Greetings. Today I complete my year-end review of Cardinal players.
In Part One, I covered the position players.
In Part Two, I assessed the starting pitchers.
Now we’re here at Part Three, and it’s time to inspect the relevant relievers. I appreciate ya’ll for reading these pieces and I hope you’ve enjoyed them.
Alex Reyes: He made the All-Star team, deservedly so, based on his 0.96 ERA, perfect save percentage, and a strikeout rate of 32.1 percent over the first three months of the season. Sure, the walk rate (19%) was a concern. But the attitude with the Cardinals and fans and media was along the lines of “so what?” The walks didn’t cost Reyes or the team many runs, and he was 22-for-22 on save opps through July 18. Walks? Who cares? Reyes was an intimidator who dominated hitters. The walks? Well, he was toying with them. Or something like that. Nothing to see here.
Reyes couldn’t sustain his domination over the final three months, and basically had a season that we can split in two.
First three months, second three months.
ERA: 0.96 … 5.71
Strikeout rate: 32.1% … 27.8 %
Walk rate: 19% … 14%
Opponent OPS: .505 … .710
HR rate: 0.5 per 9 IP … 1.8 per 9 IP
Left on base percentage: 95.1 … 59.2
That plummeting LOB percentage is telling; unlike the early months of the season, Reyes couldn’t make as many clean getaways after walking into games.
Though Reyes lowered his walk rate over the final three months of the season, let’s not be stupid here. Walking 14% of the hitters is just awful, not to mention wasteful, even if it isn’t quite as bad as walking ‘em 19% of the time.
By walking so many opponents — and often drifting into three-ball counts — Reyes threw more pitches than he needed to. In the first three months of the season, only six relievers faced more batters than Reyes (317.) That probably wasn’t good for him. Not after he’d worked only 26 and ⅔ big-league innings from 2017 through 2020.
Reyes lost velocity during the final three months. His four-seam fastball and sinker dropped by one mile per hour, and his slider went down by two mph. That would explain his decline in strikeout rate. And he didn’t miss as many bats.
The Reyes whiff/swing rates in the first 3 months, then the final 3 months:
Four-seam fastball: 27.18% … 18%
Sinker: 19.6% … 12%
Slider: 59% …. 53%
From the beginning of July to the end of the regular season, hitters ripped into the Reyes four-seamer for a .278 average and .417 slug. In the first three months, they hit .140 with a .180 slug against the same pitch. And it was the same story with his sinker: a .143 average and .143 slug during the opening three months, followed by a .306 average and .472 slug from July 1 on. After allowing one homer and a .068 ISO (isolated power) on his slider in the first three months, Reyes was struck for three homers and a .200 ISO during the final three months.
Appropriately, the Cardinals’ season ended in the NL wild-card game at Dodger Stadium, with Reyes throwing a flat slider to Chris Taylor for the two-run homer that walked the Cardinals off the postseason stage.
A few quickie points on Reyes:
1) I understand why manager Mike Shildt would lean on Reyes so often during the first half of the season; the big righthander was money when it came time to close out victories. But Reyes became vulnerable in the second half, and the Cardinals were hit with repercussions.
2) I don’t blame Shildt; after all it was president of baseball operations John Mozeliak who said the goal was to get 100 innings for Reyes in 2021 to get him ready for a starting-rotation role in 2022. That was a green light to Shildt.
3) Reyes had a 5.84 ERA during August-September and was pounded for seven homers in only 24 and ⅔ innings. Shildt wisely pivoted from Reyes as the closer and handed the assignment to Giovanny Gallegos. But I still don’t understand why Shildt made the wrong choice in the wild-card game by inserting Reyes in the ninth inning. It was a bad spot for Reyes. Managers must make cold, professional decisions and do what’s best for the team. They must take the sentiment out of it.
Finally, maybe we should have anticipated a Reyes fade as the season went on. He hadn’t pitched much since making his big-league debut in 2016. The closer role is tough — physically and mentally draining. And Reyes clearly endured a crisis of confidence in the late stage of the season.
I hope the Cardinals give him the opportunity — a true and honest opportunity — to fill a rotation spot in 2022. Reyes has four pitches and can make it five pitches by adding the curveball that he largely discarded in the season’s second half. Pitching every fifth day will give him time to prepare, and recover, and get into a routine that includes sharpening pitches in between-starts sessions.
Reyes obviously has the powerful stuff to be an impact reliever but that isn’t the point. The volume and volatility of high-leverage relief is too risky going forward. Management continues to portray Reyes as a future starter.
Well, at some point, you actually have to make him a starter. Let’s go. He deserves the shot. And 2022 is the right time. And if it isn’t the right time, then just be honest and tell us that he’s been recast as a reliever. But enough already with the head fakes.
Giovanny Gallegos: A heavy usage pattern got to him. And Gio was shaky and unreliable in July through the early part of August. In 16 appearances during that stretch he had a 7.04 ERA, three blown saves in four attempts, a falling strikeout rate (24%), and got popped for a .491 slugging percentage. But Gallegos rebounded splendidly over his final 24 appearances of the regular season: 2.25 ERA; 2.00 fielding independent ERA. Plus a 36.8 strikeout rate and 13 saves in 14 opps. Gallegos tied for having the most blown saves (8) among NL relievers in 2021, but he clearly became more comfortable in the role.
Gio’s overall body of work was impressive.
Gallegos among NL relievers:
— 2nd in WAR (2.2) to Milwaukee’s Josh Hader (2.6.)
— tied for 3rd for most relief innings, 80.1
— tied for 4th with 73 relief appearances
— 5th in strikeout-walk ratio, 4.75
— 6th in fielding independent ERA, 2.75
— 9th in Win Probability Added, 2.4
One more note: the Cardinals traded slugger Luke Voit to the Yankees in late July of 2018 in exchange for Gallegos and reliever Chasen Shreve. Gallegos made only two brief relief appearances after joining the Cardinals in ‘18. But since the start of the 2019 season, Gallegos has 4.4 WAR — more than Voit’s 3.9.
Genesis Cabrera: There’s a lot to like about Cabby’s 2021 season. He was a workhorse. He stayed healthy. He was always on call. Among NL lefty relievers that worked at least 50 IP, Cabrera was second with 70 innings, tied for second with 71 appearances, tied for fourth for lowest home-run rate, and ranked seventh with a 3.28 fielding independent ERA.
But workhorses do tire at some point. Much like Reyes and Gallegos, Cabrera ran out of gas during the summer peak, posting a 7.45 ERA and 4.36 fielding independent ERA in July-August. But he refilled in September for a 1.35 ERA in 12 appearances and 13.1 innings. It all added up to a 3.73 ERA.
Pause me if you’ve heard this before: Cabrera walked too many batters. Among NL lefty relievers his 12.2 walk rate was fourth-worst in the league. And though he struck out 26 percent of the hitters, his 2.14 strikeout-walk ratio was nothing special.
Cabrera also allowed 40 percent of inherited runners to score. Some of this was random, but 40% is a big number.
Cabrera has a weird platoon split going; in 2021 he was better against righthanded batters than lefthanded batters. RHB hit .178 with a .550 OPS against him; LHB hit .261 with a .757 OPS.
But after taking a closer look, it seems that Cabrera suffered a bad case of batted-ball luck when he faced LH batters. They hit only one homer against him, so that wasn’t a problem. But LH batters had a .359 average against Cabrera on balls in play, and that was the highest BIP average by a LHB against a NL lefthanded pitcher in .359.
At 25, Cabrera is talented but still raw. He’s been a terrific addition to the bullpen, and it isn’t easy to find lefty relievers who can tame righthanded batters. Going forward, Cabrera has to sharply reduce his walk total and find a way to be more effective against LH batters.
I mentioned the poor batted-ball luck. But I just spotted this on his profile page at Brooks Baseball: LH batters hit .200 against his four-seam fastball and .200 against his sinker — and had little power when connecting with both pitches. The damage came when Cabrera threw a changeup or curve to lefties. He didn’t throw many of them, and I can see why. The numbers weren’t good. He’ll have to develop one of those pitches to keep LH batters off balance.
One more thing, and I’ll move on: Cabrera hit Philadelphia’s Bryce Harper with two pitches — one that struck Harper on the side of the face — during an April 28 game at Busch Stadium. Harper bats lefthanded. Before hitting Harper twice in that game, Cabrera had limited LHB to a .231 average, with a strikeout rate of 37.5 percent. After that evening, and for the rest of the season, Cabrera gave up a .266 average to LH bats, with a much lower strikeout rate of 24%. Could mean something. Could mean nothing.
Luis Garcia: In early July, the veteran righthander signed with the Cardinals after opting out of his minor-league contract with the Yankees. Garcia got off to a rough start for the Cardinals, with three consecutive terrible relief appearances in his relaunch in the majors.
Garcia was much, much better after that and became a valuable piece in a refurbished bullpen. In his final 31 appearances of the season, covering 32 and ⅓ innings, he pitched to a 1.67 ERA, and held batters to a .087 average with runners in scoring position. He displayed a good strikeout punch, didn’t walk many, and got lots of ground balls.
Garcia had problems against lefthanded batters — yielding a .488 slugging percentage — and that’s something to keep in mind if the Cardinals opt to re-sign him.
Against RH batters? Forget about it. In 77 plate appearances they walked only two times, batted .135 with a .318 OPS, and slapped ground balls at a rate of 49 percent.
Garcia played an important role in the Cardinals’ late-season turnaround. We thank him for that.
T.J. McFarland: The low-slinging lefty filled a glaring need and probably exceeded expectations after the Cardinals signed him in July after his release by the Nationals. He was a busy Redbird, working in 31 games. pitching 32 and ⅓ innings, and finessing a 2.56 ERA.
Best of all? A low enough walk rate and his outstanding groundball rate of just under 64 percent. McFarland isn’t a strikeout pitcher, but his smart approach and ground game played into the hands of the Cards’ terrific defense.
Manager Mike Shildt didn’t hesitate to use McFarland against RH batters, and that didn’t always go well — .276 average, .739 OPS. But LH batters couldn’t do much with him, batting .167 with a .497 OPS.
McFarland and Garcia gave the Cardinals a much stronger component for their middle-relief, and set-up relief. And that transformed the bullpen. And they were also there to compensate for the tired-arm phases of Cabrera, Reyes and Gallegos.
Kodi Whitley: He spent time with the Cardinals. He spent time at Triple A Memphis. He spent time on the IL. The promising prospect got lost there for a while, and struggled to get things going. Through August, he had a 5.56 ERA in 13 appearances for the Cardinals.
And then: September. Lawdy, he was fantastic in the final month, not allowing a run in 12 appearances that covered 14 innings. He gave up only seven hits and four walks to his 51 batters faced, and put opponents away with a 37.4 percent strikeout rate.
The hard-throwing righthander bullied hitters on either side of the plate. RH batters hit .167 with a .409 OPS against him. LH batters hit .125 with a .292 OPS and 39% strikeout rate against him. What’s a platoon split?
Whitley was wicked in September. He earned the manager’s trust to handle pressurized situations.
We look forward to seeing a lot more of Killa Kodi in 2022.
Ryan Helsley: He’s been the object of considerable hype. But after three seasons with the Cardinals, Helsley has a 4.03 ERA, an unimposing 21.7% strikeout rate, and a poor 11.4% walk rate.
Among 134 relievers that have pitched at least 95 total innings over the last three seasons (2019-21), Helsley ranks 108th in fielding independent ERA, 105th in strikeout rate, 104th in walk rate, and 121st in strikeout-walk ratio.
But pretty much all we hear from the Cardinals and media is yapping about his high-velocity fastball, his killer stuff, etc. Great, but where are the consistently good results? And for a dude with such top-level velocity, why doesn’t he bag more strikeouts. Helsley is 27 now. Not old — but not a kid.
Helsley had a 4.56 ERA this season before being felled by injuries in mid-August. His strikeout rate was still below average, and his walk rate inflated to 13 percent. But hey, he allowed only 13 percent of inherited runners to score, and he throws so hard, and he has such nasty stuff, and … oh, ever mind.
Andrew Miller: He’s a highly respected guy within the game and among fans that appreciated his career-peak pitching that made him one of the top relievers in the majors over several years. But by the time Miller signed a three-year contract with the Cardinals before the 2019 season, he’s already made that descent into the downside of his career. And that’s difficult to reverse.
Miller had his moments in 2019 but finished with a 4.45 ERA and an inflated 11.4% walk rate. Miller was better in the strange 2020 season, sharpening to a 2.77 ERA in 15 games. But the 2021 campaign was fringy for Miller. Bothered by foot problems (blisters) he was in and out of the bullpen and never found a groove, and his role gradually faded. In his final season for the Cardinals, Miller had a 4.75 ERA, a high walk rate, and the lowest strikeout rate (24.4%) since becoming a full-season, full-time reliever in 2012.
I mean no disrespect by this, but Miller was the latest reminder for the St. Louis front office: just say no to giving hefty contracts to aging relievers.
Here’s the scorecard for Brett Cecil, Greg Holland, Luke Gregerson, and Andrew Miller:
$89.5 million in combined salaries.
247 innings, combined.
9-14 record, combined.
6.12 ERA, combined.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
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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.