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Bullpen Lessons, Learned and Unlearned

Have the Cardinals done enough to upgrade their bullpen this offseason? Don’t expect any answers here.

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

The offseason is winding down, and very soon now we’ll be looking at a flood of pictures coming from Florida, showcasing unfamiliar faces in an oh so familiar colour, with their affiliation now signaled by our tribal insignias, the interlocking stl or the cardinal Cardinal, bats and birds and letters marking out these new faces as the Good Guys, at least for a little while.

Despite the lateness of the hour, though, there remain a number of questions, of doubts and worries and megrims, all of which are endlessly swirling through the atmosphere of a an anxious and pessimistic fanbase. A collective consciousness which collectively decided only an historic investment would be acceptable this offseason did not get that historic investment, and so it is cast as a failure, perhaps even a betrayal. We’ll talk about what the Cardinals did versus what the fans wanted or perhaps believed had to be done later; for now I want to focus on an interesting point of contention that I keep hearing brought up over and over.

This particular bone of contention has to do with the bullpen. If the Cardinals’ refusal to pony up for Bryce Harper is the primary festering wound this offseason, the measured, targeted response to the problems in the ‘pen of recent years is something less acute but instead chronic; an old injury partially healed that kicks up dickens when the weather is about to change. The bullpen was the single biggest reason the Cardinals of 2018 failed to make the playoffs; surely wholesale changes were coming this offseason, right? Right!? The towering inferno that was the 2018 Redbird relief corps couldn’t possibly be saved by one or two strategic moves, so obviously the front office was going to have to cut, burn, and reseed.

Instead, though, we got one targeted, strategic move, in the form of Andrew Miller. A dumpster fire of a bullpen added one pitcher to fill probably the most pressing need, but certainly not the only one. And while Miller himself is a big name — one of the biggest on the market, in fact — it is also a fact that he is coming off a down season, a season of injuries, and is not exactly a spring chicken, turning 34 years old this coming May. Adding one guy with big question marks attached to fix the horror we saw last season just cannot be the only move, goes the argument. That’s nowhere near enough, especially not when there are still so many relief arms on the market, goes the argument. The Cardinals must do more, must make more moves, sign more pitchers, add more insurance, do more things, goes the argument.

Bernie Miklasz has been one of the people really hitting these notes for much of the back half of the offseason. He’s not the only one, obviously, but he has one of the bigger platforms, and has pretty consistently harped (no pun intended), on the need for the Cards to do more to improve the ‘pen. As part of a Bernie Bits column late last week, he included a point about all the free agent relievers left on the market who aren’t looking for big contracts. The list: Tyler Clippard, Nick Vincent, Sergio Romo, Ryan Madson, Jim Johnson, Alex Wilson, Daniel Hudson, Erik Goeddel, and Adam Warren, about whom Bernie used the adjective ‘underrated’, which I can actually get on board with to a certain extent.

I feel I should interject here a moment to say this column is not in any way, shape, or form meant to be an attack or takedown of Bernie Miklasz. I’m a big fan of his show, agree with his takes more often than not, and respect him even when I don’t agree with him. But he’s one of the big dogs in the game in town, and represents a particular point of view here that I need to illustrate. So please do not think my using him to elucidate the perspective of one side of this debate is an attack on him; rather, he’s my best opportunity to show where one side is coming from, okay?

So here’s the thing about that list of free agent relievers: it is very, very questionable whether any of them would make the Cardinals any better. Here are the ERAs and FIPs of every reliever listed by Miklasz:

  • Clippard: 3.67/4.24
  • Vincent: 3.99/3.75 (4.51 xFIP)
  • Romo: 4.14/4.04
  • Madson: 5.47/3.98
  • Johnson: 3.85/4.68
  • Wilson: 3.36/4.28
  • Hudson: 4.11/4.38
  • Goeddel: 2.95/3.90
  • Warren: 3.14/3.94

Now, I’m not saying there aren’t any interesting numbers at all on that list; Erik Goeddel’s sub-3.00 ERA certainly stands out as an exciting data point. But really, which of those pitchers do you, dear reader, think is going to markedly improve the Cardinals’ bullpen in 2019? (Author’s Note: Daniel Hudson actually signed a minor league deal over the weekend, I believe.) As a point of reference, John Gant’s ERA and FIP in 2018 were 3.47 and 4.07, respectively, and there are plenty of people in the fanbase — plenty of people reading this right now, in fact — who don’t think John Gant should really even be on the 2019 Cardinals. And remember, Gant put up those numbers in large part while starting, rather than just relieving.

Unfortunately, this is basically the state of the market. Yes, Craig Kimbrel is still out there, but he’s still looking for a record-setting reliever deal and had multiple red flags pop up in his profile in 2018. Sure, he might still be awesome for another three or four years, but if we look at the history of pitchers who lost a full mile per hour off their fastball and saw their walk rate more than double at age 30, I suspect we’d be looking at a whole bunch of cautionary tales. I’ll leave it to one of my colleagues who really enjoy that sort of sorting and compiling to see if that’s true; paging Dr. LaRue, essentially. But after Kimbrel, you start to get into pretty mediocre territory remarkably quickly.

In 2017, Ryan Madson was one of the best relievers in baseball, which is fascinating, but he’s also 38 years old and wasn’t particularly good this past season. He might rebound for an encore, but he might also look like he’s 38. Sergio Romo got a lot of press in 2018 for being used to open games by the Rays, but his overall results were, well, just fine. Fine is fine. Fine is not world-changing. And that’s basically the story of that list of relievers, and what is available on the market in general right now. Unless you’re going to call up Kimbrel and just hand him a blank check while ignoring the concerns that come with him, you just aren’t getting a pitcher who is going to single-handedly alter the trajectory of your bullpen significantly.

Which brings us to the question: why are so many people still so worried about adding more pieces? If there isn’t really anything on the market that’s going to make a major difference, then why is a segment of the fanbase convinced the Cardinals have to get another relief arm or two or three? Maybe I should throw in the other modifier that’s typically used here: another experienced relief arm. It seems that the reason the 2018 Cardinal bullpen sucked wasn’t because they had several previously very good pitchers either self-destruct or get injured; it’s somehow the fact there wasn’t enough experience, or enough grizzledness, or some other such intangible quality.

Let’s take a moment to review the Cardinals’ recent history of signing free agent relievers. Last year, they inked two experienced, established free agent relievers to contracts. Luke Gregerson came early, on a modest two-year contract, and Greg Holland came at the end of spring training, on a one-year deal for max money. Gregerson pitched a dozen innings and was terrible, posting an ERA over 7.00 in a season almost entirely lost to injury. Holland, unfortunately, threw more than a dozen innings and was healthy. He may very well have been the single individual most responsible for the Cardinals missing the playoffs last year. His ERA for the Redbirds was nearly 8.00, and I counted up about five, maybe six games last year I’m at least 85% certain the Cardinals win if Greg Holland wasn’t on the team. So, you know, not the best use of fourteen million dollars and a draft pick.

The year before, the Cardinals signed Brett Cecil to a four year deal, adding an extra season to win a bidding war for the former Blue Jay. (That’s right, folks; Brett Cecil’s tenure here in St. Louis is only half over.) In 2017, Cecil was fine by ERA, pretty good by FIP, and widely reviled by a fan base that never quite got over the initial impression he made with a really bad April. In 2018, Brett Cecil pitched like he was a double agent on the Cubs’ payroll. He’s lost a ton of velocity since his days as an elite setup man in Toronto, doesn’t appear to really be healthy, and represents one of the sorest spots I can point to on the Cards’ roster when I want to talk about the sunk cost fallacy and how I’m not that sure Mo and Co. really understand how it works.

What’s a little funny to think of is that while Brett Cecil was being just fine as a free-agent setup man in 2017, one of the bigger problems with that bullpen was the previous year’s amazing free agent relief signing. Seung-Hwan Oh came to the Cardinals before the 2016 season, put up a stealthy all-time great relief season his first year in the states, and then faltered, horribly, in 2017, when he was supposed to be closing games out after having replaced the ineffective but formerly brilliant (and great again in 2017, ironically), Trevor Rosenthal. Oh was, on balance, a phenomenal signing, but it was hard to remember than in July of 2017.

I could go back further; there’s a Jonathan Broxton signing somewhere in there I can’t imagine any of us really want to remember, a year when Carlos Villanueva was mysteriously heroic, a Randy Choate contract that covered three years somehow. There are probably other things I’m forgetting. My point is this: the Cardinals’ recent history of signing free agent relievers would seem to suggest that free agent relievers are, on the whole, a rather poor way to allocate your offseason dollars. They’ve shopped the bargain bin with Broxton, and it didn’t turn out well. They’ve shopped the expensive end of the market, albeit with question marks, by signing Greg Holland, and that was a disaster. They went on the international market to get Oh, and it was brilliant, until it wasn’t, though he was quite good again in 2018 and I wouldn’t have minded seeing the Final Boss back in Cardinal red this offseason, if I’m being honest.

The Cardinals, for their part, seem to have taken to heart at least one lesson from that history, and decided this offseason to only shop at the top of the market for premium pitchers. You can certainly argue that Miller comes with risks considering his recent injury history, but it is also a certifiable fact that Andrew Miller is one of the greatest relievers in the history of baseball at his best. Miller’s 2014-’17 run covered a little over 270 innings, and in that time he amassed 9.6 wins above replacement by FanGraphs’ numbers, and a ridiculous 11.1 WAR using the Baseball-Reference model. You can find four-year runs that good in the careers of guys like Mariano Rivera, Dennis Eckersley, and Craig Kimbrel, but not many others. The other pitcher the Cardinals reportedly considered heavily, Zach Britton, was another highly-coveted (though admittedly slightly tarnished himself), commodity on the market. Britton was, from 2014-2016, one of the few relievers in baseball you could argue was at least as feared as Miller, if not more so. Deciding between Miller and Britton is a bit of a Rorshach test for what you value in a pitcher. The Cardinals came down on the side of the guy who has always gotten more swings and misses, which I can’t say I disagree with. On another day, though, I might very well prefer Britton by a hair, with no real reason for feeling differently.

Then again, shopping opportunistically at the top of the market is how you got Greg Holland, while the minor deal given to Bud Norris turned out to be the major bargain, at least until the Matheny Grinder turned his arm to mush and he fell apart in August.

And yet, even with all that evidence that signing free agent relievers doesn’t really work that well (unless you’re the Yankees, I guess, in which case it seems to work just fine), we have people clamouring for the Cardinals to do more, to sign more, to just do something about the bullpen, damn it! On the one hand, I understand that just because those other signings in the past haven’t worked out, it doesn’t mean the next one won’t, and you can’t simply stop trying to improve because some of your previous attempts have gone poorly. On the other hand, if we look at really successful bullpens, they look a lot like what the Redbirds tried to assemble in 2018, only to have that blow up like the Challenger. So if we think that was a good plan that simply went wrong, should you abandon that plan even if it seems to have been a smart approach?

The real problem, of course, is that every point you try to make in support of building a bullpen a certain way has a counterpoint. The Cardinals in 2018 tried to build a ‘pen around lots of arms with high strikeout rates, yet ended up with one of the lowest K rates in baseball. They traded for one of the best setup relievers in baseball in 2017 in Dominic Leone, only to see him miss nearly the whole year with a nerve issue. They signed one of the most consistent, durable, and just plain good relievers in baseball in Luke Gregerson, and he hit the DL for basically the first time in his career, at least in terms of a major chunk of time missed. They traded for Zack Duke, who then had Tommy John surgery. We know what happened with Brett Cecil and Holland. All those guys other than Leone brought massive amounts of experience to the job, and all of them hurt the club’s chances of winning, in some cases drastically.

Young arms are seen to be the answer, most of the time, yet Mike Mayers and Sam Tuivailala both struggled to get over the hump despite premium stuff. On the other hand, Seung-Hwan Oh came over at 34 and dominated. (And then didn’t, so you know.) One of the most underappreciated all-time great relief seasons was that of Koji Uehara in 2013, who was 38 at the time. Kevin Siegrist was awesome when he first came up, but then collapsed completely a couple years later.

More signings of free agent relievers means less opportunities for young arms, and just as importantly, fewer pitchers in the ‘pen with minor league options, limiting your ability to move them and utilise that Triple A shuttle that sometimes must be employed. Then again, it’s hard to develop an entire bullpen entirely from within. Sometimes you have to go out and try to get the shutdown arm you need.

So what is the answer then, really? Well, this is going to end up an unsatisfying column, because the fact is I don’t really know. I don’t know that anyone actually does. It is perhaps the central paradox of modern baseball, that bullpens have become so much more important, so much more emphasised, such an enormous part of teams’ successes and failures, and yet the clubs have seemingly gotten only marginally better (if that), at predictably building quality bullpens. The nature of relief work is such that pitchers who live closer to the edge than starters, working in smaller sample sizes, oftentimes with no margin for error, can have an outsize influence on the success or failure of a season. And those same factors make that aspect of a team the most confounding to try and construct.

Personally, I don’t believe that signing more relievers is the answer. I want those young power arms in the system with options to get the shots at the spots. But then again, what if they fail? If the kids fail, then what is your Plan B? If you sign guys as Plan A, then the kids can be Plan B if they fail. But is that really any better? Maybe it means you have an extra plan, but is it any more likely to succeed? Or is it just more expensive and complicated?

I don’t have answers to these questions, unfortunately. No one really seems to. I mean, honestly, I’m sure that no one on this board expects Ryan Meisinger to somehow be the answer for the Cards in the bullpen this year, but would it really shock you if he turned into the early-career version of Luke Gregerson? It wouldn’t me, looking at his minor league numbers. I wouldn’t bet on it, but betting against it also seems a little too confident.

So these are the lessons, and the questions, that we have to learn and answer about the Cardinal bullpen in 2019, and bullpens everywhere always. Do the Redbirds have enough arms? It would seem so, but maybe not. Are there better options on the market? It’s hard to say yes, but there are certainly names that would make one feel safer, like something has been done, like they’re really trying to execute the plan, even if it’s not a very good plan.

I wish I had answers, but I don’t. All I have are lessons we can learn, even if they aren’t true. It’s not what anybody wants, but it’s the best we can do.