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Could Brett Cecil be a de facto LOOGY?

The newest Cardinal has been better against lefties than righties, which could help a team without a true LOOGY in 2016.

ALCS - Cleveland Indians v Toronto Blue Jays - Game Three Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

During his three years with the St. Louis Cardinals, Randy Choate had one very, very specific role at which he was very good. In 2013, his first year in St. Louis, Choate faced 99 left-handed batters over 59 games, and the lefties, which skewed towards high-quality ones, had a .492 OPS. For perspective, Pete Kozma’s OPS during his, to put it generously, tumultuous 2013 offensive season was .558.

Of course, Randy Choate also alternated between mediocre and disastrous against right-handed batting, and when Choate’s 2015 OPS against lefties was .695, he could no longer justify his presence on the Cardinals. Choate was a historically great LOOGY—a pitcher whose sole responsibility is retiring effective lefty bats—but when his opponent OPS crept up to levels of even Chase Headley or Anthony Gose, his usage was so niche that he was deemed unnecessary.

The Cardinals maintained Kevin Siegrist, the most frequently utilized Cardinals southpaw since 2005, but his usage has been less lefty-heavy and certainly would not be categorized as a LOOGY—in a strange, if somewhat overstated phenomenon, Siegrist sports a superior OPS against righties (.594) than lefties (.671). And since Siegrist was still used as an all-purpose reliever (which is hardly a bad thing), the Cardinals spent the first four months of 2016 depending on Tyler Lyons or Dean Kiekhefer in pseudo-LOOGY duty.

Once the Cardinals acquired Zach Duke at the 2016 trade deadline, he became an effective performer against lefties down the stretch, with an opponent’s OPS of .429. He was not, however, a LOOGY in the traditional sense—just 34% of his batters faced were left-handed, which contrasts heavily with Randy Choate’s 69% lefty percentage in St. Louis. But this is hardly a necessity; if a player can fulfill the LOOGY role while also being serviceable against righties, this is all the better.

A quick glance at his career splits show that Brett Cecil, the newest member of the Cardinals bullpen, differs from Choate, Siegrist, and Duke by righty/lefty efficiency. Here is each pitcher’s relative career splits by tOPS+ (for the uninitiated, tOPS+ reflects a pitcher’s opponent’s OPS relative to the pitcher’s overall opponent OPS—the lower the tOPS+, the better he is relative to his overall performance).

  • Choate: 68 tOPS+ vs. LHB, 147 tOPS+ vs. RHB
  • Siegrist: 117 tOPS+ vs. LHB, 90 tOPS+ vs. RHB
  • Duke: 80 tOPS+ vs. LHB, 106 tOPS+ vs. RHB
  • Cecil: 69 tOPS+ vs. LHB, 114 tOPS+ vs. RHB

Brett Cecil is a less extreme pitcher than Randy Choate, but comparing him to one of the most extreme split pitchers in history would be misleading. He is the most similar to Duke, who was a serviceable “LOOGY” for two months in 2016, but has been a stronger overall pitcher. And his performance against lefties (as his performance against righties, for what that’s worth) has improved since his 2012 conversion from ineffective starter to stalwart reliever.

Since 2013, Cecil’s first full season pitching in relief for the Toronto Blue Jays, he threw 90 13 innings against left-handed batters, walking 19 batters and striking out 113. Left-handed opponents have a .580 OPS against Cecil during his in-earnest relieving career. Among the 39 lefty relievers with at least 50 innings pitched against lefties since 2013, Cecil ranks 14th by opponent OPS.

Cecil fails in comparison to noted LOOGYs such as Choate or San Francisco Giants mainstay Javier Lopez, and his OPS is underwhelming relative to elite lefty closers such as Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller. He does, however, have a better OPS than less exciting but still effective southpaw relievers such as Jake McGee.

But Brett Cecil has been a better pitcher by overall performance among left-handed pitchers (8th in Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement since 2013) than by performance versus lefties (14th, while only counting pitchers with a relatively sizable number of innings).

As stated before, Brett Cecil is not a LOOGY. He is a left-handed pitcher, and he pitches in relief, but he is both not good enough against lefties (his OPS against lefties since 2013 is 63 points lower than that of Randy Choate, who was much maligned throughout his Cardinals tenure) and too good against righties (imagine the Cardinals paying $30.5 million for four years of a worse version of Randy Choate for a moment) to reduce to a pure specialist role.

To venture into the world of microscopic sample sizes, Dean Kiekhefer had a pronounced righty/lefty split in 2016, and his lefty OPS of .586 was far more respectable than his overall numbers. He was the Cardinals pitcher in 2016 who most closely resembled what Randy Choate had been for the previous three seasons, and his 2016 performance against lefties was superior to Cecil’s (.673 OPS). But when a pitcher’s role is reduced to such a narrow pattern of usage, he has to be special to be worth using a roster spot, and Kiekhefer vs. Cecil is not a real comparison.

Brett Cecil’s future value or deficiencies with the Cardinals will be partially dependent on his success or failure against left-handed batters—even in a down year, Cecil’s 2016 was more productive against lefties than any likely 2017 Cardinals reliever aside from Seung-Hwan Oh (who, as a right-handed closer, is the least likely Cardinals reliever to be confused as a lefty specialist) and Matt Bowman (whose .570 vs. LHB OPS was a very pleasant surprise, but whose long-term excellence is still an open question).

Cecil is a much more sure thing and having another option to face vaunted NL Central lefty bats such as Joey Votto and Anthony Rizzo is certainly nice to have. But it will be his overall performance which defines him, and despite being far better against lefties than Kevin Siegrist, his usage almost certainly will, and almost certainly should, more resemble Siegrist’s than Randy Choate’s.