Good morning, Viva El Birdos!
This week, I dropped my oldest off for his freshman year at Mizzou – go Tigers, I guess – and that’s pretty much consumed my attention. Today, I’ve got a quick read for you on this beautiful Saturday morning in the Midwest.
We’ve ooh’ed and aah’ed over his improved fastball velocity and K rates. He’s risen from tantalizing talent to in-the-conversation as the league’s best reliever.
And now he’s about to become (or already is) a new dad! All of Viva El Birdos says congrats! (Because I’m sure you’re reading us from the maternity ward.)
Entering his paternity leave, Helsley has a .91 ERA, a 1.79 FIP, and 2.0 fWAR on the season. That ERA ranks first among qualified relievers. His FIP is 5th. His fWAR total is tied for second with Devin Williams. And both of the NL Central relievers trail Edwin Diaz of the Mets at 2.4 fWAR.
Helsley’s underlying peripherals support those minuscule ERAs and FIPs. His K/9 is 13.05; he strikes out 40% of the batters that he faces. His BB/9 is just 2.36 or 7.2%. Those are all very good numbers and ratios.
Surprisingly, Helsley isn’t leading the league in K’s. Edwin Diaz has an absurd 17.88 K/9 – a 52.5% K rate. Josh Hader, Devin Williams, Andrews Munoz, and Bryan Abreu are all ahead of Helsley in K/9.
The fact that Helsley is only near the top of the league in relief stats this season is going to make the rest of this conversation a bit odd. Because you can make a very strong argument that Helsley is having the best season of any Cardinals reliever ever.
Let’s look into it!
I went to Fangraphs and created a custom leaderboard for Cardinals relievers from 1900 through today. Baseball has changed a lot in the last 120 years so I knew this would give us some funky results. Simply put, comparing players from totally different eras is a difficult task. Still, we can give it a shot on a lazy Saturday.
Now, what stats do we use? Because reliever use and pitching itself have changed so much, we should probably use a combination of different stats and then top it off with a perfectly subjective cherry. You’re free to have your own opinion here! I’ll do the same.
Let’s start with ERA. Even though offense is down this season, we are still in a hitter’s age relative to, say, the dead ball era. Or even the pre-steroids era of the 80s. A low ERA in 2022 would be harder to achieve than the same low ERA in 1982. Or 1912.
It doesn’t matter, though, because Helsley wins in any era. His 0.91 ERA is the lowest ERA by a qualified relief pitcher in Cardinals’ history.
He even has some room to fall. The next closest is Joe Hoerner in 1968. And then Hoerner against in 1966. Bruce Sutter is 5th (4th technically, because I’m removing Andre Pallante and his 37 relief innings this season) at 1.54.
Take a moment to bask in the glory of that data point. Ryan Helsley has a 60-point ERA lead on Bruce Sutter’s best ERA season with the Cardinals.
Of course, Sutter did that in 122 innings compared to Helsley’s 49 but that’s the company Helsley is keeping in terms of runs allowed.
Earlier I mentioned that comparing ERAs between eras is difficult. What if we stuck with comparing each era against itself? This is where ERA- (or + at Baseball Reference) comes in. ERA- compares a player’s ERA to the league average that season, demonstrating how much above or below it ranks based on a 100 scale. In this case, since it’s – instead of +, the lower the number the better.
Helsley’s ERA-? 23.
100 is average.
Is that the lowest in Cardinals’ history? You betcha. Next up (again, ignoring Pallante) is a 42 from Steve Kline in ’01 and ’04. Sutter was at 43 in ’84.
Let’s move to strikeouts. Back on another site at another time, I wrote a similar article about Trevor Rosenthal. (There’s a cautionary tale in there about reliever volatility over time.) I have also heaped some praise on Genesis Cabrera back in ’20 for his ridiculously high K rate in a very low sample size.
Heslely is topping them but it’s close. His 13.05 K/9 is just barely above Rosenthal’s 12.90 in ’13 over 75 innings. Genesis Cabrera tied Rosenthal. The rest of that leaderboard is filled with relievers from the last few years in what we should probably call the “Strikeout Era”. Alex Reyes, Seunghwan Oh, Andrew Miller, Tyler Lyons, and Giovanny Gallegos are high on that list.
The highest bygone player is Mark Littell. 1978. Littell was ahead of his time!
Best ERA. Best K rate.
Counting stats are hard to use here since Helsley’s season is not over yet and usage has changed so much. Even a stat like WAR, which Fangraphs calculates back for every player ever, is going to be weighted toward heavy innings usage.
If we project Helsley’s WAR forward based on his innings so far, he would end up with a 2.6 fWAR in about 64 IPs.
The highest fWAR total for any Cardinals reliever is exactly that. 2.6 fWAR from Lindy McDaniel in 1960. McDaniel threw 116.1 innings that season and was exceptional, finishing with a 2.09 ERA and a 52 ERA-. So, he’s on pace to tie the fWAR record and to do so in much fewer innings.
Helsley falls off the list in other categories. His walk totals are impressive for a player with his velocity but there are too many relievers from ages gone who didn’t walk anyway. They didn’t really K anyone either. It’s Helsley’s combination of Ks and BBs that matters.
Same with home run rate. There’s a slew of Cardinals relievers who didn’t allow a single homerun for their entire season. That includes Jason Isringhausen, who surely earned at least one mention in this article.
Speaking of Izzy, what about saves? Well, Helsley wasn’t the closer for much of the season and even now the Cardinals are using a by-committee approach (as they should). So that completely pointless stat is either not applicable or a major argument against him.
Please don’t use saves to evaluate relievers historically.
There was one final stat I wanted to look at – fastball velocity. Now, we don’t have that data for older eras and velocity has been increasing across the board in just the last decade alone. Still, Helsley ranks second in 4-seam fastball velocity in a single season at 99.4 mph. He trails only Jordan Hicks, who averaged 100.5 mph in ’18.
He has Rosenthal beat by 2 full miles per hour.
Remember how hard Jason Motte threw? He was nearly 3 mph slower than Hesley on average!
Amazing. And to do it with such command of the strike zone? Helsley is disgusting.
Where does that leave us?
Well by the way that we prefer to measure relievers today, Helsley’s 2022 season is at or near the top of the list.
Among the other relievers of this era – the easiest to compare – he certainly rises above the best from Oh and Rosenthal. Gallegos, too.
What about previous eras? If you were raised in the LaRussa age and prefer saves and ninth-inning only arms, you’re going to tick Helsley down a lot.
If you’re old-school, you’re probably disappointed in Helsley’s innings totals and usage. And you might not care much about the things Helsley does so well – like generate Ks and throw the ball really, really hard with impressive command.
Putting it all together, though, it’s hard for me not to see Helsley’s 2022 as the best single season from a reliever in Cardinals’ history. So far. Sutter and a few others a very close, so Helsley needs to finish strong.
If you disagree or find other stats to consider, post them down in the comments! This is the “Ryan Helsley Appreciation Thread”, after all.
That’s it for me! TLDR: Helsley’s the best! Let’s hope he keeps it going for the rest of the season. I’m off to smoke some ribs. Happy Saturday, Viva El Birdos. Mine will be.