The Bullpen is Melting Down


The Cardinals won last night, but it was way more interesting than it needed to be. After looking pretty invincible the first few weeks of the season, Bud Norris has looked more like Bud and less like Chuck. He melted down like cheap vinyl siding in the Arizona summer. Some might say "it was just his second blown save out of fourteen opportunities" but I think we ought to know by now that save stats are pretty lame.


I prefer looking at Shutdowns and Meltdowns. What are Shutdowns and Meltdowns? It’s a FanGraphs stat invented by Tom Tango that is fashioned after saves/blown saves but is vastly superior because it’s a metric that uses WPA as a substitute of the archaic save stat and the rules that guide it.


A team essentially has something like a 98% likelihood of winning the game with a three-run lead with no outs, yet we've seen Matheny trot out his closer 98% of the time for the sake of save. But when the game is on the line and it’s a non-save situation, we often see managers make some strange choices in order to preserve their closer for a "save situation." As Cardinal fans, we all have a little less hair because of this. Shutdowns and Meltdowns just looks at if a relief pitcher helps or hurts his team's odds of winning the game using win probability. If they come in a more serious situation and preserve the lead, they earn a Shutdown. If they hinder the team's odds, they get a Meltdown. The threshold for a shutdown is +0.6 and a meltdown is -0.6.


We've seen a lot said about how bad the Cardinals bullpen is. But just how meltdowny (meltdownish?) have they been so far?


They have 52 Shutdowns to 40 Meltdowns. That's a 57% "success" rate, good for 28th in the league. So if it's felt bad, it's because it really is bad. The team has a 43% Meltdown rate. Only the Indians, Marlins and Royals have been worse. The Indians and the Cardinals are playoff contenders in spite of lousy bullpens thanks to good starting pitching. To give a little more context, the best teams in Shutdown rate are the Padres (74%), Cubs( 71%), Brewers (70%) and Red Sox (69%).


Here's a look at the individual relievers. I only included those who have had more than a couple of opportunities and have come in with an average leverage index of 1.00. In other words, they were coming in at an average less than garbage time, when something was actually at stake.




Now to give even more context, success rates for relievers would be rated as follows:


Excellent - 95% Great - 90% Good - 80% Average - 70% Below Average - 60% Poor - 45%


So the top would be your Josh Haders of the world, who has only had 1 Meltdown out of 19 chances. The Cardinals have Jordan Hicks in the "good" category right now, and that's it. That's not good, because many are waiting for Hicks' peripherals to catch up with him and regression to the mean to hit him like of a ton of bricks.  I consider myself to be a believer in him defying the odds, albeit with a seatbelt. Here's hoping.


Despite blowing just his 2nd save of the season, Norris had his 5th meltdown last night, putting him in that average reliever category at the moment. Last season he had 11 meltdowns and a 65% shutdown rate. The season is still very young, but the trend is getting a little alarming.


Leone is toast.


Holland we know has had a mean case of the yips, or hip impingement, or whatever the Cardinals medical staff wants to tell us. And Matt Bowman was a dumpster fire before hitting the DL.


So what do the Cardinals do? The options aren't really enticing. You can stop developing Dakota Hudson and Ryan Helsley as starters for now. Hudson's plus fastball/slider combo makes sense. Helsley also brings that good fastball and a pretty solid curve combo. But again, both are thriving now in Memphis as 23-year-old starters and you'd hate to halt that progress.


You can make possibly overpay for Proven Closers™ Brad Hand or Zach Britton, but overpaying for guys with fancy save stats hasn't worked too well lately.


Or you can hope you find the right combination of Essential Oils and herbal tea for Holland's "hip impingement". Or maybe it's a combo of all three options working out. I'm definitely pulling for Holland to bounce back and find some redemption. You hate to see someone struggle so badly for their new team.


Regardless, for a team with a solid shot at making the playoffs, I'm gonna go Captain Obvious here and say that something's gotta give as the season goes on and their young starters begin to tire. Hopefully something happens sooner than later.