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The Worst Cardinal Relievers of the 21st Century

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Looking back over nearly two decades of bullpen disasters, to try and find some context for the current one.

St Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

You know, just a week ago it looked like Greg Holland was going to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. He returned from a hip injury — ahem, pardon me; that’s a very convenient hip injury — on the 19th of June. From that day through the 2nd of July, Holland threw 6.2 innings spread over seven games, allowed just four hits, one run (unearned, even), and struck out eight batters. Best of all, he didn’t walk a single hitter over that spread of about two weeks, which, considering what we saw from him the first month and a half of the season, was close to being worth pilgrimages, like one of those pieces of Jesus toast that farmers from Iowa spend their life savings to see.

Over those seven outings, Holland allowed batters just a .333 OPS. Yes, you’re reading that right. Not a .333 OBP, which would be pretty average; a .333 OPS. A slash line of .167/.167/.167 is pretty good, wouldn’t you say? I certainly would.

Problem is, this isn’t a week ago. Today is not July 2nd; today is July 9th. And as of July 9th, Greg Holland’s two most recent appearances have covered just two-thirds of an inning, with ten batters faced. That ratio right there should send off a warning bell in your mind, but it gets worse. On Independence Day, facing the Diamondbacks, Holland faced two hitters, allowed one hit and one walk, and was then removed from the game. Both hitters would come around to score, but Greg was spared the indignity of those runs being earned. Why would that have been an indignity? Well, because Holland’s ERA over his last two outings is already 67.50; sticking another two earned runs into that pile would just feel egregious, really.

Of the ten batters Holland has faced these last two times out, eight have reached base. Five hits, three walks, just one strikeout, zero hope. A .714/.800/.857 batting line is, um, well, basically the opposite of that .167/.167/.167 line.

A week ago, it looked like Holland might just be back on track, back to something resembling the dominant reliever he was from 2012-2014, and the guy he showed at least flashes of being last year. And that was a big deal. Having a healthy and effective Greg Holland would raise the level of this bullpen quite a lot.

It was a simpler time a week ago. And I miss it.

The Cardinals lost by five runs yesterday. Greg Holland gave up five runs. Now, he wasn’t the only Redbird pitcher to struggle; Jack Flaherty didn’t have it, John Brebbia threw a way too good fastball in a 1-2 count to Pablo Sandoval — that pitch should have been two inches further in and three inches higher — and even Sam Tuivailala looked like he was just out there punching the clock by the time the eighth inning rolled around. Still, there’s something symmetrical about the Cardinals losing by exactly the number of runs their biggest bullpen blunder gave up, don’t you think?

So in honour of Greg Holland’s dumpster fire of a season, I thought I would go looking through the annals of Cardinal baseball in the 21st century to see just how bad his performance has been in context. I picked five of the worst; these aren’t necessarily ranked in any order, other than bad to bad.

For reference, this is the line we’re working against here: 27 G, 20.2 IP, 8.27 ERA, 12.6 H/9, 7.8 BB/9, 2.274 WHIP, -1.2 bWAR. I’m using Baseball-Reference for this, just because it’s easier to comb through for names I recall as being especially bad.

Oh, and also, I’m going to put the innings minimum at 15. Sadly, that excludes the immortal Pedro Borbon of 2003 from making this list (20.25 ERA over four innings), but don’t worry; we’ll see more of that ‘03 bullpen popping up.

1. Russ Springer, 2003

17 G, 17.1 IP, 8.31 ERA, 8.97 FIP, 9.9 H/9, 3.1 BB/9, 1.442 WHIP, -0.7 WAR

It actually does pain me to put Russ Springer on this list, because he was such a remarkable success story for the club a few years later in 2007-’08, when the Cards were just looking for any kind of positive at all, but that 2003 season....woof.

In Russ’s defense, he had missed the 2002 season with, I believe, Tommy John surgery, and didn’t start the season off with the big club. And while he was not very good pretty much across the board, the big issue for Springer in ‘03 was a ghastly home run rate; he allowed eight dingers in those 17+ innings he threw. Because of that, his FIP was actually markedly worse than that of Holland this season, who somehow has just a 4.53 FIP on the season, which is hugely misleading as to how he’s actually performed, in my ever so humble opinion.

Was he worse than Holland?

I’m going to say no, because in spite of those numbers being so brutal, Springer’s issues were not nearly so heavily self-inflicted as those of Holland ‘18. Bad home run luck made Russ look like a disaster, but he was really more like a garden-variety bad reliever that year, rather than completely on fire. Holland’s walk rate makes him much worse, and much harder to watch, for my money. (Plus, if I’m being completely honest, I have such warm memories of Springer coming back in ‘07-’08 that I can’t bring myself to call him worse than Greg Holland.)

2. Gene Stechschulte, 2000

20 G, 25.2 IP, 6.31 ERA, 7.22 FIP, 8.4 H/9, 6.0 BB/9, 1.597 WHIP, -0.7 WAR

Ah, the immortal Gene Stechschulte. I mean, I remember the name; he was still with the Cardinals in that ‘02 season that saw Bo Hart do his thing and two very sad deaths hit the ballclub. But if you asked me to describe Gene Stechschulte as a pitcher, I would have literally no idea what to say. And it’s not as if I didn’t watch much baseball in those years, either. I just...don’t remember ever actually seeing him. I guess trauma can lead to localised amnesia after all.

Anyhow, Stechschulte made his big league debut in 2000, stuck around for a couple more season after that, and was never very good. Then again, he was never as bad again as he was that first season, when he managed to be the least memorable reliever in a bullpen which contained both the ghost of Heathcliff Slocumb and something called a Mike Moehler, who I admit I initially confused with Mark Wohlers and was trying to remember when the former Braves fireballer made his way through the Cards’ ‘pen on his way out of the game.

Was he worse than Holland?

Again, I’m going to say no, both because Stechschulte was a rookie, and because like Springer in ‘03 a big chunk of his issues were due to a bout of homeritis. He allowed six bombs in just over 25 innings, which isn’t quite as dire as Russ in 2003, but still very bad. Overall he wasn’t nearly as hittable as Holland, even if the walk rate was in the same neighbourhood. It’s close, but I’m going to say rookie contract Gene Stechschulte was not as bad — or at least not as onerous — as $14 million Greg Holland.

3. Jason Simontacchi, 2004

13 G, 15.1 IP, 5.38 ERA, 8.46 FIP, 10 H/9, 4.1 BB/9, 1.565 WHIP, -0.1 WAR

This is another name that hurts me to put on this list, for a couple reasons. One, I have warm memories of Mike Shannon calling Simontacchi the Simo Man, probably to keep from having to pronounce ‘Simontacchi’. Two, Simontacchi had a great story, one of those indy ball guys who was driving a truck before he was offered a spot with an MLB organisation, and who then climbed all the way to the top. And three, because Simontacchi has become one of the more respected pitching coaches in the Cards’ organisation these days, with multiple young pitchers crediting him in aiding their rise to the big leagues in one way or another.

Still, there’s really no getting around the fact that Simontacchi in 2004 was dreadful. He had been roughly a league-average starter in 2002, helping to stanch the bleeding when the rotation went sideways completely, and had been a reasonable swingman in ‘03, helping to stanch the bleeding that was basically just the 2003 pitching staff’s normal state of being. By ‘04, though, his arm was worn down, and he would not pitch again in the majors until 2007, when he made a brief comeback with one of those terrible early Nationals teams before hanging it up and heading into coaching.

Was he worse than Holland?

Actually, yes. He was. And the reason is a number that I didn’t actually include above, both because I haven’t included the number in the other entries, and also because it makes for a good dramatic reveal. Simontacchi in 2004 struck out just 1.7 batters per nine innings, or 4.5% of all hitter he faced. That is so bad that yes, he was worse than Holland ‘18.

Side note: as I’m going through these clubs, I was struck by how incredibly stable the 2005 bullpen was. The Cardinals had seven relievers that year appear in at least 30 games and have an ERA below 3.50. They didn’t have another reliever make even ten appearances. That’s how a club with Scott Rolen on the shelf all year still wins 100 games, along with a starting five that made 160 starts between them, all with better than league-average ERAs.

4. Andy Cavazos, 2007

17 G, 20 IP, 10.35 ERA, 7.69 FIP, 12.2 H/9, 7.2 BB/9, 2.150 WHIP, -0.9 WAR

This was the only major league season for Andy Cavazos, and it’s not that difficult to see why. A fun alternate answer here could be Kelvin Jimenez ‘07, who actually managed to throw over 40 innings with a 7.50 ERA and who couldn’t strike anyone out despite throwing 97, but Cavazos is just too disastrous not to highlight here.

The 2007 bullpen was a strange animal, with Russ Springer, Jason Isringhausen, and Ryan Franklin all being very good, and Troy Percival doing that awesome thing where he finished up his career with no UCL and a sub-2.00 ERA over 40 innings, but after that it was a parade of despair on the pitching side for that club. The ‘07 Cardinals were basically the hangover of the Walt Jocketty era, in more ways than one. (Remember Randy Keisler?)

Was he worse than Holland?

Oh yeah. More walks than strikeouts, more hits than innings pitched, and over two homers per nine innings allowed. This is about as bad as relief work gets.

5. Miguel Socolovich, 2017

15 G, 18.2 IP, 8.68 ERA, 5.41 FIP, 13 H/9, 1.9 BB/9, 1.661 WHIP, -0.6 WAR

You know, making this last pick was actually pretty tough. There were several other guys I wanted to highlight, like Mike MacDougal back in 2010 (7.23 ERA in 18.2 innings), or P.J. Walters’s rookie year, when he posted a 9.56 ERA as a swingman, but eventually I settled on Socolovich, because he was a guy I was really, honestly excited about as a reliever, and who then just bombed, hurting the team badly in the process. He had been fantastic in 2015, very solid in 2016, and then suddenly last year, when the club could no longer send him down due to a lack of options, he self-destructed.

Something I’ve come to realise, going through all these teams in the course of this exercise, is just how few truly awful relief performances we’ve seen in the John Mozeliak era, and how virtually all of them have extenuating circumstances. Mitchell Boggs could have shown up on this last for his rookie season or his last year in St. Louis in 2013, but he was a pretty good prospect making his debut on the one hand and a guy whose arm was just shot after a couple years of really great relief work on the other. Ryan Franklin’s 2011 probably belongs on this list, but he was also coming off four straight years of being an excellent reliever in his late 30s. The random one-year journeyman relief signings or non-prospects forced to the big leagues of the Jocketty years just don’t really show up since Mozeliak put his stamp on the organisation. Just an interesting observation, I think.

Was he worse than Holland?

No, not really. As bad as Socolovich was, his biggest issue was just being way too hittable. Now, part of that was luck — he ran a .365 BABIP in 2017 — but mostly it was just that he threw too many hittable pitches. He didn’t have the stuff to strike hitters out the way he had appeared to in 2015, and too many hanging sliders and belt-high changeups will get you killed out there. Still, he walked less than two batters per nine, which at the very least means he was less frustrating than Holland to watch.

So that’s the list, folks. Five of the worse non-Holland relief performances of the 21st century, and really only two I would say were definitively worse than what we’ve seen from the 14 million dollar man this year. And no, I didn’t miss anyone, so if you’re thinking of a specific reliever or something, too bad. I totally got everyone.

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Okay, I’m kidding.

Esteban Yan, 2003

39 G, 43.1 IP, 6.02 ERA, 5.59 FIP, 11 H/9, 3.3 BB/9, 1.592 WHIP, -0.6 WAR

Of all the relief seasons I can ever remember — of this century, anyway; I’m pretty sure there was a Juan Agosto season in the early 90s that broke my heart, because Agosto with the Astros was one of my favourite funky left-handed relievers, then came to St. Louis and melted in the sun — Esteban Yan’s 2003 stands alone as an ongoing disaster that just refuses to end. Look at all the other performances on this list; I set my minimum innings at fifteen, and most of the truly horrific seasons we see are not that far over that limit. A reliever can do a whole lot of damage in ~20 innings, but even so we’re talking about a tiny sample, and usually a performance bad enough to justify a place on a list like this gets the guy sent out to the minors or another team or the hinterlands in general very quickly.

And then there was the 2003 season. And Esteban Yan was the 2003 season.

Look at that. Forty-three innings. He pitched to a 6+ ERA for forty-three innings. And it isn’t as if Yan had been a great reliever before, and suddenly dropped off a cliff. He was a bad bullpen guy for the Devil Rays for several years, then signed with the Texas Rangers to begin the 2003 season. He pitched for the Rangers for a month and a half, and put up an ERA of almost 7.00.

And then Walt Jocketty actually traded for Esteban Yan. Who, again, had an ERA of 6.94 for the Rangers in 2003. The Cardinals under Jocketty at that time were so starved for pitching depth they traded for a reliever with an ERA of almost seven in the middle of May. Esteban Yan’s 2003 wasn’t just the worst four-month car wreck of a season I can recall; it was utterly inexplicable why he was acquired in the first place.

There were some disastrous bullpens in the early 2000s, a fact I think a lot of people have completely forgotten. But that 2003 club stands alone, and Esteban Yan is the perfect symbolic summation of everything that went wrong with that club, such that a team that actually had a better offense than that legendary 2004 MV3 squad managed to miss the playoffs completely.

In the 21st century, there has never been a Cardinal bullpen quite like that 2003 edition, and there was no pitcher who more perfectly represented what was happening than mid-May acquisition Esteban Yan. He wasn’t making $14 million that season, though, so I suppose there’s at least a little bit of a silver lining there.

Was he worse than Holland?

Yes. But not by as much as one would hope for a player whose name is enough to give fans of that team night sweats.