Before I even begin, let me make it abundantly clear that I understand relief pitchers are inherently volatile and that it is not wise to make a broad characterization after a few weeks of appearances. Heck, it often isn’t easy to get a full grasp of a relief pitcher’s true prowess over an entire season let alone two weeks. That being said, after an abysmal start to the 2017 season — subsequently leading to my writing of this not so positive piece on June 9th — Brett Cecil has not allowed even a single run in 14 of his last 15 appearances. His ERA during this string of appearances is 2.70, ballooned by a four-earned-run outing on June 7th against the Cincinnati Reds, in what was arguably the most disappointing series (0-4) of the St. Louis Cardinals’ season, to date.
So, what exactly has been different for Cecil, you ask? Upon further review, two major things stand out. First, as you may recall, back on May 8th, I published a post titled, “What’s going on with Brett Cecil’s curveball?” I’ll save you a click: both the pitch’s magnitude of movement and spin rate were down from his career norms, leading to the pitch hanging a bit and also backing up instead of its usual breaking away from left-handed hitters. Yes, Cecil throws other pitches than just the curveball (as I will get to in the next paragraph), but it has long served as his go-to “out” pitch, as it is of supreme importance for his overall success — versus both lefties and righties.
The second difference is found when you look at Cecil’s 2017 pitch usage profile. Prior to May 16th — the beginning of this string of 14 out of 15 scoreless innings — Cecil went to his cutter only 12.74% of the time. Since then, he has used his cutter 29.11% of the time, up considerably from his reliever career average usage rate of 16.28%. And during this time, 12 at bats have ended on the cutter, with six going for strikeouts and only two for hits, both being singles. The pitch affected the most by the increased cutter usage is Cecil’s changeup as its usage rate has dropped to 10.13% (from 20.08%). As you should already know, I’m notorious for loving the changeup, but given Cecil’s trending decline in velocity, pivoting to a cutter, curveball, fastball reliever just may be the way to go for consistent, long-term (remember, he’s under contract through 2020) success.
Returning to the curveball, since May 16th, the pitch, on average, has experienced a higher spin rate (2269 rpm) than it did earlier in the season (2199 rpm). As you’d logically expect, curveballs are better when they exhibit a higher spin rate. From a movement perspective (using BrooksBaseball.net), the pitch is finally experiencing negative (glove-side) dragless horizontal movement after backing up (arm-side) for much of 2017. Sure, it may be only -0.01 inches, but considering it averaged a positive 0.33 inches before, this is definite progress. The magnitude of vertical movement (plus gravity) has increased ever so slightly as well, to -39.55 inches from -39.36 inches.
These positive developments have subsequently allowed for a cleaner location heatmap, one in which he is no longer missing over the heart of home plate and is pulling the pitch down more effectively:
One of my favorite bloggers is Zach Gifford (@zjgifford), and just over a week ago, he wrote a very interesting piece on Cecil and his lack of overall extension, which obviously also plays a role in any given pitch’s success — particularly from a perceived velocity perspective. Well, after picking out the two GIFs to use for this post, I think @cardinalsgifs and I were able to visually demonstrate just how important extension is for Cecil:
The first is a hanger to Freddie Freeman. Being the good hitter that he is (career wRC+ of 137), Freeman deposited the pitch over the left-center field wall for a home run. The second is a downright devastating deuce to National League Rookie of the Year candidate, Cody Bellinger. While both started on a nearly identical path out of the hand, their final locations were very, very different. Why? Other than what I have already pointed out regarding the slight improvements in the movement profile of the curveball, take a closer look at the difference on Cecil’s extension toward home plate. On the pitch to Bellinger, Cecil released the ball much closer to home plate than he did on the pitch to Freeman. This extension allowed for Cecil to pull the pitch down and through the zone instead of exposing it to a potent, homer-hungry bat.
Bottom line, from a repertoire perspective, Cecil truly appears to have regained his mojo. From a results perspective, it took Cecil until the second half of 2016 to get to this point. If the Cardinals want to be serious contenders for the division this season (two wins against the lowly Philadelphia Phillies doesn’t determine this), they are going to have to rely on Cecil out of the bullpen down the stretch. As long as he’s able to replicate the curve he threw to Bellinger, coupled with his newfound interest in the cutter, he should be in good shape. And that’s important because after all, he’s under contract through 2020.