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The state of the bullpen

The Cardinals have arguably, the worst 2nd half bullpen in baseball, but there is reason for optimism

MLB: AUG 16 Rockies at Cardinals

Since the All-Star break, the Cardinals have gone 19-7, while outscoring their opponents by 47 runs. Just to give you some context, if they performed that way over a full season, the Cardinals would win 118 games and have a run differential of +293. That’s pretty good. The Dodgers, by the way, are currently on pace to outscore opponents by 350 runs. That is insane.

Back to the Cardinals, they have achieved this record with great offense, great defense, and great starting pitching. They are 1st in baseball in wRC+ in the 2nd half with a 144 wRC+. That’s the entire offense. This does not include yesterday, when the offense went 12-36 with six walks, a double, and a homer. I think that would probably improve the wRC+. There are 14 qualified hitters in baseball with a better wRC+. And the Cardinals are doing that as a team in the 2nd half. Some hitters the 2nd half offense has been better than: Shohei Ohtani, Pete Alonso, Vladmir Guerrero Jr..

The starting pitching hasn’t been on that same level, just because I’m pretty sure they’d be undefeated in the 2nd half if they were, but they have been good. By ERA, they rank middle of the pack with a 3.79 ERA, which is very impacted by Miles Mikolas’ 10 run blowup at Coors Field. By Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), they have the third best FIP with a 3.16 FIP. Partially because of Busch Stadium being a pitcher’s park and partially because they rank low in innings pitched (surprisingly, though I guess only Wainwright and Mikolas last deep into games... and Mikolas very much did not at Coors), they are just 7th in fWAR by the starters in the 2nd half. This will be negatively affected by Jose Quintana’s performance yesterday, but nonetheless, the starters have been pretty good.

The bullpen, on the other hand, has been one of the worst in baseball in the 2nd half. And actually, they are pretty much the worst. They are “only” 5th worst in ERA with a 4.92, but they are tied for the worst in fWAR with -0.3 fWAR. They have collectively had negative WAR. And they have thrown 22 less innings than the team they’re tied with, the Athletics, so hypothetically better pitchers have thrown more innings for the Cardinals than the Athletics.

BUT - there is good news. They rank that low, more or less, because of homers. If you strip home run luck out of the equation and use xFIP, the Cardinals have the seventh best xFIP in baseball from bullpens. The bullpen allowed 5 home runs at Coors Field, which seems to have tilted the numbers. One of those pitchers has been designated for assignment since then.

The Cardinal bullpen is a bit unclear at the moment. Ryan Helsley is high leverage option #1 and Giovanny Gallegos is high leverage option number #2. Neither has been the reason the 2nd half bullpen has been shaky. Helsley, despite two homers allowed in 10.2 IP, has a 3.03 FIP while Giovanny Gallegos has been quietly excellent with a 1.84 FIP in the 2nd half. Andre Pallante seems to have stolen high leverage option #3 from Genesis Cabrera and since Pallante has a .240 wOBA against when facing lefties, he’s pretty much the high leverage guy who facies lefties.

Although - and this is as good a place as any to post this - the right/left splits from Pallante appear fluky to me. He has basically been a completely different pitcher against left-handed batters and right-handed batters, but not necessarily in a way that suggest he’s “worse” against right-handed batters. Against lefties, he’s a control artist, striking out just 13.3% of hitters while walking 4% and against right-handed batters, he has a 20.3 K% and a 10.2% BB rate. Very strange. And the end result is a 3.34 xFIP against lefties, 3.56 against righties. The big difference is a .231 BABIP against when facing lefties, .367 against righties. This is kind of good news though. Because it more suggests not to expect him to suck against right-handed batters, and since most of the league is right-handed, it would be a real problem if he was that bad against right-handed batters.

And after those two, well, it’s open season. Genesis Cabrera has been awful in the 2nd half, being responsible for three of the homers allowed himself. He has a 7.04 ERA, 9.10 FIP, and 6.52 xFIP. And his usage has reflected this. While both Helsley and Gallegos have thrown over 10 innings in the 2nd half, Cabrera has thrown just 7.2. His former role as the de facto 7th inning guy has pretty much vanished, and even though he was used that way last night, both Helsley’s absence and the bullpen needing to throw 6.1 innings don’t really tell us he’s now trusted.

But the alternatives haven’t been great either. Jordan Hicks shows flashes of being a late inning reliever, but is just not reliable enough to want in those spots. You could get the version on Friday who struck out the side or you can get the version who didn’t record an out on Saturday. He just walks too many batters with a 15.5 BB% on the season. Packy Naughton hasn’t been used very much, but of the times he has been used, there’s no way he’s going to be trusted anytime soon. After he blew a three-run lead in the 5th inning of a game against the Reds, he just hasn’t been used very much. And I’m sure giving up a double to Charlie Blackmon to switch the score from winning to losing also didn’t help his case for higher leverage spots. Chris Stratton has just been used whenever needed, but not really high leverage.

There are hypothetically some guys in Memphis who could end up being important bullpen pieces, but given they are currently in Memphis, they are pretty far away from being high leverage trusted relievers. Kodi Whitley has a 31.8 K% and 9.1 BB% whiile not allowing an earned run in 6 innings of work since returning from injury. Zack Thompson has been terrible since returning to the minors with 5 ER in 4 innings of work. Worse, he has 6 walks to 3 strikeouts. Anyone hoping he returns - it’s probably not happening. Junior Fernandez has 6 scoreless innings with 9 strikeouts (but 4 walks). It’s not clear any of these guys will get the September call-up, but they have all been given a chance at high leverage before and could in the future.

Okay, well, this seems like a fairly normal structure for a bullpen. Clear cut 8th and 9th inning guys, a pretty reliable 7th inning guy, and then middle and long relievers of varying ability. Maybe you’d like the bullpen to be deeper if you have playoff aspirations, but hoping your starter goes 6, and then handing the ball to the three most trusted relievers is hardly the worst strategy. But it does limit them if Marmol doesn’t trust anyone else, perhaps making him hesitate to have a quick hook.

Who do the Cardinals have that can perhaps take over from the starter and maybe throw a couple innings to bridge the gap? Perhaps someone who is typically a starter? I mean I am describing Andre Pallante, but there are two other guys, currently injured, who seem well on their way to returning to the majors before the season is over: Jack Flaherty and Steven Matz.

While Flaherty is currently starting in AAA and is expected to take over Hudson’s spot, he would seem to be on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoff rotation. We get a month to see if Flaherty should be starting playoff games. Just imagine Montgomery being left off the playoff rotation after getting traded to the Cardinals because the Yankees couldn’t find a spot for him in theirs. Of course, if he pitches like he has, he is absolutely making the playoff rotation but then, you leave Quintana off? Let’s hope all the Cards’ starter make this a difficult decision, come October.

While Flaherty has a fighting chance of making a playoff rotation, Matz doesn’t really. I don’t think he has time. What he does have a chance of doing is making an impression in the bullpen. Now I know what you might be thinking. But why would I want Matz in the bullpen? Two things really: Matz’s peripheral stats are way better than his ERA, indicating that if he continued to pitch like he was, his ERA would inevitably drop. He has struck out 27.4% of batters and walked 4.8%. Pick an advanced stat, it’s probably good: 3.94 FIP, 3.74 xERA, 3.02 xFIP, 3.12 SIERA. Second thing: starters pitch better in the bullpen. Not every starter does, but collectively a starter who is limited to facing batters the first time through the order is better than if he has to face them three times. His stuff his sharper, his fastball is harder, etc. And just in general, starters are in fact better the first time through the order than the next two times.

So Matz has a real chance of being an elite reliever. While I want Flaherty to be able to start, doesn’t the idea of having Flaherty in the bullpen sound really, really awesome? With the length that both Matz and Flaherty could go, suddenly they don’t really need anything from Hicks or Cabrera or Naughton. This will never, ever happen, but use the starter the first two times through the order, Matz or Flaherty the third time through, and then depending on how much game is left, Helsley or Gallegos. And you could do this strategy with Pallante too.

Hypothetically this could be your bullpen: Helsley, Gallegos, Pallante, Matz, Flaherty - I can’t really imagine either Cabrera or Hicks not being included, and then the 8th guy would be....Stratton? Naughton? Probably depends on the opponent. A team that’s bad against lefties would probably include three lefties in the bullpen, so Naughton. A right-handed heavy team would have no need for three lefties.

So if you worried about the bullpen, just have some faith that they could actually be well set up for the playoffs if Flaherty and Matz can emerge as options.