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The Cardinals bullpen is fine

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Despite its annual status as fan whipping boy, the St. Louis Cardinals have a roughly average assortment of relievers

MLB: Boston Red Sox at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, the St. Louis Cardinals took a 2-1 lead into the 8th inning of their game against the New York Mets. In the 8th, Brett Cecil allowed a solo home run to Wilmer Flores, and in the 9th inning, thanks to an unfortunate defensive lapse, Trevor Rosenthal surrendered a walk-off infield single to Jose Reyes.

While Rosenthal’s gaffe drew more attention, it was a second high-profile blown save in a five-day stretch for Cecil, the new prospective heir to the much-maligned Seung Hwan Oh, who took over from the much-maligned Rosenthal, who took over from the much-maligned Edward Mujica, who took over from the much-maligned Mitchell Boggs, who was in Mystic River with Kevin Bacon.

In 2011, the World Series champion Cardinals were led in saves by 26 year-old second-year reliever Fernando Salas. One might be forgiven for forgetting this tidbit, as by the time the postseason rolled around, it was Jason Motte, who recorded nine saves in the regular season to the twenty-four of Salas, handling the ninth inning for the Cardinals. But Motte did not record his first save for the 2011 Cardinals until August 28.

That season, Motte was a better pitcher than Salas by earned-run average, fielding-independent pitching, and xFIP, but he was not leaps and bounds better. Salas, in 68 appearances and 75 innings, managed a 2.28 ERA and 3.16 FIP and was the second most valuable pitcher on the 2011 Cardinals by Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement, trailing only Chris Carpenter, who was 46% more valuable in 316% more innings.

And despite his track record, Salas was unceremoniously dumped from his closer role in favor of Jason Motte. Following his 23rd save on August 30, Salas allowed runs in his next two outings and only had two more save opportunities in the month of September, both of which occurred after Motte had failed to convert one.

This is not about re-litigating the 2011 closer decision—each was worthy of the designation in a vacuum and was a substantial upgrade over previously-designated for assignment closer Ryan Franklin, they won the World Series, and most importantly, it was half a dozen years ago. But it showed how fickle teams can be about their closers. In his two outings allowing runs to begin September, Salas pitched a total of three innings while allowing two runs. This amounted to an ERA of 6.00. It’s below average, to be clear, but imagine a previously effective starting pitcher losing his spot in the rotation after allowing four runs in six innings, an appearance in which the pitcher was mediocre over a longer period of time. It would be inconceivable.

The nature of relief pitching is that one is judged more harshly on a rate basis than starting pitchers who are pitching far more innings. It’s much easier for one’s ERA to survive a bad inning in a 180 inning season than it is to survive one in a 60 inning season.

The perception of the 2017 St. Louis Cardinals is that the bullpen is a major weakness. The problem is that this could be said of virtually every team of the bullpen-intensive era—last Saturday, New York Yankees fans exploded with anger on Twitter when Aroldis Chapman, the most dominant relief pitcher of his era, warmed up to enter the 14th inning of a game because he had blown a save the night before. As with NFL quarterbacks, the most popular person in every town seems to be the player next in line to close. Closers are expected to be flawless—a converted save is simply a man doing his job, while allowing a run is an unforgivable failure.

The 2017 Cardinals bullpen is allowing earned runs at a higher rate than Cardinals starters for what would be the first time since 2014. By ERA, this would be the worst season for the Cardinals bullpen since 2008. By FIP, it would be the worst since 2010. But comparing the Cardinals’ current bullpen to recent ones is a bit misleading, as the Cardinals are coming off the most fruitful era in the history of the franchise.

By ERA, the Cardinals’ bullpen ranks 14th in Major League Baseball. By FIP, they rank 13th. By xFIP, they rank 18th. They rank 18th in strikeouts per nine innings, 9th in fewest walks per nine, and 13th in fewest home runs allowed per nine. Not only are the 2017 St. Louis Cardinals a paragon of bullpen adequacy, but they are a consistently, almost boringly average unit by every possible measure.

In 2016, despite the purported catastrophe that was Trevor Rosenthal, the Cardinals had an above-average bullpen, ranking 12th by ERA and 11th by FIP. In 2015, the Cardinals ranked 3rd and 7th.

To be clear, the Cardinals do not have a great bullpen. The Cardinals could improve themselves by trading for relief help. But it is not as obvious or glaring of a weakness as it is for, say, the Washington Nationals, who bolstered their bullpen last weekend by acquiring Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson from the Oakland Athletics despite being baseball’s most mortal division lock, or the Detroit Tigers, whose sub-replacement level bullpen has likely turned the team from potential buyers to selling J.D. Martinez and potentially others.

The larger problem with the Cardinals is that they are also average-ish in other facets of the game. They rank 16th by wRC+, 14th by FanGraphs’s Baserunning Runs, and 13th in Defensive Runs Saved. If the Cardinals were actually a Pat Neshek or Addison Reed or Justin Wilson away from fixing a major hole in the team, buying at the deadline would make more sense. But as it stands, on a team full of players mostly in the vicinity of average, the marginal utility of any available player is low enough that it probably isn’t worth the risk of trading potentially useful prospects.