Cardinals: Let’s Talk About The Bullpen

Maybe you haven’t noticed, but the Cardinals are playing pretty well. Since Mike Shildt ascended to the managerial throne, the team is 18-9, the best mark in the National League. The current 7-game winning streak has put them at 10 games over .500 for the first time since the final game of 2016. They have not been 11 games over or better since the 100-win season of 2015. The effort has allowed the Cardinals to pull within 1 game of a Wild Card spot, and within 4 games of the NL Central leading Cubs. Considering that they were 9 games back in the division when they woke up on July 27th, it’s been an impressive climb.

I could go on and on about how they are taking advantage of a schedule that has allowed them to gain ground while other contenders beat up on each other. And how they need to continue the winning ways as they get into the teeth of a tough remaining schedule. But that’s not what I’m here for. I want to flip back to that July 27th date for a moment.

A Pivot Point

The 8.5 games back following July 25th’s game — 9 games back after the Cubs won on the July 26th off day — matched their biggest deficit of the season. They had fallen to 51-51, teetering on dropping below .500 after a disappointing series against the Reds. Despite the efforts — and obvious improvements — of Mike Shildt, the team was only 4-5 under the new manager. Why? Because the bullpen was still sabotaging the team.

Even after the change in leadership, we still saw the same old performance from the bullpen. Leads were hard to hold unless Hicks or Norris made an appearance. Even more crippling were the close deficits that the bullpen allowed to get out of hand. Think of how many times we’ve seen the Cardinals climb back from a 1 or 2-run deficit to win in the last couple weeks. Good teams do it all the time. However, it was incredibly difficult for the Cardinals to do so when they had no options other than to turn to Brett Cecil, Tyler Lyons, or Greg Holland, only to watch a 4-2 game quickly become a 7-2 game. Brett Cecil managed to pull that exact feat twice in the 5-game Chicago series. As much as getting the ball to Hicks or Norris was an issue, not being able to keep opponents at bay to give yourself a chance was even more crippling.

That’s why it is an interesting turning point to look at, because when the team took the field on the 27th (following an off day) half of the bullpen that existed on July 25th had been replaced.

It began with the trade of Sam Tuivailala, a solid but replaceable arm that lacked options (flexibility). The Cardinals actually got a pretty exciting future relief prospect in return (check out Seth Elledge’s numbers). Then Cecil was placed on the DL. Then we saw the the long talked about DFA of Greg Holland, as well as Tyler Lyons (who went unclaimed and is now in Memphis, but no longer on the 40-man roster). Luke Gregerson was later shut down for the season.

In came Dakota Hudson, Daniel Poncedeleon, Tyler Webb, and Austin Gomber. Just a day later, the Cardinals would trade for lefty Chasen Shreve, and Gomber would replace Martinez in the rotation.

A totally remade bullpen. It was a rare mid-season overhaul, the likes of which we haven’t seen since 2011. While the managerial change is still the most important move overall, the bullpen remodel serves as the most significant pivot point in the 2018 season.

What Has Happened Since

Let me start by saying that the team is 13-4 since that point. Only the ridiculous Boston Red Sox have been better. They have yet to lose a series, a streak which will expand to 6 as Tuesday’s win assured no worse than a split with Washington. Barely halfway through the month, they are 11-2 in August, just 1 win shy of the totals posted in both June and July.

A lot can be attributed to the manager, to Matt Carpenter, and to a rotation that has settled in. But I have no doubt that the success of the bullpen has helped aid the soaring confidence of this team.

Here is what the unit has been up to since the rearrangement (7/27).

1.90 ERA
.196 Opponent Batting Average
.288 Opponent SLG%
.259 Opponent wOBA

All of those figures lead Major League Baseball during that time. They also rank 2nd in opponent OBP (.282), 2nd in strand rate (85.2%), and 3rd in WHIP (1.09).

They have lacked some strikeout punch, only posting a 20.7% K%. However, they are finding success in quick and efficient outs. They have a solid GB% of 42.4% and have somehow been coercing batters to take the ball up the middle (at a league leading rate of 42%) where they store a much more comfortable and solid Paul DeJong, and elite defenders in 2B Kolten Wong and CF Harrison Bader. I don’t know if that is a planned approach, but opponents are putting a lot of batted balls right into the strongest area of the team’s defense.

Mike Shildt has also done great work in managing his bullpen, both in-game and over the course of the week. He has used the converted starters to finish off games by going multiple innings, thus giving him a mostly fresh and rested bullpen on a daily basis. It’s a far cry from the snowball effect that the previous manager’s usage had on availability.

This bullpen has been able to close out wins. Nearly as important, they have been able to keep games within reach and give the now revived offense a chance to comeback.

There have been a couple hiccups mixed in, but this unit has gone from glaring weakness to a clear strength. Not coincidentally, the team has been rolling now that they are free from the shackles.

Moving Forward

It is expected that the Cardinals will activate Brett Cecil from the disabled list on Wednesday. He was reportedly dealing with a foot issue since spring training that has effected his pitching. Unfortunately, the team has a lot of future salary sunk into him, so they will give him every opportunity to earn it. Unfortunately, this means Tyler Webb — yet to allow a run in 7.2 innings — will head back to Memphis. One thing to keep in mind is that Cecil steps back into a bullpen that is much different than the one he left on July 27th. Previously, the Cardinals LHP’s were Cecil and Lyons, an almost no-win situation regardless of which one you chose. Now, the team has Chasen Shreve. He has allowed just 1 run (on a HR) in 5.1 innings since joining the team, good for a 1.69 ERA. He also has 7 K’s in that time, or 33% of the batter’s he has faced. Shildt isn’t forced to use Cecil, he has another option. Cecil essentially has two weeks to prove he is worth using, otherwise he will be buried on the depth chart when September arrives and all bullpen options are available due to expanded rosters.

Another pitcher on the mend is Dominic Leone. His early season was hit and miss, but he could return to bring more strikeout firepower to the bullpen. He carried a 2.56 ERA in 2017 and, if healthy, could yet become a weapon down the stretch. Leone still retains a minor league option, so it isn’t necessarily a given that he rejoins the MLB team at the conclusion of his rehab assignment. He may have to continue to prove his health and effectiveness in Memphis.

Carlos Martinez looms as a wild card, though he is likely still a week or more away. The plan is now to use him as a reliever for the remainder of the year. He too can bring more strikeout punch to the unit, if he is healthy. Unfortunately, it would mean forcing out a younger pitcher that has done well.

The eventual return of Michael Wacha isn’t likely to affect the bullpen too much as it probably comes closer to September 1st, so whomever gets bounced from the rotation can slide into the bullpen without pushing someone else to Memphis. Adam Wainwright likely fits into the September picture as well, rather than complicating things in August.

The Cardinals will face difficult decisions, again, with the bullpen as veterans get healthy. However, it is clear how much of a difference the unit assembled on July 27th has made. I believe the front office recognizes this and will do what they must to keep it, mostly, in place.

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Thanks to Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference for the stats!

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