Reliever Retrospective: What might have been

(This is the first of a multi-part series on the bullpen and the steps that need to be taken to fix what has become one of the team's chief problems.)

It’s pretty obvious that the Cardinals have got to find some solutions to their bullpen problems. The Cardinals finished the 2018 season with one of the game’s worst bullpens – one that pretty obviously kept the team from being a playoff team. The Cards finished 25th in the game in fWAR by relievers, 12th in the NL. By ERA, the team was 20th in baseball. By FIP, 19th. In terms of K-BB%, the Cards were 27th. By win probability added, 27th. The team tied for the 2nd most meltdowns in the game and had the 8th fewest shutdowns in the game. By nearly every conceivable measure, the Cards’ bullpen was awful.

The thing is, the Cardinals should never have been in this position. The team’s bullpen wasn’t very good in 2017 either. Sure, by fWAR and by FIP the team was actually a fair amount better, finishing 12th and 8th in the majors, respectively. But those are peripherals, and they matter, but in 2017 the results didn’t match the peripherals. The team was 24th by ERA and 18th by WPA and they had the 4th most meltdowns in the majors. The team’s bullpen has been one of its biggest problems each of the last 2 seasons and it has been a major reason that the players have been playing golf and watching TV in October.

The team’s front office went into the 2017 offseason talking about the importance of solving that problem. The team had to find a closer as Trevor Rosenthal had to have Tommy John surgery toward the end of the season, leaving the team scrambling for a closer and other important pieces. The front office seemingly inquired about every free agent reliever and discussed trading for Rays’ closer Alex Colome.

I’ve never been a fan of paying big money for relievers on the free agent market because my belief has always been that they are too mercurial. They’re up 1 year and down the next. There just aren’t all that many that teams can count on to do a good job year in and year out. If we’ve got our eye on a reliever who pitched extremely well last year, that reliever is just as likely to get hurt or be terrible the next…or so I always believed.

On the other hand, while relievers are difficult to count on, most of them aren’t often beneficiaries of high-dollar contracts. Closers, to be sure, often do get tons of bucks but middle relief guys don’t really. Even Brett Cecil, a guy who after 2 years hasn’t worked out at all for the Cardinals, only received $33 million from the team. He hasn’t been worth it, but the dollars the team has spent on him haven’t kept the team from being a playoff team. His performance, on the other hand, has contributed to those long winters.

Last offseason it was clear that the team needed more bullpen pieces. Sure, there were a couple of guys who had pitched well in 2017 that could help with bullpen depth and there were some interesting minor leaguers coming up (all of whom will be discussed in a subsequent post) but this team needed strength and it needed depth. Period. Since I’m not a big fan of spending a lot of money on a “proven closer” I did not think the team should throw an armored car at Wade Davis, for example, even though he is very good. (Davis ultimately signed with the Rockies for $52 million.) I did, however, identify 5 relievers that I thought the team should pursue in free agency and I insisted that the team needed to sign 2 of the 5. Any 2 would do.

Since this was a full year ago and since I’ve slept and had more than my fair share of libations (and tense Cardinal moments) in the last 365 days, I’m not positive which 5 relievers I identified but I believe the 5 were Pat Neshek, Juan Nicasio, Joe Smith, Tommy Hunter, and Anthony Swarzak. All 5 had had excellent 2017’s and, I thought, would be outstanding additions to the Cardinal pen in 2018. Sure, there were other relievers out there who I thought could help – Bryan Shaw, Addison Reed, and Brandon Morrow – and I would have been OK with any 2 of those as well but I preferred the 5 I mentioned previously. (While I loved Morrow, I was deeply troubled by his injury history and the fact that he was asked to pitch so many innings well into the postseason last year. As it turns out, Morrow pitched well for the Cubs this season and then was shut down for the season a couple of weeks ago with an elbow injury.)

Well, as everyone knows, the team didn’t sign any of the 5 relievers I identified. The team was a finalist for Nicasio before he signed with the Mariners. The team was also a finalist for Davis before he signed with the Rockies, clearly deciding the $52 million and the 1st rounder the team would have to forfeit for signing him were too high a price to pay. The team asked about Reed and, I think, Shaw before ending up with Bud Norris and Luke Gregerson.

I was “meh” on Gregerson and our own Zach Gifford wrote some great stuff about why the team should be concerned about him but I was bullish on Norris, thinking he could be a solid addition at the relatively low price of just $3 million. Of course, I envisioned him being the 4th or 5th option and not the closer for most of the season. While he did pitch fairly well, he wasn’t capable of carrying the burden the team forced him to carry. And then, of course, right before the season started, the team signed Greg Holland and we all know how that turned out.

I wanted to start this tour then by looking at the relievers the Cardinals could have signed instead of the trio mentioned above to see what might have been. I identified 17 different free agent relievers the Cardinals could have pursued, including the 3 they ultimately signed, to see how their seasons turned out. As you’ll see, it was a mixed bag, to say the least.

You can probably see from the image above that the relievers are sorted by ERA from lowest to highest. Bud Norris fares fairly well; Greg Holland and Luke Gregerson, not so much. Most of the pitchers who have relatively low ERA’s also have relatively low FIP’s which means that their results tend to reflect their peripherals. One notable exception is Nicasio who had great peripherals – a high K rate, a low BB rate, in particular – but a 6.00 ERA. As it turns out, Nicasio’s strand rate was a ridiculously and unsustainably low 58.1%, quite a distance from league average and from his career average of around 70%. This indicates that his poor results were due to sequencing (BB, BB, HR is much worse than HR, BB, BB, for example) and probably not something that he is likely to repeat. Nevertheless, it made his ERA 6.00 and made his WPA negative.

Several others, on the other hand, pitched pretty badly in 2018. Swarzak, Reed, and Shaw were all really good in 2017. This put them on several teams’ radars and led to the contracts they received but they were all pretty bad in 2018. In fact, 9 of the 17 relievers (including Davis whose 4.13 ERA was earned mostly by pitching in Coors Field) had ERA’s above 4.00. Seven of them had FIP’s over 4.00. Nine of them had WPA’s that were negative, meaning their teams’ win probabilities went down over the course of the season with them in the game. Only 7, including Nicasio, had fWAR’s over 0.3. All this provides a lot of fodder for the “don’t spend any money on free agent relievers” crowd.

There also seems to be nearly no connection between the amount of money teams spent on particular relievers and their respective performances. You would expect that the better relievers would get the most money and they would also pitch the best after receiving the new contract. That doesn’t appear to have happened, however. The Rockies, for instance, spent $106 million on free agent relievers in the offseason and got terrible performances from Shaw and Jake McGee and a decent, but not great, performance from Davis to show for it. Those 3 pitchers were the highest paid relievers last offseason. Of course, maybe that just speaks to the Rockies’ own ability to value relievers as, presumably, Shaw and McGee could’ve been had for roughly half the money the Rockies spent on them. Additionally, some of the better performances were turned in by people like David Hernandez, Yusmeiro Petit, and the Cards’ own Norris, who received commitments worth a combined $18 million. Meanwhile, Nicasio, Reed, Swarzak, and Holland all received at least $14 million and saw their teams’ likelihood of winning decrease with them in the game.

I’m not sure what all can be gleaned from this other than the idea that both the Cardinals and the Rockies made some pretty terrible decisions last winter. Some of the guys I liked pitched well (Hunter, Neshek, and Smith were OK to pretty good) while Swarzak was pretty awful and Nicasio pitched fairly well but ended up with terrible results. I’m not sure that it means that teams shouldn’t sign free agent relievers but it should give teams pause to figure out which relievers they should pursue and which they shouldn’t.

In the coming days, I’m going to be looking at the current state of the Cardinals’ bullpen as well as possible free agent targets the Cards could pursue. It’s clear that this is far from an exact science. Maybe it’s as much luck as it is anything else. After all, while Shaw and McGee were pitching horrendously and getting moved as far away from high-leverage situations as possible, Adam Ottavino (free agent-to-be) was turning himself into one of the best relievers on the planet and helping the Rockies return to the playoffs.

All the stats come courtesy of fangraphs today.

Thanks to @cardinalsgifs for the great Luke Gregerson pic. I wish Gregerson the pitcher was as good as Gregerson the picture.

Thanks to you all for reading.