A Blueprint for Beating the Bullpen?

For a team starved for performance from its rotation, the best news the Cardinals can take away from their disappointing trip to Colorado was the impressive efforts from their starters.  Two of the four managed quality starts (at least six innings with no more than three runs allowed).  A third (Wade LeBlanc) missed the quality start by one out, throwing 5.2 innings of shutout ball at the Rockies.  The only short start from the group was Carlos Martinez’ abbreviated 3.1 inning appearance on Sunday, but that was injury related.  To that point, Carlos had allowed 1 run on 1 hit and 1 walk.

As a group, the four starting pitchers handled 23 of the 35.1 innings required in the series, with a 2.35 aggregate ERA and a .210 batting average against.  In a ballpark that provides hitters a distinct advantage, it was as much as management could ask.

But, again, they came up short in three of the four contests.  As usual, support runs from the offense were at a premium (they scored exactly 2 runs in each of the losses, and the one game they won went into extra innings as a 3-3 tie).  Distressingly, though, a new pain point emerged over the holiday weekend.  The back end of the bullpen – the lone strength of this team throughout a disappointing first half – suddenly began hemorrhaging runs.  It’s an impossible number to overlook.  The back-end trio of Genesis Cabrera, Giovanny Gallegos and Alex Reyes combined to surrender 8 runs in 6.2 innings, principally by walking 5 batters and serving up 2 home runs in those innings.  Each of those relievers took one of the losses in the series, and Gallegos spit up the only lead entrusted to those pitchers over the four games.  The final numbers showed a 10.80 ERA and a .250/.367/.500 batting line against.

When something like that happens, it makes you wonder.  Just one of those weekends?  Credit to a team playing pretty well at home these days?  Or was there a plan in place?  Was there something that the Rockies had figured out about the back of the St Louis bullpen?  Could they have provided a blueprint that other teams could follow?

For each of these pitchers there was one surprising second-level statistic that mostly explained their individual struggle.

Reyes

Coming into the series, no Cardinal pitcher was tougher to put the ball in play against that Alex Reyes.  Of the first 274 swings taken against him this season, only 78 were put in play – just 28.5% (the team average is 37.7%).

But it took Colorado just 19 swings to put 8 baseballs into play against Alex (at 42.1%, almost double the usual rate).  All of this came against his fastball – either the four-seam or two-seam.  Overall, swinging at one or the other, the Rockies put that fastball into play on 7 of 14 swings – something that just doesn’t happen to Alex.

In 2 appearances in the series, covering 2.2 innings, Alex only gave up 2 hits – both in the ninth-inning on Sunday, both off of fastballs, both leaving the bat at speeds greater than 100 mph.  They were both singles, but a wild-pitch in between them (also a fastball) was all that was necessary to administer a 3-2 defeat in the Sunday game (box score).

The common denominator in all of these investigations is the fastball.  From the starters (LeBlanc, Martinez and Adam Wainwright) they saw almost exclusively soft stuff.

But when the fireballers at the back of the bullpen brought the fastball out of moth balls, a Colorado team that is very proficient against that pitch responded differently, but effectively against the fastball of each of these pitchers.

Reyes came into the series throwing 4.16 pitches per plate appearances – among the highest averages on the staff.  He averaged only 3.18 pitches to the 11 Rockies he faced, as they were able to do what no one else has been able to do this season.  They put his fastball in play.

The Giants scratched Alex for a couple more runs in the ninth inning last night, and they put 4 of 10 swings into play – but they were hitting his slider (which is also quite an achievement).

Sometimes you run into a team that’s swinging the bat exceptionally well.  I think that’s what has happened to Alex the last couple of nights.  Unless more teams show me they can do this to him, I’m not going to worry about Alex Reyes.

Gallegos

In a bullpen plagued by control issues, Gio Gallegos has been a pillar of command.  Coming into the series, Gallegos was throwing strikes 66.2% of the time – the best ratio on the team.  In 43 innings, he had issued just 8 walks (1.67 per 9 innings).

But, in 2 games and 2.1 innings against Colorado, Gio walked 2 (which set up his defeat on Thursday), and threw 19 of his 47 pitches out of the strike zone (meaning just 59.6% of his pitches were strikes).

Again, this was the fastball.  Gallegos has evolved into an elite late-game reliever on the strength of a wipe-out slider.  This year, though, he is extending his repertoire to include more four-seam fastballs.  At this point – and especially against this team – he may have grown too fond of the pitch.

Of the 47 pitches he threw in Colorado, 29 were four-seam fastballs.  Sixteen of the 29 were taken for balls (55.2%).

Gio was eventually beaten in that game on a slider – a terrible hanger that Elias Diaz joyfully launched 424 feet over the wall in left-center. But that came on Gio’s twenty-fifth pitch of the inning and after two full-count walks (aided in no small measure by Colorado’s unwillingness to chase his fastball) extended the inning to the red-hot Diaz.

Against Gallegos, they responded to the fastball by not swinging at it.

Gallegos also pitched in San Fran last night, facing four batters.  He struck out 3 of them (two on fastballs and one on that slider).  But the other batter launched a misplaced fastball off the top of the extremely high right-field wall for a second home run against Gio in two days.

Analysis here suggests that maybe Gallegos should dial back the usage of the fastball just a bit – especially against fastball hitting teams.  I’m not advocating disuse of the pitch.  Just, perhaps, that the use of the slider might be expanded a bit.

Cabrera

This was the most surprising of the statistical anomalies.

Genesis Cabrera threw 39 pitches at the Rockies over two appearances.  Twenty-two of those were fastballs that averaged 97.81 miles-per-hour, topping off at 99.4.  Cabrera got no swinging strikes from any of those pitches.  Instead, they hit foul after foul against him.  For the series, Colorado swung at 16 of Genesis’ pitches, fouling 11 and putting the other 5 into play.  Against the fastball, they swung 10 times, fouling 7 and putting 3 into play.

The fouls, of course, elevated Cabrera’s pitch count.  He entered the series averaging 4.07 pitches per plate appearance.  The Rockies forced him up to 4.33 per.  They also encouraged walks – and Genesis walked 2 in 1.2 innings.  One of those walks preceded Trevor Story’s three-run home run on Saturday night – that one run providing the difference in a 3-2 win (box score).

Helsley

This same trend spilled over to another of the hard-throwers out of the bullpen.  In his two appearances, Ryan Helsley threw 32 pitches.  Fifteen of them were swung at, with 9 of them fouled off, 5 hit into play and just one missed.

Between the two of them, 64.5% of Colorado’s swings against Cabrera and Helsley resulted in foul balls.  Not, I don’t think, the kind of thing you can really plan.  But something that you might see from a good fastball hitting team that doesn’t let very many of them get by them. (PS, Helsley’s one swing-and-miss wasn’t on the fastball.  It came on a cutter that he threw past Garrett Hampson.)

All of these pitchers have playable secondary pitches.  Perhaps, the slight stumble that these guys experienced in Colorado could turn to a positive if it encourages them to reflect on their individual pitch mix.

NoteBook

At 3:50, Friday’s game was the Cardinals’ longest since the June 6 loss to Cincinnati also lasted 3:50.  That was a home game.  St Louis hasn’t played a longer road game since their first game in San Diego this year on May 14.  That game (a 5-4 loss) took 4:08 to complete.

Friday and Saturday’s crowds were both well over 40,000 – something that had happened only once so far this season.  The 48,182 that showed up Saturday was the largest audience for a Cardinal game this season, and the four-game average of 40,676.8 was also the highest of the season.

At 90 degrees, the game-time temperature on Sunday was the hottest the Cards have played in since the June 14 game against Miami was also played in 90 degree temperatures.  That also was a home game.  The last time they played in this kind of heat on the road was in Arizona on May 29 – the temperature that day was 96 degrees.

The Saturday game broke a streak of 5 straight games, and 7 of 8 in which the Cards had scored the first run.

The game-winning hit in the only game the Cards won in Colorado came off the bat of Yadier Molina, and was his team-leading tenth of the season.

It was also his fifth late, game-changing hit (lgch), which also leads the team.

St Louis is now 4-10 in road series, and 3-5-1 in series against teams that had won their previous series.

Recent Scoring Changes – for those scoring at home

As reported in the Post-Dispatch, in the sixth inning of the Saturday game, Story advanced to second base on a play that was originally scored as a throwing error on Helsley.  After further review, it was decided that Trevor would have been safe regardless of the throw from Ryan, so the error has been removed and Story is credited with a stolen base.

My Designated Hitter Rant

Every year now, baseball purists in the National League are continuously threatened with the permanent infliction of the designated hitter.  Last year, I responded with an extensive rant against the DH.  While trying to update that document, I managed to delete it.  So, I have re-written it here.  The hope is to set forth a reasonable argument for keeping the DH far, far away from National League parks.  I encourage you to read it and pass it along to other like-minded fans of this great old game.

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