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Wild Closers, Bad Managing, Late Losses. Welcome to Cardinals Baseball!

A public service announcement: If you were alarmed by Greg Holland’s walks in the park on Tuesday night, it’s advisable to settle down and get used to it.

Because if you thought Trevor Rosenthal drove you loopy with his many walks on the wild side, Holland will probably cause you to go bananas.  Either that, or drink heavily. Or start drinking for the first time.

Rosenthal became the Cardinals’ designated closer late during the 2013 season. He saved 118 games between 2014 and 2017 until blowing out a ligament in his pitching elbow last Aug. 16 at Boston. With Rosenthal rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and highly unlikely to pitch in 2018, the Cardinals released him last November.

Rosenthal had a heavy strikeout punch, and wasn’t always untamed with his fastball. But during the times when his control issues erupted, Rosenthal rolled up the pitches and walks. He frustrated the customers by laboring through lengthy, tedious innings which frequently led to Rosenthal walking into trouble.

Holland has a similar profile. His walk rate wasn’t always inflated during his years in Kansas City. But in 2015, his walk rate spiked to 13.5 percent. And following a 2016 season lost to elbow surgery, Holland walked 11.1 percent of batters he faced as Colorado’s closer in 2017.

We’ll get to Holland’s unfortunate debut in a few. But first, here’s two snaps shots showing why Holland is T. Rosenthal’s wild older pitching brother:

  • From the start of the 2015 season through 2017, among the 186 major-league relievers who have pitched at least 100 innings over that time, Rosenthal ranked 162nd with an average of 4.25 walks per 9 innings. Down even lower (as in worse) on the list was Holland at No. 170 with an average of 4.63 walks per 9.
  • Many of the top closers / relievers in the majors averaged fewer than 4.0 batters faced per inning over the past  three seasons. For example, the average is 3.76 batters faced per inning for Kenley Jansen,  3.87 for Andrew Miller,  3.87  for Robert Osuna, 3.89 for Mark Melancon,  3.92 for Zach Britton,  3.91 for Craig Kimbrel,  3.97 for Wade Davis, just about 4.0 for Aroldis Chapman.
  • Holland has averaged 4.23 batters per inning since 2015; with Rosenthal the average was 4.18.
  • In 2017 Rosenthal had a 1-2-3 inning only 44 percent of the time; Holland went three up, three down in 45% of his one-inning appearances.

In first appearance for the Cardinals, Holland entered at the top of the 10th inning of a 4-4 tie with Milwaukee. He needed a GPS device to locate the strike zone. Six of his nine four-seam fastballs missed the zone. Four of his six sliders were off target. Holland didn’t pitch as much as he tossed a frisbee.

Holland walked Travis Shaw on a full count. He walked Domingo Santana on a full count. After a sacrifice bunt moved the runners to second and third, manager Mike Matheny had Holland load the bases with an intentional walk.

With the bases occupied to full capacity, Holland walked Orlando Arcia on four pitches. Shaw trotted home. The Brewers got their run. And after quickly hushing the Cardinals’ hitters in the bottom of the 10th, the Brewers checked out with a 5-4 win.  And with that walk-in victory, Milwaukee is now 8-3 at Busch Stadium since the start of last season.

I don’t care that Matheny picked that spot for Holland to make his debut for the Cardinals. The manager was anxious for the front office to get him a closer, the front office waited for the price to drop and got the stressed manager a closer, and of course the manager would rush his new-toy closer into the first game as soon as possible. Given Matheny’s well established quirks, no one can possibly claim to be surprised by this move.

If you want get the blood angered over something, there are better causes.

+ Holland walks too many hitters even during his sharper times, so I’m not sure why the organization was so confident in Holland being MLB game ready after having no spring training and only two one-inning rehearsals at Class A Palm Beach. I didn’t question it beforehand. I just assumed the makers of decisions knew what they were doing.

+ Given Holland’s out-of-control fastball and slider, it was asinine to load the bases with an intentional walk. Matheny does watch the game, correct? The Beloved Leader of Men did see Holland miss the strike zone and walk two Brewers, yes? The skipper-dipper-dandy did understand that if Holland walks another Brewer with the bases jammed … the Brewers would get a free run, no? Your pitcher is on the mound. He had not faced a big-league hitter — regular-season, postseason, exhibition — since last October. Holland wasn’t in anybody’s spring-training camp. Obviously a bit oxidized, Holland was walking everything except my neighbor’s dog.  And you’re going to load the bases there?

+ You would have needed a strike zone the size of the Busch Stadium video board for Holland to land a pitch for a strike. After the first two walks, that’s it. Gotta go. Gotta play the game to win. Can’t be concerned about hurting Holland’s feelings. Gotta bring in a reliever — hopefully a  good one —  to effort the rescue. Bud Norris was  outstanding  last night in relief.  But Matheny  was too late in making the move to Norris. At least Norris made sure the Brewers didn’t get score again. But again, the damage was done. Brewers win.

+ Oh, yeah and the Cardinals ran out of bench players. Not especially helpful in a game that goes long. But feeling protected and secure by having an eight-man bullpen — but using only seven relievers, of course — helps the manager sleep more peacefully at night, and that’s important.

What about winning?

That’s a bit of a challenge for the Cardinals in late-game situations.

When your team has another closer with control problems and a manager who can’t run a bullpen or comprehend the value of having a solid bench for tactical reasons … that’s a damned good formula for gagging up close games in late innings.

Last season the Cardinals lost 10 games after taking a lead into the 7th,  six games after taking a lead into the 8th, and five games when having a lead going into the 9th. They also went 5-9 in extra innings, and were on the losing side (24-29) in one-run games.

This year, only 10 games into the schedule, the Cardinals already have lost twice when taking a lead into the 7th, and they’ve lost a game when leading into the eighth, and another when leading into the ninth.  And now they’re 0-1 in extra innings, and 0-2 in one-run games.

This is a poor late-inning team because of the chronic bullpen mismanagement and the disadvantage of playing shorthanded on the bench by squandering a roster spot on an extra reliever instead.

This season the Cardinals have outscored opponents by 10 runs over the first six innings.

But from the seventh inning until the end of the game, the Cardinals have been outscored  by 10 runs.

Starting with 2016, the Cardinals are 48-54 in games decided by a run, 23-26 in games decided by two runs, and stand at 9-13 in extra-inning contests.

Since the beginning of last season, the Cardinals’ combined record against the Cubs and Brewers is a dismal  15-27. That’s embarrassing, yes. But it’s no surprise given the Cardinals’ struggle to win close games from their rivals.

Over the last two seasons the Cardinals have engaged the Cubs and Brewers in a combined total of 19 one-run games.

Matheny’s record in those one-run standoffs against Joe Maddon and Craig Counsell is 5-14.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: Greg Holland Could Help Matheny’s Bullpen, and Ease Matheny’s Mind