Knock on wood, but the Cardinals bullpen figures to be pretty good next year. The top three of Miller, Hicks, and Brebbia looks great. Dakota Hudson had some control problems, but major league hitters can’t square him up. Dominic Leone will be back. One or possibly both of John Gant and Daniel Poncedeleon will kick in some innings, with Austin Gomber potentially operating as a part-time reliever as well. There’s a good amount of talent in the bullpen even if Luke Gregerson and Brett Cecil are never the same. One name I conveniently left off in this bullpen accounting, you’ll notice, is Chasen Shreve. Why would I do that? Well, it’s mainly because I want to write about him. There are two reasons, though. The second reason is that he was kind of awful last year, and I think that most fans would prefer a bullpen that has enough depth to not need Shreve. Not me, though. I might be a sucker when it comes to relief pitcher reclamation projects, but I can see Shreve as an above-average left-handed reliever. If the Cardinals can unlock that side of him, it would be like adding an impact reliever in a trade, without having to go find one. Feel free to insert your own sarcastic ‘You know, Al, it really would’ here.
If you know anything about Chasen Shreve, it’s that he was traded for hometown hero and overall large boy Luke Voit. If you know two things, though, the second is probably that he has a problem with giving up home runs. ‘A problem’ is probably putting it too mildly. Of all relievers who have thrown 200 innings since 2014, the year Shreve debuted, his rate of home runs per fly ball is the third-worst, a not-so-nice 16.9%. The two relievers worse than him, Dustin McGowan and Francisco Rodriguez, are no longer in baseball. If you’d prefer to look at it in terms of home runs allowed per nine innings, it gets worse. Shreve is the worst in baseball by that metric, because he induces only an average amount of grounders- most pitchers with high HR/FB don’t give up many fly balls, but Shreve bucks that trend. If Shreve is the worst reliever in baseball by this metric, why am I optimistic about his chances? First of all, his non-home-run results are actually pretty good. No one’s going to confuse him with Craig Kimbrel out there, but he’s struck out 26.5% of the batters he’s faced in his career, solidly above average. He walks a few too many hitters, but he’s shown flashes of control before, and relievers are usually one tweak away from possessing at least passable control.
To this point, I have to admit I’m not exactly painting the best picture of Shreve. If you ignored his home run rate (which is, again, the actual worst in the majors) he’d be a slightly above-average reliever. That’s damning with faint praise. Why am I so in on Shreve? Well, his fastball is an absolute delight to watch. You might not notice it by looking at the radar gun- among the 72 lefties who threw at least 300 four-seamers last year, his velocity ranks only 41st. His spin rate, though, is another story. In that same cohort of 72 lefties, Shreve ranks seventh, just behind noted spin demons Brad Hand and Rich Hill. The late ride on the fastball makes his middling 91.5mph average velocity play up, as he generates whiffs on 24% of swings at the fastball, well above average despite how hittable you’d think a fastball sitting in the low 90s would be. How have the pitch’s results been? Well, look, they’ve been bad. You can’t always have everything you want in life. It’s pretty easy to pinpoint why the results have been bad, though. In the last three years alone, Shreve has given up FIFTEEN home runs on fastballs. He’s given up 27 home runs overall, but tons of the damage has been courtesy of fastballs misplaced in the zone. Take a look at this pipe shot to Christian Yelich:
That’s middle-middle to the NL MVP. No amount of spin could save Shreve there. Juan Soto feasts on a similarly missed location:
Juan Soto and Christian Yelich are elite hitters, but just to prove it’s no fluke, here’s Trevor Plouffe feasting on a middle-middle fastball:
The message here seems pretty clear- Shreve has a location problem. His fastball is the kind that works up in the zone, enticing hitters to swing at something they struggle to productively get a bat on. That same trick just doesn’t work in the middle of the zone. For a visual representation of the problem, let’s look at a softer-tossing lefty who uses spin to get whiffs- Rich Hill. Rich Hill makes Shreve’s fastball look dynamic, averaging a slovenly 89.4 mph, so he’s going to need spin and location to beat hitters. He does just that- take a look at where he placed his fastballs this year:
It’s all up in the zone, with absolutely nothing low and not much even in the middle of the zone. That’s the kind of location that gets a slow-motion junkball pitcher a 27.2% strikeout rate- well, that and a curveball that melts faces. With that example of superlative location in mind, sit down before looking at Shreve’s fastball location in 2018:
Well, there’s our problem right there. Shreve appears to be targeting hitters’ belt level, which is awkwardly most people’s wheelhouse. Not only that, but there doesn’t appear to be much of a plan- unless spraying the ball all across the strike zone is a plan. The reason batters are depositing so many middle-middle fastballs in the outfield stands is that Shreve is feeding them middle-middle fastballs all day.
So, we’ve identified the problem. What’s the fix? Honestly, I’m not sure. Chasen Shreve is SO close to being a good major league reliever. His secondary pitches, which I’ve ignored so far here, are somewhere between serviceable and excellent. He throws a little cutter-y slider in the mid 80s that lefties struggle with, as well as a splitter/changeup thing that is legitimately great. Many lefty changeups are weapons exclusively used against righties, but Shreve can get both. If he could just tighten up his fastball location a bit, he’d go from the back of the bullpen to an effective lefty reliever. The margins in baseball are pretty thin, and Shreve is right on those margins. In his current form, he’s barely a major leaguer.
In all likelihood, Shreve probably can’t change his command to the extent I’m hoping for. It’s hard to do! Plenty of relievers have shaky command, and Shreve’s profile doesn’t seem to leave him much room for error. In my ideal world, though, Chasen Shreve is a fun lefty out of the bullpen who split-fingers and spins his way into Cardinals fans’ hearts. In the dead of winter, I’m free to imagine whatever I want for the bullpen, and it’s way more fun to imagine an eight-deep bullpen with exciting arms in each slot than a bullpen with four good pitchers and four guys who are just filling space. In April, maybe Shreve will give up three home runs and get sent to the minors. Until then, though, he’s one hypothetical adjustment away from relevance.