Entering the season, the Cardinals bullpen projected to be a strength. Instead, it’s been the team’s biggest hindrance.
The Cardinals bullpen has 20 losses and only 9 wins. Their .310 winning percentage is the worst among all MLB bullpen units. Yet, despite that glaring problem, some suggest the bullpen is fine. I, at times, have been among those people.
A quick look at traditional and saber-lite metrics (all stats are through July 22nd) shows support for that conclusion. The Cardinals bullpen ERA of 4.05 ranks 12th in the MLB. Their 3.99 FIP also ranks 12th. No sign of a glaring weakness there.
Digging a little further, though, we start to find the cracks. Oftentimes, relievers are brought into the middle of an inning with runners on base. If those inherited runners score, the runs are charged to the preceding pitcher instead of the current reliever. In theory, though, good bullpens can limit the damage by minimizing the rate at which inherited runners score.
So far this season, the St. Louis Cardinals bullpen has inherited 114 runners. 43 of those have come around to score, an IS% (inherited-scored rate) of 37.7%. For a reference point, MLB average is 30%. Ten of the worst fifteen teams by this metric have a losing record. Strangely, Houston owns the worst IS%. I guess when you lead the league in scoring, you can afford to let some inherited runners score.
We can analyze this at the individual level, too. The Cardinals have eight pitchers who have inherited at least six runners this season. Only six of those are still with the team. Here’s how those six stack up.
Despite his recent shortfall against the Cubs, Matt Bowman paces the St. Louis Cardinals bullpen with an IS% of only 18%. No other Cardinals reliever is under 30%, and Seung-Hwan Oh is the only other player under 40%. Five of the six qualified Cardinals relievers are below average at limited the inherited damage when they are called upon, and four of the six have been terrible at it. Jonathan Broxton and Miguel Socolovich both held an IS% worse than 40% when with the Cardinals too.
Additionally, we can use win probability and leverage stats to analyze the bullpen from another angle. My new favorite reliever metrics are shutdowns and meltdowns. In a shutdown, a reliever’s win-probability-added (WPA) is at least 6%. In a meltdown, a relievers WPA is negative 6% or worse.
Just by raw count, the Cardinals bullpen has 94 shutdowns, second-most in the MLB. Unfortunately, they also have the second-most meltdowns at 56. As a team, the Cardinals own the MLB’s second highest shutdown per appearance rate (SD%) at 30.1%. They also have the sixth highest meltdown per appearance rate (MD%) at 17.9%. Put it together, and their 1.7 shutdown per meltdown rate of 1.68 ranks 12th in the MLB. Not bad, right?
At face value, no, that’s not bad. However, a player or team’s shutdown total can be artificially inflated by closing out low-leverage innings. To get a better idea of how the team’s bullpen’s stack up when it matters, I filtered to only look at pitchers who have a player leverage index (pLI) of at least 0.85 (average is 1.00) and twenty appearances. This way, we ignore guys working in mop-up duty. Hat tip to @ournada here, who first pointed this out nearly a month ago.
Using the above criteria, The Cardinals 20.7% MD% is the highest in the MLB. Their SD% of 39.9% ranks only ninth. The unit’s 1.93 SD/MD rate ranks only 20th in the majors, well below the 2.35 SD/MD league average. Eleven of the bottom fifteen teams have losing records. The Cardinals bullpen isn’t keeping good company here.
Looking individually, we again see major problems with the bullpen’s main pieces. Brett Cecil leads the team with 14 meltdowns and a 29.2% meltdown rate. Consequently, his 1.2 SD/MD ratio is the worst on the team (min. pLI of 0.85). While he’s been better lately, he’s responsible for two blown saves in his last four outings and gave up the go-ahead run to the Cubs on Saturday.
Trevor Rosenthal, who most would pick for the next St. Louis closer, has ten meltdowns himself. As of this writing, the Cardinals are the only team who has two players with double digit meltdowns. Bowman and Oh combine to add another fifteen meltdowns.
While the Cardinals overall bullpen stats have generally looked OK, the unit has struggled to perform in important situations all year. If the Cardinals had just an average bullpen in these situations, they might be in first place. Instead, they’ve lost four of their last five, dropped to four games under .500, and sit in fourth place in the NL Central.
So how bad is the Cardinals bullpen? It’s the difference between standing atop the division and sitting in fourth. It will very likely be the difference between making the playoffs and watching from home in October. The Cardinals bullpen is not a strength, and it’s not even just fine. It’s a problem, and one that needs to be addressed now or (if now is too late) in the offseason.