The St. Louis Cardinals bullpen is questionable. It’s strong at the back end with Giovanny Gallegos and 2022 All Star closer Ryan Helsley. It also features Jordan Hicks who has the stuff to be dominant, but his health is a forever-growing question mark. Besides those three though it’s average at best. If the Cardinals want to reach play deep into October, they are going to need the ‘pen to improve. Unfortunately, though, at this stage in the off-season, there isn’t a whole lot available via free agency or the trade market. As a result, any improvement in the overall production of the bullpen and the team’s ceiling is going to have to come from pieces already in the organization. The one that sticks out the most to me is Chris Stratton, not because of his statistics but rather his pitches.
There is no way around it and no way to sugarcoat it. Chris Stratton was bad in 2022 based on his quality of contact against and expected metrics. He was below league average in average exit velocity against, xwOBA, xBA, xSLG, walk percentage, and strikeout percentage. He did produce whiffs and chases at an above average rate but not nearly enough to get you up out of your seat.
I’ll get right into it because there is no point in discussing those metrics any further. In order to be an impactful pitcher for the Cardinals this year he needs to change his arsenal. In Stratton’s 60 appearances last season, only 19 of them were multi-inning appearances according to BaseballReference.com and only 2 of them lasted more than 2 innings. Traditionally relievers with this type of usage feature 2 or 3 pitches with the off pitcher throwing a fourth pitch that they throw only a couple times throughout the course of the season. Stratton, though, threw five pitches last year with his least used pitch being his sinker which he threw 1.8 percent of the. A reliever having a five-pitch repertoire is surprising and to better understand it and the adjustments he should make with it we will briefly break down his four most used pitches below.
#1 Four seam fastball - Usage rate 43.1% in 2022
2022 statistics - xBA .273, xSLG .420, xwOBA .348
Spin rate - 2,631 (99th percentile) - Vertical movement - 16.9 inches - Horizontal movement - 3.6 inches
The spin rate on this pitch is elite, everything else, not so much. It is not an overpowering pitch as the velocity of it sits at 92.8 MPH. However, it can still be dominant if located properly, which has largely been a career problem for Stratton. In 2022 when Stratton threw his four seamer in the upper third of the strike zone it had a whiff rate of 30.3%. In the lower third he generated 27 swings but only forced 5 whiffs. The recipe for success with this pitch is there for Statton. In today’s launch angle-centric approach in the batter's box, four seam fastballs with high spin rates at the top of the zone are deadly pitches. Stratton has it in his arsenal, he just cannot execute it at a consistent level.
#2 Curveball - Usage rate 28.9% in 2022
2022 statistics - xBA .196, xSLG . 296, xwOBA .247
Spin rate - 3,188 (99th percentile) - Vertical movement - 50.2 inches - Horizontal movement - 16.1 inches
This is the pitch that Stratton should be throwing the most. Not only is it his best pitch, but it is also one of the best curveballs in baseball. Last year only Ryan Pressly, Dustin May, and Seth Lugo threw curveballs with a higher spin rate. Additionally, in 2022, only 8 pitchers who threw a curveball 50 or more times featured one with more horizontal movement than Stratton’s. It is impressive just how long his curveball look like strikes when thrown below the zone. Nelson Cruz stood zero chance as it looks like a fastball in the lower third for the majority of the time and then it just drops off the table making it unhittable. If Stratton progresses in 2022 it will be because of this pitch.
#3 Slider - Usage rate in 19.2% in 2022
2022 statistics - xBA .272, xSLG .403, xwOBA .303
Spin rate - 2,868 - Vertical movement - 35.1 inches - Horizontal movement - 6.6 inches
Honestly, I’m in-between on this pitch for Stratton. Like his first two pitchers, the spin rate on it is amongst the best as only 5 pitchers who had 10 or more plate appearances against featured sliders with a higher spin. When comparing it to sliders within 2 MPH and half a foot of extension and release point (BaseballSavant’s method) its vertical break is above average by 1.1 inches and its horizontal movement is 2.0 inches above average. While all of that is nice, personally I do not believe it deviates enough from his curveball to offer a hitter a significantly different look.
#4 Changeup - Usage rate 7% in 2022
2022 statistics - xBA .350, xSLG .569, xwOBA .413
Spin rate 2,228 - Vertical movement - 32.4 inches - Horizontal movement - 11.6 inches
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, this pitch is amongst the elite in terms of spin rate. Amongst pitchers with 10 or more plate appearances against last season, only 18 of them threw changeups with a high spin. It has a unique bit of break on it as when I first saw it, I thought it was a sinker rather than a changeup. It is the only pitch of these four that breaks away from a lefty and in on a righty which does offer some intrigue in keeping it for the 2023 season.
Statton has to be throwing his curveball 55 percent of the time in 2023. It is that dominant of a pitch and if used at a high rate could propel his statistics. I think his second most used pitch should be his four-seam fastball. The expected metrics on the pitch do not look great, but if he throws it at the top of the zone and above it; it is a pitch that should generate whiffs and keep hitters off balance. I’d like to see this pitch thrown about 35 percent of the time. This usage rate largely makes him a two-pitch pitcher which also in turn could help with his command of both pitches. I would then like to see him then throw his slider around 10 percent of the time to show a different speed with his changeup being the pitch that is thrown only a couple times a season to lefties.