In the Final Days Of the Regular Season, Will the Cardinals’ Bullpen Hold or Fold?

By now it’s obvious that Cardinals manager Mike Shildt is leaning heavily on Jordan Hicks and Carlos Martinez to protect late-inning leads and lock down victories. 

Not counting Luke Weaver, who was brought into lost-cause games for mop-up innings, Martinez and Hicks have pitched the most innings and faced the most batters this month in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.

It’s a matter of trust.

Shildt clearly trusts Martinez and Hicks … 100 percent.

The manager still trusts rookie RH Dakota Hudson … but not as much as before.

Shildt seems to be putting more trust in RH John Brebbia … this is smart.

The manager had unshakable faith and trust in RH Bud Norris for weeks and weeks … but not now.

Shildt would like to trust RH Dominic Leone … but isn’t fully there.

Shildt trusts the veteran RH Tyson Ross  … but mostly as a long reliever to cover innings for starters that don’t last.

Shildt really wanted to trust lefty Chasen Shreve … but can’t.

Shildt warmed up to lefty Tyler Webb … but had reasons to cool down on Webb.

Weaver: No trust … Lefty Brett Cecil … No trust.

RH Mike Mayers: Just returned from injury; level of trust to be determined.

Let’s back up.

On July 27 the Cardinals rolled out a new-look bullpen — dumping Tyler Lyons and Greg Holland and going with younger relievers — and the results were positive. For the first 22 games after the makeover games, the bullpen was a strength. Shreve came over in a deal with the Yankees at the end of July and did a nice job at first.

During this hopeful 22-game stretch, the Cardinals’ relievers posted the best ERA in the majors (2.13), and had a 3.59 fielding independent ERA that ranked sixth in MLB.

The Cards’ relievers limited opponents to a .222 average (5th in MLB), .287 onbase percentage (4th), and a .348 slugging percentage (2nd.)   The strikeout rate wasn’t great (21.4%) but the relievers did a pretty solid job of limiting walks (7.4% rate.) Their average of 1.13 walks-hits per inning ranked fourth in MLB. The bullpen allowed only 0.8 home runs per nine innings, tied for third-best overall.

Shildt trusted many relievers. And why not? Most were coming through — keeping leads safe, or keeping games close until the STL offense could bang out some late-inning runs.

The happy times did not last.

The bullpen did not hold.

From Aug. 19 through Monday’s 11-6 win over the Braves — a stretch of 27 contests  — the bullpen deteriorated. It’s been really bad.

Consider these relief-pitching stats from the previous 27 games:

There’s a 4.85 bullpen ERA which ranks 25th in the majors.  That ERA for September is 5.49, also 25th.

⇒ The fielding independent ERA for the 27 games is 5.17, which ranks 26th. The September FIP (5.22) ranks 24th.

I’m just getting started …

⇒ Over the last 27 games, Cardinals relievers have allowed a ,273 average (27th), a .388 OBP (30th, or worst in the bigs), and a .451 slug that’s tied for 24th.

⇒ The Cards rank 28th in strikeout rate (19.1%), and have the worst walk rate (14.5%) of any MLB bullpen over the past 27 games. Their average walks-hits per inning has zoomed to a MLB-worst 1.75.

⇒ The bullpen has yielded 1.2 homers per nine innings over this stretch, tied for 14th.

Let’s take a look at some individual walk rates, strikeout rates, earned-run averages and fielding independent (FIP) earned-run averages over the last 27 games. And keep in mind that the FIP is a more accurate measure than the standard ERA.

Bud Norris:  16.7% strikeout rate, 25% walk rate,  6.43 ERA,  11.29 FIP.

Brett Cecil:  6.7% strikeout rate, 20% walk rate,  9.00 ERA,  7.65 FIP.

Chasen Shreve:  20% strikeout rate, 20% walk rate,  3.00  ERA,  6.32 FIP.

Dakota Hudson:  13.2% strikeout rate, 19% walk rate,  5.91 ERA,  4.93 FIP.

Luke Weaver:   12.2% strikeout rate, 12.2 % walk rate,  10.29  ERA,  9.44 FIP.

Tyler Webb:  19.2 % strikeout rate, 11.2 % walk rate,  5.06 ERA,  5.40 FIP.

Dominic Leone:  19.5 % strikeout rate, 9.5 % walk rate,  6.23 ERA,  2.69 FIP.

Tyson Ross:  19.1 % strikeout rate, 9.4% walk rate,  2.57 ERA,  4.22 FIP.

John Brebbia:  45.0 % strikeout rate, 10.0% walk rate,  1.69 ERA,  3.34 FIP.

Carlos Martinez:  20.0% strikeout rate, 14% walk rate,  2.19 ERA,  3.23  FIP.

Jordan Hicks:   34.% strikeout rate, 16% walk rate,  2.53 ERA,  3.43 FIP.

Now, let’s circle back for a few notable observations:

1. How about Brebbia’s 45% strikeout rate? He should receive more high-leverage chances because this bullpen is short on strikeout punch. And Brebbia’s 3.34 FIP is third-best among Cards’ relievers since Aug. 18.

2. Hicks is back to striking out guys again, as the 34% K rate shows. Too many walks, yes. But let me add this information into the evaluation: In September, Hicks’ walk rate is a little high — but a reasonable 8.7 percent. And his strikeout rate (34.8% ) has gone up this month.  Hicks’ 3.43 FIP ranks fourth among STL relievers since Aug. 18.

3. Carlos Martinez has a disappointing K/BB ratio, and he’s vulnerable to LH batters. But his 2.19 ERA, 3.23 FIP (second among STL relievers) and toughness under pressure make him a natural go-to guy.

4. Leone is an interesting study. The surface stats look pedestrian. But he has the best FIP (2.69) in the bullpen since Aug. 18 … and though his walk rate is too high in September (12.8%), his strikeout rate this month is 26%. And his FIP for September is a cool 2.91.  He probably warrants more of a role, and Shildt seems to be heading that way.

5. Tyson Ross may be more useful in a short relief role. He doesn’t strike out a bunch of hitters, but his walk rate for September is a low 3 percent. And his FIP this month is 3.82. Not terrific — but better than most.

6. Dakota Hudson’s future is in the starting rotation. Sure, he gets the ground balls, which can helpful for a reliever. But a reliever with a low strikeout rate and an inflated walk rate — and more walks than K’s — makes for a combustible combination.

7. Given his strikeout punch as a starter, 27.5%, it’s fair to wonder if occasional starter Daniel Poncedeleon would be more valuable in a relief role.

8. The Cardinals may get some help from the minors after Memphis plays Durham in the Triple A Championship game on Tuesday night. Derrick Goold of the Post-Dispatch and STLtoday dropped a hint, writing that the Cardinals are thinking about promoting RH Giovanny Gallegos, and LH Genesis Cabrera. Gallegos was part of the deal with the Yankees for Luke Voit, and Cabrera was of three prospects who came to the Cardinals from Tampa Bay in the trade for Tommy Pham.

9. Finally, and this is important, but batted-ball luck was a huge factor in the bullpen’s demise. When the relievers were clicking over the first 22 games starting July 27, they benefited from an abnormally batting average of .266 in balls in play. That figure was so low — an outlier — it was just a matter of time before the luck changed and turned on the Cardinals. Sure enough, over the past 27 games, the batting average on balls in play against the STL bullpen was .323 — fifth highest in the majors.

The best way to counter poor batted-ball luck is to strike out more hitters, and that’s a substantial weakness for this bullpen. Most Cardinals’ relievers struggle to finish hitters off,  and are way below average in notching a strikeout after getting two strikes on a hitter.

Over the past 27 games, Cardinals relievers allowed an OBP of .332 after getting two strikes on an opponent. That’s terrible … the worst two-strike OBP against an MLB by a bullpen during the last month. The bullpen has allowed an OPS of .677 after getting hitters into two-strike counts; that’s the second worst in the majors over the last month and far above the league average of .512.

Cardinals’ relief pitchers have a strikeout rate of only 36.9% with two strikes over the last month; that’s the second worst in MLB and considerably lower than the league average of 43.3 percent. 

And the St. Louis relievers have a strike rate of just 59.9% over the last 30 days — lowest in MLB.

The Cardinals have a very good chance of bagging a wild-card playoff spot, and it would be a shame to miss out because of an extremely vulnerable bullpen.

Throw strikes, boys. Throw strikes.

And rack up those strikeouts. If you get that done, you’ll be that much closer to reaching the postseason.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: ESPN’s Sciambi on How NL West Happenings Could Help Cards’ Playoff Chances