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For a Few Strikeouts More

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Draw, partner. The Cardinals bullpen is bringing heat this year.

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at St. Louis Cardinals Scott Kane-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball is changing. You don’t need me to tell you that — a simple look at basically any leaderboard in baseball will do. Strikeouts are higher than they’ve ever been. Home runs are higher than they’ve ever been. Walks? We’ve got those too. Forget the stats, even; just watch a game and you’ll see it. Contact is down, velocity is up, and when someone hits a baseball, they do it with intent. You’ll see it, that is, unless you were watching the 2018 Cardinals bullpen.

Now, was the 2018 Cardinals bullpen bad? Yeah. It was one of the worst bullpens the team has put together in the Mozeliak era, though a lot of that was down to sample-size noise and the Curse of Greg Holland. Still, though, one of the things the 2018 bullpen was noticeably worst at was striking fools out. Think of it this way: in 2015, the beginning of the new livelier ball era, Cardinals relievers were 13th in the majors in strikeout rate at 22.6%. 2016? 12th at 23.4%. 2017 was more of the same — 23.6%, good for 11th. It’s safe to say, then, that last year’s 20.8% (25th) wasn’t what the team had been trying to do.

It’s especially shocking when you look at the moves the team made before the 2018 season. They traded for Dominic Leone, coming off a 29% strikeouts season in Toronto. They signed Bud Norris (27% as a reliever) and Luke Gregerson (25% for his career). On the eve of the season, they even added Greg Holland (31% career strikeout rate). The team wasn’t messing around with trying to find relievers who could pitch to contact or anything fancy like that — they signed people who could put up K’s.

So, yeah, about that. Let’s chalk 2018 up to the vagaries of luck. Still, the team made moves even during 2018 that tried to maximize strikeouts. They traded Luke Voit for two toolsy but raw relievers who had the potential to miss a lot of bats. They emphasized John Brebbia, he of the career 27% strikeout rate, more. They signed Andrew Miller to replace the other veterans who hadn’t panned out. Whether right or wrong, the team doubled down on trying to strike a bunch of dudes out in 2019.

Well, we’re 13 games into the season, and you can see the bones of their idea taking shape. The bullpen has been mediocre from a fielding-independent standpoint this year — they’re 14th in strikeout rate (23.8%, back to their old normal) but second-to-last in walk rate, which leads to an 8th-worst FIP. To their credit, they’ve limited the damage the walks have caused — they’re a creditable 8th in ERA. Even more impressively, the contact they’ve allowed has been poor — they’ve allowed the 10th-best xwOBA of any bullpen, impressive given the disadvantage they started with from all the walks.

Still, we’re not here to talk about the woefully small sample of 13 games. We’re here to talk about the even-more-hilariously-small sample of the last week. Why’s that? Well, in the last week, and particularly the Dodgers series, you can start to see what the Cardinals were aiming for. Here’s a list of every reliever who has pitched in the last week, along with their strikeout and walk rates:

Cardinals Relievers in the Last Week

Name K% BB%
Name K% BB%
Giovanny Gallegos 50.0 % 0.0 %
John Brebbia 33.3 % 14.3 %
Jordan Hicks 44.4 % 22.2 %
Mike Mayers 18.2 % 9.1 %
John Gant 23.8 % 9.5 %
Dominic Leone 15.4 % 15.4 %
Tyler Webb 16.7 % 0.0 %
Andrew Miller 30.8 % 15.4 %
Alex Reyes 0.0 % 42.9 %

Yeah, that Alex Reyes inning (the one that got him sent to the minors, essentially) wasn’t great. Aside from that, though, you love to see a plan come together. Maybe Dominic Leone has been a little disappointing, maybe Tyler “I’m Lefthanded” Webb isn’t blowing people away with gas, but the core of the bullpen has been phenomenal. Even Mike Mayers, who seems cursed to end up in bad situations for the entirety of his Cardinals career, has looked good.

The bullpen still hasn’t been *good*, per se, in the last week. There have been a lot of walks, with Miller and Reyes in particular looking out of control at times (I’m willing to forgive Hicks some walks because he comes with the benefit of allowing essentially no hard contact). There have been dingers — oh my have there been dingers. Six home runs in 26 innings is not where you want to be. Heck, if you listen to Fangraphs (I do!), the bullpen has been worth -.3 WAR in the last week. Is this the new regime we can look forward to?

Well look — maybe! I can’t see the future. I can tell you, though, that I don’t think so. First of all, there’s that lovely xwOBA tidbit from up above. The Cardinals bullpen might be allowing dingers and walks, but they’re doing it while allowing pretty poor contact quality overall. One of my favorite ways to look at contact quality is to look at how hard a team or player hits the ball in the air. Exit velocity is great and all, but a 100 mph grounder is kind of meaningless most of the time. In this stat, the Cardinals excel. They’ve allowed an average exit velocity of only 88mph on line drives, pop-ups, and fly balls. That’s good for fourth in baseball, and that’s even more impressive when you consider the home runs they’ve given up.

Want to think of it a different way? Batters facing the Cardinals bullpen have barreled up eight balls this year (a Baseball Savant term basically defined as hitting the ball hard enough that it’s extremely likely to be an extra base hit) and turned that into eight home runs. The best bullpen in baseball this year by FIP, the Giants, has given up five barrels and one home run. The second best, the Rays, are at three barrels and two home runs. The Yankees are at five and three, respectively.

The Cardinals, thus far, have been excellent at avoiding hard contact. Aside from the exit velocity stats I mentioned above, they’ve allowed the tenth-fewest barrels (both on a rate and absolute basis). Despite all that, they’ve been really bad at preventing home runs — they’ve given up the eighth-most home runs in baseball. Sample sizes are still small, but it’s hard to imagine this persisting. It’s hard to be among the best teams in baseball at limiting contact and also one of the worst teams at limiting home runs. That won’t keep happening. Interesting tidbit — Andrew Miller has allowed four barrels and three home runs already. He allowed eight barrels and six home runs in 2017 and 2018 combined, split evenly between each year. It’s unlikely he’s going to keep being so hittable, and the ninth inning Thursday night (strikeout, strikeout, single, strikeout) was a good sign that he’s coming around.

I’m a Cardinals apologist. I won’t deny it — I almost always think the team is going to be great, and I’m sometimes disappointed by how wide of the mark I was. This is a bullpen I can believe in, though, and it’s starting to show. Sometimes you want to be clever and look past strikeout rate and ERA to figure out how good a bullpen is. Sometimes, though, you don’t need to. If you dig deep, as deep as you can go, the Cardinals bullpen is telling you the same thing the surface stats are. They’re striking people out again, and they’re hard to hit. That’s what Mozeliak wanted all along. Also, ugh, looks like I missed it — so here, accept your poorly thought-out man with no name reference — Andrew Miller looks like a gunslinger or something.