THE REDBIRD REVIEW
Here are the Top 10 St. Louis relievers during the 28-season Bill DeWitt Jr. Era.
Just a reminder that I add more value to those who helped the Cardinals thrive in the postseason to win playoff games, pennants and World Series titles.
1. Trevor Rosenthal: I don’t think enough people realize how great “Rosey” was for the Cardinals from 2012 through 2017. During the DeWitt Era, Rosenthal ranks No. 1 in WAR (7.3), is first in fielding independent ERA (2.60), second in saves (121) and has the best strikeout rate (31.2%) by a STL reliever. Rosenthal saved 45 games in 2014, and followed up with 48 saves in 2015. Over that two-season period Rosenthal’s 93 saves were the most in the majors – and seven more than the next guy, Craig Kimbrel.
That’s not all. Rosenthal’s intimidating fastball heat produced a remarkable set of postseason numbers. In 23 postseason appearances from 2012 through 2015, Rosey had an 0.69 ERA in 41 and 1 and ⅓ innings, held batters to a .165 average, and put them away with an outstanding 41 percent strikeout rate.
And check this out: In his first two postseasons for the Cardinals – 2012 and 2013 – Rosenthal did not allow a single run in 17 appearances covering 20 and ⅓ innings. Not one run! And during those two postseasons (combined) Rosenthal struck out a ridiculous number of hitters (47 percent) and allowed an .092 batting average. The Cardinals won 21 postseason games and an NL pennant from 2012 through 2015 and Rosenthal the enforcer was a blazing reason for that.
Rosenthal ranks first in Cardinals’ postseason history in appearances, innings pitched and strikeouts and his 0.69 ERA is easily the best among those who worked at least 10 innings of relief. He’s also third in career postseason saves (7), which is one fewer than Jason Isringhausen and Jason Motte.
When Rosenthal’s time comes up, he should be a strong candidate for the Cardinals Hall of Fame. It’s important to recognize his impressive value over a successful time for St. Louis baseball.
2. Jason Isringhausen. He has the most saves, 217, by a reliever in Cardinals franchise history and was inducted into the team Hall of Fame in 2019. During the DeWitt Era Isringhausen leads all St. Louis relievers in Win Probability Added (WPA), and only Rosenthal and Giovanny Gallegos have more WAR than Isringhausen. In the 28 seasons of Dewitt’s ownership no Cardinal reliever supplied more appearances (408) and innings (401) than Izzy.
During his St. Louis peak years (2002 through 2007) Izzy ranked fourth in the majors with 205 regular-season saves; only Mariano Rivera, Billy Wagner and Trevor Hoffman had more.
In 19 career postseason games for St. Louis, Isringhausen made 19 appearances, had a 2.78 ERA and allowed a .188 batting average. From 2002 through ‘05, only Rivera (10) had more postseason saves than Izzy (8.)
3. Adam Wainwright. That’s correct; he makes the Top 10 list as both a starting pitcher and reliever. Yes, his duty as a reliever pretty much ended after the 2006 season, but it would be ludicrous to ignore his contribution to the ‘06 World Series championship. Waino was a good reliever in 2006, crafting a 3.12 ERA in 75 innings. But Wainwright wasn’t asked to fill the closer’s job until the final week (or so) in the ‘06 campaign after Jason Isringhausen could no longer pitch because of an injured hip that required surgery. Wainwright was tremendous in the postseason; he didn’t allow a run in 9 and ⅔ innings and struck out 15 of 38 batters (39.4%). He saved Game 2 of the NLDS series against the Padres. He saved two games in the NLCS showdown vs. the Mets – and famously struck out Carlos Beltran on his drop-dead curveball to end Game 7 and advance the Cardinals to the World Series against the Tigers. Waino had one more save, striking out Brandon Inge to seal the series-clinching victory in Game 5 at Busch Stadium. It was the first World Series triumph for the Cardinals since 1982. And the Cardinals couldn’t have done it without him. What a way for Waino to cap his first and only closer assignment. And that’s why he’s so high on this list; in the pursuit of an elusive championship during the DeWitt Era no Cards reliever was more important in a single-postseason title quest than Waino. His stellar contribution as a reliever changed the course of franchise history.
4. Jason Motte. Unfortunately, Motte’s career was cut short by an elbow injury and surgery, but that doesn’t take anything away from his impact. From 2008 through 2014 Motte had 54 regular-season saves and a 3.03 ERA – but his value went beyond those numbers. In 2011, after giving the closer opportunity to several relievers, manager Tony La Russa turned to Motte late in the season. And the young reliever came through, putting opponents down with eight saves in September at a time when the desperate Cardinals were trying to catch Atlanta for the NL’s wild-card spot. In Motte’s 14 appearances during the final month Motte had only one poor outing, and the Cardinals went 13-1 when he worked. His steadying presence was a vital factor in the Cardinals’ run to the playoffs.
Motte was excellent during the 2011 postseason, pitching to a 2.19 ERA, saving five wins, and checking opponents to a .119 batting average. He was spotless in postseason-series triumphs over the Phillies and Brewers. In the raucous World Series matchup against Texas, Motte overcame a rough outing in Game 6 and came back in Game 7 to retire Nelson Cruz, Mike Napoli and David Murphy in order in the ninth inning to lock down the 11th World Series championship in franchise history.
In 2012, Motte and Craig Kimbrel were tied for the most saves (42) in the National League. He was strong in the 2012 postseason with three saves and a 2.16 ERA but the Cardinals fell to the Giants in the seven-game NLCS.
Motte ranks fifth among DeWitt-Era relievers with 54 saves. There were more accomplished regular-season closers for the Cardinals over the last 28 seasons, but I add value points to those who came through for the teams that won a World Series title.
Motte stepped up in a big way in 2011 as the solution to a chronic problem in the closer role. Motte joined Bruce Sutter (1982) and Adam Wainwright (2006) as the only three designated closers in franchise history to secure the last out to clinch a World Series championship.
5. Giovanny Gallegos. Some of you will sneer at this, simply because Gallegos had a mediocre (at best) 2023 season. But we’re looking at the body of work here, and I’m not getting caught in the post-2023 anger to downgrade a reliever Gio’s caliber.
During the DeWitt Era, only Rosenthal (7.3) has more WAR than Gallegos (6.1) among St. Louis relievers. Gio’s 30.7 percent strikeout rate ranks second to Rosenthal. And Gallegos ranks fourth among Cards relievers in Win Probability Added over the last 28 seasons.
From 2019 through 2022, Gallegos ranked seventh in WPA among 58 big-league relievers that pitched at least 170 innings over that time. And from 2019 through 2022, Gallegos the workhorse was fifth for most innings pitched and sixth in WAR among all MLB relievers. The heavy workload caught up to Gallegos in 2023, and we’re not sure what to expect from him next season. But he was absolutely superb from 2019 through 2022.
6. Steve Kline. As a Cardinal from 2001 through 2004, the busy and indefatigable Kline churned a 2.69 ERA that was the best among qualifying St. Louis relievers during the DeWitt ERA. And he ranked eighth in WAR.
Kline was even better in the postseason, working in 13 games for a 0.96 ERA. Kline relieved in 300 games, second most by a MLB lefty over the four seasons. Kline’s adjusted ERA put him 56 percent above the league average and was the fourth best by a lefty reliever from 2001 through 2004.
7. Dennis Eckersley. He played a large role in the team’s instant turnaround in 1996, the first year of DeWitt’s ownership. Eck had 30 saves for a ‘96 Cardinals team that hadn’t made the playoffs since 1987. And he was perfect in the 1996 postseason, posting four saves without allowing a run in seven innings. The 1996 Cardinals made it all the way to Game 7 of the NLCS before succumbing to Atlanta. In his final season as a Cardinal (1997) Eckersley, 42, delivered 36 saves in a lost-cause season. During his two-year stay in St. Louis, the Hall of Famer ranked 10th among big-league relievers with 66 saves.
8. Ryan Helsley. His 21 wins in relief are tied with Franklin for first among Cards relievers during the DeWitt Era. Helsley’s 2.83 ERA ranks third among Redbirds relievers over that time. And only Rosenthal, Gallegos and Isringhausen have more WAR (3.5) than Helsley. Helsley’s 29.5 percent strikeout rate is fourth best among STL relievers over the last 28 years, behind only Rosenthal (31.2%), Gallegos (30.7%) and Alex Reyes (29.8%).
Helsley was a worthy All-Star selection in 2022. And even though injuries have limited him to 87 appearances (combined) over the last two seasons, Helsley still ranks sixth among MLB relievers with 3.5 WAR. And his 38% strikeout rate over the last two seasons was topped by only Edwin Diaz, Felix Bautista and Devin Williams. The challenge for Helsley is staying healthy. But when he’s able to pitch, few MLB relievers are better.
9. Ryan Franklin. As Cardinal from 2007 through 2011, Franklin pitched in 285 games and rolled up 312 innings. He was very good for a time; in 2009 Franklin was selected for the NL All-Star team and had 38 saves and a 1.92 ERA. He had 65 saves over the 2009-2010 seasons.
10. Seunghwan Oh. You probably didn’t expect to see him here, but Oh was impressive during his two seasons as a Cardinal in 2016 and 2017. He’d take the ball and go when needed, appearing in 138 games over the two seasons. Oh had 39 saves in his two seasons and was a highly effective setup man, striking out 27 percent of batters faced. Oh had a conventional ERA of 2.85, but his adjusted ERA put him 45 percent above average in his two seasons in STL.
In 2016, Oh delivered one of the best single-season relief performances of the DeWitt Era. His profile that year included a 1.92 ERA, a 33 percent strikeout rate, and an opponent OPS of only .510. Oh’s adjusted ERA in 2016 translated into 112 percent above the league average in performance. His 2.6 WAR that season ranked fifth among MLB relievers behind Kenley Jansen, Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman. Heavy usage likely burned him out, and Oh wasn’t as sharp and lost strikeout punch in 2017.
Honorable mention: Kevin Siegrist, T.J. Mathews, Ray King, Seth Maness, Dave Veres, Julian Tavares, Carlos Martinez, Russ Springer, Kyle McClellan, Jordan Hicks, Mike Timlin, Edward Mujica.
I’ll be back with my next Top 10 installment on Friday morning. But now that we’re moving onto the position players, it will be more of a “Top 5” at each spot except for the outfielders.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie hosts an opinionated sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. on Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can stream it live or access 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, Fielding Bible and Baseball Prospectus 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.