It can be argued that the truest pivot point for the St. Louis Cardinals was the July 27th rearrangement of the bullpen. The team is 22-7 since that point and has not lost a series. The bullpen has been a boon for the team, holding a 2.58 ERA since that day — a mark still good for 1st in the NL and 2nd in baseball — even after Saturday night’s Coors Field fueled blow-up.
This is not to take away from the managerial work of Mike Shildt. The energy is palpable and the tactical managing has been fantastic. I also can’t understate the effects of an improved offensive approach and Harrison Bader as the everyday Center Fielder. Still, the line of demarcation for this season’s turnaround is based around the bullpen shuffle.
Despite the bullpen’s overwhelming success over the past month, there is one major concern.
A lack of strikeouts.
As impressive as the bullpen has been during that time, a lot seems to be attributed to luck. Many people are waiting for the other shoe to drop, wondering when batted balls will start finding holes and the bullpen performance will level off.
I’m here to assure you that the strikeouts are on their way.
A Little Lucky
(NOTE: All numbers are from July 27th to now.)
So let’s quickly take a look at why folks are concerned about the “luck” that the bullpen has benefited from. Much lies in the peripherals.
The bullpen’s opponent batting average is 2nd in baseball at .208 and is supported by a .248 BABIP which is about 50 points below normal. There is definitely room for regression there.
Although that 2.58 ERA is sterling at #2 in baseball, their FIP of 3.97 ranks 10th, and xFIP of 4.52 ranks 24th.
Their walk rate of 11.4% is the 3rd highest in MLB. Meanwhile their strikeout rate of 19.3% is the 4th lowest. This means a lot of runners on base and balls have being put in play. Despite that, they have avoided allowing many runs.
That’s what we mean when we say they have been lucky.
Now, some of that luck is being created by having elite defenders at 2B and in CF, as well as a SS that is much better defensively than he was playing earlier this season. Outside of RF when Martinez starts, the Cardinals can boast an above-average-to-elite defender across the board. That wasn’t the case all year with Martinez at 1B, Fowler in RF and Pham in CF (Tommy was actually a minus defensively).
Against the bullpen, opponents are sending 39.1% of their batted balls into the center of the Cardinals’ defense, a rate good for 4th best in MLB. As stated, that’s where their best defenders wait.
Still, they are pressing their luck with such a low K%. But like I said, I think that it could break the other direction very soon.
An Infusion of Different Arms
The young pitchers came and calmed a stormy bullpen. I take nothing away from the brilliant work done by Dakota Hudson and others, but the bullpen has been too reliant on having ground balls end up in the gloves of their defenders.
Hudson, specifically, has been one of the most valuable relievers in the turnaround, yet his K% of 13.6% is alarmingly low. Daniel Poncedeleon, another key contributor, has just a 16.7% K-rate as a reliever.
They need the strikeout punch that can instantly free a team from a jam, without leaving anything to chance.
Now that things are settling in, I believe that some changes — a few that have happened recently and a few that we will see upon roster expansion — will return the strikeout element to the Cardinals bullpen and allow it to sustain success without fears that the “luck” will run out.
The addition of Chasen Shreve has already looked good, but having his 29% K-rate makes it even better. Though he has been here for nearly a month, his addition was the first move towards more K’s. He and Norris — and ocasionally Jordan Hicks — represented the only true strikeout threats in the bullpen.
Until a little over a week ago.
The shifting of Luke Weaver and Carlos Martinez to the bullpen should provide it with more strikeouts. With Weaver in a position to crank up his fastball velocity more often and Martinez able to reduce his repertoire to only his 3 best pitches, both should see an uptick from the 20.3% and 22.2% K%, respectively, that they have carried this year.
We’ve seen Weaver flash this ability before. During his late season promotion in 2016, he struck out 27% of hitters. Then, as he tore his way through August and September of 2017, he struck out 33.7% and 27.1% respectively in those months. I believe we will see something closer to that out of Weaver the reliever.
With Martinez, we have seen him pitch in relief before. With much more experience under his belt, he can truly attack hitters, rather than relying purely on “stuff” as he did in 2013-14.
Among Cardinals pitchers, only 3 of their top 5 K%’s for the season were on the 25-man roster at the close of play Saturday night. Flaherty leads, followed by Norris and Shreve. Up next are two gentlemen that I believe will make the most impact on the lack-of-strikeouts issue. John Brebbia and Dominic Leone.
The latter was activated from the DL on Sunday and retired all three batters faced in his first game since May 4th. For the year, he carries a solid 25.9% K%. In 2017 he struck out 29% of batters across 70.1 IP for the Blue Jays. Leone can punch people out and his return could give dramatic returns.
Brebbia has struck out 26.6% of batters in between trips to Memphis this year. Mostly caught in a numbers/options crunch, Brebbia has been solid this season. His return in September will add another strikeout weapon to Mike Shildt’s bullpen.
The final move that will improve the bullpen’s strikeout profile is a pitcher that we have yet to see in St. Louis. That pitcher is Giovanny Gallegos, acquired from the Yankees along side Shreve.
Gallegos currently has a 29.2% K% with Memphis, had a 35.7% in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre prior to the trade, and has post a 25% rate in his 20 career major league games with the Yankees. In 2017, he struck out 40.8% of batters at AAA. He currently has a 0.68 ERA across 13.1 IP with Memphis. Already on the 40-man roster, there would be no reason not to add that kind of strikeout potential to the September bullpen, even in a small role.
In the 13 days between Luke Weaver’s role change (8/19) and the expansion of rosters, the Cardinals will have been able to add 5 pitchers with a K% north of 20% to a bullpen that previously had only 4 such pitchers.
And with expanded rosters, the young starters — who did so well in plugging a sinking ship — won’t be unfairly demoted in a numbers crunch.
Additionally, if they can get there, the Cardinals will have the ability to create any type of bullpen they would like for a Wild Card game or playoff series. They can go with the multi-inning style that has served them well over the past month, or they can pile up all of their strikeout fire power and just “let it eat” in a play-in or short-series situation.
But that is thinking too far ahead.
In the near-term, I believe our concerns with the bullpen’s low K% will be eased.
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