Free Tyler Lyons: Cardinals Bullpen Can’t Afford An Extravagance, So Put This Good Lefty To Work

About the Cardinals bullpen…

The good: LH Brett Cecil is settled in, and as nasty as expected … RH Matthew Bowman is killing it — and killing grass with ground balls … Trevor Rosenthal is healthy and slinging 99 mph fastballs that move … Seung Hwan Oh went 5-for-5 in save opps during the Cardinals’ 6-1 turnabout, and his strikeout rate is on the rise.

Lyons has held LH batters to a .188 average in career relief appearances.

The bad: RH Jonathan Broxton, velocity, control, ERA, etc. … LH Kevin Siegrist, but probably because he’s working at less than 100 percent physically, a contributing factor to his loss of command and inflated walk rate … RH Miguel Socolovich, who only gets to pitch when the Cardinals are losing games.

The perplexing: Tyler Lyons … Tyler Lyons … Tyler Lyons. Is he a short reliever? Is he a long reliever? Do long relievers still exist? Is Lyons’ new job being in charge of answering the bullpen phone? Will he actually pitch in a big-league game anytime soon?

Lyons’ 2016 season ended July 30. He went on the DL with a knee injury that later required surgery. Lyons’ knee rehab required a little more time than expected, but he’s looked good in three starts at Class AAA Memphis. And he’s ready to return to the majors. Actually, Lyons did return to the majors. The Cardinals called him up before last week’s four-game series at Milwaukee. But Lyons sat for four days. He didn’t pitch, as the Cardinals turned to their other seven relievers instead. Lyons should have jumped into the sausage race at Miller Park. Lyons apparently was the insurance reliever — to only be used in the event of a crisis … held in reserve just in case a Cardinals’ starting pitcher took a beating and got chased from the mound after an inning or two or maybe three.

Questions:

1. If manager Mike Matheny’s plan is to use Lyons as a long reliever … why? The Cardinals already are carrying eight relievers, one over their norm. This means they’re going into each game with only four reserve position players — one being backup catcher Eric Fryer who won’t be used unless starting catcher Yadier Molina has to leave with an injury. Because of the extra reliever, the Cardinals have only backup three position players to take into a game. Not sure if it makes sense to use 32 percent of your 25-man roster allocation on relievers … especially when the eighth reliever is kept in the bubble wrap, sealed away unless a long reliever is needed.

2. Does a team really need a long reliever? Pardon my research … but since the start of the 2014 season, a span of 505 regular-season games, the Cardinals have had only 32 relief appearances that lasted 3 innings or longer. That’s 6.3 percent of their total games. And if we’re talking about a more extensive relief stint, the Cards have used a reliever for 4+ innings only 10  times in the 505 contests. That’s a scant 1.9 percent of their games. St. Louis starters have lasted less than 5 innings 69 times (13.6 percent of the total games) … and starters have lasted fewer than four innings only 3o times in 505 games (5.9%). It seems rather extravagant — and wasteful — to carry an extra arm that only pitches on rare occasion. It seems foolish to not utilize an effective reliever such as Lyons because you  might  need a long reliever … only to insert Broxton into a game …and have Broxton fail … and respond by rushing your closer (Oh) into a game for the third consecutive day.

3. If Lyons isn’t utilized much, what will this mean for several key relievers? Answer: heavy-duty work, a risky amount of work. If the Cardinals don’t trust Socolovich in high-leverage situations, and if they can’t trust Broxton to avoid setting dumpster fires, and if they can’t trust Siegrist to be the Siegrist of years past, and they won’t make frequent and valuable use of Lyons because he’s a “long reliever” … then let me put it this way: Bowman, Oh, Cecil and Rosenthal will likely be spending some time on the DL this season. So unless GM John Mozeliak resupplies Matheny with fresh bullpen arms from the minors or via trade, this will likely get ugly.

4. Isn’t this something of a pattern for Matheny? Yes, I believe so. We have seen this before. Siegrist worked at a punishing rate in 2015 and is still dealing with the repercussions. Rosenthal — pushed hard in 2014 and 2015 — had physical issues last season, and in this year’s spring training. And you may recall that Rosey was scratched from the 2015 All-Star game because of elbow soreness.

Since the start of last season Oh ranks 7th among MLB relievers for most appearances, 6th for most innings, 8th for most pitches thrown. Bowman is moving up the charts; he’s 32nd, and climbing, for most relief MLB relief appearances since the beginning of 2016.

Since July 1 of last season Bowman and Cecil are tied for 16th in the majors for most relief appearances (49.)

Let’s hope that the busiest relievers down in the STL will stay sturdy and durable.

5. What can Lyons do for the Cardinals? First of all, he’s superior to Siegrist right now. Not the Siegrist of, say, 2013 or even 2015 … but Lyons is better than the diminished version of Siegrist. Which also means that Lyons is, at minimum, the team’s No. 2 lefthander in a bullpen that currently houses three lefties. In his MLB career as a reliever, Lyons has checked LH batters to a .186 average, .255 onbase percentage and .300 slugging percentage. In those 232 plate appearances against Lyons, LH hitters have a skimpy .555 OPS and a 26 percent strikeout rate.

RH batters have done damage against Lyons during his time in the majors. That’s changing. Lyons’ slider is a helluva weapon against hitters from both sides. Consider these digits from Brooks Baseball: RH batters have a .122 average and .177 slugging percentage against the Lyons slider; that’s even better than the .136 average and .243 slug by LH hitters against Lyons’ best pitch. (Lyons needs to junk his sinker when facing RH bats; they’ve assaulted the pitch for a .611 slug.

If Lyons pitches as well as he did before the knee injury, then he’s an asset that shouldn’t be squandered in a gratuitous long-relief gig.

Thanks for reading …

Bernie 

More: Though Improved In Some Ways, the Cardinals Are Still Running Into Too Much Trouble When Running the Bases