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The Cards’ Bullpen is a Raging, Stinking Tire Fire. So Go Get An Extinguisher.

Over the last month the Cardinals’ relievers lead MLB in bruises and contusions. These fellows are getting walloped, with little relief in sight, or on site … unless, of course, you were eerily excited by Preston Guilmet’s two-appearance audition.

Guilmet was promoted from Triple A Memphis, faced 13 batters over two appearances, and was pounded for seven hits, three doubles, two homers and five runs on only 50 PITCHES of work.

Guilmet is a sign of the times … yeah, a warning sign.

Mike Matheny makes so many calls to the bullpen, he’s already used up his minutes and will have to pay overages. Cardinals president of baseball machinations John Mozeliak and general manager Michael Girsch are making their own calls, to Memphis, to summon the “Reliever of the Day.”

The Cardinals already have used 16 relievers this season, and yes, I’m including infielder Jedd Gyorko because he’s better than Greg Holland.  You know the bullpen situation is bleak when Gyorko is your third-best RH reliever. I’m kidding about that … I think.

Well, I suppose it could get worse. The Cardinals could ask Todd Burns to make a comeback, check on Mike Mohler to see what he’s up to, and ask Ricky Bottalico for his medicals. How’s the elbow, Ricky? And why not see what pitching coach Mike Maddux could do with Andy Cavazos or Brian Tallet?

Blown saves, blown gaskets, blown minds. The seventh-inning stretch should include loud sirens to alert everyone in the ballpark to the threat of imminent danger.

OK, I’ve called in my own bullpen to extinguish the snark.

Let’s get a bit serious… 

Since May 7 — during a stretch of 28 games through Thursday — the Cardinals’ bullpen ERA is 6.06. That helium-filled ERA ranks 28th overall and 14th among 15 NL teams. The frustration is even more bothersome when I look at the statistics and see that Cards’ starting pitchers have a 2.58 over the same 28 games.

Just look at some other markers since May 7 and see how the Cardinals rate among the 15 National League bullpens in the (roughly) last month of baseball:

  • Opponent slugging percentage of .499,  15th
  • Opponent OPS, .848, 14th
  • 1.49 homers allowed per 9 IP,  13th
  • Opponent .350 onbase percentage, 12th
  • Opponent batting average,  .280,  13th
  • Strikeout-walk ratio of 2.25, 10th
  • Inherited runners scored, 34.4%,  10th
  • Baserunners per 9 IP … 14.19 … 14th

Since May 7, the Cardinals have a 3.02 ERA through the first five innings of a game.

It rises slightly to a 3.16 ERA through six innings.

And then: beware of sudden escalation and the ensuing damage.

7th inning … 6.43 ERA … 15th

8th inning … 5.79 ERA  … 14th

9th inning … 3.52 ERA  … 8th (Bud Norris keeps that down some.)

Extra innings … 6.75 ERA  … 13th

If we combine the 7-8-9 innings plus the extra frames, the Cardinals’ 5.35 ERA over the last 28 games ranks 28th in the majors and 14th in the NL. Needless to say, they’re performing poorly in high-leverage situations  (9.72 ERA), and medium-leverage situations (4.82 ERA) from the 7th inning on.

The only real trustworthy relievers are Jordan Hicks and Norris.

The problems behind the STL bullpen collapse include injuries,  roster additions that haven’t worked out, the repercussions of getting behind in the count, and a low strikeout rate.

Here’s a quick look at each category:

The Injuries: Eight different relievers have been placed on the DL 10 total times; right-handers Luke Gregerson and Dominic Leone have been missing for weeks. Matthew Bowman and Holland are beginning rehab assignments. Lefty Ryan Sherriff is out for the year after elbow surgery. But here’s an honest question: just how good are these guys, anyway? Leone had some good appearances, but several pitchers with DL time were straight-up liabilities: Gregerson, lefty Brett Cecil, Holland.

Roster additions that went kaboom: First of all, let’s happily acknowledge the excellent return the Cardinals are receiving for their $3 million, one-season investment in Bud Norris. He’s been an effective closer. Now onto the unpleasant stuff. The front office gave Cecil $30.5 million (four years), signed Gregerson for $11 million (two years), and handed Holland to a one-year deal for $14 million. And what is the club getting for its total investment of $55.5 million in Cecil, Gregerson and Holland? Answer: They’ve combined for an 8.49 ERA over 29.2 innings, have allowed 39 hits and four homers, and have walked as many batters (24) as they’ve struck out.

Two other million-dollar relievers: Leone and lefty Tyler Lyons are being paid a combined $2.285 million this season. They’ve combined for a 5.06 ERA in 26.2 innings — with 6 homers mixed in there.

Failure to control counts: Over the last month Cardinals’ relievers have gotten a first-pitch strike only 56.1% of the time; that’s the third-worst rate in the majors. And once Cardinals relievers get behind in the count, it’s big trouble. According to Inside Edge, this is what’s happened to STL relievers over the last 30 days when they’ve gotten behind in the count to give the advantage to hitters:

Pelted for a .421 batting average (27th in MLB)

Strafed for an .842 slugging percentage (29th)

Allowed a 1.406 OPS, (28th)

The poor count control leads to fewer strikeouts: We’ve written about this before, but as a group Cardinals relievers aren’t wiping many opponents out with a pure strikeout punch. For the season, the bullpen’s 21.5% strikeout rate ranks 25th in the majors and 14th in the NL. But over the last 30 days, the relievers’ K-rate has been weakened because of the count-control issue. When behind in the count over the last month, the relievers have a swing-miss rate of 22% (5th worst in MLB) and a strikeout rate of 17.2% (4th worst.)

In platoon-split matchups, the relievers are losing the confrontation: Over the past 30 days, when a right-handed Cardinals reliever faces a RH batter, the RH hitters have put up an .806 OPS. That’s 3rd worst in the majors during that time in R vs. R matchups; the league average OPS in those scenarios is .701. And there was even more carnage over the past 30 days when the  lefty STL relievers took on LH batters: a 1.406 OPS that’s 2nd worst and well above the league average 1.106.

So what will the front office do about this?

Several options:

A) Wait for relievers to heal and crank them up again to see if they’re any damned good.

B) Light some candles or something and pray to the baseball gods to show mercy by making Greg Holland great again. Hell, even “solid” would work.

C) Reach down to Memphis for young arms that haven’t been tried yet. Maybe Ryan Helsley or Dakota Hudson. And I noticed that Connor Greene, who had been in the Double A rotation at Springfield, was moved up to Memphis — to be used as a reliever.  Keep an eye on that one.

D) Finally, and this is looking more likely by the day: make a trade or two to fix a bullpen that didn’t get fixed last offseason.  And just hope to get it right this time.

Thanks for reading … have a swell weekend.

–Bernie

More – Bird Bytes: The Cardinals Are Getting Sloppy Again