Hello again. I’m posting my latest report on individual members of the 2022 Cardinals. We’re into the pitching staff now, with reports already filed on Adam Wainwright, Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas and Jose Quintana. Today I’m taking a break from the starting pitchers to turn my attention to a masterful performer in the 2022 bullpen.
NEXT UP: Closer Ryan Helsley.
OVERVIEW: After three seasons (2019-2021) of promising but volatile relief work that was slowed by injuries, Helsley had a true breakout year in ‘22. He was overpowering and consistent and It’s not an exaggeration to say that he was on the short list of the best relievers in the majors this past season. And if Helsley’s 2022 qualified as the best job by a STL reliever in a season since Bill DeWitt Jr. and partners purchased the franchise before the 1996 season.
EXCELLENT REGULAR-SEASON STATS: Helsley leveled off a bit late in the regular season, but that was more of a case of regression to the mean. His statistics from the start of the season through the end of July were exceptional but not really sustainable. But if you take his entire body of work in the regular season, Helsley’s dominance was profound.
Here’s a summary:
— He ranked 6th among MLB relievers with 2.0 FanGraphs WAR.
— He was 3rd among qualifying MLB relievers with a 1.25 ERA.
— Only Edwin Diaz (Mets) and Devin Williams (Brewers) had a higher strikeout rate than Helsley (39.3%) among MLB relievers.
— Among relievers Helsley was 5th in the majors and 3rd in the NL with his 3.56 Win Probability Added.
— Helsley was No. 1 among big-league relievers with a runners–stranded rate of 93.4 percent.
— Opponents batted .128 against Helsley with a .201 OBP and .237 slugging percentage.
— Helsley ranked at the top of the majors with an average fastball velocity of 99.6 mph. He was in the top one percent in strikeout rate, in the top one percent in expected batting average against, was in the top three percent in whiff rate and expected slugging percentage against.
— Among qualifying Cardinal relievers in a single season during the DeWitt ERA (1996-present) Helsley’s 2022 performance ranked No. 1 in ERA, Win Probability Added, strikeout rate, and lowest walks/hits per inning, and was tied for fifth in fWAR.
— Helsley’s numbers from the start of the season until the end of July were remarkable … he had 0.64 ERA in 42.1 innings, a WHIP of 0.96, one home run allowed to 151 batters faced, a .101 batting average against him, and a strikeout rate of 42.4 percent.
LATE DOWNTURN: Over the final two regular-season months Helsley leveled off with a 2.42 ERA in 34.1 innings. During this time he was struck for five homers by 88 batters, allowed a .412 slugging percentage to LH batters, and turned in a strikeout rate of 34 percent. His walk rate was on the high side (9.1%) over the final two months. As I mentioned earlier, a regression to the mean was inevitable for Helsley over the course of the season. And some fatigue was possible – simply because Helsley had never pitched more than 47 innings in a big-league season. In 2022 Helsley went 17 innings above that previous high for innings pitched.
ALMOST PERFECT PITCHING HEALTH: One obvious key to his success was stout pitching health; for the first time in his career, Helsley went through the entire season without having to go on the IL because of injury or illness. The worst thing that happened to him was suffering a jammed middle finger on his (right) pitching hand in the Oct. 4 game at Pittsburgh. Though the X-rays were clean, Helsley wasn’t sharp when he returned to the mound for Game 1 of the wild-card series against the Phillies. The middle finger didn’t hold up. Helsley lost control and blew a 2-0 lead as Philadelphia came back for a 6-3 victory. But I blame the disaster on manager Oli Marmol, who sat and did nothing as a tiring Helsley faced seven batters in the eighth and ninth innings, giving up a hit, two walks, a hit-by-pitch and four earned runs. For Helsley it was a sad ending to an otherwise excellent campaign.
SOME STRUGGLES AGAINST BETTER COMPETITION: This is no shocker, because the challenge is more difficult for any pitcher that goes up against higher-quality opponents. But here’s a look at Helsley in the various categories, courtesy of Bill James:
* Against teams with a .600 winning percentage or higher: 3.15 ERA.
* Against teams with a winning percentage of .500 to .599: an ERA of 4.73.
* Against teams with a winning percentage of .400 to .499: an ERA of 1.43.
* Against teams with a winning percentage under .400: an ERA of 2.35.
CONCLUSION: Going into the 2022 season Helsley had a 4.04 career ERA and had allowed an opponent OPS of .734 in 2019, .769 in 2020 and .668 in 2021. But Helsley was a bonafide force in 2022, giving up just a single run in seven of 54 appearances and no more than two earned runs in 53 of his 54 assignments. He struck out 13.08 batters per nine innings, allowed a puny .438 opponent OPS, had a microscopic ERA and was selected to the National League All-Star team for the first time in his career. Helsley also received some down-ballot support for the NL Cy Young award, finishing 13th in the voting.
THREE QUESTIONS GOING FORWARD: (1) Can Helsley come close to repeating this season’s performance in 2023? That’s a tough ask. (2) Can he stay healthy? Until 2022, that’s been an issue for him. And (3) will Helsley’s endurance remain strong over a full season?
HELSLEY’S GRADE FOR 2022: This is an easy one. Even with some wobble late in the schedule, “Hells” was a Grade A closer for the Cardinals overall and a big reason why the team won the NL Central and posted their most wins in a regular season since 2015. When Helsley appeared in a regular-season game in ’22, the Cardinals had a fantastic record of 50-4.
Thanks for reading …
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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.
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.