Comparing the Cardinals to the Contenders: Bullpens

We know that bullpens are all the rage when it comes to October baseball. Going back to 2011 — when Tony LaRussa and the Cardinals made up for starting pitching deficiencies by throwing a parade of relievers at the issue — “bullpen-ing” has become increasingly popular. Most of the aspects of this strategy don’t translate to regular season play. Starters are pulled earlier, former starters are working in relief, and travel days allow managers to utilize their very best arms in essentially every game, sometimes for multiple innings. The name of the game is to shorten the game.

So, as I continue my comparison of the Cardinals and the other NL contenders, it’s time to check out the back end of games.

It’s not news that the Cardinals bullpen has been a weak spot this season. For most of 2018, it was propped up by Bud Norris and Jordan Hicks. It has rebounded after a July retooling, but it still isn’t what I would consider a strength. Relative to the other NL contenders, the Cardinals don’t stack up all that well. Since teams generally add relief help at or before the trade deadline, I will take the numbers back to the All-Star break to give a clearer picture of the current units.

Here are some major statistics (and their NL rank) for the contending NL bullpens.

Stat Cardinals Cubs Brewers Braves Rockies Dodgers Diamondbacks
ERA 4.07 (8) 3.85 (6) 4.53 (12) 3.71 (4) 4.17 (9) 3.89 (7) 4.87 (13)
FIP 4.62 (11) 4.18 (9) 3.99 (6) 3.62 (2) 3.80 (T-3) 3.80 (T-3) 4.48 (10)
K% 18.4% (14) 19.8% (12) 25.9% (3) 22.1% (9) 25.6% (4) 27.2% (2) 22.7% (8)
BB% 12.7% (15) 9.9% (10) 9.6% (9) 10.0% (12) 8.9% (7) 6.8% (1) 10.4% (14)
wOBA .323 (10) .299 (3) .322 (9) .306 (T-4) .306 (T-4) .294 (2) .333 (11)
AVG .248 (9) .233 (3) .246(7) .255 (10) .235 (4) .226 (2) .262 (13)
OBP .351 (14) .319 (4) .327 (7) .338 (11) .310 (3) .292 (1) .344 (13)
SLG .387 (5) .364 (2) .427 (10) .368 (3) .404 (8) .396 (6) .440 (11)

First of all, as I type the 3rd pitching article in this series, I know that I do not want to see the Dodgers’ pitching staff in the playoffs. Next, the Rockies high-priced bullpen has really taken off with the Ottavino and Oh bringing major stability. Morrow is the x-factor for the Cubs. The Brewers have a dynamite closer in Jeffress and the most dominant reliever in the baseball with Josh Hader.

The only bullpen among that group that you can argue to be worse than the Cardinals is the Arizona Diamondbacks. As is stands, they are the least likely team to make the postseason in any capacity. That makes the Cardinals bullpens the worst unit, collectively, of the NL contenders. Crazy, when you consider that they made a pretty dramatic turnaround just two weeks into the 2nd half.

Still, with the structuring of the playoffs, bullpens can be aligned and used in a way that separates them from their regular season version. Relievers that damaged the overall numbers are no longer deployed and only the best relievers see the pivotal moments. Also, sometimes a bullpen doesn’t fully form until the season’s end. For instance, Carlos Martinez could turn out to be a very good closer for the Cardinals, but he just entered the role and didn’t truly factor into the overall numbers.

So for this part of the comparison, I will lay out the bullpens by roles (assuming health).

Role Cardinals Cubs Brewers Braves Rockies Dodgers Diamondbacks
Closer Martinez Morrow Jeffress Minter Davis Jansen Boxberger
Setup Hicks Cishek Hader Vizcaino Ottavino Baez Bradley
Setup Norris Strop Knebel Brach Oberg Fields Hirano
Left Shreve Wilson Jennings Venters McGee Alexander McFarland
Left Webb De La Rosa Cedeno Biddle Musgrave Ryu Chafin
Middle Hudson Edwards Soria Carle Oh Floro Ziegler
Middle Brebbia Kintzler Williams Winkler Shaw Maeda Bracho
Middle Wainwright Chavez Burnes Fried Almonte Madson Diekman
Long Ross Montgomery Miley Newcombe Bettis Wood Godley

As far as the closers are concerned, Martinez will likely hold his own in comparison, but he is by no means the best of the group as Morrow and Jansen are as good as it gets when healthy. Martinez is probably better than the 2018 version of Wade Davis, and close to on par with Jeffress. It’s really difficult to say for certain, considering Martinez has held the job for such a short time. I don’t think it’s a huge reach to think that he will be at least solid.

Hicks and Norris (when right) have the ability to to be very good in the 7th and 8th innings. However, all of those other teams feature pitchers that have had better seasons. Still, the distance between the Cardinals setup crew and the rest isn’t as great as the distance between their middle relief and LH relief. The Cardinals seriously lag in those categories.

It’s hard to say for sure who would actual comprise the Cardinals middle relief, but (assuming healthy and efffective pitching for Wainwright) I think the three I chose are pretty close to accurate. It would be splitting hairs to argue Waino vs. Leone vs. Mayers for that spot because it would make no difference in this particular comparison. I like Brebbia, and he would fit into pretty much any team’s crew of middle relievers, but that’s where the comparison ends. I’m no longer as high on Hudson as I was early on, because he still fails to use his nasty breaking pitch to garner strikeouts and he has shown cracks as he reaches unfamiliar territory in both workload and role.

The lefties are a problem. Webb has been solid in limit use, but Shreve hasn’t inspired me. The latter really hurts because I was super high on Shreve after researching him following the trade. Unfortunately, he has a tendencies to serve up HR’s and lefties have been hitting him well this season. I wrote on Tuesday about veteran LHP Tommy Layne, who is having a great year for Memphis. I think he could help in this regard. Unfortunately, he seems to be doomed by his lack of a spot on the 40-man. That leaves Shreve and Webb as the best options (over Cecil) and they just don’t compare favorably to the other contenders. Only Colorado faces a worse situation with their LH relief. Most of the teams are able to carry 3 lefties, as their displaced 5th starters are southpaws. The Braves can feature as many as 5. All of them would be better than the Cardinals options.

Where I felt that the Cardinals rotation was generally a wash compared to the others — both due to talent as well as the ways that the starters would line up — I think that the bullpen is a clear disadvantage.

Then again, no one thought Josh Kinney, Tyler Johnson, and Adam Wainwright would turn into a lock down playoff bullpen for the 2006 squad, so anything can happen.

Thanks for reading!

Stay tuned for my next, and last, installment of this series, where I review the position players.

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Last updated: 10/06/2022