Andrew Kittredge may not be the big-name, brassy and high-cost reliever that Cardinal fans were clamoring for, but the St. Louis front office made a smart move in acquiring the right-hander from Tampa Bay in a trade for spare outfielder Richie Palacios.
Kittredge served in the Tampa Bay bullpen from 2017 through 2023. He’ll turn 34 years old on March 17. He’ll make an estimated $2.3 million in arbitration this year and is eligible for free agency after the 2024 season.
I did some research on Kittredge and here’s what I learned …
— Kittredge had healthy strikeout stuff before his right elbow became a problem in 2022. He had Tommy John surgery in early June of that season and didn’t return until Aug. 18 of 2023. Kittredge worked just 11 and ⅔ innings last season but is a full go for 2024.
— Even with the elbow injury-surgery-aftermath accounted for, Kittredge has a 2.35 ERA and 3.43 FIP since the start of the 2021 season with a 25.5 percent strikeout rate while walking hitters at an average of only 1.84 per nine innings.
— With Kittredge’s elbow in proper working order the Cardinals are banking on a return to form. Before being sidetracked with the injury, Kittredge struck out 27.6 percent of batters faced in 2019 and used his power sinker to crank a 50 percent ground-ball rate. And then, in his All-Star season of 2021, Kittredge had a 27.3% strikeout rate to go along with his 53.5 ground-ball percentage.
— After returning to action late last season Kittredge wasn’t at his best early on – which is understandable given his long layoff. But in his final nine relief appearances for the 2023 Rays, Kittredge had a 1.08 ERA, held opponents to a .194 batting average, walked only one batter and struck out 28.8 percent of batters faced. Opponents did not barrel a single pitch thrown by Kittredge in his final nine appearances that covered 8 and ⅓ innings. And over that time he got hitters to chase pitches out of the strike zone at an excellent rate of 47.4 percent. It’s a tiny sample but Kittredge appeared to be at close to peak nastiness in his final nine appearances.
— Speaking of chase rate … Kittredge’s best quality is getting opponents to take the bait and rip at non-strikes. From 2019 through 2023, major-league relievers collectively had a chase rate of 31 percent. Kittredge was way above average over that time with a chase rate of 44 percent. And that matters. There’s a big difference in swing-miss rates when hitters go outside of the zone. Since 2019, Kittredge allows a contact rate of 58 percent on chases – and that jumps to 86 percent on pitches in the strike zone. Kittredge has coaxed a chase rate of 40 percent or higher in four of his last five seasons.
— Another plus with Kittredge is his low walk rate. Since the start of the 2019 season he’s walked only 5.0 percent of opposing hitters. How impressive is that? His walk rate is the 11th best among 282 MLB relievers that have worked at least 100 innings since 2019.
— Kittredge was still in the process of sharpening his sinker during his 2033 comeback. And opponents ripped it for a .333 average and .611 slugging percentage. He’ll need to improve on that in 2024. But his effective slider limited opponents to an expected batting average of .161 and an expected slugging percentage of .195. And he had a 28 percent swing-miss rate on the slider.
— Since the start of the 2020 season Kittredge has done pretty well against left-handed batters, and that’s always a plus. Over the last four seasons LH batters have the same wOBA (.264) against Kittredge as right-handed batters (.264.) The only problem is his elevated walk rate (9%) when facing LH bats. That hasn’t been an issue in matchups against RH hitters.
— What about high-leverage situations? Kittredge’s most extensive experience in high-leverage scenarios came in 2021. He faced 63 hitters in H-L plate appearances and held them to a .250 average and .268 wOBA. To put that in context MLB relievers allowed a .311 wOBA in high-leverage encounters in 2021.
— Kittredge passed the test in ‘21 but wasn’t as effective in limited high-leverage situations in other seasons. So I’m curious to see how he’ll handle high-leverage calls for the Cardinals – and how often manager Oli Marmol will use him in those key spots. Another thing to monitor is his velocity. It decreased over the last two seasons but that was hardly unexpected given his elbow troubles. I’d expect an increase in velo in 2024.
— To reach his maximum potential in 2024, it’s imperative for Kittredge to reestablish his sinker as a go-to weapon. According to statcast data, Kittredge had one of MLB’s best sinkers with a +11 run value. That dropped to +3 in 2022 and was a minus 3 last season. All of this coincided with his elbow injury. The sinker was excellent before 2022 – the year he had the Tommy John surgery. Can Kittredge redevelop the sinker into an asset in 2024? The answer to that question will have a substantial influence on his 2024 performance.
Trading Palacios: According to Tampa Bay baseball media, Palacios, 26, projects as the fifth outfielder on Tampa Bay’s Rays roster behind Randy Arozarena, Jose Siri, Josh Lowe, and Jonny DeLuca. Palacios gives the Rays roster flexibility and cost control. He still has one minor-league option left, will not reach the contract-arbitration until 2026, and is under club control until 2030. Palacios did a nice job for the 2023 Cardinals, but the Redbirds still had a surplus of outfielders. And center-field prospect Victor Scott appears to be on track to reach the big club sometime in 2024. Then again, if Tampa Bay wanted Palacios that’s a little unsettling. The Rays front office is brilliant at evaluating talent.
Updated Bullpen Cast: There’s closer Ryan Helsley and setup relievers Giovanny Gallegos, and JoJo Romero. Kittredge slots in as a sure fourth reliever but will probably be used more in medium-leverage situations. A bullpen staff of eight arms would leave four other openings. In no particular order the pool of candidates for the four spots are Zack Thompson, Andre Pallante, Nick Robertson, Riley O’Brien, Matthew Liberatore, Ryan Fernandez, John King – and possibly prospect Andre Granillo and former Rule V draftee Wilking Rodriguez.
The Projection: Roster Resource at FanGraphs lists an eight-man bullpen of Helsley, Gallegos, Romero, Kittredge, Pallante, Thompson, King and Fernandez. But that’s just a guesstimate. Much will be sorted out during spring training.
The Overview: The Cardinals could add another reliever this offseason, but they won’t be browsing in the expensive, high-end section of the marketplace. The Cardinals are taking a gamble in calculating the major-league readiness of largely unproven relievers such as Robertson, Thompson, O’Brien, Liberatore and Fernandez. They’ve added depth but much of it is based on potential. I’d like to see another bullpen piece that brings more certainty. But by adding three starting pitchers this offseason — Sonny Gray, Kyle Gibson and Lance Lynn — the Cardinals won’t be as heavily dependent on the bullpen in 2024 as compared to ’23. That’s the theory, anyway.
The Payroll: With the addition of Kettredge, Cot’s Contracts lists the Cardinals with a projected 26-man payroll of $173 million and a 40-man competitive balance tax payroll of $205.8 million. At this point of the offseason that puts the Cardinals 10th in the majors for both payroll categories.
Thanks for reading …
A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, 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 grab the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz and on Threads @miklaszb
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.
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 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.