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Who Should Close?

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The Cardinals are heading to camp without a set closer. Do they need one? Who should it be? How should the club order bullpen roles?

Philadelphia Phillies v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Let’s start with that one image that all of us have been waiting to see:

(Deep breath.)

Can’t you smell that green grass through your tablet screen? We have 10-inches of snow on the ground, but somewhere on a planet south of here, the Cardinals’ pitchers are throwing baseballs to the Cardinals’ catchers in 70-degree sunshine. Mitts are popping. Mike Maddux is hugging people. Mike Shildt is trying to figure out how Tommy Edman can play 2nd, the OF, and pitch at the same time. Andrew Knizner is re-introducing himself to Yadier Molina (who swears the two have never met.)

Spring training is here. There is much rejoicing.

Spring is the time that we make a huge deal out of meaningless and insignificant questions. Like who is wearing what number? How will Mike Shannon pronounce Matt Szczur? Why is John Gant trending on Twitter? And who will be the primary closer?

Yes, that last question is nearly as meaningless as the others.

Traditional long/short/closer roles have become increasingly blurred in major league bullpens. The Cardinals have followed suit, with notable success. In 2019, 9 players recorded saves. 2020 was an odd season from a pitcher-usage standpoint but seven different arms recorded saves in just 58 games. Mike Shildt hasn’t been shy about using whoever was available or hot to finish games off.

That might make one wonder why this is titled: “who should close?” Considering the modern approach to bullpen management, maybe a better question is “why does there need to be a closer?”

There doesn’t. Runs scored in the ninth inning don’t count for any more than runs in the 4th inning. Pressure might seem a bit higher, with the crowd standing and cheering in anticipation of a win, but pitchers don’t reach the majors with weak constitutions.

Stuff plays. Stuff wins.

That said, the Cardinals will have to pitch someone in the ninth inning and the official scorer is going to award that money-making “save” stat to whoever that person is. The “closer”, like “number one starter” or “cleanup hitter”, is a role that carries prestige and recognition of performance.

Just like a “cleanup” hitter can hit 2nd or 3rd or a number one starter might not always throw at the beginning of a series, the closer role can be a title bestowed without necessarily guaranteeing three outs in a specific inning.

The Cardinals are reporting to camp without a set closer. They have several players who have held the title in the recent past, and a few others whose performance could earn them the label.

We have a simple purpose today: let’s take an in-depth look at the top candidates for the job, evaluate them, declare an on-paper winner, and decide how the rest of the bullpen falls out. That’s a tall task for my self-imposed 1500 word count, so on to it!

Here we have a Fangraphs custom search that includes essential relief stats since 2018 for the top ten Cardinals bullpen arms. It does not include players who might break camp but don’t have enough MLB innings to provide meaningful statistics (like Kodi Whitely, who could emerge as a very dark horse closer candidate by season’s end). Using these stats, let’s pick a closer.

Dominican Republic v Panama - Semifinal Serie del Caribe 2021 Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images

CARLOS MARTINEZ

Who has the most saves on the Cardinals since 2018? The header and corresponding image give away the answer. Due to injury and a variety of other issues, Carlos Martinez has spent significant time in the bullpen. When he’s been out there, he’s quickly claimed the closer role for himself.

That’s vital information for our driving query. Martinez is entering camp with an undefined role. After losing the 2020 season to COVID, Martinez spent the winter pitching in the Dominican. He looked relatively sharp against the equivalent of AA/AAA hitters, which is a good sign in his bid to rejoin the rotation. However, there is no guarantee that’s where he’ll end up, especially with Alex Reyes, Johan Oviedo, and Daniel Ponce de Leon pushing him. If Martinez isn’t healthy or isn’t clearly better than these younger challengers, he may get bumped to the bullpen again.

That’s not a bad thing. There’s a reason Martinez finds himself in the closer role when he’s not in the rotation: he’s a terrific reliever. In 2018-19 Martinez accumulated 66.2 relief innings and allowed a 2.70/2.87 ERA/FIP. His K numbers are good-enough in relief, and though he’s walked more than one might like, most of that damage was limited to 2018 – when his BB rates were higher than at any other point in his career.

Martinez would certainly rather be starting. If he does end up in the pen, though, his ability to go multiple innings and perform against lefties and righties would be very useful.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images

JORDAN HICKS

The chart above doesn’t do justice to Jordan Hicks’ stats. Hicks arrived as a 21-year-old who had not thrown a pitch above A+. His 100+ mph sinker was too enticing to hold down, and the Cardinals gave up on his future as a starter to rush him to the majors as a closer-candidate. In 2018, he was more highlight reel than elite production. That changed in 2019 when the sophomore reliever added nearly 1.6 K/9 and cut 1.8 off his BB/9. That’s a tremendous improvement for a still 22-year-old. He had a well-earned 3.14/3.21 ERA/FIP that season before ruining his elbow.

Hicks probably enters camp as the odds-on-favorite to earn the closer title in 2021.

According to new MLB.com Cardinals reporter Zachary Silver, Mike Shildt said it was “too early” to think about the closer role this spring but did note that Jordan Hicks was “back and looking healthy”, though the club will monitor his workload. It’s no coincidence that Shildt responded to a question about the closer with a reference to Hicks. While Martinez might have the most saves, only injury has kept Hicks from owning the role for himself.

Questions will follow Hicks all spring about his recovery. However, after opting out of the 2020 season, it has been nearly 19 months since he had Tommy John. There probably is not much reason to be concerned about either his velocity or command. While Hicks was a stater in the low minors, concerns about his recovery will probably limit him to shorter outings for most of this season.

St Louis Cardinals v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

GIOVANNY GALLEGOS

Giovanny Gallegos has quietly been one of the best relievers in baseball over the last two seasons. Yes, it’s true. Gallegos only has 6 saves as a Cardinals, but since 2018, he has a 2.69/3.03 ERA/FIP with a K/9 over 11 and a BB/9 in the low 2’s. He has a K/BB ratio over 5 for two consecutive seasons. He ranks in the top 10 in baseball among relievers with at least 70 IP over the last two years in FIP, K/BB ratio, and fWAR.

This past season, when he had COVID, Gallegos still had a 37% K rate. That’s the 5th highest K rate from a Cardinal reliever (including small sample sizes) in team history. Did I mention that he doesn’t walk anyone either? Cardinals fans – rightly – like low-stress high-leverage innings. The best way to get that is to have a pitcher who generates a ridiculous number of strikeouts while not walking anyone. If that’s what you want from a “closer”, then Gio is the guy.

That skillset might also why Gallegos has not been used much in the ninth inning. Shildt has gone to him early and often and has asked him to throw a lot of multi-inning outings. If a starter or reliever gets into trouble, Shildt sagely turns to Gallegos to bail the club out. That role doesn’t come with much glitz, but it’s exactly how a manager should use a talented, do-it-all reliever.

OTHER CANDIDATES: ALEX REYES & ANDREW MILLER

Don’t let the chart above fool you about Alex Reyes. His stats are pulled way down by short, disastrous outings in both ’18 and ’19. In ’20, Reyes was dominant. He K’ed over 12 batters per 9. He only allowed 1 HR. He gave up a ton of weak contact. He earned his 3.20 ERA and corresponding FIP.

He also BB’ed over 6 batters per 9 innings. He’s definitely in the conversation for closer, but the walks are worth watching. He also needs to continue building arm strength for a hoped-for return to the rotation. The best use of Reyes this season is keeping him stretched out with multi-inning outings and spot starts.

The veteran Miller had a resurgent season in ’20, cutting his BB total and rediscovering his ability to eliminate HRs. He had an excellent 2.77/2.58 FIP/ERA. Still, with age and inconsistency in his recent past, Miller is probably best suited now as a lefty-specialist, who could take a full inning when necessary. I would not hesitate to use him in the ninth if the opponent had stacked lefties.

WHO SHOULD CLOSE?

The Cardinals have the opportunity to use the best parts of both the traditional and modern approaches to bullpen management. Their best reliever is Gio Gallegos, who has served as one of the best “firemen” – come in when needed, get lots of outs – in the league. That’s working. The Cardinals should keep doing that. Meanwhile, Jordan Hicks might need his outings controlled as the club evaluates his recovery from surgery. Perfect. Make him a one-inning reliever and make that inning the 9th.

The rest of the bullpen can fall into line. I would order a 10-man (8 active) bullpen in this way, dividing usage into short (1-3 outs) and long (4-6 outs) and high and low leverage outings.

High-leverage long outings: Gallegos, Reyes

High-leverage short/specialty outings: Hicks (closer), Miller, Helsley

Low-leverage long outings: Cabrera, Gant, Ponce (AAA)

Low-leverage short outings: Webb, Whitely (AAA)

With a talented and deep bullpen, these categorizations are pretty flexible. Take Whitely, as an example. He probably won’t make the active roster, but if injuries become a problem, I could see him stepping into a high leverage short inning role, including closer. He doesn’t walk anyone. He doesn’t give up HRs. He generated significant K’s out of the bullpen in the high minors. He’s basically John Brebbia. He’s one to watch this spring.

Update: Skyric informs me that Ponce is out of options. I like Ponce as a spot starter and wanted him stretched out to fill a rotation spot as needed. The Cards will have to cycle through more than 5 starters, and Ponce should be high on the list of alternatives. Since he can’t be in AAA, then I would switch him with Cabrera to accomplish the same purpose. Or the club could carry 14 pitchers, but I would prefer a 13-13 alignment.