THE REDBIRD REVIEW
The Cardinals brought in another tool for their extensive bullpen renovation by shopping the free-agent market for a one-year deal with right-handed reliever Keynan Middleton. The contract becomes official after Middleton goes through the standard physical check.
I like this move.
Matter of fact, I liked the idea of the signing 50 days ago, when I wrote this at “Scoops” on Dec. 14:
“Middleton, 30, seems underrated to me. Last season with the White Sox and Yankees Middleton struck out 30% of batters faced and induced a preposterous (56.6%) groundball rate. He logged a 3.38 ERA in 51 appearances. And I sure took notice of this: last season Middleton ranked in the 89th percentile or better in chase rate, whiff rate, strikeout rate, hard-hit rate and ground-ball rate. I don’t know what else you’d want in a late-inning reliever. Late last season Middleton went on the IL with shoulder inflammation but returned by the end of the schedule. In 12 games with the Yankees, Middleton pitched to a 1.88 ERA and had a 0.98 WHIP.”
What I neglected to point out was Middleton’s inflated walk rate,10.8 percent. I wasn’t trying to conceal the issue; I just had too much writing to do in evaluating a lengthy list of free-agent reliever candidates. I couldn’t write a book on each guy; there were too many of them. But Middleton had the strikeout punch, and an above average Stuff+ rating, so he qualified as a good candidate for the Cards.
To be at his best for the Cardinals, Middleton has to sharpen his command and reduce the walks. It’s been a negative throughout his big-league career. Among 159 MLB pitchers that have worked at least 190 innings in relief since 2017, Middleton’s 10.3% walk rate ranks 118th. So yeah, it’s a thing. Middleton is a good reliever and the volume of walks prevents him from becoming a great reliever.
The Cardinals wanted to increase their strikeout prowess for 2024, and Middleton has the wattage to boost the effort. After two substandard seasons for Seattle (2021) and (2022) Middleton modified his pitching approach. The primary adjustment was increasing his use of the changeup, and that kept hitters from sitting on his four-seam fastball.
The numbers from Statcast are easy to follow. When I refer to “run value” on a particular pitch, you want to have your guy be on the plus side. The minus side is … well, negative.
Take note of Middleton’s use of the changeup and how it impacted the effectiveness of his four-seam fastball:
2021: Middleton went with the change only 12% of the time. His four-seam had a negative run value of minus 4.
2022: Middleton used the changeup on 17% of his offerings to hitters, and his four-seam fastball had a negative run value of minus 6.
2023: Middleton dramatically cranked up his commitment to the changeup by throwing it on 43 percent of his pitches. The clear benefit: his four-seam fastball quality improved to a plus 3 in run value last season. The improvement was obvious.
Last season Middleton’s changeup ranked 18th in Stuff+ among 97 relievers that used the pitch on a regular basis. Middleton certainly has the giddyup, slinging his four-seam fastball at around 96 mph.
In 2023, Middleton’s explosiveness with the four-seam heat took a substantial jump with a 33.3 percent swing-whiff rate and a 46% strikeout rate. His slider generated mix results: a .291 batting average and .418 slug by opponents – but the pitch also induced a good swing-whiff rate (35.3%) and a low average exit velocity of 82.7 mph. Middleton used the slider more than his four-seam fastball in 2023, and that was a factor in his positive fastball impact.
Do the Cardinals have some modifications in mind for Middleton? We’ll see. But there are a lot of positives to work with here, including Middleton’s sound performance against left-handed hitters.
From a personality standpoint, Middleton is an interesting dude. No one can accuse him of being casual or uncaring. He’s seems to be the opposite of that.
Middleton raised a fuss after the White Sox traded him to the Yankees last summer – decrying his former team’s lack of discipline.
“We came in with no rules,” Middleton told ESPN’s Jesse Rogers. “I don’t know how you police the culture if there are no rules or guidelines to follow because everyone is doing their own thing. Like, how do you say anything about it because there are no rules?
“You have rookies sleeping in the bullpen during the game. You have guys missing meetings. You have guys missing PFPs (pitcher fielding practices), and there is no consequences for any of this stuff.”
Cardinals starting pitcher Lance Lynn was Middleton’s teammate in Chicago last season before Lynn was dealt to the Dodgers.
When asked to assess the accuracy of Middleton’s White Sox criticism, Lynn said this to media in LA: “I was there a lot longer than ‘Key’ was. He’s not wrong.”
The Cardinals – from the front office to manager Oli Marmol to the players – are stressing more accountability and leadership for 2024. Middleton seems to be a match for that vibe. This is another reason why Middleton was such an appealing move made by president of baseball ops John Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch.
Middleton had a 133 ERA+ last season, meaning he was 33 percent above the league-average pitching performance. Among current St. Louis relievers, only Ryan Helsley had a higher ERA+ and more strikeouts per nine innings in than Middleton in 2023.
One concern: injuries. Middleton has missed 419 in-season days during his big-league career. But 294 of the days were in 2017-2018 when Middleton had elbow problems that eventually required Tommy John surgery. That said, he missed 35 days in 2021 (elbow, biceps), 38 days in 2022 (ankle), and 24 days in ’23 (shoulder.) The Cardinals need Middleton to stay healthy and available.
The front office didn’t add any high-dollar, buzzworthy-name relievers to the mix this winter – whine as you wish – but the front office has done a fine job in a three-step process: (1) eliminate the rot from the bullpen; (2) replenish the bullpen supply with fresh depth and real potential; (3) increase the overall
Let’s review the changing St. Louis bullpen composition since the last two months of the 2023 season:
GONE: Drew Ver Hagen, Andrew Suarez, Casey Lawrence, James Naile, Jacob Barnes, Ryan Tepera, Kyle Leahy, Jake Woodford and Dakota Hudson. The nine pitchers provided 178 and ⅔ innings of relief last season and were pounded for 5.69 ERA. Collectively, the group produced a WAR that was below the replacement level.
COMING IN: Andrew Kittredge, Keynan Middleton, Nick Robertson, Riley O’Brien and Ryan Fernandez. Lots of strikeouts in this group, and that’s why the Cardinals targeted the relievers. The additions were connected parts of the same plan.
STILL HERE: Ryan Helsley, Giovanny Gallegos, JoJo Romero (LH), Andre Pallante and John King (LH). Helsley, Gallegos and Romero have above-average strikeout rates.
OTHER POSSIBILITIES: There are the two young-veteran lefties Zack Thompson and Matthew Liberatore. Both have a chance to start – probably at Triple A Memphis – but can be repurposed into a relief role. We shouldn’t rule out developing minor leaguers Guillermo Zuniga, Gordon Graceffo, Andre Granillo and Tekoah Roby. Graceffo’s stuff would have a home in the bullpen.
Wilking Rodriguez has some ability but must rebound from a shoulder injury. I have no idea what to expect from him. The Cardinals made an intriguing pickup by signing former Astro reliever Josh James to a minor-league deal. James had a big-league strikeout rate of 34.3 percent before his career was broken by a series of injuries that included flexor tendon surgery. James last pitched (in the minors) in 2022. But if he fully heals and can come close to his previous form, the Cardinals could hold a winning lottery ticket.
Though it’s probably too soon in his development to think about the majors, impressive prospect Ian Bedell could surface as a surprising bullpen option later in 2024. I doubt that the Cardinals will bring top starting pitching prospect Tink Hence to the majors as a reliever, but I guess it’s possible.
The Cardinals will have many relievers to choose from in 2024. That’s a plus. And none are no-value retreads or desperation roster fillers. Obviously some of the candidates are unproven at the big-league level. But they do have big-league potential and encouraging swing-and-miss profiles, and that represents progress.
The Cardinals already have replaced 60 percent of their starting rotation for 2024 and the bullpen will have a different look. The offseason bullpen moves — while not inspiring the sound of blaring trumpets — puts the ‘pen in firmer and deeper shape for 2024.
Unlike last season, if the Cardinals run short of relievers they won’t have to search through rubble at the bottom of a dumpster in a sad scramble to find something-anything to plug roster holes.
Thanks for reading …
Have a wonderful weekend.
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.
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All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Baseball Prospectus, Sports Info Solutions and Cot’s Contracts 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.