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Breaking Down the Andrew Kittredge Trade

The Cardinals swapped with the Rays on Friday to bolster their bullpen.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Tampa Bay Rays Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

In case you missed it, the St. Louis Cardinals made another move on Friday sending Richie Palacios to the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for right-handed reliever Andrew Kittredge.

I won’t beat around the bush with a long intro today. Instead, I’ll just say that I want to look at 3 things in this piece. Andrew Kittredge, where the bullpen stands today, and the trade itself. So let’s get started with a look at the newest member of the Cardinals bullpen.

Andrew Kittredge

Andrew Kittredge is legitimately interesting. And good. He’s definitely good. Or at least he was. Back in 2021, the reliever put up 1.5 fWAR, a 1.88 ERA, and a 3.04 FIP in 71.2 innings pitched en route to an All-Star game nod but then he missed much of the 2022 and 2023 seasons with injury.

Now Kittredge turns 34 in a few months, is coming off Tommy John surgery, and has only thrown 31.2 innings in the past two seasons. So just how good is Andrew Kittredge now? That’s something we’ll need to find out this year and it’s clearly a question the Cardinals are bullish on.

I’m bullish on it as well.

The injury issues are obviously a concern but when he’s been on the mound, Kittredge has remained effective. That’s due in large part to one skill - his ability to get hitters to expand the zone.

When he’s healthy Kittredge is the 100th percentile in chase rate and, obviously, that works in his favor. When hitters expand the zone, they’re a lot less likely to walk because they’re turning a ball into a strike. That makes sense intuitively and it’s why Kittredge hasn’t posted a single season walk rate above 6.5% since 2019.

He benefits from more than just a low walk rate, though. A high chase rate affects everything about a pitcher’s game because guess what hitters do when they swing at a pitch outside the zone? They tend to swing and miss more and the contact they do make is weaker.

That’s certainly been the case for Kittredge and this next table should show you just how crucial it is for him to get hitters to chase.

(All stats are from 2021-2023 to get a more meaningful sample size)

Andrew Kittredge IZ vs OZ Results

Pitch Location Avg EV (mph) Whiff Rate
Pitch Location Avg EV (mph) Whiff Rate
In Zone 90.4 16.5%
Out of Zone 79.4 47.8%

In case you’re wondering, the league average exit velocity on pitches in the zone during this same timeframe was 90.4 mph and the league average whiff rate on pitches in the zone was 18% over the same timeframe. So what that tells us is that Kittredge isn’t much more than an ordinary pitcher when he throws in the zone.

Kittredge isn’t just an ordinary pitcher, though, and that’s because he’s able to entice hitters to expand the zone at a higher rate than pretty much any pitcher in the game.

And even though we’re dealing with a small sample size from 2022 and 2023, that’s still true.

So how does he do this?

I’ll start with a disclaimer. Everything a pitcher does matters. From his windup to the pitches he throws to where he throws them to a bunch of other minute details. We can look at chase rate and consider it a quasi-deception metric but trying to pinpoint “deception” is a difficult task. There are a few things that stand out to me and I’ll talk about them but this is by no means an exhaustive list.

I want to start with mechanics and there’s not a better way to show Kittredge’s mechanics than with this hilarious tweet:

If you watch the video you’ll notice that he hides the ball really well. There’s a slight inward turn when Kittredge starts his motion which helps with that but he also hides the ball really well throughout his delivery. I would think that helps his case a bit.

And then there’s his pitch usage. Kittredge throws a ton of sliders and even used the pitch as his primary offering in his all star 2021 season. Sliders (32% league-wide chase rate) tend to generate more chases than fastballs (24% league-wide chase rate) on average and that has certainly been true for Kittredge.

In fact, Kittredge’s slider has posted a chase rate over 35% in every year of his career expect for 2020 and it had a chase rate over 50% in both 2021 and 2022.

Kittredge’s sinker has posted comfortably above average chase rates every year but it’s really his slider that gets hitters to expand the zone. He throws it a ton (37% usage or more in every year of his career) so he gets a ton of chase. That’s pretty easy to understand.

The final thing I want to point out is that Kittredge does a great job of pitching from ahead. That’s a part of the equation that shouldn’t be overlooked. The righty has thrown first pitch strikes at greater than a 70% rate in every season since 2020 and that really gives him the freedom to work outside the zone while providing the impetus for hitters to follow him out there.

League-wide, hitters expanded the zone at a 28% rate when they were ahead in the count. That increased to 33% when they were behind in the count. For Kittredge (in the last 3 seasons), those rates are 40% and 49%, respectively.

So, basically, getting ahead in the count matters and it tends to entice hitters to expand the zone.

Are all of these things sustainable? Absolutely. I trust that Kittredge’s mechanics will remain contact and that he will continue to throw a ton of sliders and rack up first pitch strikes. That makes me think he can continue to induce chases at an absurd rate going forward and that bodes well for his future success.

But this is where we need to circle back to my earlier disclaimer. Everything matters. Not just the three things that I highlighted.

If Kittredge’s stuff declines, it’s fair to reason that he will get worse and/or generate fewer chases. So I should point out that Kittredge’s velocity was down a little over half a tick last year and is down almost a full tick from his 2021 season. That matters.

I will also say that his velocity is still right around his 2019 and 2020 levels so it;s not like he has completely fallen off. This is more of a reminder that Kittredge is indeed almost 34 years old and does indeed have recent health concerns. We shouldn’t gloss over that.

Still, assuming health and a reasonable level of age-based year-over-year decline, I wouldn’t be shocked if Kittredge ended the 2024 season as one of the best 2 or 3 relievers in the Cardinals bullpen.

Where the bullpen stands

Andrew Kittredge rounds out a nice group of medium to high leverage bullpen arms consisting of him, Ryan Helsley, Giovanny Gallegos, and JoJo Romero. It’s safe to assume those 4 guys will be the ones seeing most of the high leverage work and it’s safe to assume that all 4 of them have guaranteed spots in the bullpen.

So that leaves us with 4 other openings. My guess, as of today, is that those 4 spots would go to Zack Thompson, Andre Pallante, Nick Robertson, and Ryan Fernandez. Bullpens are volatile and hard to predict but that looks like a solid group.

There’s plenty of help beyond those 8 names too. Matthew Liberatore, John King, Riley O’Brien, Andre Granillo, and Wilking Rodriguez are all left without a spot in my projections and any of the prospects in the Memphis rotation could be tabbed for bullpen help if needed.

The Cardinals may also be in the market for another reliever and I certainly wouldn’t complain about a further addition to bolster the ‘pen.

The trade

I like Andrew Kittredge a lot. I think he’s a good pitcher who could give the Cardinals valuable innings this year. I’ve already mentioned that. I also don’t mind the price being Richie Palacios. I’ll admit that Richie Palacios is interesting and his work at Driveline to add more power to his game shouldn’t be overlooked.

There’s a chance that he develops into a good and controllable player and trading with the Rays is something that always makes me nervous.

Even with those considerations, though, he wasn’t likely to be more than a 5th or 6th outfielder this year and he’s not particularly adept with the glove. That makes him tradeable and trading a player buried on the depth chart for a player than can help fill a need is always something a team should consider.

This gets even better when you consider the fact that the Cardinals acquired Richie Palacios from Cleveland for cash considerations and then turned him into a legitimately good reliever just 7 months later.

This could very easily turn out to be an example of the Cardinals buying low and selling high.

I obviously don’t have a problem with the Cardinals doing that.

If I do have a problem with the trade it’s that the Cardinals could have gone to the free agent market for a reliever without having to give up an interesting player, even if he is a player who wasn’t likely to have a lot of opportunity this year.

Now, I say that without any knowledge of budget restrictions that the front office is working with. If John Mozeliak is working with a strict budget then he wasn’t going to find a comparable talent on the free agent market for the $2 million that Kittredge will make this year.

It’s important to note that as it’s another layer of nuance that should be considered when thinking about this trade.

So what’s my position? The Cardinals turned a cheap, low-key acquisition who was buried on the depth chart into a player who can add real value to the team this year. That’s a win.

Thanks for reading, VEB. Have a fantastic Sunday!