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Cardinals 2020 Player Preview: Will Tyler Webb be a Three-Batter Rule Casualty?

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St Louis Cardinals Photo Day Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Cards acquired lefty Tyler Webb on an outright assignment waiver claim from the San Diego Padres on June 29th, 2018. He was originally drafted by the New York Yankees in the 10th round of the 2013 draft as a 22-year old out of the University of South Carolina. He rocketed up the system at first, promoted to AAA in July of 2014, but he seemed to stall there for a while. Left unprotected in the December 2016 Rule 5 draft, the Pittsburgh Pirates selected him in the major league portion, but returned him to the Yankees before the regular season started.

After a strong showing in his 4th spin with AAA in 2017, the Yankees added him to their 40-man roster in late June then traded him to the Milwaukee Brewers in July for Garrett Cooper after he had pitched 7 mostly uneventful games. The Brewers optioned him after he pitched 2 games in which he gave up a grand slam and 5 singles in only 2 IP. The rest of his 2017 season represented a small sample, but he posted the worst K rate of his minor league career and the worst BB rate since 2013. For the most part before that, Webb had been a strikeout machine, striking out 30% of the hitters he faced on a regular basis.

Optioned to start the 2018 season, the Brewers designated him for assignment before he could ever pitch in AAA, and the Padres claimed him on waivers in early April, optioning him to their AAA club. Webb struggled again in his chances in the majors, giving up 2 HR, 3 BB, 7 ER and 6 H in just 5 IP before the Padres decided to cut bait, designating him for assignment to make room for Robert Stock, the former Cardinal catcher prospect who had converted to pitching. The Cardinals claimed Webb on waivers because he had struck out 30% of the batters he faced in AAA that year and the club really had nothing in the pipeline as far as left-handed relief other than Austin Gomber, who had been torched by lefties in 2018 and was preferred as a starter. Tyler Lyons and Brett Cecil were also struggling. Not necessarily expected to contribute immediately, the club figured he could at least serve as AAA depth.

On July 27th, 2018, the Cards engaged in a massive bullpen shakeup. Both Greg Holland and Tyler Lyons were designated for assignment, Cecil went on the disabled list with foot inflammation and Sam Tuivailala was traded to the Mariners for Seth Elledge. Webb was recalled from AAA as part of the re-tooled bullpen. After just 1 game in which he allowed no baserunners, Webb was optioned to give newly-acquired lefty Chasen Shreve a try, as Shreve was out of options. But Webb was back as part of a 9-man pen before he could even pitch with Memphis, as Carlos Martinez couldn’t shake an injured shoulder. Shildt put Webb in the mix immediately, sometimes for two innings at a time, and he pitched well in 6 games before being set down when Cecil was activated from the disabled list on August 15th. Recalled to the majors when rosters expanded on September 1st, Webb pitched in 12 more games the rest of the season. His strikeout and walk rates were not what they were in the minors, and he allowed more hits than innings pitched, but he managed to at least keep the ball in the yard.

Although Webb had 1 option remaining in 2019, it was Chasen Shreve whom the Cards designated for assignment to start the year to make room for Matt Wieters on the 40-man roster. Webb was the final player optioned before the season, as the Cards elected to go with Andrew Miller as the sole lefty in the pen, believing that Alex Reyes, Dominic Leone and John Brebbia could handle getting lefties out from the right side. But Webb was recalled after only 10 days had elapsed in the regular season when Alex Reyes faltered.

Webb struggled for the first month of the season, but with Brett Cecil out for the whole year and Austin Gomber out for most of it, Webb remained a trusted lefty in Shildt’s 2019 bullpen except for one brief period. During the All-Star Break, Webb burned his last option while Shildt & Co. decided to give Chasen Shreve another chance. Webb’s main problem was his performance against righties, allowing a .239/.373/.500 slash line, 3 out of his 4 HRs and 11 BB to only 10 SO, and the worst overall walk rate on the staff at the time. During his time in Memphis after being outrighted, Shreve had performed the best among the Memphis lefties by far, and did well against right-handed batters. On July 21st, Webb came back when the Cards optioned Ryan Helsley to get a fresh arm for the big club. Two days later, Shreve became a victim of a roster crunch and was designated for assignment when the club had to activate Mike Mayers from the 60-day IL. Webb’s having an option remaining might have been the thing that saved him, but he lasted as the 2nd lefty out of the pen and pitched 65 games for the Cards in 2019.

Webb’s Future With the 3-Batter Rule—Is He Just a LOOGY?

Although Webb’s strikeout rates have not been as high in the majors as they were in the minors, he has always done well at retiring lefties, allowing only a .187/.272/.342 slash line against them. He’s faced almost an equal amount of righties in his career, and his numbers aren’t disgusting with a .238/.333/.429 slash line. His OBP allowed against righties are skewed in a small sample of 173 PA because he has 5 intentional walks against right-handers. If you strip intentional walks out of the equation, Webb has allowed 15 unintentional walks to lefties in 174 PA and 16 unintentional walks to righties in 173 PA. The difference in his slash line ultimately amounts to two fewer doubles against lefties but two more homers against righties. His career BABIP splits are .202 allowed against lefties and .257 against righties. There’s an argument to be made that at least in his career, he’s arguably the same pitcher against either side, and he’s struck out lefties and righties at an equal clip.

The career numbers mirror 2019 to a large degree. Shildt let Webb face an almost equal number of righties last season, and the numbers were very close: .157/.252/.265 vs. lefties over 115 PA and .189/.279/.400 vs. righties over 106 PA. There’s an argument to be made that Webb was unusually lucky last season, as his BABIP allowed against lefties was only .189, and an astonishingly low .179 against righties. But other than an additional 3 homers allowed vs righties, he was basically the same pitcher, so he was lucky from both sides. At least last season, Webb limited hard contact, as out of 436 pitchers with at least 100 batted ball events, Webb limited hitters to an average exit velocity of 85.9 mph. This was 36th best in baseball out of that group, and the best of the Cardinals’ staff. Webb didn’t have Andrew Miller’s strikeout rate, but he allowed fewer walks and home runs than Miller did in an almost identical number of innings pitched. Based on his raw usage, Webb was not a LOOGY.

Although Webb faced almost as many righties as he did lefties last season, and performed similarly against both sides, it is still instructive to examine Shildt’s usage of Webb in 2019 and how that might be impacted by the new three-batter rule. Ben Clemens from Fangraphs wrote a very fine piece here, the central thesis of which was that the three-batter rule barely matters. Interestingly, however, if one considers Ben’s criteria for “Short Relief Appearances”—which he defined as appearances before September 1st that resulted in 2 or fewer batters faced where a plate appearance occurred after that pitcher’s exit but in the same half-inning—the Cardinals had the fourth most such appearances in baseball with 29.

No Cardinal had as many as 10 “Short Relief Appearances” using Ben’s criteria, but out of Webb’s 65 games pitched, he faced two batters or less in 22 of those games. In 13 of those games, Shildt used Webb in a manner that would now be barred by the rules. While the rule change won’t appreciably change the pace of play, Shildt will have to use Webb a little bit differently than he did last year. The most interesting challenge Shildt will face is the following type of scenario: Webb faces one batter to end an inning against the Reds, but Shildt wants him to come out for the start of the next inning and face Joey Votto, who is followed by Eugenio Suarez in the order. If he brings Webb out to face Votto, he must resign himself to Webb facing Suarez. Depending on staffs and matchups, you may see some clubs be even more careful against stacking lefties and righties in the order than they otherwise would have been.

Webb, who tops out at about 90 mph on his fastball with a curveball and changeup, is out of options and has Austin Gomber and Genesis Cabrera on his heels for left-handed competition in the bullpen. If the 3-batter rule does not convince Shildt to have a true long-reliever on the staff to start the season, you can expect both Gomber and Cabrera to start the season in Memphis to get stretched out as starters. As of right now, I don’t expect Webb to get squeezed out on LOOGY grounds. PECOTA doesn’t buy the BABIP and projects Webb to have a better strikeout rate, but to be much more hittable overall, to the point where he’s worse than league average. ZiPS actually predicts Webb to improve his strikeout rate, lower his walk rate and be more valuable overall than he was last year.

2019 Statistics

65 Games, 55 IP, 221 BF, 33 H, 23 R, 23 ER, 7 HR, 20 UBB, 2 HBP, 48 SO, .184 BABIP, 3.76 ERA, 4.44 FIP, 3.99 DRA, 0.1 WARP

2020 Projections

PECOTA

48 Games, 50 IP, 213 BF, 47 H, 9 HR, 17 BB, 2 HBP, 45 SO, .275 BABIP, 4.18 ERA, 4.86 FIP, 5.30 DRA, 0.1 WARP

ZiPS

60 Games, 58 IP, 53 H, 29 R, 27 ER, 7 HR, 21 UBB, 3 HBP, 57 SO, .302 BABIP, 4.19 ERA, 4.16 FIP, 0.4 fWAR

Steamer

50 Games, 50 IP, 216 BF, 48 H, 26 R, 24 ER, 7 HR, 20 BB, 2 HBP, 47 SO, .291 BABIP, 4.29 ERA, 4.54 FIP, 0.1 fWAR

Fangraphs Depth Charts

50 Games, 50 IP, 47 H, 25 R, 24 ER, 7 HR, 20 BB, 2 HBP, 48 SO, .302 BABIP, 4.24 ERA, 4.35 FIP, 0.1 fWAR