Are The Cardinals Taking a Risk By Having Only One Lefty Reliever In The Bullpen?

The Cardinals will open the season with only one lefthander, the esteemed  Andrew Miller, in their bullpen.

Rather than carry a second lefty reliever — the marginal Tyler Webb — the Cards went with righthander John Brebbia.

On the surface, I have no objections.

Not after watching a parade of so many mediocre lefties, or terrible lefties, marching in from the bullpen during the Bill DeWitt Jr. Era (1996-2018.)

Over past 23 seasons, the Cardinals have employed 26 lefty relievers who pitched at least 20 innings during their time with the team. Fourteen of the 26 had earned-run averages over 4.05, and only nine of 26 finished on the plus side of the metric “Wins Above Average.”

How about save percentage? Well, you shouldn’t have asked. Only five of the 26 lefty STL relievers had a save rate of at least 70 percent.

Where have you gone,  Mike Moehler?

The concept of “lefty specialist” can be overrated. There’s no need to carry weak left-throwing relievers to face an isolated LH batter.

They’re being phased out, anyway. The days of the LOOGY relievers will come to an end in 2020 when the new rule comes in, mandating a three-batter minimum for every reliever that enters the game. The lefty specialist is an endangered species.

And under the new rules, it’s advisable for a team to have a large collection of relievers that can tame RH or LH batters.

With relievers having to face at least three batters during in an appearance starting in 2020, a bullpen can’t afford to give jobs to platoon-split liabilities … you know: the relief pitchers capable of dominating RH batters, only to have allergic reactions to LH hitters. (Or vice versa.)

So if the Cardinals are serious about this and will stay with the one-lefty bullpen setup for much of the season, they’ll be getting a jump in transitioning to the new rule. And that’s positive.

Having said that …

The focus for now is on 2019. And it’s natural to have concerns. It would be beneficial to have a second lefty in the Cards’ bullpen — but only if he’s good.

And the St. Louis front office hasn’t found that guy. Brett Cecil is an absolute bust, a waste of $30.5 million.

Chasen Shreve — acquired from the Yankees last summer for Luke Voit — was designated for assignment (and waived) during the final days of spring training.

Webb was sent to Triple A Memphis.

The promising young lefty Austin Gomber could resurface with the big club as a reliever at some point this season but will begin the season in the rotation at Memphis after performing poorly during spring training.

If there’s a reason to stress over the one-lefty plan, it comes from a scan of NL Central rosters. There’s a bunch of LH bats, or switch hitters, in the division:

Cubs: Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist (switch), and Daniel Descalso.

Brewers: Christian Yelich, Travis Shaw, Mike Moustakas, Eric Thames.

Reds: Joey Votto, Jesse Winker, Scooter Gennett, Scott Schebler, Tyler Barnhart (switch), Derek Dietrich.

Pirates: Gregory Polanco, Corey Dickerson, Adam Frazier, Colin Moran, Josh Bell (switch), Lonnie Chisenhall, and Melky Cabrera (switch.)

A lot of tough outs in there.

If Andrew Miller has been used earlier in a game, or is otherwise unavailable, the Cardinals could be vulnerable in the late innings. They’ll have no choice but to use RH relievers against LH batters.

I’m a bit baffled by a few claims made by the Cardinals and  media. We’ve been told that Brebbia and fellow RH Dominic Leone are effective vs. LH hitters.

Fact check: Leone has allowed an .801 onbase-slugging percentage in facing 344 LH hitters during his career — and with a way-too-high walk rate. Leone’s xFIP vs. LH opponents is 4.19.

Fact check: Brebbia has given up a .455 slugging percentage in his 186 encounters with major-league LH batters. His xFIP against LH hitters is 5.15.

Righthanders Jordan Hicks, Alex Reyes and John Gant haven’t been damaged much by LH batters, but the three have a common problem: too many walks. LH batters have walked in 13.5 percent of their plate appearances against Hicks, 13.4% vs. Gant, and 12.8 percent against Reyes.

The same issue applies to Carlos Martinez if he’s used out of the bullpen after rehabbing a strained rotator cuff. Martinez has walked 11.3 percent of LH bats faced during his MLB career. Other than Miller, there’s only one guy in the STL bullpen who doesn’t hand out free passes to LH batters: Rightander Mike Mayers, who has a 5.8% walk rate against them.

I don’t know if the Cardinals can pull this off, and get by with one lefthanded reliever. But it’s a long season. And if this bullpen has a design flaw, management can adjust by finding a quality LH reliever to go with Miller.

Thanks for reading …

-Bernie