holland look fine, but no better that that. To be fair, we need to see what kind of projections the systems spit out for him as a member of the Cardinals, so let’s withhold judgment there for a bit. But here’s the thing: Greg Holland was an elite reliever in 2012, and 2013, and 2014. He has not been since then. He battled injury in 2015 and was okay, if you considered he was batting elbow issues. He missed 2016, then came back and was fine, but not great, in 2017. It’s fair to point out that he really had just a short, horrific run of pitching in August that kind of torpedoed his overall numbers, but it’s also fair, I think, to acknowledge that even when he was good early on his walk rate was quite high.

More to the point, though, I just worry there’s real collapse potential with Holland this season based on what I saw from him last year. The great version of Greg Holland challenged hitters in the zone with a fastball that averaged 95-96, then put them away with a devastating slider. He threw the heater about 55% of the time, and the slider about 40% of the time. (A few curveballs and splitters made up the remainder of his repertoire.)

In 2015, though, while fighting arm issues, Holland started to lean ever more heavily on the slider. His fastball fell a full two miles per hour, from 95.8 in 2014 to 93.6 in 2015. He started to throw it less and less, ending the season having thrown just 47.5% fastballs, and his slider usage jumped up to just about 45%. So we’re talking roughly equal usage, with the occasional other pitch tossed in to try and surprise hitters.

Last season, Holland’s fastball stayed almost exactly where it was prior to Tommy John surgery, at 93.5 mph. He used it even less. The fastball declined to 44.3%, and the slider rose even more, to 49.2%. The good version of Holland pitched at 96 and threw his slider 40% of the time. This version works at 93 and throws the slider almost 50% of the time. So much of Greg Holland’s game last year was just throwing slider after slider after slider, down out of the zone, trying to get hitters to chase, I worry he’s just not going to be able to keep that approach up. If hitters can lay off the low slider and force him into the zone, I don’t know that he has the stuff to challenge them any longer. He rarely ever challenged hitters last season; why should we believe that at 32 the stuff is going to come back to pre-injury levels? To his credit, the slider was still extremely effective last season, so maybe hitters just cannot adjust or lay off. But his ratio of pitches is what you would expect from a junkballer, not a high-octane late-inning Presence.

Now, it’s possible the stuff does come back stronger being out of Colorado. It’s also possible that pitching in Colorado specifically led Holland to this nibbly, chase-heavy approach. Coors Field is a weird, tough environment, and the mere fact he was able to survive there at all should be taken as an encouraging sign. So I do think there is reason for optimism. But if you’re wondering why I’m not super keen on the Cardinals bringing in yet another reliever (the even more pressing lack of minor league options in the ‘pen now is a really concerning subplot here, at least for me), the big reason is I’m just concerned Holland could fall off a cliff. I prefer him to Wade Davis, who I believe is much more likely to end up with arm problems in the course of the contract he just signed, but I still fear Holland could go bad in a hurry.

So we have a young starting prospect being potentially pigeonholed into relief work at just 21, and a one-year close signing that cost a draft pick for a 32 year old formerly elite reliever with a surgically repaired elbow and a fastball that’s lost two full ticks since the time he was great, which by the way was four years ago. Or at least three full seasons ago, as baseball years tend to be measured.

But here’s the thing: I’ve been thinking a lot, basically all offseason, about this team and the way it’s constructed. And in the couple days since the Hicks promotion and Holland signings have gone down most of my thoughts have been directed toward those specific moves.

Basically, I’ve been thinking a lot about when John Mozeliak tried to step back a bit from the day to day running of the team last year, and what he said at the time. Part of what he said was about Michael Girsch being ready for the big chair, and how he should have the credit and responsibility and blah, blah, blah, and let’s face it: that’s mostly just hot air. Mo and Girsch’s working relationship, I would wager, has changed virtually none at all since one moved into the GM spot and the other changed his title to VP of whatever. They’re still in the same power relationship relative to each other, and they’re still, I would imagine, exactly as much of a team as they were before. The titles change, but meet the new boss, same as the old boss, as the saying goes.

More interesting to me, though, was when Mozeliak talked about trying to take that step back from the day to day grind in order to take a longer view and figure out where the Cardinals had perhaps lost some of their edge along the way. More important than figuring out where the edge was lost, of course, is figuring out where the edge might be regained. And since Mozaliak took that supposed step back to reevaluate the direction of the club, a whole lot of things have happened. Weirdly, I feel like a lot of fans are convinced the Cardinals not only didn’t do enough this offseason, but that they just didn’t do much at all. That’s kind of fascinating, when you look at the context of the overall roster churn of the last couple years.

Now, I don’t want to get into the whole offseason, because at some point in the next week or so I want to go back and do a large postmortem on the offseason as a complete unit. Maybe next Monday; I’m hoping to keep Wednesdays focused 75% or so on draft stuff, and Sundays I’m going to try and mostly do minors-facing content, but Mondays I don’t really have a plan for. So maybe that’ll be the day when I try to flesh out whatever idea I’m currently turning over in my head, rather than often just never getting around to said idea.

No, I just want to focus on these moves, or rather the bullpen and how much the Cardinals focused on it this offseason. The Cards this offseason signed Luke Gregerson. They signed Bud Norris. They traded for Dominic Leone. They signed Greg Holland. And they promoted Jordan Hicks. That’s four targeted acquisitions to slot into relief work, and one hyper aggressive promotion almost completely out of character for the organisation, which, by the way, ended up costing them a very useful, talented reliever in Josh Lucas as a byproduct of that aggression.

It would seem to be fair to assume that part of what John Mozeliak and his office may have decided in the course of looking for an edge to regain is that in modern baseball, the bullpen is simply no longer the red-headed stepchild of roster decisions the way we’ve mostly looked on it in the past. I wrote at some other point this offseason about the way the Cardinals looked to be attempting to stack high-strikeout depth in the ‘pen as a way to gain a useful advantage, but at the time it was in the context of the organisation throwing volume at the issue, rather than utilising or signing premium talent. Well, with the signing of Holland and the promotion of Hicks, the Cards are now throwing both numbers and premium talent at the ‘pen problem.

And here’s the thing: if the front office has come to the conclusion that, by hook or by crook, you want to build a dominant bullpen if you plan on being a championship contender, then perhaps we’re going to have to shift the context of how we look at roster building, and the priorities revealed in the process.

Earlier on, I made the case that moving Jordan Hicks into a 60-70 inning relief role when he could be a 180 inning stud starter is a waste of a resource. And ten years ago, that would have been absolutely true. I think we all recall the sabermetric debates of the day whenever the idea of a reliever vs starter would come up, either in the context of Cy Young voting or simple roster building. A great starter, the argument went, will throw three times as many innings as even the greatest reliever. It’s stupid to waste a special arm in the ‘pen.

But look around baseball now. There are no 200 inning starters left. Or not many of them, anyway. The Cardinals have one, Carlos Martinez. There isn’t another starter on the roster I could realistically see pushing to 200 innings or beyond. Bullpens are larger now, and even putting aside the thought of progressive workload management that might see multi-inning relievers become a going concern, the simple fact of fatigue, times through the order penalty awareness, max-effort pitching styles, larger pitching staffs, and the efficiency of aggression in ‘pen usage all means the gap between, say, the starter who gets the fewest innings on your club and the reliever who throws the most is narrower than ever before. And given the strategic advantages of being able to deploy a reliever in important spots, it’s possible our old sabermetric saw about starter value and reliever value just doesn’t hold the water it used to in the fact of the new analytical reality.

If that is the case, then moving a stuff monster with what appears to be a high injury risk to the bullpen sooner than later might not be the kind of thing to be criticised at this point. I still have my concerns that the Cardinals are wasting the ultimate upside of Jordan Hicks by shunting him into short relief work when he could, and maybe should, be attempting to develop himself into a staff ace in the minors. But if pitching roles are becoming more fluid, perhaps blurring, perhaps in some cases almost disappearing entirely, then maybe the opportunity cost has to be reassessed as well.

By that same token, if you’re going to go all-in on an aggressive strategy of stacking as many high-strikeout arms as possible into a monolithic bullpen, then passing on Greg Holland and his 30% K rate last year, in Coors Field, in his first season back from elbow surgery, would seem to be madness.

It’s possible I’m reading entirely too much into all of this, and let’s face it: at this point, we really don’t know how it’s all going to work out. Maybe those old principles are still important, and Jordan Hicks’s career will end up a frustrating footnote like Trevor Rosenthal’s endless hopes of becoming a starter. But as we move into a world where the realities of modern roster building are dissolving much of what we used to know, it’s also possible that we’ll have to change our viewpoint on what is and is not a good use of resources.

The Cardinals had a very aggressive, very active offseason in general this year, but nowhere was their aggression more obvious, or more amped up, than in the bullpen. It would seem they’re staking an awful lot of this year’s hopes on the success or failure of what they hope will be a steamroller from about the fifth inning on. I still wonder if Holland was worth it, or if he’ll fall apart. I still wonder if Hicks wouldn’t be better off trying to turn into Carlos Martinez in the minors rather than following Trevor Rosenthal in the majors. I still wish we could have seen Josh Lucas in Cardinal red for a while longer.

But for all that doubt and wonder, it’s pretty clear at this point the Cardinals have a very specific plan in mind for trying to regain at least one lost edge. It took them awhile to get there — until literal Opening Day, in fact — but now it’s time to see what this new plan has bought them. And then decide if they were right or wrong.

One final note: I am aware that there is a component to this whole bullpen usage thing I didn’t bring up, which is the Mike Matheny/Mike Maddux angle. Honestly, though, I just don’t know where to fit it in. If we assume that Mike Matheny is still utterly unable to manage a relief corps, and isn’t listening to the pitching coordinator the Cardinals brought in right under him — and I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking that, considering that Matt Bowman already has two appearances and three innings under his belt after three games in the season — then pretty much every other bit of analysis we can come up with on the bullpen, or roster construction, or whatever else we might like to discuss, becomes at least somewhat moot. One cannot write reviews of blenders while including in every review the line, “Of course, if the user decides to stick his/her hand into the blender while it’s running, the blender isn’t going to work properly.” At a certain point you’re no longer reviewing blenders, just warning the citizens of Idiopolis agains the dangers of small appliances. We have to assume the roster will be used in the way it was intended if we wish to know whether the roster was well constructed or not. Thus, I decided to avoid a whole section based around how all these assembled pieces would be used and managed. I hope you understand why. — A.