THE REDBIRD REVIEW
After signing free-agent starting pitchers Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson, the St. Louis front office will focus on rebuilding a bullpen that went down in a blaze of gory in 2023.
President of baseball operations John Mozeliak did a good – if not ideal – job of restructuring the team’s starting rotation. But on social media I’m seeing too many people spending their time mewling about starting pitchers and making preposterous wish lists. Yeah, go ahead, let’s just keep ignoring a burned-out husk of a St. Louis bullpen that was absolutely dreadful in 2023.
– In 2021-2022 combined, the Cardinals had the No. 1 winning percentage in the majors when leading a game through five innings. In 2023, they were 25th in winning percentage when ahead after five.
– The 2021-2022 Cardinals ranked 3rd in winning percentage when ahead after six innings. The 2023 Cards were 24th in winning percentage when holding a lead through six.
– The 2021-2022 Cardinals were 10th in winning percentage when trying to protect a lead built through seven innings. The ‘23 Cards were 22nd in win percentage when leading through seven frames.
– The 2021-2022 Cardinals had the No. 8 winning percentage when having a lead entering the ninth inning. But the 2023 Cards were 26th in winning percentage when carrying a lead into the ninth.
– The 2021-2022 Cardinals lost only 10 games over two seasons when leading through five innings. But the 2023 Cards lost 15 games in just one season when ahead on the scoreboard through five.
As you can see, the bullpen disintegration was drastic in 2023. The damage was extreme. Last season St. Louis relievers squandered 41 leads, blew 28 saves, and ranked 24th in the majors with a 56 percent save percentage.
St. Louis relievers collectively pitched to a 4.47 ERA that ranked 23rd in MLB last season. Their sallow 22.2 percent strikeout rate was 24th. Their swinging–strike rate (11.3%) was 21st. They finished 22nd in Win Probability Added. And they were attacked for the highest hard-hit rate (40.7%) against any bullpen in the majors.
What in the name of Ricky Bottalico is the point of firming up your rotation when the bullpen can’t turn leads into victories? It’s kind of a self-defeating thing, yes? I suppose everyone’s fantasy treasure — Yamamoto! — would pitch nothing but complete-game starts? Cool.
Nine of the 12 teams that qualified for the 2023 postseason finished among the top 11 in the majors for strikeouts per nine innings. Eleven of the 12 playoff qualifiers ranked among the upper half of all bullpens in swinging-strike rate. All four teams that reached the LCS round were no worse than ninth in nasty swing-and-miss stuff by their relievers.
If we all agree that power vs. power matchups are important in the late innings, the Cardinals came up short. The power bats won. In the seventh, eighth and ninth innings last season, St. Louis relievers had the eighth-lowest strikeout rate (23%) and were struck for the fifth-highest slugging percentage.
Closer Ryan Helsley’s heat generated a forceful 36.5 percent strikeout rate last season. But that was down by nearly four percent from 2022. More than that, Helsley couldn’t pitch as often as the Cardinals needed him to. Helsley made only 33 relief appearances in 2023 and worked just 36 and ⅔ innings. In 2021 and 2022, Helsley averaged 52 appearances and 56 innings per season.
When Helsley is absent, the Cards bullpen suffers a significant decrease in strikeout capability. Last season Helsley was out of action for 2 and ½ months because of a forearm strain. And when the righthander returned in September, he wasn’t always available to pitch. On multiple occasions manager Oli Marmol had to rearrange his bullpen plan after Helsley became a late (and unexpected) scratch.
Last season Cardinals relievers other than Helsley combined for an ineffectual 21.4% strikeout rate. During Helsley’s idle time on the IL – June 8 through Aug. 31 – the Cards ranked 29th in the majors with a bullpen strikeout rate of 19.2 percent.
In August the Cardinals had to handle the late innings without the services of Helsley (injured) and Jordan Hicks (traded) and squeaked to a bullpen strikeout rate of 17.5 percent. During the month St. Louis relievers yielded an 88 percent contact rate on pitches in the strike zone – the highest against any MLB bullpen in August.
How can you compete when the bullpen struggles to get hitters to whiff? And how much can the Cardinals count on Helsley to be available to work in 2024?
That’s a huge factor. And it’s more worrisome after seeing some alarming performance trends by Giovanny Gallegos in 2023.
From 2019 through 2022, Gallegos had a 32 percent strikeout rate, yielded a .314 slugging percentage, and allowed less than one homer (0.9) per nine innings. He was one of the very best setup relievers in the majors.
But in 2023 Gallegos had a 26% strikeout rate, was pummeled for a .467 slugging percentage and got rocked for 1.8 home runs per nine innings. And the hard-hit rate against him (46.2%) was the worst of his career. That’s a disturbing combination of indicators. The Cardinals would be irresponsible to ignore or downplay the ominous trends.
And please don’t try to sell us on the “Hey, Andre Pallante Will Be Much Better” narrative, OK? This isn’t about wishing and hoping … this situation requires DOING something major to renovate this bullpen. Not just by making one move – but by making multiple, high-impact moves.
Here’s a stat that sums it up: last season Cardinals relievers Helsley, Hicks, JoJo Romero and Chris Stratton combined for 4.6 Wins Above Replacement. The other relievers in the St. Louis bullpen — and there were many — combined for a WAR total below the replacement level.
That’s a lot of junk. In 2023, a staggering 46 percent of the relief-pitching innings were provided by Pallante, Drew VerHagen, Andrew Suarez, Casey Lawrence, John King, James Naile, Jake Woodford, Jacob Barnes, Dakota Hudson, Packy Naughton. Ryan Tepera, Kyle Leahy and Guillermo Zuniga.
Mozeliak and crew have to be smart and aggressive in the pursuit of relievers this offseason. This isn’t a minor problem. It’s a massive problem. The Cardinals can’t do this again. They can’t go into 2024 with a bullpen that’s outdated, ineffective and an enormous liability.
The front office understands this. Mozeliak has repeatedly communicated his intention to upgrade the bullpen, and it’s good to hear. But results matter.
As baseball executives like to say, relievers are fungible. They’re everywhere. There’s a horde of relievers available via free agency. There are abundant trade options, and relievers on the international market.
There are many ways to go here. But do not tip-toe, Mo.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
For weekly Cards talk, listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast with Will Leitch and Miklasz via 590thefan.com or through your preferred podcast platform. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link. We have a new one available this week, centered on the free-agent acquisitions Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson.
All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible. Baseball Prospectus, Bill James Online or Sports Info Solutions unless otherwise noted.
For the last 36 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. A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, 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.