The Solution for Trevor Rosenthal? Keep the Faith. And Keep Pitching Him.

UPDATE: This piece was written on Friday morning. Trevor Rosenthal had an especially brutal blown save in Friday night’s loss at Seattle, and on Saturday manager Mike Matheny said he’d decided to remove Rosethal from the closer’s role, at least for a while. Matheny also said a closing “committee” is possible rather than designate a specific closer. We’ll see how all of this works out. Hopefully Rosenthal will regroup. 

Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal is the object of considerable angst in our town. And while no one has reacted to the closer crisis by jumping off the Eads Bridge, you kind of get the idea that disgruntled fans would volunteer to shove Rosenthal into the Mississippi River.

Trevor Rosenthal
In 23 career postseason games for St. Louis, Rosenthal has an 0.69 ERA.

Welcome to the life of a closer.

Before we get into it let me declare that I’m no fan of the “save” statistic. I can’t stand the way managers obsess over their silly unwritten rules for closers. But to managers, GMs, relievers and player agents the “save” is the coin of the realm.

It’s how closers are judged. I’m not going to waste time on a futile rant about eliminating the save or the one-closer system.

There’s no point. And it’s irrelevant to the Rosenthal discussion.

Rosenthal has been one of the best closers in baseball over the past three seasons with a 91 percent save percentage that ranks 10th in the majors over that time. And even this year, despite his many turbulent outings, Rosenthal has saved 14 games in 16 opportunities.  That isn’t bad.

In Cardinals history, among closers that have notched at least 50 saves, Rosenthal ranks second to Al Brazle in save percentage.

Rosenthal’s career save rate (87.3%) tops a lengthy roll call of Cards closers including Bruce Sutter, Lee Smith, Todd Worrell, Jason Isringhausen, Dennis Eckersley, Jason Motte, Al Hrabosky, Joe Hoerner.

This doesn’t mean Rosey is better than those guys, but if we insist on making saves the measure he’s handled the gig as well as anybody. Last season Rosenthal set a single-season franchise record with 48 saves. In 23 career postseason games for St. Louis he has an 0.69 ERA with an imposing average of 14.5 strikeouts per nine innings. It’s an impressive body of work, especially for a young gun. Rosenthal is still only 26.

That career profile is among the reasons why I think we should calm down about Rosenthal’s wild, volatile form over the first two-plus months. No doubt, he’s caused alarm with his horrendous, career-worst 17.2 percent walk rate and his troubling, career-worst 1.92 WHIP. (Walks/hits per inning.) He’s also allowed 0.72 homers per nine innings, an increase over his normal levels.

I’m not trying to gloss over these ugly numbers. I’m just opposed to overreacting.

Even with Rosenthal gusting all over the place and raising the blood-pressure rates of many Cardinals fans, his adventures haven’t caused much damage.

Since we’re all about saves and the bottom-line results — you either get it done or not — this is does not qualify as a crisis.

The Cardinals are doing a better job than most teams of protecting leads.

According to Baseball Reference, when MLB teams enter the 7th inning with a lead they have a winning percentage of .814. The Cardinals beat that, with a win percentage of .889 when taking a lead into the seventh. The Cardinals (.906) are slightly below the MLB average (.921) for winning percentage when carrying a lead into the eighth inning. But they’re 29-3 in those situations, and that’s fine.

What about having a lead going into the ninth? That’s Rosenthal territory.

And the Cardinals’ win percentage when trying to secure a ninth-inning lead (.973) is better than the MLB rate of .967.

Rosenthal’s meltdowns are unsightly but haven’t come at a severe cost.

I say keep Rosenthal busy. Let him get realigned. There’s no reason to move away from him now.

I have many reasons for arriving at the opinion:

— Nothing is wrong with him physically. Rosenthal is still pumping 98 mph fastballs. His “stuff” hasn’t eroded. He isn’t old. He isn’t wearing down. He’s striking out hitters at a rate of 31 percent this season — the second-best knockout record of his career.

— An issue is sporadic work load. Nearly 37 percent of the Cards’ games have been blow-outs this season; that’s way up from last year’s 23 percent rout rate. Closers don’t pitch in blowouts. When Rosenthal has pitched on consecutive days this season his ERA is 1.93. And Rosey hasn’t allowed a run when he’s pitched on one day of rest. But when he sits around … well, judge for yourselves: 9.53 ERA on two days rest; 6.14 ERA on 3-to-5 days of rest. Rosenthal already has sat for three days or more on nine different occasions this season. He’s sat for two days between appearances seven times.

— Rosenthal is at his best when he works regularly. And because of the large volume of blow-outs and manager Mike Matheny being so steadfast in playing by the unwritten rules on closers and saves, Rosenthal hasn’t pitched on a regular basis. I think that’s a factor.

— In save situations this season (18 games), Rosenthal has a 1.93 ERA — giving up three earned runs in 16 innings with 12 walks and 22 strikeouts and allowing an OPS of .658. His WHIP in those situations is on the high side (1.56) but still better when he works in non-save situations.

— Speaking of those non-save appearances: Rosenthal has a 10.13 ERA when relieving without a save on line with an OPS of 1.031. This is probably random. But Rosenthal is wired for pressure situations. He doesn’t scare out there. He may lose control with his pitches but rarely loses control of his emotions.

— Yes, Seung Hwan Oh could do the job as the closer. He’s been remarkable this season, giving the Cardinals a bunch of valuable innings as a setup reliever in high-leverage scenarios. Oh’s strikeout rate (35%) and swing-miss rate (37.4%) are terrific. After a prestigious career as a closer in Korea and Japan, Oh is making a seamless transition to major-league baseball. But why mess with that? If Oh is used for save-only purposes, who fills his vacated role?

— Oh leads Cards relievers in appearances and innings. Do you want to put Rosey in the eighth inning? If he’s so scary and unacceptable to you now, then why do you think he’d automatically cruise through high-leverage settings in the seventh or eighth innings? You can move Rosenthal, sure. But then you’re just transferring the problem. Do you want Seth Maness as your eighth-inning specialist? What about Jonathan Broxton? Lefty Kevin Siegrist is very good, but we’ve seen Matheny work him too hard in the past. In a reconfigured bullpen I am pretty sure that would happen again. I don’t see the logic of solving one problem only to create another.

Some have suggested sending Rosenthal to Triple A Memphis and let him regroup. I can’t see it, and I don’t believe a demotion is warranted. Rosenthal’s talent is formidable. We’ve seen him push through control-related issues before and he can do it again.

Aside from Rosenthal I’d like to see the Cardinals add a reliever — promote Miguel Socolovich, make a trade, or maybe elevate Alex Reyes at some point — but they have a traffic jam. The Cardinals probably don’t want to risk losing LH Tyler Lyons (out of options) or promising RH Matthew Bowman (Rule 5 pick; must stay here all season.) It isn’t easy to work this bullpen puzzle.

I understand that Rosenthal is causing anxiety. But I’m in favor of giving him more time to make corrections and reestablish consistency. It would help to get Rosenthal into a steadier work pattern. Last season, through the Cardinals’ first 71 games, Rosenthal had logged 32 innings pitched. This year through 71 games, he’s worked only 24 innings.

Rosenthal has too much talent to continue with his erratic form. And he’s too talented to give up on.

Stay the course for a while longer.

Thanks for reading …


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