Let’s talk about the bullpen. And no, this isn’t an overreaction to Thursday night’s raging-fire cataclysm in a savage 11-7 loss at Pittsburgh.
Specifically, I want to talk about three guys: Genesis Cabrera, Giovanny Gallegos and Alex Reyes. And if you’ve kept up with my baseball writing/analysis here at Scoops, you’ll know that I’ve repeatedly discussed their workloads, possible fatigue and the effect it’s had on their performances.
In fact, earlier this week, when writing a column about 10 Cardinals to keep an eye on during the final stretch of the season, I had the three relievers on the list.
“We should maintain a watch on the talented lefty reliever,” I wrote of Cabrera. “He’s third among NL relievers in appearances, and third in the number of relief appearances with no days off. Only eight NL relievers have thrown more innings and only eight have faced more batters.”
First, here’s the season workload for each pitcher and their respective rankings among NL relievers:
— Cabrera: 3rd in appearances (59), 7th in most batters faced (246) and tied for 8th in innings (56.2.)
— Gallegos: 12th in appearances (55), 9th in most batters faced (242) and 4th in innings (62.2.)
— Reyes: 13th in appearances (54), 6th in most batters faced (250) and tied for 8th with 56.2 innings.
Each righthander saw plenty of action in the first half; all three ranked among the top nine NL relievers for innings pitched, and in the top 12 for most batters faced.
There were signs of weariness in the days leading into the All-Star break. Gallegos had a 10.38 ERA in his final four appearances.) Reyes had a 7.36 ERA in his final three appearances. And Cabrera had a 21.50 ERA over his last five appearances.
Manager Mike Shildt makes extensive use of his three key relievers for two obvious reasons: (A) They’ve been really good, at least until recently, and (B) Shildt trusts them.
Except for the month of June, the Cardinals’ bullpen hasn’t been burdened by an excessive amount of innings as a group. And Shildt hasn’t asked the big three to fill middle-inning roles. They’re reserved for the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.
To state the obvious, Shildt’s trust factor isn’t nearly as strong with other relievers. That’s changed for the better in recent weeks with the arrival of Luis Garcia and T.J. McFarland. But when it comes to protecting late leads or preserving late ties, the manager will lean on Cabrera, Gallegos and Reyes. And with Ryan Helsley out for the remainder of the season (knee, elbow) the Cardinals have one less late-inning relief option to hold things down.
There’s another factor to consider: the Cardinals played only 58 regular-season games last season because of the pandemic, and MLB teams getting started in late July.
Last season Cabrera, Gallegos and Reyes combined to pitch 56 innings.
This season they’ve already combined to work 182 innings.
How would pitchers respond physically to the intense demands of a full season after working lightly in 2020? That was a huge concern for all MLB teams going into ‘21.
And given how frequently the three St. Louis late-show relievers have been used by Shildt this season, we shouldn’t be surprised by a clear pattern that’s emerged.
I have to throw some numbers at you. The month-by-month ERAs for each reliever.
2.92 in April
1.93 in May
3.27 in June
7.27 in July
7.59 in August
I must note that Cabrera turned in 15 consecutive relief appearances without allowing a run; it ended vs. the Pirates on Aug. 23. That said, fatigue doesn’t have a set schedule. And during the streak, Cabrera had a chance to freshen up during the All-Star break. This season Cabrera has been used on consecutive days 17 times; only one NL reliever, Tyler Rogers, has been asked to do that more often. And Cabrera has worked more than an inning in 19 appearances this season — third most by an NL reliever. Gallegos has gone 1+ innings 15 times.
2.45 in April
1.65 in May
1.64 in June
4.50 in July
6.23 in August
In the first three months Gallegos allowed a .137 batting average and .408 OPS. In July-August he’s allowed a .260 average and .788 OPS. The July-August slugging percentage against Gio has jumped by 246 (to .455) compared to the first three months. His strikeout rate, 31.8% in the first three months, is 26.4% in July-August. And his walk rate has increased. Only 10 NL relievers have been deployed more often than Gallegos in high-leverage situations this season.
0.00 in April
1.18 in May
1.86 in June
5.40 in July
6.00 in August
In addition to his 5.68 ERA in July-August, there’s been a glaring diminishment of Reyes’ strikeout rate. His K rate was 32% in the first three months and is 19.8% in July-August. In the first three months Reyes allowed a .141 average and .504 OPS; in July-August it’s been a .221 average and .667 OPS. Reyes has been used 14 times in non-save situations this season; 10 occurred before the All-Star break.
There’s been a stark change in the late-show pitching from three relievers as the season drags on. Before the All-Star break Gabrera, Gallegos and Reyes combined for a 2.72 ERA. Since the break they have a combined 4.75 ERA. And their collective strikeout rate has plummeted by six percent. One minor positive: a decrease of nearly three percent in their collective walk rate.
Cabrera had an unfortunate implosion on Thursday evening at PNC Park. As you undoubtedly know by now, the Cardinals took a 7-3 lead into the bottom of the seventh inning, only to have the Pirates explode for eight runs.
The 7th began with the Pirates getting to Cards reliever Andrew Miller for a double and a walk. Shildt summoned Cabrera, who was punched for four consecutive singles, a double and a home run.
The six-batter damage against Cabrera: six hits, six earned runs, and two inherited runners scored. That carnage required only 13 pitches thrown by the young lefthander.
In his last three appearances Cabrera has pitched to 16 batters and gotten punished for 10 hits, a walk, a homer and a double, and nine earned runs. Two of the three appearances were vs. Pittsburgh. The Pirates blasted Cabrera for 10 hits and nine earned runs in one inning — and with only 13 batters coming to the plate.
There’s nothing wrong with Cabrera’s velocity. But he’s been hanging pitches and missing location. He’s lost sharpness. And he may be tipping pitches; the Pirates jumped on everything he threw. And after the game Shildt agreed; he said tipping pitches may have been the problem. Perhaps the manager could have intervened to rush a new reliever into the game.
Cabrera, Gallegos and Reyes have a combined 6.67 ERA this month.
Thanks for reading …
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* All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.