A Stressed Cardinals Bullpen Is Struggling With a Weakened Strikeout Punch

The Cardinals’ bullpen is under duress. Feeling the strain of injuries, heavy innings, inexact roles, inadequate performances and frequent rides on the Memphis Shuttle.

Bodies in, bodies out. Tired arms, sore arms, not enough arms. The ice packs may help soothe an inflamed elbow but can’t calm a swollen earned-run average.

It’s hell out there.

Six different relievers have spent time on the disabled list this season, and three are on the DL now: Tyler Lyons, Luke Gregerson, Dominic Leone. All three were cast as important late-inning pieces, but only Lyons will pitch again soon. The Cardinals have deployed 13 relievers in their first 41 games. By my unofficial count, the big club has summoned relievers from the minors 13 times and shipped relievers back to the minors 10 times. And that doesn’t include relievers called back to St. Louis after completing minor-league injury rehab assignments.

In March-April, the Cardinals’ bullpen had a relatively normal existence, pitching fewer innings than all but one NL team. The burden increased in May … substantially … with Cardinals’ relievers ranking third in the league for most innings pitched.

And the bullpen performance reflects the difference in the volume of labor.

In March-April, with a lighter work load, the Cards bullpen ranked 7th in the league with a 3.61 ERA. But this month — with so much turmoil and extra duty — the bullpen is careening at 12th in the league with a 4.92 ERA.

The attrition and constant shuffling are destabilizing, and factors in the decline.

There’s also another issue, and frankly I don’t believe it’s received enough attention.

The Cardinals’ bullpen lacks wallop. Bud Norris and his 36 percent strikeout rate aside, there’s a shortage of knockout punchers. Compared to most other bullpens, Cardinals’ relievers are lagging in strikeout rate, swing-and-miss rate — and more vulnerable to contact and batted-ball luck. We saw that during Thursday night’s 6-2 loss to Philadelphia, when rookie reliever Jordan Hicks gave up three hits and three runs.

The Phillies didn’t smash the ball. They didn’t clobber Hicks. They didn’t whistle hard line drives all over the yard. Their hits were of the soft or medium-rare contact variety. But Hicks — who doesn’t miss many bats despite throwing 104 pitches of 100+ mph this season — was at the mercy of batted-ball luck. And after benefiting from fortunate batted ball luck all season, the luck turned on him this time.

Over the last week, the batting average on balls in play against St. Louis relievers is .366.

Bad luck hurts. And the bounces and bloops can impact strand rate. In March-April Cardinals relievers left runners on base at a healthy rate of 79.2%, which ranked fifth best in the majors. In May, that strand rate has dropped to 67.4% (ranked 24th.)

Unless the Cardinals can suddenly sling more strikes by whiffing hitters, accumulate more strikeouts, and reduce the contact rate, most of these relievers will remain susceptible to batted-ball randomness. (Not to mention homers and gap shots.)

Here are the relevant facts for you:

— The STL bullpen strikeout rate (21.4%) ranks tied for 14th in the NL and is 24th in the majors.

— Cardinals  relievers have a strikeout rate of 18.6%  against NL Central opponents.

— The contact rate against STL relievers on pitches in the strike zone  is 87.4%, the highest against any NL bullpen and the second highest versus any MLB ‘pen.

— The overall contact rate against Cards relievers (77.6%) is third highest in the majors.

— Opponents have an overall swing-miss rate of 24.4% against St. Louis relievers this season, which is fifth worst rate by a MLB bullpen.

— And what about the challenge of putting hitters away? Not good: Opponents have a two-strike miss rate of only 23.5% versus Cardinals  relievers this season. That’s the fifth lowest in MLB with two strikes.

— Cards relievers aren’t able to punch their way out of jams as often as many teams. We can see that by their 18.8 % strikeout rate with runners in scoring position — the second-lowest K rate in the majors with RISP.

— Another RISP stat: Opponents have a swing-miss rate of  22.8% against Cardinals  relievers with RISP this season; fourth lowest in MLB.

The Cardinals’ bullpen ERA has fallen to No. 10 in the league at 4.11. The fielding-independent ERA (4.15) is slightly worse at No. 12.  The stat that tells all is Win Probability Added, and in the NL only the LA Dodgers and Miami relievers are doing more to hurt their teams’ chances of winning a game than the STL bullpen right now.

I’d expect to see president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch give the bullpen a transfusion. Help could come in the form of veteran Preston Guilmet, who has 26 strikeouts in 19 innings at Triple A Memphis. (And is nearly perfect in save opps.) Or the power arm could be Double A prospect Ryan Helsley, who is averaging more than a strikeout per inning as a starter for Springfield. Helsley recently made a start for Memphis and struck out nine in 7 IP. Helsley throws 100 mph, and the strikeout rate would escalate if he pitched in relief and could attack hitters instead of pacing himself.

Something needs to be done.

More swings and misses. More strikeouts. Fewer balls in play.

Or this bullpen will continue bleeding.

Thanks for reading and have a wonderful weekend…

–Bernie

More: A Thorough Breakdown (Or Takedown???) of the Cardinals Offense