For the first time in my brief VEB tenure, I’m submitting this story from the road. I’m running a half marathon this weekend, probably literally as this posts (wish me luck!), and traveling to it has left me a little short on writing time. Luckily, I have a few notes I’d planned to expand into one article apiece, and they happen to tie together thematically. More’s the pity for future me- hopefully the runner’s high comes with some article ideas.
With that bit of unnecessary background information out of the way, let’s get down to business. The Cardinals have cycled through a lot of pretty marginal relievers this year. Most of them are what you’d expect- just some dudes who have options remaining and marginally live fastballs. As a general reminder, a good portion of the Cards bullpen is fixed. Greg Holland, Luke Gregerson, Bud Norris, Brett Cecil, Tyler Lyons, and Sam Tuivailala are out of options. Dominic Leone only has one remaining, not that he’s very likely to be sent down. Those guys are all going to be fixtures on the major league roster and the 10-day DL, and that makes them kind of uninteresting. The rotating cast of other randoms, however, has some intriguing names. Now, I don’t mean intriguing in the way that Mike Trout or Aaron Judge is intriguing. I mean intriguing in the sense of looking into your pantry at 1 a.m. and seeing a half-full bag of chips. It really shouldn’t draw you in- you don’t need those chips! Still, though, it’s 1 a.m. Maybe they’re just what you need. Below are the half-eaten bags of chips of the Cardinals bullpen.
As a quick note, all the videos below were obtained from the incredible library of clips available for download at Baseball Savant. I am indebted to them for providing these, in addition to their wide array of tools. The videos are presented in Twitter rather than some more reasonable in-line viewing experience because I am a technological buffoon.
John Brebbia Might Be Good
I mean, I’m as surprised as you. I’ve been using his name as a synonym for replacement level pitching and not thinking twice about it. Now that he’s opened the season with nine strikeouts in seven innings and a glorious 0.00 ERA (and a .59 FIP!), I’m starting to entertain the thought that maybe there’s something there. It’s obviously a small sample size, but as a rule, if a reliever puts up consecutive multi-inning scoreless outings and strikes a bunch of guys out, it’s probably worth taking a closer look. My default view going in was that it was probably nothing. A million monkeys on a million typewriters would eventually strike out nine batters in seven innings. Imagine my surprise when I took a closer look at Brebbia’s stuff- he might be the real deal.
His slider is legitimately a weapon. I’m not going to tell you it’s the best slider in baseball or anything, but it’s got significant horizontal bite, and he uses it to good effect. When I think of a sweeping, frisbee slider, I think of Andrew Miller. Now, I’m not ready to say that Brebbia is anything like Miller, but his slider can make people look foolish from time to time. It’s a classic there-until-it-isn’t slider, and when he’s locating it, there’s not much a righty can do about it. Here he is striking out Kris Bryant last year:
Tomas Nido isn’t an impressive guy to strike out. Still, it’s the one highlight I’ve got from this year:
He can also throw the pitch with more downward bite- sit down, Jett Bandy:
If we could just stop there, things would be pretty exciting. The Cardinals’ eighth-best reliever is basically Andrew Miller! Brebbia also throws a fastball. That’s how pitching works. It’s not a terrible fastball by any means. He sits 94-95 and tops out above 96, and it’s a rising, high-spin-rate job. Due to some mix of location and sequencing, though, he hasn’t quite harnessed it in the same way he has the slider. It doesn’t quite generate enough swings and misses, it doesn’t quite generate enough weak contact, and overall it’s just not *quite* there. That said, it doesn’t feel very far away from being an above average pitch. When he locates it up in the zone, hitters look very slow catching up to it, and he has been locating it more effectively this year. Six of his nine strikeouts so far have come on the fastball- half swinging and half looking. Here’s our friend Marcell Ozuna, still of the Marlins at this point, late on a 96mph heater:
Look at the pitches above. It’s hard to believe that somebody with those two pitches didn’t debut in the majors until his age 27 season. It’s even harder to believe that he played independent ball for two years after the Yankees let him go. As an aside, if you want to see some ridiculous numbers, take a look at Brebbia’s 2015 season on the tremendously named Laredo Lemurs. In 64 ⅓ innings pitched, he struck out 79 while allowing 34 hits and 7 runs, good for a 0.97 ERA and .76 WHIP. The Cardinals scooped him up after that, and he’s been on a steady ascent to the majors ever since. Even last year, when he seemed generic and forgettable, he was striking out 24% of the batters he faced with a well-above-average 12.3% swinging strike rate. He only walked 5% of the batters he faced. For heaven’s sake, he put up a 2.44 ERA!
Maybe I should have been looking closer at Brebbia all along. The overall package isn’t tremendously different from what Chad Green brings to the Yankees, and Chad Green took off as soon as he was given enough of a runway. In two years, John Brebbia might be out of baseball. Back of the bullpen relievers have a tenuous career that way. If you’d asked me before this year, I would have said he was likely to be gone from the Cardinals when he exhausted his options. That still could be true. He might also be a multi-inning, high-leverage buzzsaw, the very model of a modern bullpen general. He has two plus pitches, and at the moment he’s using them to great effect. I hope he gets more chances to show his stuff this year.
Matt Bowman Shouldn’t Throw Curves
Now we come to the darker side of the bag of chips metaphor. Sometimes those chips are stale. Sometimes you think you bought them in April, but they’ve actually been there since November. Sometimes, you look at Matt Bowman and he’s throwing a curveball. Avert your eyes:
I’m sorry I had to show you that. It’s the Cubs, and friends don’t show friends Cubs home runs. The problem is, I literally couldn’t find any other video of Bowman curves. There’s video of Kris Bryant striking out higher up in the article if you want to feel better. The only other fair ball hit off of Bowman’s curve so far was a 100mph laser beam to center. This curve is just everything awful you can imagine. It’s slow, it misses the strike zone a lot, and batters have swung and missed at exactly one of the 29 curves he has thrown so far.
Matt Bowman is a neat story. Rule Five picks in general are great stories, but Bowman did way more than survive a season on the major-league roster. He’s been legitimately good since joining the Cardinals, and if it weren’t for Matheny’s over-reliance on a sinkerballer security blanket, Bowman would probably be much better-liked by fans. What I’m trying to say is, I’ve got nothing against Matt Bowman. This pitch, though- I’ve got something against this pitch. I totally understand the desire to keep adapting, to maintain success by keeping hitters off balance. Sometimes the only way to maintain success is by reinventing yourself. I just don’t think this is the kind of reinvention Bowman is looking for. He may have already noticed that. In his last appearance, he didn’t throw any curves. That’s probably for the best.
That’s all I have for you for the moment. Brebbia probably merits further investigation, and maybe that’s a baton someone else can pick up. I certainly might if my inspiration dries up in the dog days of summer. Bowman’s curve probably doesn’t need further evidence of its inadequacy, but Matt Bowman himself remains incredibly interesting. I’d love to read (or write!) something about his incredible ability to remain effective over two plus major league seasons. That said, I am out of time. Enjoy the weekend! I will, assuming I finish the race.