Closer situation presents an issue and an opportunity

In the 9th inning yesterday afternoon Jordan Hicks had to be bailed out by fellow reliever John Gant who came in and slammed the door on the Chicago Cubs to secure a 2–1 Cardinals victory. But it wasn’t the first time that Hicks has arrived on the mound looking shaky.

After saving 9 games in 9 opportunities in April with a 0.79 ERA and a 0.35 WHIP over 11.1 innings, Hicks struggled in May with a 6.14 ERA, 1.64 WHIP and just 2 saves. Part of it is a lack of save opportunities and perhaps fewer innings, but he only faced five fewer battes in May versus April.

Shildt didn’t quite have Gant intentionally warming up behind Hicks on Sunday afternoon, Gant had been warming to potentially bail out Adam Wainwright in the eighth inning, but he was ready to go and Shildt was not afraid to make the decision to go with Gant.

Gant was stellar in April with a 1.04 ERA and 0.58 WHIP mostly setting up for Hicks and has followed that up in May with a 1.86 ERA and 0.83 WHIP.

Whether Hicks was shaky as a result of being underused or just a regular recurrence of his control question marks, it illustrates the knife edge you ride with someone who has the electric stuff of Hicks paired with control issues.

For St. Louis fans, it’s nothing we’ve not seen before. Trevor Rosenthal racked up save after save, 121 to be precise, in parts of four seasons as the Cardinals’ closer. Rosenthal though paired his 4.6 BB/9 with a 12.0 K/9. When he had his stuff, even when wild, he could get out of his self made jams without putting the ball in play. And there’s a reason I joke about relievers named Jason, referencing both Isringhausen and Motte.

In order to carry a higher than typical walk rate, you need to have a higher than typical strikeout rate. And Hicks is getting closer. After an 8.1 K/9 last year, it’s up to 10.6 this year. And his 5.2 BB/9 has slid just a touch to 4.9 and it’s really going to be that number that determines the heights that Hicks will reach as a reliever.

See, because I have a theory and I’ve made this argument about Alex Reyes before. Guys like Hicks, Reyes, and really even Genesis Cabrera have the flashy, electric stuff that makes scouts and fans alike ooh and ahh, but the command flaws that could stop them from ever reaching the potential their stuff suggests are glossed over. And I’ve not seen many examples of guys developing markedly better command.

I’m not advocating to give up on Hicks at all. April showed well enough what his potential is, but what if I told you that arguably the best closer in Major League history is still a free agent?

I’m talking about Craig Kimbrel.

Now most of you are likely quick to interject at this point and say that Mariano Rivera’s resume is unrivaled and, for the length of his career and postseason success, I would have to agree with you. But when you compare Kimbrel’s eight seasons as closer to Rivera’s first eight as closer of the Yankees, they stack up pretty closely.

Rivera: 2.13 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 332 saves

Kimbrel: 1.97 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 331 saves

Now Rivera played through the steroid era, but at this point Kimbrel is, by all markers, looking like a generational closer and should be well on his way to Cooperstown as a Hall of Famer. He’s not the guy that had one or two good years in the role and is looking for a big payday because he’s a “closer.” No, he’s been a top level closer for eight seasons now without a major hiccup.

After Harper, Kimbrel was the guy I felt the Cardinals most needed to find a way to sign this winter. First, to allow Hicks to develop outside of the bullpen’s most watched role and second, if Hicks did arrive as hoped, to give the Cardinals an unrivaled 8–9 punch to lock down games for years to come.

And for teams in need of relief help, as of this morning, Kimbrel is now available without draft pick compensation.

Play of the week

Top of the 8th and Adam Wainwright is battling to complete his eight shutout inning in a game the Cardinals lead 1–0. Two on and two out, Wainwright throws two pitches away before challenging Anthony Rizzo up and in. Rizzo looks primed for a go ahead bloop single when Kolten Wong arrives and manages to pull it down for the third out.

According to Statcast, Rizzo’s ball had a 94% chance of falling for a hit.

If loving you is Wong, I don’t want to be Wainwright.

The last 14

Here’s a look at the top Cardinals hitters over the last 14 days by wRC+ and their MLB ranks among players with at least 30 plate appearances.

  1. Matt Carpenter, 162 wRC+ (T-51st in MLB)
  2. Marcell Ozuna, 148 (T-62nd)
  3. Paul Goldschmidt, 143 (T-76th)
  4. Dexter Fowler, 91 (160th)
  5. Kolten Wong, 48 (236th)

Looking back through 58

The Cardinals are 30–28 through 58 games this season. That makes them 86–76 in their last 162 games. Usually I disclaim that that also includes a 22–6 August, but it also includes a 9–18 May, so I think we can consider that even now. Here are the Cardinals’ records through 58 games for the past decade, postseason play indicated by an asterisk.

2019: 30–28, -3.0 games
2018: 32–26, -3.5
2017: 26–32, -4.5
2016: 30–28, -10.5
2015: 38–20, +6.5*
2014: 30–28, -5.0*
2013: 38–20, +2.5*
2012: 30–28, -2.0*
2011: 33–25, +2.0*
2010: 33–25, Tied
2009: 31–27, -2.5*

In the Wild Card era (since 1995), the Cardinals have been 2.5 games or more out of the division lead 12 times. In only three of those seasons have they gone on to make the playoffs (2001, 2009, and 2014).

Jon Doble has been writing about the St. Louis Cardinals since 2010. You can also find him on Twitter at @GroundRuleDoble. Thank you for reading.

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