photo: Giovanny Gallegos (Jeff Curry/USA TODAY Sports)
What a difference a year made for the St. Louis Cardinals’ relief corps.
In 2018, the bullpen was a big reason why the team again underachieved, missing the post-season for the third consecutive season. 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 was the most reliable component of the team (arguably right up there with the defense).
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 Jordan 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.
That is significant improvement!
Against that team backdrop, we are here to select the top relief pitcher on the 2019 Cardinals. Three of the prior year’s top performers, our 2018 winner John Brebbia, Hicks and Carlos Martinez, were among those back for another year.
But the top man out of the 2019 pen was an unexpected leader – a rookie who did not even make the 25-man roster out of spring training – Giovanny Gallegos.
Let’s get into the first of three views of the numbers, all of which illustrate Gallegos’ advantage in different ways.
A quick housekeeping note first, however. Relievers are listed in all tables in the same fWAR sequence, from highest to lowest. The nine bullpen members who appeared in at least 20 games for St. Louis are included in this analysis.
|Relievers > 20 games||G||IP||K/9||BB/9||K/BB||HR/9||fWAR|
Lefty Andrew Miller made the most relief appearances for the team in 2019, but in doing so, posted the lowest fWAR, a negative 0.4. (Non-tender candidate Dominic Leone, who was left off the post-season roster, was the other below-zero contributor.)
Not only did Gallegos log the best fWAR, he threw the most innings. The rookie had the second-highest strikeout rate and lowest walk rate by a considerable margin, one key to his success. Therefore, Gallegos’ strikeout to walk ratio was far superior to all.
On the less positive side, note the very high walk rates by Miller, Leone and John Gant. Like Leone, Gant was not active in the NLDS and NLCS.
|Relievers > 20 games||ERA||FIP||BABIP||LOB%||GB%|
Gallegos’ ERA was substantially lower than the others, and though several were closer in FIP, Fielding Independent Pitching, Gallegos was second in the pen to Martinez.
On a bit of a concerning point, Gallegos joined Hicks and Tyler Webb with a very low Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP). That might balance out over time, leading to poorer overall results.
In another important stat, Gallegos again stands tallest in percentage of baserunners stranded, edging fellow rookie Ryan Helsley. Hicks was tops by far in inducing ground balls.
The next table provides further detail on the effectiveness of the relievers, underlining the choice of Gallegos.
|Relievers > 20 games||Sv||SvO||Sv%||Hld||FBF||Ret||FBR%||IR||Sco||IRS%|
Both Hicks and Martinez were very good when called upon to close down the opposition at the end of the game. Miller struggled in that role, however, as did Gallegos in the very rare chances given to him.
Not surprisingly given their roles, Miller, Gallegos and Gant were number one, two and three in holds. There is no “blown hold” stat.
Retiring the initial batter a pitcher faces often is an indicator of how his outing is going to go. Again, Gallegos was the best on the team in getting his first batter out, even topping Hicks. In fact, only Helsley, Miller and Leone came in below the team average of 69 percent, the identical mark to 2018. (Note that this is something Helsley needs to master to be considered a viable future closer candidate.)
The closer is often afforded the luxury of coming in to start the ninth inning clean. For example, in his 29 appearances, Hicks inherited just eight baserunners. (To his credit, he stranded them all.)
However, most relievers are asked fairly frequently to clean up a mess that someone else initiated. Most often in 2019, those assigned cleanup duty were Miller and Gallegos. Despite his high volume of inherited runners, Gallegos’ 84 percent success rate dominated all others (excepting Hicks).
Among the others, Martinez and Brebbia, along with the surprising pair of Miller and Leone, came in under the team average of inherited runners scoring of 29 percent.
I readily admit that when I began this exercise, I did not expect to see such strong numbers across the board from Gallegos. I knew the 28-year old native of Mexico had a good year, but not quite this good.
In just about every important measurement, whether inherited runners or his own, whether old stat or new stat, the right-hander is either on top or very close to it. Further, Gallegos compared very well to the best relievers in the National League.
Rather than repeat here many of Gallegos’ accomplishments and league rankings in his very successful 2019 season, I encourage you to check out the detail in our Rookie of the Year article.
Had not Tommy Edman also arrived during the season as such a force, Gallegos would have been both our Rookie of the Year and Reliever of the Year. Still, this honor is quite an accomplishment for a player considered by some to have been little more than a throw-in from the Yankees in the July 2018 Luke Voit trade.
Now, Gallegos looks to be the plum of the deal. He clearly earned our top reliever honors in 2019, with a bright future ahead.
Though Gallegos has one minor league option year remaining, it seems unlikely it will be used. In fact, with Hicks out until at least mid-2020 and Martinez being aimed back toward the rotation, the Cardinals may decide to go with a committee of closers in the interim. If so, one would think Gallegos has earned a very prominent place in that group.
Prior year winners
Our top reliever honorees over the past decade-plus 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 2019 award winners, team recaps and article schedules for the remainder of this series. Next up is our St. Louis Starting Pitcher of the Year.
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