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Looking back and looking ahead to the Cards' pen

The Cards didn't get enough from Dominic Leone in 2018 but he showed he can be part of the team's core moving forward.

(This is the 3rd part of a multi-part series on the bullpen and the steps that the Cardinals need to take to fix it.)

A couple of days ago I posted about the peripherals to look for when evaluating relievers. We obviously want relievers to have low ERA’s and low FIP’s, high WAR’s and high WPA’s but, in order to have good ERA’s and WAR’s they need to exhibit the characteristics it takes to get there. Instead of focusing on a pitcher’s results, it’s important to focus on the process it takes to achieve those results. After comparing relievers’ GB%, hard hit %, and K-BB% I determined that a pitcher’s K-BB% is much more directly correlated with good results than the other 2 are. The bottom line is that a pitcher who strikes a lot of batters out and doesn’t walk many batters is very likely to have success.

Today, therefore, we’re going to discuss the Cards’ relievers from 2018 and see how they fared in terms of this core peripheral. As I recalled in part 1 of this series, the team’s bullpen was absolutely atrocious in 2018. Jordan Hicks was a godsend and John Brebbia was quietly very good. Bud Norris mostly pitched well after being thrust into the closer’s role and there were a few other bright spots, but for the most part, there was no relief in the Cards’ bullpen. Volumes of digital parchment have been sullied discussing all the team’s bullpen problems last year.

First, let’s take a look at the relievers’ numbers from 2018. Warning: graphic content ahead. This content is not suitable for children or those Cards’ fans with weak stomachs or heart problems.

Of the 19 relievers on this list, only 11 had an fWAR > 0. Only 8 has WPA’s > 0. Six of them had ERA’s of 5.00 or greater. The major league average K-BB% for relievers is 14.0. Only 4 of 19 Cardinal relievers were better than average at that very important statistic. They were bad; there’s just no way around it.

So now I’m going to organize these pitchers (save Martinez, who will surely go back to the rotation) into 3 groups – no, not the good, the bad, and the ugly – but guys the team can probably count on, those the team can’t count on and should move along, and those sort of in between – who might end up being useful or might be needed for depth but probably shouldn’t be considered part of the bullpen’s core for 2019.

First, the keepers:

  • John Brebbia – he was arguably the team’s best reliever this season and was nearly as solid last season. He does give up some solid contact but his K-BB% is the best on the team. He’s solid.

  • Dominic Leone – he gave up some homers early in the season and we couldn’t really appreciate how well he pitched overall because he spent most of the season on the D.L. but he’s clearly got good stuff and can get outs. He’s a keeper.

  • Jordan Hicks – his K-BB% rate wasn’t good at all but he was just a rookie and his stuff is just so good. He gave up just 2 “barrels” and just 2 HR’s all season long. It’s hard to believe that K rate isn’t going to increase.

  • John Gant and Austin Gomber – These 2 are young pitchers whose bullpen-only numbers aren’t all that great but most of their innings came from the rotation. If they don’t make it as starters, they could become very good relief options.

Now, for the guys the team probably should/will hang on to but are unlikely to become part of the pen’s core.

  • Dakota Hudson – yes, I know his ERA < 3.00 and that his average exit velo was just 83.3 mph but in order for him to succeed as a major league pitcher he’s going to have figure out how to strike out more and walk fewer. A (close to) 0 K-BB% simply isn’t sustainable. He got far too many high leverage innings down the stretch this year and shouldn’t be a shoo-in for the major league roster in 2019.

  • Chasen Shreve – I wrote about him after he was acquired and his results numbers as a Cardinal look better than his process numbers do. His problems as a Yankee were too many walks and too many homers. His problems as a Cardinal? Too many walks and too many homers. He’s got to figure it out.

  • Luke Gregerson – he’s still owed $5.5 million and his peripheral numbers actually don’t look that bad. He can probably still get some outs but should be the last righty out of the pen, doing mop-up duty unless he can prove he can handle a higher-leverage role.

  • Tyler Lyons – I’m not ready to give up on this guy. His K-BB% numbers actually aren’t too bad after being very good in 2017. His problem this season was too many “meatball” pitches in the middle of the zone (12% of his pitches were considered “meatballs” by Statcast). If he can figure out his command and get back to commanding pitches the way he did in 2017, he can get outs. Plus, he’s a lefty.

  • Mike Mayers – he improved a lot in 2018 and was one of the 4 Cards’ relievers whose K-BB% was above league average. He could end up being a decent back-end guy.

  • Daniel Ponce de Leon – PDL had some good moments and is young. Like Gant and Gomber his relief numbers weren’t that great but he also had very few innings. Maybe he’s got something to offer.

It’s time for these guys to go:

  • Brett Cecil – is there any doubt? Actually the team probably should bring him to spring training since they do owe him $15 million but he should be released in spring training if he doesn’t show some massive improvement. I was willing to believe that 2017 was a fluke but he was much worse in 2018.

  • Matt Bowman – he’s given the team some good years but he’s never had a K-BB% above this year’s league average. He actually increased his K rate a lot in 2018, but also increased his walk rate a lot and ended up getting hurt. Surely Gant, Gomber, Gregerson, Hudson, or Ponce de Leon can do whatever Bowman’s best case outcome is.

  • Tyler Webb – he’s a lefty but he doesn’t strike out anyone. The team has to find someone who can strike lefties out.

  • Tyson Ross – I know several want to bring Ross back but he hasn’t been above a 14% K-BB rate since 2016. He doesn’t really throw hard. He doesn’t get a ton of ground balls and doesn’t really limit hard contact. The team just has to do better.

Others to watch for from the minors: Giovanny Gallegos, Ryan Helsley, Genesis Cabrera, Seth Elledge, Derian Gonzalez, Evan Kruczynski.

If this guide is followed by the team, the current bullpen would look something like Brebbia, Hicks, Leone, and then some combination of Gant, Gomber, Gregerson, Lyons, Hudson, Shreve, Mayers, and Ponce de Leon. There’s some youth and it’s reasonable to expect most of these guys to improve but, as it stands right now, this bullpen is nowhere near being good enough to be a playoff team. Those guys I suggested getting rid of at best provide depth. They don’t make the pen stronger and that’s what the team needs – good pitchers it can count on.

Could you imagine taking this pen into a playoff game with a 1-run lead in the 6th inning and feeling confident? Me, either. More in a couple of days.

Thanks to you all for reading.

Stats come courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Savant.

Thanks to @cardinalsgifs for what might be my favorite piece of cover art he's ever created, at least for 1 of my posts. This pic of Leone is fantastic!


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