St. Louis Cardinals: Luke Gregerson, the 2018 closer

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JUPITER, FL - FEBRUARY 20: Luke Gregerson
JUPITER, FL - FEBRUARY 20: Luke Gregerson /
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With Spring Training rolling in and the start of baseball inching closer and closer, there is a creeping feeling that the St. Louis Cardinals will not partake in the remainder of the free agent talent this season.

With each passing day, it seems more and more likely that the St. Louis Cardinals will pass on Greg Holland and ride with Luke Gregerson as the 2018 closer. Here’s what to expect.

Gregerson started his career off in 2006 with the Cardinals, but never played at the major league level in his first stint in the Cardinals organization. He has since played for the Padres, Athletics, and Astros, and recently served as the closer for the 2017 USA team in the World Baseball Classic.

Luke Gregerson

Age: 33 (5/14/84)

Measurements: 6’3″, 205

Throws: Right

Pitches (Times thrown in 2017): Sinker (485), Slider (484), Four Seam (73), Change (14)

Career Stats (2009-2017):

GPIPW-LERAWHIPK/9SVBS
623599 35-363.021.089.1218746

On the surface, Gregerson is an appealing closer candidate behind a solid strikeout rate and an above-average ERA and WHIP. He possesses both a higher career K/9 and lower BB/9 than Alex Colome, and has decent experience in the closer role. While he has lower velocity than most pitchers, he has a deadly whiff generating tool in his slider that allows him to be dangerous in late innings.

Over the course of his career, here are some stats on Gregerson’s slider (via Brooks Baseball)

Slider: Career
Frequency52.12%
Avg Velocity83.41 MPH
Vertical Movement (in.)0.74
Horizontal Movement (in.)3.26
Ball %36.00%
Strike %39.28%
Swing %53.04%
Whiff %23.41%
Ball in Play %16.04%
Groundball %6.85%
Flyball %4.20%
BABIP.267
AVG.176
ISO.127

His slider has been an effective, if not subtly nasty pitch over the course of Gregerson’s career. While it doesn’t quite display the elite sharpness that you would see in a pitcher like Clayton Kershaw, it has respectable break in it’s own right, and the results have reflected this.

However, this doesn’t come without its caveats. It should also be noted that Gregerson has made a concerted effort to increase the break on his slider over the last few seasons, but a rough 2017 may have ruined these efforts.

2014201520162017
Velocity (MPH)81.9982.8681.9382.03
Horizontal Movement4.083.544.554.77
Ball %31.33%27.58%32.91%34.92%
Strike %37.76%40.46%46.17%39.46%
Whiff %21.16%25.26%32.65%26.65%
AVG0.2090.1670.1300.232
ISO0.1510.0790.1630.216
BABIP0.2980.2830.2290.349

While it paid off in great dividends in 2016, where his slider was an elite pitch, Gregerson seemingly had trouble keeping his slider under control last season.

He looked uncomfortable from the beginning of the 2017, having to rely more on the sinker over the first two months of the season. After a great June, he began to rely too heavily on the slider, using it over 55% of the time during the month of July on the way to just a 20.78 whiff rate.

He once again went away from the slider after July, throwing the slider 46.26% in August and just 40.14% in September.

If Gregerson is to be the St. Louis Cardinals closer, he needs to come into this season fully confident in his both his slider and his sinker. While not a strikeout pitch, Gregerson’s sinker has good natural sinking break, and produces ground balls 13.33% of the time.

Moving away from his individual pitches, Gregerson’s situational numbers are somewhat concerning for a closer. First, he is not the best performer in medium- or high-leverage situations, which consist of the majority of important innings for closers. For reference, in the final two innings of a game with the game within three runs, 51.6% of situations a pitcher may face are considered at least high leverage.

Here is the distribution.

8th-9th Inning, Game within 3 runs
Total Situations672
Very High Leverage196
High Leverage151
Medium Leverage99
Low Leverage226

So as a closer, the majority of time Gregerson will spend pitching this season will come in high leverage situations. While a closer will come in to start the ninth in a low leverage situations, there are many times where he will be relied on for 4-out and 5-out saves, many times with runners on base. Here are Gregerson’s stats over his career in high leverage situations

IP156
TBF651
ERA5.60
H136
2B28
3B6
R112
ER97
HR17
BB54
HBP6
SO141
AVG.230
OBP.310
SLG.402

Definitely not the prettiest numbers, but we can’t expect pretty from high leverage situations in anyone but the truly elite. A .230 BAA is promising, but batters are taking advantage of Gregerson’s mistakes, leading to the .402 SLG and 5.60 ERA.

It’s not all bad for Gregerson’s closer campaign though. He is still a very solid pitcher in traditional save situations, where a closer comes into a fresh ninth inning with bases empty. Here are some of Gregerson’s splits in those situations. Let’s also compare them with another great Cardinals closer who wasn’t a velocity machine: Jason Isringhausen.

9th inning, bases emptyTBFAVGOBPSLG2B3BHRBB
Isringhausen with STL7420.2110.2880.3032111365
Gregerson3650.2130.260.3531311119

The numbers are comparable in places, but the story is told in the differences in walks and slugging percentage. Isringhausen was a pitcher that didn’t miss in bad spots, while Gregerson has tended to groove pitches at times over his career, and it shows. Despite this, Gregerson is able to keep his allowed AVG and OBP at a good level for a closer.

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However, it seems that Gregerson loses control of his pitches in the zone far too often, and gives up a relatively high slugging percentage for a closer in almost all situations. The numbers seem to all paint the same picture of Gregerson: a solid groundball pitcher with nice downward action on his pitches, but somewhat inconsistent control. For Gregerson, a high miss is likely to land on the top of the bat and travel farther than a normal high fastball, leading to a higher SLG allowed.

If Gregerson’s slider can perform at the level it did in 2016, then there is almost no doubt that Gregerson could function as a closer. But his fleeting confidence in the pitch last season didn’t help my own confidence in Gregerson’s return to form.

On the other hand, this year could simply be an anomaly, and Gregerson could evolve into an elite closer with a renewed confidence in his slider. I’d put my money on the former.

As Gregerson tries to rediscover what made his slider so lethal in 2016, he will almost certainly run into some bumps along the way. However, I still think he will end up being closer to his 2016 season than his 2017.

Final Verdict: 68 G, 1-3, 27 SV, 4 BS, 3.66 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 68 K’s, .239 BAA

Next: The Cardinals' most important pitcher

Are you happy with Luke Gregerson as the closer, or would you have like to have seen the St. Louis Cardinals acquire a closer in free agency. Feel free to put your thoughts in the comments below.

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