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Bullpens May Define the Cardinals-Braves Series

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Close games call for late inning heroics. How do the Cardinals and Braves bullpens match up?

MLB: AUG 11 Pirates at Cardinals Photo by Rick Ulreich/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Baseball’s post-season is also cliché season. The team that wants it more will win! This losing team can’t deliver in the clutch! This winning team played small ball! Good pitching beats good hitting! When you think about how much random noise there is in any single baseball game, then multiply it by three to five games, it’s a wonder any of these clichés ever became common. Still, sometimes there’s a nugget of wisdom in them. Bullpens haven’t been quite been the regular season differentiator you might think (you have to have a good bullpen to win in October!, sayeth the cliché), but the bullpen was such a signficant strength for the Cardinals in the regular season. For them to continue to win, they’ll need to hold that advantage considering how strong Atlanta is everywhere else on the diamond. How do the two teams measure up in the bullpen?

Philadelphia Phillies v Atlanta Braves Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Braves Bullpen

Two months ago, this seemed like a clear advantage for the Cardinals. Not much changed on the Cardinals portion of that equation (even if the participants have moved around), as they ran up the fourth best FIP in the game in the second half. The Braves, however, have seen their bullpen solidify since the trade deadline, running up the fourth best bullpen FIP in the game since August 1st. Per Eno Sarris, their retooled bullpen now features seven relievers with above average strikeout minus walk rates.

They acquired Chris Martin from the Rangers, Mark Melancon from the Giants, and Shane Greene from the Tigers. Melancon (1.83 FIP) and Martin (1.63 FIP) have been especially effective. Greene was the biggest name of the trio, but has been more of a generic Guy™ (3.94 FIP) since the deal, with his strikeout rate taking a bit of a hit.

Adding to that trio, they’re likely to use Luke Jackson and lefty Sean Newcomb; plus some combination of exiled starters like Max Fried and Julio Teheran; and relievers Josh Tomlin and Darren O’Day. Those last three are on the bubble- we’ll see what the roster ultimately looks like- but lefty Jerry Blevins and Anthony Swarzak are also possibilities. O’Day missed most of the season but probably showed just enough in a late season stint to warrant injecting his sidearm funk into the mix.

Jackson is an absolute nightmare for opposing hitters with a 60% groundball rate and a 33% strikeout rate, all with perfectly reasonable walk and homerun rates. Fried struggled a bit down the stretch, possibly costing him a start in a potential game four, but could easily be the long relief shock absorber if the Cardinals ambush Dallas Keuchel, Mike Foltynewicz, or Mike Soroka. Newcomb has been generally fine on the season, but has been- at best- the Braves’ seventh best reliever down the stretch, and is their only consistently used lefty. Fried is also a lefty, and may take on any innings abdicated by Newcomb due to ineffectiveness.

Looking at gmLI, skipper Brian Snitker has spread the high leverage around evenly since the trade deadline. Melancon, Greene, Jackson, Newcomb, and Martin have seen the tightest jams. The right-handed quartet has the potential to be the horsemen of the apocalypse for the Cardinals’ playoff hopes. If they want to reach the NLCS, one of three things will have to happen for the Cardinals. They can jump on Keuchel, Foltynewicz, and Soroka, rendering the Braves bullpen moot. They can do something few teams have been able to since August- score runs against Melancon, Jackson, and Martin, with Greene on the side. Or their third option is simply to see their bullpen outpitch the Braves. How about that Cardinals bullpen?

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

The Cardinals Bullpen

In the Cardinals bullpen, the quality has stayed steady, but roles have changed dramatically since they sprinted out near the top of bullpen rankings mid-season. Early on, there was a clearly defined structure:

  • Closer: Jordan Hicks
  • High Leverage Righty: John Gant and (eventually) Carlos Martinez
  • High Leverage Lefty: Andrew Miller
  • Support: John Brebbia, Giovanny Gallegos, Tyler Webb, and miscellaneous others

With those roles, the Cardinals bullpen kept the team afloat even in the worst parts of the season. Eventually, things changed. Due to the injury to Hicks, Carlos Martinez shifted to the closer role. When that happened, Gallegos moved into the high leverage righty role vacated by Martinez’s promotion. Gant’s ineffectiveness down the stretch eventually forced skipper Mike Shildt to flip flop the two Johns, with Brebbia moving into higher leverage situations. The support cast down the stretch consisted of Ryan Helsley, Junior Fernandez, Genesis Cabrera, and Tyler Webb.

Then, there’s the Miller situation. Here’s how Miller and Webb have fared in the second half.

Cardinal Lefties, Second Half

Name IP K% BB% K-BB% HR/9 AVG BABIP LOB% ERA FIP xFIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA
Name IP K% BB% K-BB% HR/9 AVG BABIP LOB% ERA FIP xFIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA
Tyler Webb 24.2 24.18% 7.69% 16.48% 1.09 0.119 0.119 70.31% 2.92 3.86 4.30 0.119 0.187 0.250 0.192
Andrew Miller 26.1 23.48% 13.04% 10.43% 1.71 0.219 0.246 71.88% 5.13 5.68 5.63 0.219 0.339 0.385 0.314

Miller has seriously struggled. We all know this, but that table puts it in concrete terms. His strikeouts are way down, his K-BB% is in the bottom third of the league in the second half, he’s giving up far too many homeruns, and his FIP is well below average. Compare and contrast that with the alternative. Webb’s wOBA allowed is the sixth lowest amongst relievers (min. 10 IP) in the second half. His K-BB% is solidly in the upper half of the league as is his FIP and HR/9.

If you’re skeptical of Webb’s wOBA figure, you should be, as it’s built on the back of a .119 BABIP. Fortunately, we have Statcast’s xwOBA, which strips out defensive effects. Looking at xwOBA, Webb is at .266 in the second half, 60th out of 354 relievers (min. 40 TBF), compared to Miller’s .296 (146th). In other words, the gap may not be as significant as that table makes it look, but there’s still a clear advantage for Webb. Moreover, Webb has legitimately been an upper quartile reliever, by xwOBA, in the second half.

This is all a long, complicated way of saying that Tyler Webb or Giovanny Gallegos should be facing Freddie Freeman, Matt Joyce, or Brian McCann in the highest leverage situations over the next few days. That would be one more way the bullpen has changed since June if- big if- Mike Shildt were to make that decision.

A few cracks started to show even beyond Miller in the final month of the season. The rock-steady Gallegos, lauded early in the second half as one of the game’s most surprising bullpen weapons, ran up a 6.21 FIP in September. That was the result of a slipping K%, a slightly elevated BB%, and a burst of four homeruns allowed. Brebbia underwent a similar degradation- more walks and fewer strikeouts leading to a 4.85 September FIP. That’s to say nothing of Gant, who absolutely crumbled to the point that he’s not even on the NLDS roster.

His Wrigley meltdown notwithstanding, Carlos Martinez was tremendous in September and suddenly found himself the lone reliever pitching as well or better than he had earlier in the season. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s Miller, Brebbia, and Gallegos- the Cardinals answer to the Braves’ Martin, Melancon, Jackson- all slipping right before the season’s most important games.

It’s a troubling look. For the Cardinals to win this series, they’ll need some of those pitchers or their replacements to reverse that trend. It once seemed unthinkable that the Cardinals would face an opponent with a clear bullpen advantage. If September’s slide continues, their stay in October may be short.