photo: (Jeff Curry/Imagn)
The title of this article, admittedly written to catch eyes, may be a bit unfair. After all, closer Jordan Hicks was a strong contributor to the 2019 St. Louis Cardinals until injured. Yet, his bullpen mates stepped up all season long and together, were a key reason the club reached Major League Baseball’s final four.
What a difference the new season made for the Cardinals’ relief corps!
In 2018, the bullpen was a big reason why the club again underachieved, missing the post-season for the third consecutive year. The myriad of painful story lines included the busts of veteran imports Greg Holland, Luke Gregerson and Brett Cecil, plus the odd ride taken and ended with Bud Norris.
In 2019, the script flipped completely, to the point the bullpen may have been the most reliable component of the team (arguably right up there with the defense, a story still to be told here).
To accentuate the point, the relievers’ aggregate ERA was 3.82, just a tick below St. Louis’ starters (3.78) and second-ranked in the entire National League. Further, the bullpen held opposing hitters to a very strong .219 batting average against, best in all of MLB.
All this occurred despite closer Hicks blowing out his elbow in June.
A year earlier, St. Louis’ relief ERA of 4.38 ranked 12th, or fourth-worst in the Senior Circuit. In other words, the 2019 group was more than a half-earned run per nine innings better than in 2018.
In the season-ending National League Championship Series, the Cardinals’ failure should be owned by the offense with help from two of the starting pitchers, while the pen was over a run better than during the regular season (2.76 ERA).
That success could not have been anticipated given the uncertainty heading into the season.
As noted in our St. Louis Cardinals 2019 Top Story no. 9, “The Starter Who Couldn’t Start”, the team opened 2019 spring camp with no defined closer. The man who had ended 2018 in the role, Carlos Martinez, was injured again but targeted to return to the rotation when able.
(As an aside, does that sound any different from today, other than it is a year later?)
Coming out of spring training, the identity of the closer was still unstated, though it seemed the formal announcement of Hicks was avoided to keep pressure off the second-year hurler. The 22-year old’s ninth-inning usage soon did the talking for manager Mike Shildt as Hicks’ 105 mph fastballs wowed observers and grabbed headlines.
In late June, the script flipped as Hicks suffered a torn UCL, which required season-ending Tommy John surgery. The hardest-throwing pitcher in MLB appeared in 29 games, saving 14 of 15 opportunities while posting a 3.14 ERA and earning 0.5 fWAR.
At that point, Martinez had already been pulled off building up to start again and quickly slid back into closing. He was effective as well, with comparable results – 24 saves in 27 opportunities and a 3.17 ERA. His 1.2 fWAR was only third on the team, however, after Giovanny Gallegos and John Brebbia.
The 25-year old Gallegos did not even make the team out of spring training, yet ended up leading the pen in multiple categories. They include fWAR (1.6), innings pitched (74), ERA (2.31), lowest walk rate (2.0 per nine innings), best strikeout to walk ratio (5.8/1), most first batters retired (80 percent), and highest strand rate of inherited runners (84 percent).
Brebbia was second in fWAR at 1.3, tied with Gallegos for the second-most appearances (66), was third in strikeout rate (10.8 percent) and third-lowest walk rate (3.3 per nine). Lefty Andrew Miller, who had been a big free agent signing over last off-season, made the most relief appearances for the team in 2019 (73), but in doing so, posted the lowest fWAR among relievers, a negative 0.4.
John Gant, who was exceptional in the first half, with a 2.22 ERA, struggled to a 6.65 mark post-break and was left off the post-season roster as a result. Still, for the season, he delivered 0.5 fWAR. Other relievers to post a positive fWAR in 2019 were rookie Ryan Helsley and Tyler Webb (0.1 each).
For 2020, early closer candidates include Gallegos, Gant and Miller, assuming that Martinez is either in the rotation or unavailable to pitch, and no veteran is brought in from the outside. Hicks is not expected to be ready to return until mid-season.
But in 2019, there is no doubt that the improvement in the bullpen was a key reason the Cardinals won 91 regular season games and recaptured the National League Central Division title.
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