By Issa Cook, from Cardsblog.com
The St. Louis Cardinals entered the 2016 season with a hopeful attitude. They had their ace Adam Wainwright back, an improved and healthy offense, and a dominant pitcher at the back end of their bullpen. While this season certainly has not been normal in any way, no one ever thought we would be dealing with a closer conflict.
Unfortunately, Trevor Rosenthal could not put it together in 2016. Whether his struggles were due to injury, fatigue, or declining performance, he just was not as effective as usual. It is very rare for closers in the majors to be successful for long periods of time, but before April we had no reason to believe that Rosenthal's performance would decline.
The 1942 team included a rookie Stan Musial, Hall-of-Famer Enos Slaughter, and season MVP, Mort Cooper (who went 22-7 with a 1.78 ERA).
As it stands now, the Cardinals own a 70-64 record in early September. Seung-hwan Oh and Kevin Seigrist have "fought" over closing duties with Oh holding a comfortable lead in that "battle".
Just think for a second. What if Mike Matheny could have trotted out Oh in the 7th, Siegrist in the 8th, and Rosenthal in the 9th on a consistent basis? Now that's not striking fear in the hearts of opposing hitters like the April-July Yankees did this season, but it would be a formidable combination in the late innings.
In early September, the Cardinals hold a 26-30 record in games decided by two runs or less. Usually, winning teams come in the clutch, winning more of their close games. Fortunately, the Cardinals have been able to salvage this season by crushing a lot of baseballs out of stadiums.
What if Rosenthal was Good this Year?
But, for now, I thought it would be interesting to check out how the Cardinals might have fared if Rosenthal were actually the dominant closer we all expected him to be this season. In 2014, Rosenthal owned a 3.02 ERA in save situations for the Cardinals. He also had 65 strikeouts in 53 games while hitters only posted a .212 batting average against him. These numbers helped put him in an elite class of closers, one of the top five in major league baseball.
After the Cardinals 2014 season ended, many questions faced a successful team that just could not beat the Giants on an even year. The organization had to deal with some of their darkest hours after the death of Oscar Taveras, mourning the loss of a bright young star who had the world ahead of him and wondering how their beloved Cardinals would recover.
Then, in 2015, Rosenthal took his game to the next level. Hitters simply could not find a way to hit his fastball hard, and his breaking pitches complemented the heater very well. The numbers showed this, as Rosenthal dropped his ERA down to 2.13 in save situations while striking out 66 in 51 games. Hitters improved their batting average a little bit against him, raising that statistic to .232 (a minor improvement).
In 2016, things absolutely unraveled for Rosenthal. I'm not going to break down Rosenthal's sharp decline in this piece, because my friend Tyler Brandt already did that in an earlier Cardsblog article. What I'm going to do, however, is imagine what could have been if we got 2015 Rosenthal in 2016.
Taking a Look at the Numbers
So far this season, the Cardinals have converted 67.39% of their save chances. Out of 46 opportunities, the Cardinals have been able to shut the door only 31 times. Let's think about that for a second, that's 15 wins that the Cardinals had at their fingertips and simply let slip out of their grasp.
With 15 more wins, the Cardinals would currently be sitting in a very tight race with the Chicago Cubs for 1st place in the NL Central. The 85-49 record would be the second best in all of major league baseball, only behind the Cubs. Now, no team converts a perfect 100% of their save chances, so this "what if" scenario is very unlikely. Indeed, it would take a more than perfect effort from the Cardinals bullpen to best the Cubs in 2016.
Realistically, if the Cardinals could just have had Rosenthal stay on as closer and convert four more of the Cardinals' save chances, they would be in the top 5 in all of baseball in save %. A 35 for 46 mark would put the Cardinals' record at 74-60 on the season, giving them a strong hold on the top National League wild card spot.
Another aspect of the team that Rosenthal impacted was the set-up role in the bullpen. The Cardinals could have had Seung-hwan Oh and Kevin Siegrist setting the table for Rosenthal night in and night out, making a huge difference in the late innings of a game.
While there's no statistic for me to measure the potential difference that having three consistent pitchers with steady roles at the back of the bullpen would have made, you can't tell me that it would've hurt this team. I guess it's possible to also examine how many leads the Cardinals blew in the 7th and 8th innings with other setup pitchers in the game, but that's a lot of effort for a make-believe article.
In any case, Rosenthal declined sharply in 2016 and the Cardinals stuck him on the disabled list. Now, we have a shaky bullpen headed into September. But hey, I guess when you lose 9-1 to the Reds, the bullpen does not really matter.
Welp. The Cardinals lost last night to the lowly Brewers and the head case that is Matt Garza. For many, it was a tough way to end a mediocre August. The pitching was so-so, mostly due to a terrible Adam Wainwright, and a bad first few starts from Carlos Martinez.