The dismal state of the St. Louis Cardinals bullpen

Not much has been going right for the Cardinals this week. Rough starts from Wainwright and Garcia were punctuated by being shutout in two consecutive games by the Giants and the Royals. The third consecutive loss (at Kansas City, 8-7) was the second time the Cards had dropped three in a row in the last seven games.

The team has alternated between a frustrated (and frustrating to watch) offense that can’t get going, and a maddening pitching staff that can’t maintain any lead. When they got relief Wednesday night (beating the Royals 5-2 in extras), it put the spotlight on a sore spot for the Cardinals that hasn’t gotten any better: the bullpen. If 2013 was a year when the Cardinals could count on their late innings relief to protect the smallest of leads, then 2014 is the year when no lead is big enough. Let’s get to the numbers:

Randy Choate has a disturbing 7.16 ERA. He’s allowed as many hits as he has strikeouts (15). He last two appearances were decent, tossing one inning each and allowing no hits, and one walk. However, the start before that he walked two, and allowed one very big hit that was good for three earned runs. He ought to be careful. His ERA is starting to creep back down, but if it gets below 6.00, he’ll be due for another rough outing.

Carlos Martinez‘ numbers don’t look that much better (4.70 ERA with 29 hits and 12 walks in 30.2 innings pitched). The troubling aspect with Martinez is the trend.  In his last outing he recorded just two outs and allowed two hits, a walk, and three earned runs. He hasn’t recorded a clean appearance of any length since May 18th when he recorded one out.  He hasn’t hit anyone, but his control is struggling. When that happens, one of  two things happen. You either walk a lot of batters or you overcompensate and leave a lot over the middle of the plate. In Carlos’ case, it’s the latter.

Seth Maness gets a lot of abuse on social media, but he’s far from the worst offender. He is mainly a victim of his own (unsustainable) success last season. He’s got an ERA of 2.81, allowing 36 hits in 25.2 innings pitched. The hits are bad, but with the ERA below 3.oo, he’s clearly still not allowing most of those hits to come around. Like the others, he’s struggled to have a clean inning recently. Of his past 10 appearances, only his most recent was clean when he pitched one inning and was perfect.

I’m stressing “clean” innings here because in relief it’s so much more important. It’s more important than ERA. Relief pitchers often inherit runners that, if they plate a run, will be charged to the previous pitcher. If you’re a manager looking at relievers to bring in with a struggling starter and two runners on, does ERA really matter to you? Or would you be more concerned with who hasn’t allowed a hit or walked anyone in their past couple outings. You can have an ERA of 0.00 and allow a go-ahead run every appearance as a reliever. But I digress…

Trevor Rosenthal certainly isn’t having the season he hoped for. His ERA stands at 4.13 and has allowed 22 hits in 28.1 innings pitched while walking a whopping 16. Yes, 16 walks by your closer. That’s completely unacceptable in that role. His last two outings have been bad, giving up three hits and two walks combined. He did manage a clean outing on May 31st against the Giants, and had been better through the middle part of May. However, he’s a far cry from the Rosenthal of 2013. Turning to him late in a game does not provide the same confidence it once did.

So let’s try to find some bright spots. Jason Motte is back and considering the length of time since his Tommy John surgery, he’s not doing too badly. His ERA is 1.35 and he’s allowed six hits in 6.2 innings pitched, walking two. He gave up a hit and allowed a run in his outing on June 2nd against the Royals, and he has allowed hits in all but one of his seven appearances. Keep in mind, however, that this is a guy who is barely over a year removed from his surgery. If you remember Wainwright’s return (about a year after his surgery), it wasn’t pretty. If Motte can keep getting low leverage opportunities, and can work his velocity a little higher, he’ll be an important part of the pen.

Let’s close by looking at the very best reliever in the entire pen, and it isn’t close: Pat Neshek. Easily the right-handed Kevin Siegrist (stats-wise) he’s gone 26.1 innings and maintained a 1.03 ERA. He’s allowed 13 hits, walked three and struck out 28. Pat did get roughed up (relatively) Tuesday night allowing three hits, and an earned run. For Neshek, that’s as bad as it gets. Literally, that’s his worst outing this season. This guy is unreal in 2014.

Honorable mention goes to Sam Freeman, who hasn’t been given many opportunities. In his 7.1 innings pitched, he still lacks an ERA and has allowed just one hit and walked four. Time will tell if he can keep it together, but if he can, the Cards will cling to a guy who can reliably put batters down in order. When Kevin Siegrist returns, things will improve. If Freeman continues on his current roll, it could be he and Siegrist for the two lefties out of the pen. In any case, this pen needs help and it needs it yesterday.

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