photo: John Brebbia (Jeff Curry/USA TODAY Sports Images)
Most followers of the St. Louis Cardinals are painfully familiar with the myriad of problems encountered with the team’s bullpen in 2018. As a reminder, here are some of the key storylines.
2018 Cardinals bullpen briefs
- The high-profile and big-money late-spring signing of free agent Greg Holland to close turned into a colossal bust, culminating in his August 1 release. The Cardinals paid for Holland to finish the season working out of Washington’s bullpen.
- Originally signed to a two-year deal during the off-season to be the closer, veteran Luke Gregerson spent most of the season on the disabled list.
- In the second year of his four-year contract, lefty Brett Cecil digressed to the point he was statistically the worst reliever in the Cardinals bullpen.
- Another free agent signee, Bud Norris, stepped in as closer and was effective through August, but was removed from his role in September, as he went 0-3 and blew his only save opportunity.
- Strangely unable to return to the rotation, but deemed healthy enough to pitch in relief, Opening Day starter Carlos Martinez concluded the season as the team’s closer and not surprisingly, was effective in the role.
- Though he possessed no Double-A or Triple-A experience and was banished to the minors early in camp, 21-year old Jordan Hicks made the roster out of spring training and remained all season long. His 73 appearances led the team by a considerable margin and ranked in the top 10 in MLB.
- Despite having only a few relievers of the roster with minor league options, the Cardinals set in place a strategy to move bullpen members down to Triple-A Memphis and back up again frequently to cover innings for what appeared to be an inexperienced rotation.
Shuttle or Roulette?
What became known to many as the “I-55 Shuttle,” or as I called it, “Reliever Roulette,” was a key reason that the Triple-A Redbirds obliterated their all-time player transaction record this season with 221, as countless players moved down and back up between St. Louis and Memphis – many of them multiple times.
“We have to have fresh arms in the Minor Leagues and guys with options that we can send back and forth,” former manager Mike Matheny told MLB.com during spring training. “That’s the trend in the game right now, so we have to keep our eye on it.”
Not only did this strategy mean more transactions, but more pitchers were involved as well.
After St. Louis deployed 19 relievers in 2017, the total increased to 23 in 2018. (The latter excludes position players Greg Garcia and Jedd Gyorko, who took the mound in one blowout loss each.)
Despite all the early worries about the rotation, however, a number of youngsters stepped up to fill the gap. Even with new manager Mike Shildt’s reputation for having a quick hook, St. Louis’ starters were successful enough that the team’s bullpen threw the seventh-fewest innings in the 15-team National League in 2018.
The below-average bullpen workload still led to sub-par results. As a group, St. Louis’ relief ERA of 4.38 ranked 12th, or fourth-worst in the Senior Circuit.
With that long introduction, we are here to select the top relief pitcher on the 2018 Cardinals. Of the aforementioned 23, 18 were still around in some manner as the season concluded.
10 of the 18 logged a positive fWAR over the course of the season, though only four managed to deliver more than 0.2 fWAR.
Let’s get into the first of two views of the numbers. The relievers are listed in fWAR sequence, from highest to lowest. The break in the table separates those with a positive fWAR – our finalists – from the others, with the latter included for completeness and curiosity purposes only.
Well, color me surprised. One of the regulars on the I-55 Shuttle, John Brebbia, posted the highest fWAR in the bullpen, topping even Hicks and Martinez.
Not only that, Brebbia had the highest strikeout rate and second-lowest walk rate among the finalists. Therefore, his bullpen-best strikeout to walk ratio follows.
Further, Brebbia’s FIP, Fielding Independent Pitching, was second, behind only Martinez and his Expected FIP, is a close third after Norris and Dominic Leone.
On a less-positive point, Dakota Hudson’s very low Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP), is of potential concern as is his xFIP, third-highest in the entire pen. Also, Hudson had the poorest strikeout to walk ratio among the finalists.
The next table provides further detail on the effectiveness of the relievers. (They are listed in the same sequence as in the first table.)
Despite his final-month crash, Norris still converted almost 85 percent of his save opportunities. Martinez was perfect, but when Hicks was called upon to close down the opposition with St. Louis holding a small lead in the later innings, a blown save occurred more often than not.
Not surprising given their roles, Hicks and Hudson were number one and two in holds. There is no “blown hold” stat.
Retiring the initial batter a pitcher faces often is an indicator of how the outing is going to go. Regular starters when working in relief John Gant and Martinez were best at this, with Tyler Webb, Norris, Brebbia, Mike Mayers and Hicks all coming in ahead of the team average of 68.7 percent.
The closer is often afforded the luxury of coming in to start the ninth inning clean. Last season, for example, our Reliever of the Year, Trevor Rosenthal, inherited just six baserunners all season long.
However, most relievers are asked on occasion to clean up a mess that someone else initiated. Martinez had a spotless record, but he only had to deal with a half-dozen runners already on base. Among the others, it may be surprising that Norris led the way, with Brebbia at 21.4% the only other finalist under 29 percent.
I readily admit that when I began this exercise, I did not expect to see such strong numbers across the board from Brebbia. Yet in just about every important measurement, whether old stat or new stat, he is either on top or very close to it.
Can you imagine what else he might have been able to accomplish if he could have just stayed in St. Louis’ bullpen all season long?
Further, Brebbia was not a 2018 flash in the pan. In 2017, he led all qualifying Major League rookie relief pitchers in ERA at 2.44 and WHIP (0.93) and was seventh in appearances (50).
Yet, instead of being recognized as one of the Cardinals’ better pen assets, Brebbia drew the short straw over and over again, losing his 25-man roster spot regularly as the bullpen was churned and re-churned.
Specifically this season, the 28-year old was optioned to Memphis and recalled six different times. Here is his itinerary, also known as transaction log.
|Brebbia’s I-55 Shuttle rides – 2018||Optioned out||Recalled|
Still, Brebbia delivered whenever called upon, including pitching on consecutive days nine times this season. The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder got even better as the season progressed. During August and September, he went 2-0 with a 0.66 ERA, 19 strikeouts and a .152 (7-for-46) batting average against in 13 2/3 innings over 14 games. Perhaps it was his beard, which he famously grows out during the season, as this September 10 photo confirms).
For those who scoff at the Rule 5 Draft as a waste of time and are not impressed when old-timers like Roberto Clemente and Johan Santana are cited as positive examples, consider Brebbia.
The Cardinals added the right-hander in the 2015 Rule 5 Draft – but not in the Major League phase – via the Triple-A phase, instead. Arizona gambled and left Brebbia unprotected after signing him that September following his two most recent seasons in independent ball. St. Louis noticed and snapped him up that December for just $12,000 – without even having to place him on the 40-man roster.
Because the Tony La Russa-Dave Stewart regime in Arizona took a lot of heat for a long series of high-profile failed personnel moves, leaving Brebbia unprotected will never appear on the radar. Yet, the Cardinals nabbed a good one, who less than three years later is The Cardinal Nation 2018 St. Louis Relief Pitcher of the Year!
Though Brebbia has two minor league option years remaining, the Cardinals would appear to be far better served to keep him in St. Louis – and consider assigning him a more prominent role in 2019.
He earned it in 2017 and even more so in 2018. Front office, it is time to take notice!
Prior years’ winners
Our top bullpen honorees over the past years follow.
|TCN Reliever of the Year|
These winners are also permanently recorded under “SEASON RECAPS/TOP PLAYERS,” located on the left red menu bar here at The Cardinal Nation.
Link to master article with all 2018 award winners, team recaps and article schedules for the remainder of this series. Next up will be our St. Louis Starting Pitcher and Player of the Year.
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