St. Louis Cardinals: Which relief role deserves the most praise?

CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 18: Catcher Yan Gomes #7 celebrates with closing pitcher Andrew Miller #24 of the Cleveland Indians after the Indians defeated the Chicago White Sox at Progressive Field on September 18, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Indians defeated the White Sox 5-3. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 18: Catcher Yan Gomes #7 celebrates with closing pitcher Andrew Miller #24 of the Cleveland Indians after the Indians defeated the Chicago White Sox at Progressive Field on September 18, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Indians defeated the White Sox 5-3. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

With today’s modern use of the bullpen, are franchises such as the St. Louis Cardinals in greater search of fireball, shutdown closers or multiple inning specialists with a high strikeout rate and ability to leave inherited runners on base?

With the signing of Andrew Miller, the St. Louis Cardinals were optimistic about his unique fit in the bullpen and eager to take advantage of his ability to pitch multiple innings and get guys out from both sides of the plate. Not to mention his left-handedness which the Cardinals were starved of throughout 2018.

Over the past few off-seasons, Mozeliak & Company have been in search of a surefire closer but have come up short on multiple occasions. Last year, pitchers Greg Holland, Luke Gregerson, and Dominic Leone collectively earned zero saves. Each of which were at one point declared a reliable 9th inning option.

If at the end of a game fans weren’t complaining about the closer, they were talking about their disappointment in the bullpen’s inability to get lefthanders out, especially from the left side of the mound. The Cardinals’ lefthanders were underwhelming to say the least. But after much contemplation, have the Cardinals shifted and aligned with the modern tilt of major league bullpens?

The mid-season manager change was a breath of fresh air. Regardless of Mike Shildt’s immediate impact or future success, it just was exciting to see the fragile bullpen be used different. And after a third season in row without a postseason appearance, Mo & Co were intent on a complete revamp. We have seen this so far with the coaching staff additions and Miller’s 2-year contract which, I think, is an interesting addition to that list.

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We are beyond the days when this franchise was cautiously absent from big contracts for veteran free agent pitchers. The signings of Mike Leake, Brett Cecil, and Gregerson have changed that although each of those names have given Mozeliak and Girsch a refined definition of caution.

Miller is coming off a much-injured down year, pitching to a 2-4 record with a 4.24 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, and 45 K’s across 34 innings. And in two games during the ALDS loss to Houston, Miller made only 1 out, giving up 0 runs but 1 hit, 4 walks (1 IBB), 0 strikeouts. The rest of his recent resume, however, is what sparked the attention of GMs across baseball this off-season. St. Louis came away successful in negotiations with 2-years, $25 million, and a vesting option.

Now, if the Cardinals were intent on naming Miller the closer, they certainly would have already. Rumors have swirled concerning his relationship to the 9th, but it seems his role will be more diverse. What I found interesting was how fellow free agent reliever Zach Britton was making himself available to teams; stating, he didn’t mind which inning he pitched (or was designated to pitch) if he was paid like a closer.

This statement surely means more than his expressed belief that he deserves a mega-millions-multiyear deal (which he got in a 3-year $39 million deal with the Yankees).

When the Cardinals announced they signed the very pitcher, who in 2016 changed the way teams today view the use of middle relievers, the value and strategy of the reliever market surfaced in the Cardinal’s front office. It didn’t seem like the Cardinals were necessarily looking for that fireballer to pitch the 9th exclusively. Instead, they value someone who can, from his experience as a starter and success as a reliever, pitch any inning in the game.

At the moment, the closing role is Jordan Hicks’ to lose. He still has a lot to prove but he will probably get the first save opportunity of the season. I don’t doubt Shildt will get saves by committee throughout 2019, including Miller or any Bud Norris-minor-league-contract-revelation of this year, but again, its Hicks’ role to lose.

That means that Miller will be looked upon to use his ability to get big outs.

In his career, Miller has allowed inherited base runners to score only 20% of the time. In his down 2018, his IRS% (inherited runners scored percentage) was 19% where league average was 31%. And in 2017, he was at 21% while the rest of the MLB averaged 30%. From 2013-17 he averaged 14.42 strikeouts per 9 innings. In 2018, the average reliever K/9 rate was 8.95 yet he still maintained a 11.91 rate, continuing to strikeout batters at a moderately elite rate with more than a strikeout per inning.

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This strategy trend then makes me question what managers and GMs are viewing as the more important outs. Whether or not there is a hierarchy of innings, the best reliever that day isn’t always saved for the last three outs. As we’ve seen with the introduction of the “opener,” managers will start, say, a lefty reliever to face the left-handed leadoff batter then immediately bring in a long-reliever to match up against the right-handed-heavy lineup. Now the opener is unavailable, leaving the fate of the game to rest of the fellas.

The average outing for a starter has shrunk 1/3 of an inning or more decade by decade, now averaging under 6 innings per start in 2018 (nearly a full inning less than 2008).

In today’s game, bases loaded no outs in the 4th or 5th might constitute a more game-on-the-line situation than a save opportunity in the 9th. Clearly the state of the game could be determined by that mid-game situation, particularly for the Cards in the lower scoring National League.

Perhaps the St. Louis Cardinals have not succumbed to the trendy postseason temptation to remove the trusted ace to tame a scary situation early and expect 4+ scoreless innings from the bullpen; however, we have yet to see Shildt manage in the postseason.

While there is much to determine about Hicks’ future in the closing role, there is no debate over his stuff. The off-season homework for Hicks will involve working on his command and pitch selection to work toward more swing and misses thereby producing more strikeouts.

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Hicks might not be the best pitcher in the bullpen as he was nearly every day last year, but he will frequently have the stage to prove us wrong. For now, he will carry the 9th inning mantle for the contention-hopeful Cardinals in 2019. All the while, Shildt and Miller will do their best to bridge the gap between the first pitch and the phone call alerting the young 22-year old to, guns blazing, close out the game.