We are currently living in a world where JoJo Romero might be the St. Louis Cardinals best lefty reliever. Yes, that’s the same guy with a career 6.93 ERA who began his Cardinals career in Memphis.
Now, keep in mind, this is a team that returned T.J. McFarland (2.56 ERZ, 3.79 FIP in 2021) and Genesis Cabrera (3.73 ERA, 3.28 FIP in 2021) and had plenty of left-handed pitching in Triple-A.
Now McFarland has been released and re-signed on a minor league deal and Genesis Cabrera has recently joined him in Memphis after being one of the worst pitchers in the league according to fWAR.
A team that looked good, or at least fine, coming into the year now has no established lefty to rely on in the bullpen. As a result, the team ranks 23 in the majors in ERA and FIP from left-handers in the bullpen.
I don’t want to be all doom and gloom in this article because this also isn’t a world in which the Cardinals are bad. Quite the opposite in fact. They hold a 6-game division lead at the time of this writing.
So, I’ll examine how we got here, how things might improve, and where help might come from. Let’s get to it.
How We Got Here
Coming into the season, I don’t think anyone expected the Cardinals to have elite left-handed pitching options. Still, the expectation seemed to be that the options would at least be above average.
In 2021, T.J. McFarland was a double-play fiend and Genesis Cabrera finally delivered on his tantalizing potential. Beyond that, Matthew Liberatore (a lefty) was the team’s top pitching prospect, and Connor Thomas and Zack Thompson were both in Memphis
Prior to the season, Packy Naughton was new to the organization.
Sure there were some doubts about some of these options. Is McFarland really that good? Can Liberatore help? Will any of the other options emerge?
At the very least, even if everything else fails, Genesis Cabrera can still hold down the fort, right?
Well, that obviously wasn’t the case. Let’s take a look at some individuals and see how the bullpen lefties have disappointed.
Every discussion of lefty underperformance needs to begin with T.J. McFarland because, boy, did he disappoint. I’m sure some of you didn’t think he would repeat his 2021 performance, but if you’re telling me you expected a 6.61 ERA then you’re lying.
This year, McFarland’s groundball rate dropped 10%, his left on base rate dropped over 20%, and his home run rate doubled. That’s a good recipe for a collapse.
There’s a key reason for that. He stopped throwing changeups and started throwing beach balls. Okay, fine, I’m joking. I think. Really, his stuff just isn’t that good. He started throwing more pitches in the zone this year and fewer pitches on the edge and that came back to bite him.
He’s not a guy who lives in the zone. He’s like Jose Quintana. He needs to nibble around the edges and gets chases.
Everything cratered this year for McFarland. His chase rate dropped 4% and his pitches in the zone got punished. His sinker allowed a .375 wOBA but that’s nothing compared to his changeup.
McFarland’s changeup allowed a whopping .577 wOBA. Basically, that means you start with Paul Goldschmidt and add another 130 points of wOBA and then you have the average hitter against McFarland’s changeup.
If only Goldy could have played against McFarland instead of with him then he might already have the Triple Crown locked up.
McFarland was simply bad, There’s no other way to put it. Even the word bad may be too kind.
I wrote about Cabrera on Tuesday so I’ll keep this short. If you want a more detailed piece about his struggles, then you can go read that here.
To summarize...his velocity is down, his spin rates are down, and his movement is down. That’s already bad. To make things worse, he’s throwing his fastball further down in the zone than he did last year. I think that’s a mistake. Low fastballs don’t tunnel well with big curveballs.
His home run rate has skyrocketed, and that’s probably from a combiantion of these changes, inconsistent changeup command and bad luck.
Again, if you want to read more about these things and you haven’t done so yet, then go read the article I linked above.
Cabrera has been the real problem. Sure, McFarland was terrible this year but Cabrera was supposed to be the guy. He was supposed to be the guy that comes into playoff games to face big lefty hitters. That’s clearly not the case
He was supposed to be the guy who keeps it together even if other lefties falter. He was the one worth 1.2 fWAR last season after all. Other pitchers had some warning flags but Cabrera had the best stuff of any of them. He was supposed to be the high leverage lefty. Lefty no. 1. A shutdown option.
His decline hurts the most. Even if he couldn’t replicate last season, a 5.63 FIP is catastrophic. With him and McFarland faltering, it’s really ground zero for the Cardinals. They need to build a whole new lefty reliever depth chart.
Packy Naughton was one of those building blocks for a long time. In fact, for a while, he looked like the Cardinals best lefty. Then his ERA ballooned to 5.14 after a few bad outings. And by a few bad outings, I mean 7 earned runs in his last five appearances.
That’s a tough stretch, but I’m not convinced he’s a bad option. All of his peripheral numbers are still strong.
He has a 3.16 FIP, 3.23 xFIP, 5% walk rate, above average strikeout rate, and good batted ball data.
He may be going through a rocky stretch but I’m really not too concerned about him. Still, a 5.14 ERA isn’t super helpful to a bullpen that needs lefties who can get outs.
I expect Naughton will be back in September, but for now he’s in Triple-A Memphis whil;e the Cardinals roll with two guys who weren’t on the Opening Day roster.
How Things Might Improve
McFarland, Cabrera, and Naughton are the top three lefties in terms of innings pitches this year. They have combined for 105 1⁄3 innings pitched. In those innings, they have a 5.38 ERA and -0.8 fWAR. Baseball Reference’s WAR calculation is less kind, giving the trio -1.3 WAR.
That’s the problem. Two of those options look lost. Naughton still looks fine. Regardless, it’s clear that the bullpen needs someone (or more than one) to step up and get outs from the left side.
Right now, the left-handed options in the bullpen are JoJo Romero and Zack Thompson. Romero has a 6.93 career ERA and Thompson made his MLB debut earlier this season. Combined, the pair have thrown just 46 2⁄3 career innings at the major league level.
At the beginning of the season, this is certainly not what I expected the left-handed depth chart to look like heading into September. Yet, that doesn’t mean these are bad options.
I was hopeful when the Cardinals traded for Romero. Generally when a team trades a player who is close to being DFA’d, they don’t get much in return. Usually those trades bring back a warm body and not much else.
Edmundo Sosa felt like a DFA candidate at the time of his trade, so I think most people expected Romero to be just a warm body. His career stats didn’t do much to change that perception.
I think he can be much better than that, though. This is what I said at the time of the trade.
JoJo Romero is an interesting arm. He gets decent rise on his four-seamer, good run on his sinker, and looks to have good two-plane movement on his slider.— Blake Newberry (@bt_newberry) July 30, 2022
He's still only 25 and has yet to put things at the MLB level. I like the arsenal and I'm excited to see what he can do.
Mainly, it’s the quality of his individual pitches that gives me hope. It remains to be seen how well his pitches complement each other (which arguably matters more), but I still like what he can offer.
After the trade, Romero made two appearances in Memphis and got a great review from Kyle Reis, who watches the minor leagues closely.
JoJo Romero has looked incredible in the very small sample of 3 IP for Memphis.— Kyle Reis (@kyler416) August 19, 2022
Then JoJo Romero threw three outstanding innings in his first two appearances with the Redbirds. He certainly looks like he could be a contributor down the stretch.
Now, before I go any further, I want to point out that there should be a massive small sample size warning plastered on JoJo Romero right now. He still has a ton to prove before he can be considered a reliable bullpen option.
As we all know, relievers are volatile and it takes more than a few good outings for someone to establish himself. I mean, just look at Genesis Cabrera. He threw 70 strong innings last year and he’s back in Memphis now. It would certainly be premature to call Romero a good reliever after 3 innings.
With that little disclaimer aside, I want to dive into why I think Romero can help down the stretch.
Actually, I’ll just let Romero show you in case you haven’t seen his first two outings.
That’s his nasty slider. I could watch it all day. It’s gorgeous. It averages almost 15 inches of horizontal break. 15. That’s more than double the sweep of the average slider.
Again, I’ll add the obligatory small sample size disclaimer. He’s only thrown six sliders at the major league level this year. I don’t have minor league pitch data available, but this is the shape of his slider. It may have a little more or a little less break, but it’s a pitch with tremendous sweep.
That makes it unique and could make it a potent weapon against left-handed hitters. And that’s exactly how he has used it. 5 of those 6 slider were thrown against left-handed hitters.
Yes, it’s only 6 pitches, but that feels like his general approach. Throughout his brief major league career, he’s focused his slider on left-handed hitters while using his changeup against righties.
That’s appears to be the case this year. That changeup has always been a pitch with solid movement in both directions.
If he can put it there consistently, he’ll be just fine. That’s a good spot for it and it should give him plenty of groundballs.
It could also get him whiffs. Here he makes Yan Gomes look silly.
It tough not to like that pitch. It gives him a weapon against righties. That pairs well with his slider which should get outs against lefties. And they both pair well with two fastballs (four-seamer and sinker) that average 95 mph and get above average run.
I love the arsenal but he still has a lot to prove. Can he tunnel his pitches effectively? Can he locate well enough to be effective? How much movement do his pitches truly have?
It seems that he will get the chance to answer these questions. I’m excited to see what those answers are.
Unlike Romero, Thompson has been a successful part of the Cardinals this season. We’ve seen him pitch effectively already, and even though it’s only been 22 innings, that brings a little more confidence.
He has a 2.45 ERA and 3.81 FIP on the season and brings length to the ‘pen. He’s also made five straight scoreless appearances in Memphis after a few rough outings followinghis last demotion.
The thing that’s weird about Thompson is that he’s walked fewer batters at the major league level than he did in Triple-A but he’s also seen his strikeout rate drop 10%.
|Level||Strikeout Rate (%)||Walk Rate (%)||ERA||FIP|
|Level||Strikeout Rate (%)||Walk Rate (%)||ERA||FIP|
The rookie has seen his FIP stay the same, but that’s about it. With a larger sample size, I would expect more strikeouts, more walks, and a higher ERA. Still, a 3.80s FIP is solid and would be a boon for a Cardinals bullpen that needs left-handed stability.
With a 95 mph heater and a big slow curve that gets 67.6 inches of drop, Thompson has the strong two-pitch mix that is popular with relievers. He can even throw both of those pitches for strikes. To top things off, he targets the top of the zone with his fastball and the bottom of the zone with his curveball. That’s the perfect combination for deception.
I don’t think his fastball is as good as its results (.281 wOBA) but I’m not expecting to suddenly be terrible. It doesn’t have a great spin rate and it only has average movement but it’s not a bad pitch by any means.
He appears to have all the tools needed to be a solid reliever the rest of the season.
While Romero and Thompson may not be who the Cardinals envisioned atop the left-handed reliever depth chart in the spring, they have the tools to be a solid combination.
Both players are still unproven, which isn’t ideal for a playoff competitor, but unproven doesn’t mean bad. From what I’ve seen, I think there’s plenty of potential for them to be good and I’m excited to see both of them more.
Where Help Might Come From
As we all know, relievers are volatile. Good relievers become bad (see Cabrera, Genesis) and bad relievers become good (see McFarland, T.J.) all the time. Unproven players can go either way. So, what if Romero and Thompson aren’t good enough to fill the left-handed void in the bullpen? Where else can help come from?
There’s two options. The first is a resurgent arm in Memphis. This could be Genesis Cabrera or this could be Packy Naughton. I expect Naughton to join the team as a September call up, but it’s always possible that the team goes to Junior Fernandez instead.
In that case, Naughton would need to earn his way back with strong performances in Memphis. He’s fully capable of doing that. A more far-fetched option would be Genesis Cabrera re-discovering himself in Memphis and helping the team down the stretch.
It’s possible, but honestly, I don’t know how likely that is. It’s much more likely that we see Naughton again.
The more surefire help will come in the form of Steven Matz.
Steven Matz will be pointed toward a return as a reliever, and will throw a higher intensity bullpen tomorrow to that end. #stlcards don’t think there’s enough time to stretch him back out but remain encouraged by his progress, don’t plan on shutting him down.— Jeff Jones (@jmjones) August 26, 2022
Matz has shown encouraging signs this season despite a high ERA and he made one good start before re-injuring himself. I expect him to pitch well out of the bullpen if he can prove that he’s fully healthy.
Yes, he has a 5.70 ERA. He also has a 3.76 xERA, 3.95 FIP, and 3.02 xFIP with sterling strikeout and walk rates. He absolutely could have been a contributor in the rotation had he stayed healthy. Out of the bullpen, I expect him to be solid.
In fact, if all goes well in his recovery, he may end up being the best left-handed reliever the Cardinals have to finish the year.
Relievers are notoriously volatile. A good bullpen in Spring Training doesn’t mean a good bullpen in September. The Cardinals found that out this year, at least when it comes to lefties.
It’s down to the new guys (Naughton, Romero, Thompson) to prove they can get outs but keep an eye on Steven Matz. He may be the solution to the Cardinals lefty reliever problem if he can get healthy and stay healthy.
Thanks for reading! Enjoy your Sunday! Let me know who you think the best lefties are in the bullpen and have fun watching the Cardinals fight for a series win against a playoff team later tonight!
Writer’s Note: After I finished this article, JoJo Romero fanned two Braves in another scoreless outing. He seems to be gaining trust much faster than Cabrera lost it. As long as he keeps impressing, I think he’ll keep gaining opportunities and he could be a key reliever down the stretch.