Mike Shildt’s decision to leave Adam Wainwright in for the seventh, let alone the eighth, against the Cubs on Sunday at Busch Stadium was one of the more questionable decisions of his tenure. It rightfully commanded most of the attention post game. After all, a 37-year-old starter throwing 126 pitches against one of the better offensive teams in the league is unusual and worthy of attention. But, Shildt’s decision to pull Jordan Hicks after three batters (strikeout, walk, single) was perhaps more important and hinted at why the Cardinals should user a closer by committee, at least for now.
First, let’s look at Hicks’ struggles. In 7 1/3 innings in May, Hicks has a 6.14 ERA and has only punched out seven hitters while walking five. Left-handed hitters have been a particular source of trouble for Hicks, as they had a .405 wOBA (wOBA is explained here) against him in May. On the other hand, righties had a .164 wOBA in May. His walks increased (from 10.9 percent of plate appearances to 14.7 percent) and strikeouts decreased (from 34.8 percent to 20.6 percent).
Hicks regressed in just about every statistical category from April to May, but the general consensus is that the regression is due to a lack of regular work. The Cardinals struggles and Shildt’s surprising adherence to traditional closer usage meant Hicks only made eight appearances in May, with five of them coming after May 19th.
John Gant, who relieved Hicks on Sunday and finished off the sweep by getting a pair of groundouts, has been the Cardinals’ most versatile reliever thus far. He’s held lefties to a .224 wOBA and righties to a .167 wOBA. He’s also done a better job of limiting walks than Hicks, a necessary skill in save situations. Until Hicks is right, Gant should pitch in the most high-leverage situation.
John Brebbia and Andrew Miller have a role to play, too. Although he started the season slowly, Miller has held lefties to a .146 wOBA since May 1st. Conversely, right-handers have smacked him around for a .439 wOBA, so Miller’s pitched himself into a LOOGY role. Even though Miller isn’t being paid like a LOOGY, in high-leverage situations in which he’d face two lefties out of three, Miller would be a fine option. Brebbia has been effective against right-handed hitters all season, holding them to a .213 wOBA and punching out 31.2 percent of them. Brebbia should be deployed more aggressively in high-leverage situations against righties (only 2 1/3 of the 29 1/3 innings he’s thrown have been high-leverage, per Fangraphs).
Jordan Hicks will probably be the Cardinals best reliever for most of the season, but by removing the “ninth-inning-only” restriction, Shildt would be able to get him regular work to keep him sharp and use him at the most important part of the game regardless of the inning. Gant, Brebbia, and Miller have all been good enough to warrant more modern usage of the bullpen that the front office probably expected when they hired Shildt.
Thanks for reading.