Things Turning Around for Cardinal Bullpen

Austin Gomber, Sam Tuivailala and John Brebbia were not supposed to be the big names out of the Cardinal bullpen when management cobbled the team together over the offseason.  But (focusing on the positive) those three hurlers continued a very encouraging trend at the tail end of last night’s 5-1 loss to Cleveland (box score).

Those pitchers combined to navigate the last 5 innings of the game, allowing just 1 run on 3 hits.  They walked 1 while striking out 4.  Through the first two months of the season, the narrative was the gallant starting pitching being consistently undone by poor offensive support and a surprisingly bad bullpen. 

The June narrative, however, has been much different. 

While the rotation has shown a little resurgence recently, they just recently went 8 straight games without a quality start.  They have still contributed just 9 quality starts through the month’s first 25 games.  After Jack Flaherty’s shaky four innings last night, the rotation sits 8-8 in June with a 4.20 ERA.  They are allowing 1.20 home runs and 4.00 unintentional walks for every 9 innings pitched.

Meanwhile – after last night’s solid performance – the bullpen enters the last few days of June with a combined 3.27 ERA and a .224 batting average against.  By comparison, opposing batters are averaging just 0.92 home runs per 9 innings and 2.86 unintentional walks against this reviving bullpen – which has added 95 strikeouts over its 88 innings this month.

Emblematic of the renewed confidence of this unit was the fact that 14 of the 20 batters the bullpen faced last night saw first-pitch strikes (70%).  During the season’s first two months (that featured frequent control issues from the pen), they threw first-pitch strikes just 58% of the time.  This month, the relief corps is bringing strike one with 66% of their first-pitches.

While the recent four-game winning streak against two first-place teams was plenty encouraging – potentially the most important development to come out of a very hit-and-miss June might well be the re-emergent bullpen.

Jack Flaherty

The most disappointing aspect of last night’s loss was the return to earth of stellar rookie Jack Flaherty.  Even when the rotation was struggling this month, Flaherty was the one dependable anchor.  Through his three previous starts he had been particularly dominant.  During those previous 18.1 innings, he had allowed just 2 runs on only 6 hits.  Along the way, he struck out 26 batters.  His 0.98 ERA over those innings was matched by an .098 batting average against.  Batters missed on 36% of their swings against him in those games.

One of the few issues that Flaherty has had during his rookie season has been getting deep into games.  Last night’s game continued a couple of trends that have prevented Jack from lasting longer.

First, of the 20 batters he faced, only 12 (60%) saw first-pitch strikes.  For the month of June, he is throwing first-pitch strikes just 58.6% of the time.  For the season, that rate is just 55.0%.  At bats that begin with strike one are usually shorter.  At 4.20 pitches per batter faced, Flaherty throws more pitches per batter than anyone else who has pitched for the Cardinals this season except Alex Reyes – who threw 4.87 pitches per batter in his one injury-shortened start.

Jack also had a couple batters up in double play situations during that fateful third inning last night.  After Francisco Lindor led off with a walk, a double-play ball off the bat of Michael Brantley would likely have diffused the situation.  But Brantley’s double set up the damage to follow.  After a ground ball and an intentional walk loaded the bases, Jack was still in position to wriggle out of the inning with no damage done if he could get that ground ball.  As it turns out, he did get the grounder, but too softly hit.  Second baseman Kolten Wong got the force at second, but Lonnie Chisenhall was just quick enough to beat the return throw.  A run scored on that play, and another followed when Jason Kipnis’ flyball landed in front of Tommy Pham.

Even though there was considerable bad luck as a part of that inning, it still leaves Flaherty with just one ground ball double play this month in, now, 15 such opportunities.  Sometimes, there is just no substitute for that quick two outs.

Austin Gomber

First out of the bullpen last night – and the only Cardinal reliever to be scored against – was Austin Gomber.  Gomber is one of the young pitchers that I believe has a fine future.  His adjustment to the majors is – at the moment – just a little rocky.  He has now been scored on in 2 of his last 4 appearances, yielding 3 runs over his last 3.1 innings.  His season ERA climbs to 4.26.

During his major league stint, Gomber has been the easiest of the Cardinal pitchers to put the ball in play against.  Last night, of the 14 swings taken against Austin, 6 pitches were hit into play (42.9%).  This has been consistent with the rest of his brief career.  Of the 80 swings taken against him so far, 35 of them have put the ball into play (43.8%).  The overall team average this month is a more normal 35.3%.  The only two Cardinals to take the mound this month who have been put into play more frequently are infielders Jedd Gyorko (83.3%) and Greg Garcia (60%).

John Brebbia

One of the great “under-the-radar” stories in the Cardinal bullpen is John Brebbia, who I believe is deserving of more high-leveraged opportunities than he is getting.  He pitched the ninth inning last night, trailing by four runs.  He responded with another scoreless outing.  Twelve of his last thirteen outings have been scoreless.  Over the 13.1 innings represented by those games, John holds an 0.68 ERA with a .188 batting average against.  Of the last 53 batters he has faced, only two have managed extra-base hits (both doubles) – contributing to an opponents’ slugging percentage of .229.  He has 15 strikeouts over his last 11.2 innings – a span during which batters have missed on one third of their swings.

Brebbia is finding great success as a strike thrower.  Last night, he threw 9 of 12 pitches for strikes.  For the month, he is throwing strikes 69.1% of the time.  Of pitchers who have faced at least 20 batters this month, only Miles Mikolas (70%) is throwing more strikes.  Of pitchers who have logged significant time, Brebbia’s season-long average of 67.2% strikes is, again, second to Mikolas’ 69.3%.

John threw first-pitch strikes to 3 of the 4 batters he faced last night.  This month, he is throwing first-pitch strikes 84.4% of the time (38 out of 45).  He leads all Cardinal pitchers – regardless of number of batters faced – in first-pitch strike percentage for the season.  87 of the 115 he’s faced (75.7%) have seen strike one from John.

Major league batters are beginning to show a strong preference not to swing at John’s slider – even when it cuts through the middle of the strike zone.  Last night, the Cleveland hitters took 7 of John’s pitches – in spite of the fact that 4 of them were clear strikes.  Three of the four taken strikes were sliders – all pretty much in the middle of the zone.  For the month of June, 41.7% of the pitches that have been taken against Brebbia have been called strikes – the highest percentage of anyone on the staff who has faced at least 20 batters this month.  For the season, 39.5% of Brebbia’s pitches that are not swung at are called strikes – the highest on the staff for anyone who has faced at least 30 batters.  On average, less than a third of pitches taken are called strikes.

John gets very little attention, but he is starting to make this league look easy.

More Offensive Troubles

The hit and miss offensive show continued last night.  While there have been moments recently – and especially during the four-game winning streak – when it seemed that St Louis was on the verge of turning around the offense, June has still been a struggle.  Twenty-five games into the month, St Louis is still scuffling along with a .242 batting average for the month, and – in spite of the fact that they have hit 36 home runs in the 25 games – they are still averaging just 4.12 runs per game.  They finished last night with 1 run on 6 hits.

Jose Martinez

One of the curious aspects of the Cards’ recent offensive struggles is that they boast three legitimate player of the month candidates.  Jose Martinez continued his strong June with two more hits last night and St Louis’ only run batted in – he has 7 of those over his last four games.  He is now hitting .333 (26 for 78) his month with 4 doubles and 7 home runs.  In 21 June games, Jose has 20 runs batted in (he has 51 for the year) and a .654 slugging percentage.  Matt Carpenter (.319/.407/.660) and Marcell Ozuna (.347/.388/.611) are also having superlative Junes.

Tommy Pham

The well-publicized struggles of Tommy Pham (now hitless in 24 at bats) continued last night.  His latest 0-for-4 brought his season average down to .248.  For the month of June, Pham has now been 94 times to the plate.  All he has to show for those efforts is 16 singles, 3 home runs, 5 runs batted in, 3 walks, 23 strikeouts and 2 double-play grounders – a .209/.234/.308 slash line.  Tommy – who never struggled like this last year – is convinced that the problem is mechanical.

Dexter Fowler

Tommy has little on Dexter Fowler – whose entire season has been an anthem of frustration.  After his 0-for-4 last night, Fowler is hitting .167 for the season, and .130 for the month (7-for-54).  His hits are 5 singles and 2 doubles (a .167 slugging percentage).  In 60 June plate appearances, Fowler has no runs batted in.

Jedd Gyorko

And then there is the continuing question of Jedd Gyorko.  Reduced to part-time play – at least partially because that is how Mike Matheny feels he is best used, Jedd hasn’t been flourishing in any role.  After his 0-for-2 off the bench last night, Jedd has now played in 24 of the 25 June games – 12 as a starter and 12 off the bench.  He is slashing .170/.170/.298 as a starter and .167/.231/.250 from the bench this month.  Gyorko hasn’t gotten the press that Fowler, Wong, and now Pham are getting, but his missing bat is an important piece of the Cardinal puzzle.

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