Brett Cecil came over with a reputation as a shutdown reliever, even if he’s a traditionally slow starter. The last time I checked, it looked like Cecil’s velocity was coming back and he was settling in. Since then, though, he’s posted a 4.32 ERA on an even worse 4.82 FIP. In May, he owns a horrible 9.00 ERA and 7.52 FIP. It’s bad, and it’s not getting better.
Cecil’s peripherals really aren’t any better, which suggests he’s not just getting unlucky. According to FanGraphs, his K/BB ratio is the worst it’s been as a reliever. His HR/FB rate of 18.8% is almost identical to last year’s 20.0% rate, which was among the worst in the league. Compounding that issue, his groundball rate is down while his fly ball rate is up for the third year in a row. His .415 BABIP allowed is also among MLB’s worst, but, as his 4.72 season FIP shows, even regression in batted ball luck won’t make him a decent pitcher.
One of the major problems is still fastball velocity. After climbing up to an average fastball velocity above 92.5 (in line with his historical performance out of the bullpen), his velocity again dipped and flatlined between 91 and 90 mph.
Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the velocity decline last all season. Brett Cecil had already been experiencing a long-term velocity decline, and from 2014 to 2016, he lost a little zip off his fourseamer, sinker, and cutter, falling from 93.8 mph, 92.9 mph, and 91.5 mph to 93.1 mph, 92.5 mph, and 89.8 mph respectively. While the velocity dip this year is much steeper, the trend suggests not all was perfectly well when St. Louis signed the reliever this offseason.
One of the biggest reasons for the velocity decline, as is almost always the case with relievers, is probably his heavy workload. From 2013 to 2015, Brett Cecil made 60 or more appearances every year. Then, in a 2016 interrupted by injury, he made another 54 appearances. Cecil has already made 20 appearances in 2017, which is only two less than the league leader. Since 2013, Cecil has made more appearances than the St. Louis Cardinals own bullpen workhorse Kevin Siegrist, whose heavy usage resulted in his own velocity decline. Not a good sign.
I’ve started to wonder if Brett Cecil is ailing, either from injury, dead arm, accumulated fatigue, or otherwise. Some research has suggested that spin rate could be a leading indicator of pitcher injuries, so I wanted to take a brief look into Cecil’s average spin.
I combined Brett Cecil’s fourseamer, cutter, and sinker into one “fastballs” category. While this isn’t perfect, neither is Statcast’s classification of his fastballs. Since his fastball usage breakdown is similar in 2016 and 2017, though, I’m comfortable comparing the two years.
That said, Cecil’s average fastball spin rate has dropped 125 rpm. His curveball has lost more than 250 rpm. His changeup is the only pitch with an increased spin rate, which isn’t necessarily a good thing considering more changeup spin generally means less drop. The sharp changes in spin rate across all pitches suggests Cecil isn’t right. Diagnosing that issue and getting Cecil back to form may be the key to salvaging his 2017 season.
Unfortunately, the overall trends in Cecil’s velocity and peripherals suggest his time as an elite reliever may be limited (or over). Or maybe it’s just reliever volatility. In either case, Brett Cecil is not a reliable option for the bullpen right now, and St. Louis should not be deployed as such until he proves himself again in lower leverage situations.
It’s too early to call the Brett Cecil signing a mistake. We’re still only 5.6% of the way through his four year, $30.5M dollar deal. But the early concerns about Brett Cecil are real and, more concerning, look like an acceleration of an already evident decline trend.