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The Back of the Cardinal Bullpen is Becoming a Thing

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The Cardinals have built a group of relievers capable of shutting down the opposition to a degree we have not seen in years.

St Louis Cardinals v New York Mets Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Coming into this season, the roster had plenty of questions. Seemingly plenty of answers, as well, but we see how that often works out. Best laid plans of mice and men and all that.

The 2018 club had been a starting pitching beast, led by the contact management wondery of Miles Mikolas and the emerging strikeout punch of Jack Flaherty. Carlos Martinez was an early-season beast, but began to have shoulder issues that would ultimately keep him out most of the season and shunt him to the bullpen when he returned.

The offense, meanwhile, was strong enough most days, but had a tendency to misfire at inopportune times. Matt Carpenter struggled at both the beginning and end of the season, sandwiching perhaps the finest four month-stretch of his career with fairly dire stretches. The club’s biggest offseason acquisition, Marcell Ozuna, sputtered along for most of the season, while the specter of Christian Yelich hung over the team’s decision to make the deal they made, rather than hold out for one they weren’t sure would ever be available. Dexter Fowler endured not just the worst season of his career, but the worst season of most players’ careers. It was a testament to the team’s depth that they ended up in the middle of the pack offensively, rather than sinking under the weight of some really discouraging performances.

It was, in the end, the bullpen which really killed the 2018 club’s hopes of a postseason berth. Led by the nearly unbelievable disaster that was Greg Holland’s Cardinal career, the relief corps did basically everything they could to sink the Bismarck, er, the S.S. Busch. The Cardinals’ starters posted the fifth-best ERA in baseball last year. The relievers checked in at number 20. And even that feels like it underestimates just how crushing some of the bullpen’s failures really were.

What was perhaps most discouraging of all was the fact it felt like the club didn’t really deserve such a terrible fate. The front office had not ignored the ‘pen; if anything, the drumbeat of continuous bullpen acquisitions was mildly irritating at times. The team had seemingly put together a bullpen smartly thought out and constructed going into 2018, but that didn’t matter.

When the Cards signed Brett Cecil prior to the 2017 season, he was coming off a run as one of the best setup relievers (and occasional closer), over the previous four years. He made a terrible first impression in 2017, but actually managed a solid season overall. In 2018, that first impression was the only impression, and he was a disaster. The club acquired Dominic Leone from the Blue Jays, who in 2017 had been one of the best setup relievers in the American League, pitching largely in the hitter’s havens of the AL East. He barely had time to make a bad first impression before a nerve issue in his biceps put him out for months. Luke Gregerson was older, yes, but coming off a long run as one of the best setup relievers (I wish I had a keyboard macro for the phrase, “one of the best setup relievers”), in baseball. He was bad, then hurt, then bad again, then hurt again.

The Cards had tried to address the ‘pen issues over and over. Zach Duke comes in, is good, gets hurt. Brett Cecil is signed, is bad, gets good, then craters. Gregerson sucks then gets hurt. Leone sucks then gets hurt. For the past several years, it has seemed like Murphy’s Law was the only governing force related to the Redbird ‘pen. And then there was Greg Holland.

Signed on Opening Day last year, Holland had been maybe the best closer in baseball for a couple years with the Royals. Or, if not the best, certainly among that top 3-5 group that is really difficult to differentiate between. His elbow gave out, he had Tommy John surgery, and then returned to solid results in 2017. He was no longer the exciting, dominating force he had been in Kansas City, but Colorado Holland was perfectly fine as a late-inning enforcer. I didn’t like the signing at the time, feeling it was a panicked reaction to Gregerson’s poor spring and Mike Matheny’s public passive-aggressive quotes. I thought Holland’s fastball was no longer really good enough to challenge hitters, and he was relying too heavily on chase sliders to try and get outs. Pretty mediocre reliever, I thought, probably about league-average, and certainly neither the answer nor worth the chunk of change and draft pick the Cardinals exchanged for his services.

Instead of being mediocre, Holland was an absolute dumpster fire. Actually, dumpster fires are not generally large enough to serve as an adequate metaphor here; Greg Holland with the Cardinals was like the Hindenburg. He posted an ERA of 7.92 over 32 appearances (25 innings). His ERA+ was 50. Five oh. He managed the rare feat of posting identical earned run, strikeout, and walk totals with 22 of each. I believe Holland single-handedly cost the Cardinals roughly five games last season. Not by WAR, obviously, but by real world results. There are at least fives games last year I think having nearly any other reliever in place over Holland would have led to a Redbird victory. That’s a special kind of disaster. We’re not even going to talk about the fact Holland went to Washington after being cut by the Cards and performed just about like he had in Colorado. Nor the fact he’s been quite solid for the Diamondbacks this year. I just...can’t.

So coming into the 2019 season, the front office once again made some moves to try and shore up the bullpen. John Brebbia was basically ensured a role after having been a revelation the last two years in up-and-down duty. Jordan Hicks and his magical sinker was promoted to closer. The Cards dealt Luke Voit at the trade deadline last year for a pair of relief arms, including Giovanny Gallegos, who barely made an impression last season but was at least in the mix for some low-leverage innings this year. John Gant, having served as a swingman the last two seasons, was tabbed for relief work only. And once again, like a broken record, the Cardinals went onto the free agent market for a left-handed reliever. The difference this time? They went to the absolute top of said market, rather than shooting for that junction of quality and price they had so often gone to before. Andrew Miller was the name, and I don’t even have to type he was one of the best setup etc. Those other guys were really good setup arms; Andrew Miller is something else entirely. For a few years there, Miller was so good he created essentially a public meme around his name; i.e. every club for a while was looking for ‘an Andrew Miller Type’, as if such a thing really existed.

It’s slightly funny at this point to remind everyone that through the middle of April Miller had a 6.75 ERA and an FIP even worse than that, at 9.78. He was allowing over four home runs per nine innings and walking 14.3% of the batters he faced. Andrew Miller of April 2019 was looking uncomfortably like Greg Holland of April and May and June of 2018.

Why do I say it’s funny to remind everyone of that fact now? Because the fact is that right now, the Cardinals have one of the most frightening late-inning combinations in all of baseball, and that’s even if we don’t include Carlos Martinez, whose long-term role is still TBD, I think.

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: John Brebbia is having another solid season, but he has struggled mightily in June. Overall, Brebbia’s season ERA of 3.03 and FIP of 3.49 look just fine. Unfortunately, since the calendar flipped to June, the bearded one’s ERA is almost 10.00. He’s still striking out lots of hitters, and his FIP of 4.13 indicates there’s plenty of bad luck baked into that ERA, but he’s walking way too many hitters and has been bitten on a couple of occasions, hard, by the home run bug. I’m fairly confident Brebbia will figure it out, but it has to be acknowledged that not everything is going great in the Cards’ bullpen right now.

On the other hand, it’s hard to find much to complain about with the group of Hicks, Gant, Miller, and Gallegos. Admittedly, Miller struggled in game two of the Mets’ series, but that was more a blip than a trend. One hit batter and some batted-ball luck does not equate to a terrible outing, and had Kolten Wong not thrown away a double-play ball Miller likely would have only been dinged for a single run after John Gant relieved him.

Regardless, at this moment, the Cardinals’ four-headed monster at the back of their bullpen is one of the best in baseball, and perhaps the greatest strength the club can lean on right now. Let us consider, for a moment, just how good this group has been.

The closer, Jordan Hicks, has maybe been the least impressive member of the group, honestly, and thats always a tough thing to say about a pitcher who possesses a 102 mph sinker. It is, however, true. On the season, Hicks has a 3.47 ERA and 2.97 FIP, with his fielding-independent numbers aided by the fact he simply doesn’t allow home runs, largely because he doesn’t allow fly balls. He still walks entirely too many hitters, a reflection of his stuff appearing remarkably difficult to control, but he has boosted his strikeout rate from 20.7% in 2018 to 29% this season, and he remains one of the toughest pitchers in all of baseball to actually hit. He is also still just 22 years old.

Something interesting about Hicks is there’s really no definite trend line to his season so far. There’s not really any way to chop up his numbers over time to tell a specific story. If we take really tiny chunks we can maybe make things look a certain way, perhaps that he was rusty at some point from being used so little in May or threw 6 13 amazing innings over some two-week stretch, but that’s about it. Basically any reasonable chunk of time you take in Hicks’s season looks about like his season as a whole. He always walks a couple too many hitters, strikes out about the same good-but-not-elite percentage of batters, and is always difficult to do anything with on contact. He’s only blown a single save this year, and while blown saves on a team level can be misleading, when your closer has fourteen saves and one blown save, it’s a fine indication he’s doing the job you need him to do, at least in the broad strokes.

If we move on to the other three members of this group, though, we find some stunning numbers. John Gant has obviously been magnificent all season when it comes to preventing runs, and at the end of the day that’s really the thing that matters most. Runs are the determining factor in who wins or loses a baseball game, and so a pitcher that prevents them — or a hitter who produces them — is a remarkably valuable commodity. All the same, much of Gant’s early-season magic was, well, a magic trick. He was escaping with no damage from unbelievable situations, and getting the best batted-ball luck anyone could hope for. It wasn’t going to last.

However, a funny thing happened to Gant along the way. Right around the beginning of May, Gant went from escape artist to actual, hones to god dominant reliever. Since the 4th of May, Gant has posted a 2.50 ERA, a 2.35 FIP, and a 2.70 xFIP. In other words, no matter how you look at Gant’s numbers over the past six weeks, he has been dominant. His strikeout rate over that period is not elite, at 24.6%, but his walk rate is, at 2.9%. He does not allow home runs, generates a large amount of both grounders and infield popups, and does not give out free passes. John Gant is a force to be reckoned with this year. (Admittedly, if we look only at his June numbers there is a troubling lack of strikeouts, but all the other positive stuff remains in place, and anecdotally at least it seems to me hitters are swinging earlier in the count against Gant rather than trying to wait him out as the scouting report used to suggest when his walk rates were higher.)

Let’s move on to Giovanny Gallegos, the least-heralded member of this crew. Gallegos did not begin the season on the big league roster, even after a strong spring, simply due to a numbers game. And yet, on a rate basis, Gallegos may be the most impressive reliever in the Cards’ bullpen this year.

Here’s the thing: Giovanny Gallegos has always had a home run problem. It’s the thing which seemed to keep him from ever sticking in the Yankees’ bullpen through those years when he was available, right on the cusp, even occasionally making the big league roster, but never quite establishing himself. And honestly, he still has a bit of a home run problem this year. He has allowed four dingers in just 31.2 innings, a rate of 1.14 per nine innings. That’s not a huge number, particularly in the current offensive environment, but it’s still less than optimal. If Giovanny Gallegos is going to get beaten, it’s likely going to be by a home run.

What is not less than optimal is Gallegos’s non-contact skills. On the season, his strikeout rate is 38.8%, while his walk rate is just 5.2%. He is generating a swing and miss on almost 26% of the breaking balls he throws this year. Over the past month, which covers twelve outings and 15.2 innings, Gallegos has posted a 1.15 ERA and a 1.91 FIP. His K-BB% over that time is 33.3%. Giovanny Gallegos is one of the best relievers in baseball right now, and it has gone largely unnoticed.

Finally, Andrew Miller, who got off to that very concerning start that had so many experiencing night terrors about the return of Greg Holland. Through the end of April, Miller’s FIP was 8.12, he was walking over seven batters per nine, and his HR/9 was 3.18. He was striking out lots of hitters, yes, but everything else was going horribly.

I have some good news. Most of you probably know this, considering how closely the denizens of this particular website follow the Cardinals and their players, but since the calendar changed over to May Andrew Miller has been one of the best relievers in the game, full stop.

On the fourth of May, Miller came into a game at Wrigley Field and threw one inning. He struck out a batter, did not walk anyone, nor give up any hits. It was a perfectly normal clean inning for a reliever. And in fact, he would get dinged for a run on three hits in his next outing against the Pirates. But since that appearance at the beginning of May, these are Andrew Miller’s numbers:

  • 2.25 ERA
  • 2.02 FIP
  • 1.74 xFIP
  • Twelve innings
  • 46 total batters faced
  • Eighteen strikeouts
  • Two walks
  • 39.1% strikeout rate
  • 34.8% K-BB%

Yes, in case you’re wondering, that is essentially vintage Andrew Miller, the guy so good from 2014-’17 that he created an imaginary relief type everyone was trying to acquire. That strikeout rate is a few percentage points shy of his very best years, when he peaked in the low 40% range, but it’s close. Did I mention he’s posted that ERA of two and a quarter with a BABIP over that time of .417? Because he has. This is not just the Andrew Miller the Cardinals hoped they were getting, this is very nearly the Andrew Miller we all thought was gone, that we would never see again.

After years of trying, and failing, to build a proper bullpen capable of carrying a team to the promised land, the Cards’ front office knocked it out of the park this season. Admittedly, part of the success has been things they didn’t necessarily plan on, but that shouldn’t take away from where the club is right now. At this moment, the Cardinals have a group of relief arms at the back end of their ‘pen that matches up against anyone’s, and is more than good enough to support not only a postseason run, but a deep postseason run. Not since the late 2013 group of Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist, thirteen innings of John Axford (remember that?), and a very young Carlos Martinez have the Cardinals had a hammer at the back of the bullpen like what they possess right now. This is the sort of late-inning dominance that can make a good team into champions.

Now, if the other parts of the team would just hold up their end of the bargain in terms of the good part....