I have a confession to make. I’m a writer of habit. When I start articles, I basically only have two templates. One of them is to describe a play or game situation from this year before digressing wildly to focus on how a small part of that play is emblematic of a broader point I’m trying to make. It’s a classic idea- start small, end big. It’s a safe and effective method for easing into a story. No one tuning into a Cardinals blog is going to be put off by a paragraph about Matt Carpenter, or a snippet of a Jordan Hicks game log. That’s a great method, a fine method, but I have one more trick in my bag. In this one, I’ll start with something personal and totally unrelated to the subject matter I’m going to write about. Maybe it’ll be about my childhood. Maybe it’s a description of a baseball game I went to. Maybe it’s a digression about my writing process, conspicuously similar to this one. When I use this second method, I usually find it expedient to introduce the reader of my article as a second character, one who asks me questions. It is, if nothing else, an easy way to get you to ask the question I’m trying to answer. Will I be using that today? You bet I will! Today I want to talk about the Cardinals’ closer, and that is a subject that lends itself to some conveniently posed questions.
Throughout a baseball season, there are topics that don’t lend themselves to complex explanations. If you write an article about Bud Norris being bad, it’s enough to say he’s bad. If you write an article about Jack Flaherty being good, it’s enough to say he’s good. The difficulty arises in answering questions that have tons of potential explanations, where the sheer scope of the inquiry requires some direction. What do I mean by this? Well, ‘Who should close games for the Cardinals?’ is infinitely open-ended. To answer the question, it’s necessary to define what a closer should do. It’s also necessary to determine what, if any, non-statistical qualities good closers possess. You need to decide what statistical qualities they should possess too. After doing all that, you still have to identify who that is on the team. Trying to answer that question without some framing questions proved impossible, so what you’re getting is a rambling introduction leading abruptly into a Q-and-A section where I’ll explain my thinking.
Q: What kind of pitcher should a closer be, Ben?
A: Thanks for asking! Rigid roles for pitchers are always tricky. Sabermetricians hate them. Managers love them. Players believe in them, whether due to inertia or actual preference. I’m of the opinion that it’s important to name a closer, but that they don’t need to be the best pitcher in the bullpen in every case. They shouldn’t be the worst, obviously. Closers, by definition, pitch in their fair share of important spots. They’re not always the most important spots, though, and naming someone your closer mostly prohibits them from entering the game before the eighth inning at the earliest. In my mind, the ideal closer should be a great one-to-two-inning pitcher with average or better command. Holding a reliever who can go three innings (Carlos Martinez, say) until the game gets late and the Cardinals are up limits his usage in a way that doesn’t make much sense to me. I have a lot less statistical justification for preferring good control, but from a viewing standpoint there’s no less enjoyable game than the walk-riddled blown save, so let’s chalk that one up to aesthetic preference.
Q: Who fits this role best on the Cardinals?
A: Fewer players than you might think. I’ll do a quick elimination of people who it won’t be first. Bud Norris seems broken, Chasen Shreve is too left-handed and not effective enough, Dakota Hudson is too much of a BABIP adventure. Mike Mayers doesn’t have management’s trust. Dominic Leone needs a winter of rehab to enter the conversation, Luke Weaver is all wrong for the role, and I want Carlos Martinez going multiple innings. Jordan Hicks is a pretty obvious name, and I wouldn’t hate him in that role. His walk rate is a little higher than I’d like, but that has come with an uptick in strikeouts, and his stuff remains off the charts. My main reservation with Hicks is that he seems to have found a niche he excels at. Why mess with that? He’s already pitching in high-leverage spots. Any pickup the Cardinals get from pitching Hicks in the 9th instead of the 8th is likely to be marginal, and the downside if it takes some mental getting used to before Hicks is ready for the role is pretty high right now. Instead, give me the second-highest K% in the bullpen (Norris is still first). That’s right- give me John Brebbia.
Q: John Brebbia? Is he even good?
A: You better believe it. It’s been easy to miss this year, but between injuries and stints in Memphis Brebbia has put up a tremendous season in the majors. Let’s start with the strikeouts and walks. Brebbia has struck out 25.9% of the batters he’s faced in his major league career (27.6% this year), comfortably above the major league average of around 22%. His 6.4% career walk rate complements the strikeouts quite well, and does a lot to account for his career 3.0 ERA (3.73 FIP). It’s not smoke and mirrors, either. Brebbia’s arsenal consists of an excellent fastball and an excellent slider, both of which he uses roughly half the time.
Q: Come on, you’re telling me John Brebbia has an excellent fastball?
A: The perception that Brebbia is a surplus bullpen arm has always been a little bit puzzling to me, and I think it colors perception of his fastball. The first thing to consider is that he throws it sneakily hard. At 94.5mph on average, it’s comfortably above league average speed, even for righty relievers. Even that undersells his recent form, though. Brebbia has thrown steadily harder as the year has gone on, and now sits something like 95-96 comfortably:
He locates it just where you’d want a someone who relies on a spin-heavy four-seamer to aim:
The speed and the spin combined have been devastating to hitters this year. Brebbia is running a 14.9% swinging strike rate on fastballs for the year, meaning that 14.9% of the fastballs he throws result in a swing and a miss. That’s notable even for relievers, who have averaged roughly 10% on the year. Among the players in the game who muscle up and try to throw fastballs past hitters, Brebbia still stands out. In early counts, his fastball gets him ahead. With two strikes, it transforms into a putout pitch, as he locates the pitch at the extreme top of the zone:
To say that hitters haven’t solved Brebbia’s fastball is an understatement. In the 101 at-bats that have ended with a fastball this year, Brebbia has recorded a .265 wOBA, compared to .338 for all righty relievers. That’s the difference between George Springer this year and Dee Gordon this year, give or take. Think it’s a fluke? Think a few should-be hits have been caught here or there? His xwOBA on fastballs is .279, a pretty good indication that hitters aren’t doing damage on the pitch. Batters are supposed to hit fastballs. That’s where pitchers are weakest, where batters get to tee off on the pitch they’ve grown up learning how to hit. Against Brebbia, the pitch they are trying to hit results in a 75 wRC+. Ouch.
Q: You said two dominant pitches. What about the slider?
A: Sliders are trickier to evaluate than fastballs. What makes a fastball good? Well, it needs to be fast and well-located. It should spin a lot if you want to miss bats with it. That’s basically it. Sequencing it well is important, but hard to analyze. Mostly, though, you can just look at a few numbers, and the higher the better. Sliders aren’t quite like that. The key with a slider is deception. You want batters to swing at balls. You want them to take strikes. Aside from that, more movement and more speed are both good, but the relationship between them isn’t clear. Location is incredibly confusing- some pitchers succeed by getting takes, some succeed by inducing whiffs. Brebbia already had a good slider last year on pretty much every metric. It missed bats, and batters didn’t hit it hard when they did connect. What did he do this year? He started throwing it in the strike zone a lot more, going from 43% of sliders in the zone to 52%. Batters responded by swinging at fewer sliders in the strike zone. This is kind of difficult to put into words, but think of it this way. In 2017, Brebbia got 18 called strikes on sliders out of every 100 he threw. This year, he’s up to 25 per 100. How about swings at sliders out of the strike zone, another ideal outcome? Here, Brebbia has yet to recapture his 2017 form. Batters are swinging less often at all of Brebbia’s pitches this year, reducing the swings he’s generated at balls from 23 to 15. Still, though, the slider looks to be comfortably above average in terms of generating strikes and limiting exit velocity, two of the things Brebbia has the most control over. Could the slider use a little bit of refinement? Absolutely. It’s a solid pitch right now, though, and a worthy complement to his phenomenal fastball.
Q: If he has such great pitches, why aren’t his results better?
A: So, this right here is the weirdest part of writing about Brebbia. His results ARE good. His strikeout rate, as I mentioned, is second among Cardinals relievers. His walk rate is third-lowest, second-lowest if you exclude Dominic Leone’s abbreviated season. His FIP is the lowest in the entire bullpen, and the lowest on the team if you exclude Greg Garcia’s perplexingly effective inning of emergency relief. ERA? He’s running at 3.65, good but not great. That’s the worst of his indicators, though; his peripherals pretty much unanimously agree that he’s pitching well. Here we have a reliever with strikeout stuff, above-average command, and even two straight years of good results. If you talk to Cardinals fans, though, his name basically never comes up as a key component of the bullpen. Why is that? I obviously can’t say, as I’m something of a Brebbia apologist, but I have a few theories.
First, there’s his complete lack of prospect status. The Cardinals have a time-honored tradition of producing playable closers that were never great prospects, but Brebbia is a whole new level of unheralded. You’ve heard of the Rule 5 draft? That’s a misnomer, really- it’s actually called the Major League Rule 5 Draft. The Cardinals acquired Brebbia in the MINOR LEAGUE Rule 5 Draft, in a round that no longer exists. The Cardinals spent literally $4,000 to acquire him from the Diamondbacks in 2015. An astute reader might notice that Brebbia never pitched for the Diamondbacks in the minors. That’s because they themselves had acquired him only months earlier and assigned him to A ball with the season already over. What illustrious team did Arizona acquire him from? None other than the Laredo Lemurs of the independent American Association. First of all, that’s an 80-grade team name. Please, please take a moment to look at their mascot. In any case, Brebbia appeared on the Cardinals with such a lack of hype that recognition has been slow to catch up.
Another reason Brebbia has been under-appreciated in his time with the Cardinals is his lack of a true carrying tool. I’ve documented Brebbia’s solid results, but he gets to a place of real value to the Cardinals without doing one thing overwhelmingly well. He has two good pitches, let’s stipulate that. Neither of them overwhelm. Neither of them will drop your jaw. He doesn’t have any comical rate stats. A John Brebbia gif, a Brebbia meme? The closest you’ll get is his fashion sense, which Tommy Pham memorably lambasted. Pitchers don’t have to be interesting to be effective, and they don’t have to be effective to be interesting. To this point in his career, Brebbia has occupied the effective-but-uninteresting quadrant. Fans should realize his worth, though, because he truly is one of the Cardinals’ best relievers.
Q: How can you make an untested arm fresh out of AAA the closer? You need a closer’s mentality in the ninth for a playoff team.
A: Okay, Fehlandt Lentini. You want a closer who is a closer. Here’s the thing, though. Brebbia has already been a dominant closer. You want a closer mentality? How about a 0.98 ERA over 64 ⅓ innings of closing while striking out 79 batters? How would you feel about only 15 walks over that same time frame? How about a pitcher who recorded 19 of his team’s 22 saves over a full season? That’s John Brebbia’s 2014. Did it happen in Laredo, for the Lemurs? Yeah. Who cares? If the closing mentality is a state of mind, a matter of confidence, Brebbia has it. He’s come in with leads and expected to allow nothing. He’s instilled fear in opposing hitters, and he knows what it feels like for opposing batters to have no hope. If you leave Bud Norris out of the equation, no member of the Cardinals 40 man roster has recorded more saves in a single season at any level than Brebbia’s 19. Me, I don’t really believe in closer mentality. I believe in bullpen roles, because I think giving players structure is a good idea. I believe in rewarding success, and that the mantle of closer is a great way to show it. I don’t think that certain groups of pitchers have the wrong mindset for the role. If you do believe that, though, Brebbia is your man. He has already shown that at a level that is surely more stressful than anything in the majors, the level where if you pitch poorly you literally don’t get to play baseball anymore, can’t break him down. Find me a more pressure-packed spot than that.
Q: What’s the drawback of using this Q-and-A style for a whole article?
A: Good luck writing a conclusion.