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Cardinals 2020 Player Preview: John Brebbia, Bearded Intellectual Bullpen Mainstay

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2018 St. Louis Cardinals Photo Day

John Brebbia was initially drafted by the New York Yankees in the 30th round of the 2011 draft out of Elon College, but was released after the 2013 season when his strikeout rate dropped and his walk rate spiked at the Class A-Advanced level. After a season each in Independent Ball with the Sioux Falls Canaries and Laredo Lemurs, respectively, the Arizona Diamondbacks singed him to a minor league deal in September 2015. The club must have especially been impressed by Brebbia’s showing with Laredo in 2015, where he posted a 0.98 ERA over 51 games, including 19 saves and a K/BB ratio of over 5. Brebbia would never pitch for the Diamondbacks organization, as the Cardinals drafted him in the minor league portion of the December 2015 Rule 5 draft.

Brebbia’s 2016 season, split between AA Springfield and AAA Memphis, was a little rough as he showed some homeritis with the former and some walk issues with the latter. But he got off to a torrid start with AAA Memphis in 2017. Although his numbers were certainly aided in part by a .219 BABIP and 88.5% strand rate, Brebbia posted his career best K rate and WHIP and his best walk rate since he pitched 13 games in Low A ball in 2013. With Trevor Rosenthal and John Gant on the disabled list, the club decided to designate Miguel Socolovich for assignment and purchase Brebbia’s contract from Memphis on May 27th, 2017. Brebbia’s good fortune continued with a preposterous 90.9% strand rate and .216 BABIP, which undoubtedly was the major reason why he allowed the lowest hits per 9 innings among all the relievers. But he was nonetheless a solid contributor, posting a 4.64 K/BB ratio and the lowest BB/9 among all relievers, other than Juan Nicasio, who had joined the staff for only 20 days or so at the end of the season.

At the beginning of the 2018 season, Brebbia couldn’t crack the opening day roster. Rookie Jordan Hicks made the squad as a non-roster invitee, and Mike Matheny decided to give the last bullpen job to Mike Mayers on the strength of his strong spring. Just to show how volatile bullpens are, the Cardinals opened 2018 with Matt Bowman, Brett Cecil, Jordan Hicks, Dominic Leone, Tyler Lyons, Mike Mayers, Bud Norris and Sam Tuivailala in the bullpen. Only Cecil and Hicks remain in the organization. The last roster cut of spring training, it took injuries to both Brett Cecil and Ryan Sherriff to get Brebbia back to the big leagues on April 8th, just before the 9th game of the season.

People may forget just how much Brebbia was yanked back and forth in the 2018 season. Here is his transaction record from that year:

*Optioned to start the season

*Recalled 4/8 when Ryan Sherriff broke his toe

*Optioned 4/19 when Tyler O’Neill was recalled and the club went with a 5-man bench

*Recalled 4/22 when Adam Wainwright went on the DL with elbow inflammation

*Optioned 4/26 after he got a 3-inning save the night before and John Gant was recalled

*Recalled 5/8 when Sherriff was optioned

*Optioned 5/13 when Wainwright was activated from the DL

*Recalled 5/16 when Luke Gregerson went on the DL with a shoulder impingement

*Optioned 7/11 along with Luke Weaver so that Tyler Lyons and Gregerson could be activated from the DL

*Recalled 7/21 when Matt Bowman was optioned

*Optioned 8/7 when Tyson Ross was activated after the club claimed him on trade waivers

*Option converted to a DL stint on 8/10 with forearm tightness

*Activated from DL on 8/20 and optioned

*Recalled 9/3

Despite all the back-and-forth and his strand rate and BABIP returning to normal, Brebbia managed to pitch 45 games and was a better pitcher in 2018 than he was the year before. Ditching his two-seamer and concentrating on his four-seamer and slider, he ratcheted his strikeout rate up by 4% to a staff-leading 28.7% and led the entire staff in DRA (Deserved Run Average, the go-to pitching metric from Baseball Prospectus, scaled to actual runs allowed per 9 innings, with adjustments to park, batter, catcher, umpire, temperature, base-out situation, run differential and a whole host of other factors to determine how many runs per 9 innings the pitcher deserved to have allowed) and FIP.

Staying in the bullpen all year in 2019, Brebbia reached career highs in games pitched (66) and innings pitched (72.2). The emergence of Giovanny Gallegos knocked him down in the pecking order a little bit, but it was still a strong season, as he maintained basically the same strikeout rate and FIP. DRA dinged him a bit as his walk rate crept up a tad, but he established himself as a bullpen mainstay.

Brebbia’s Future

Brebbia is an extreme fly ball pitcher, never posting higher than a 33% GB rate (28% last year), but he has shown over the years that he can limit home runs, as his average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives is only 91.4 mph, a figure that put him in the top 40 out of 242 qualified pitchers in baseball last year. Brebbia’s fastball/slider combo puts batters off balance, as evidenced by his only allowing a barrel in 3.3% of plate appearances against him, ranked 30th out of 242 in baseball last year.

Although Brebbia has two minor league options remaining, he’s not going anywhere. The question going into 2020 is whether he will given a shot at the closer’s job if Carlos Martinez goes back into the rotation. While Giovanny Gallegos might be the favorite, Brebbia’s swinging strike% and O-swing percentage are competitive, and he is a similar pitcher with a similar pitch mix. While he was not on Mike Shildt’s radar for save situations last year, he may take well to the role if given a shot. Either way, the projections figure him to be roughly the same pitcher he was last year, albeit in fewer games.

2019 Statistics

66 G, 72.2 IP, 59 H, 31 R, 29 ER, 6 HR, 25 UBB, 87 SO, 3 HBP, 28.6% K%, 8.9% BB%, .293 BABIP, 28% GB%, 6.4% HR/FB%, 3.59 ERA, 3.13 FIP, 4.63 xFIP, 4.06 DRA, 83.2 DRA-, 1.3 fWAR, 1.0 WARP49 H, 25 R

2020 Projections

PECOTA

58 G, 61 IP, 48 H, 8 HR, 20 BB, 77 SO, 3 HBP, 30.7% K%, 8% BB%, .280 BABIP, 28.6% GB%, 2.92 ERA, 3.52 FIP, 3.69 DRA, 76 DRA-, 1.2 WARP

ZiPS

61 G, 67.1 IP, 59 H, 30 R, 28 ER, 9 HR, 20 UBB, 75 SO, 3 HBP, .303 BABIP, 3.74 ERA, 3.88 FIP, 0.7 fWAR

Steamer

55 G, 55 IP, 49 H, 26 R, 24 ER, 9 HR, 14 BB, 60 SO, 26.4% K%, 6% BB%, .281 BABIP, 3.98 ERA, 4.02 FIP, 4.47 xFIP, 0.5 fWAR

Fangraphs Depth Charts

55 G, 55 IP, 49 H, 25 R, 24 ER, 8 HR, 16 BB, 61 SO, 3 HBP, .301 BABIP, 3.86 ERA, 3.95 FIP, 0.5 fWAR