The St. Louis Cardinals’ pitching staff is third in the majors in walk rate at 11.0%. It is one of just three teams who walks 11% of more of the batters it faces, with only the Angels (11.1%) and the Reds (11.2%) walking a higher percentage of batters. This is certainly not a good thing for the Cardinals, and it is something that must be improved if the team wants to become more consistent on the mound.
Part of the problem is that Daniel Ponce de Leon and John Gant both needed to start the season in the rotation. Ponce de Leon has posted a walk rate of 13.2% so far this season, while Gant’s rate has been even higher at 17.9%. These are two pitchers that are better positioned in the bullpen than in the rotation. Thus, it is likely that Gant’s walk rate has increased due to him trying to nibble too much around the edges and his arm not being used to the workload.
Last season, Gant posted an 11.5% walk rate which is still high, but is workable for a reliever. Since he has moved to the rotation, Gant has seen his average fastball velocity drop by over three miles per hour. As a result, he may be trying to be too precise with his pitches instead of attacking hitters like he would out of the bullpen. This season, Gant is throwing fewer pitches in the strike zone (47.4% in 2021, 52.1% in 2020). Additionally, he is throwing fewer first pitch strikes. Throughout his career, the right-hander has average a first pitch strike rate of 60% and even reached 70.5% last season. This season, however, Gant has just a 54.5% first pitch strike rate, which is well below the league average rate of 60.5%.
Thus, it is clear that Gant has simply stopped throwing the ball in the zone as much. Whether this is due to him losing his control, or whether it is due to him nibbling around the strike zone too much, he needs to throw more strikes. This is likely something that will improve when he returns to the bullpen.
Besides Gant, the rest of the rotation has solid control. Both Jack Flaherty and Adam Wainwright have walk rates of just 6.7%, while Kwan Hyun Kim’s walk rate is even lower at 5.3%. Carlos Martinez has the second highest walk rate in the rotation at just 8.0%, which puts him in the 55th percentile. Thus, the only real problem in the rotation, in terms of walks, is Gant.
It is a different story in the bullpen, however, as the Cardinals’ bullpen has the second highest walk rate in baseball at 14.1%, behind only the Reds (14.3%). The relievers with the highest walk rates are Alex Reyes (18.6%), Ryan Helsley (13.8%), Tyler Webb (22.4%), and Jordan Hicks (22.7%). In fact, the only active relievers with a walk rate below 10% are Giovanny Gallegos (5.6%) and Seth Elledge (0.0% in 2 1⁄3 innings).
This can be problematic for the Cardinals. Such a high walk rate as a unit does not give the bullpen much room for error. As a whole, the bullpen has been able to overcome this by limiting opposing hitters to just a .191 batting average, which has allowed the bullpen to be 13th in WHIP (1.30). However, the unit has allowed a .252 BABIP, which means that hitters could start to see more success at the plate as BABIP typically hovers around .300, although there can be some exceptions.
Between Gallegos, Reyes, Hicks, Helsley, and Cabrera, the Cardinals have a young stable of flamethrowers who are all capable of missing bats and collecting outs. This allows them to work out of jams effectively, and has helped the Cardinals bullpen post the ninth best FIP in the MLB (3.73). Despite this, the unit needs to improve its control. It has performed well, but it could potentially be even better if it could stop walking hitters at such a high rate. Such a high amount of walks makes it dangerous for the Cardinals, especially when the bullpen is tasked with protecting a lead.
The starting rotation was shaky to begin the season, but it has since stabilized. Now the Cardinals’ bullpen needs to find the strike zone more consistently so the young, flame-throwing relievers can fully demonstrate how effective they can be. If they cannot begin to find the strike zone more consistently, then such a high amount of walks will hurt the Cardinals in some games, especially if opposing hitters can begin batting above .200 against the Cardinals’ bullpen.