During the first few weeks of Spring Training, an account on Instagram decided to post a fan’s opinion onto their page. The most recent opinion posted was mine on the new Cardinal reliever, Dominic Leone. The opinion that I sent them stated that Leone would save 30 games for the club this season. Shortly after it was posted, I watched as over 2,000 followers reacted to this statement. As “likes” accumulated into the hundreds (then thousands), disapproving comments flowed in at the same rate. For me, I couldn’t care less about the remarks made on social media. What I do care about is that fans understand all the facts before jumping to conclusions.
Current Closer Options
Since signing veteran-reliever Luke Gregerson, depth charts and analysts have him penciled in as the Cardinals’ closer—and I can’t blame them. He has compiled the most saves out of any reliever in the bullpen; and has logged nearly 600 innings at the major league level. One of his more troubling statistics for his career is that he has blown 46 saves in 112 chances. Considering majority of his numbers have declined from season to season, the 33-year-old has also not aged well. On a positive note, his career homeruns per 9-innings (HR/9)—0.78—is the lowest among the Cardinals options for the closer role. In addition, Gregerson’s career Contact% is the lowest out of the group at 68.3%. It seems that Gregerson will be the Cardinals’ closer entering the season; although I believe his role will change early-on because of his low success rate.
In 2017, left-hander Tyler Lyons provided much needed help out of the bullpen; especially in the “dog days” of July and August. Both months combined, Lyons threw a total of 20 innings, striking-out 27 batters, and giving up no homeruns off 7 hits (.109 batting average against). Yet, he was only given the opportunity to save 4 games—3 of them being successful. According to FanGraphs, only 8 of his 54-innings pitched last season were in high leverage situations (all in the 9th inning). Of the returning relievers, Lyons’ K/9 and HR/9 were team-bests in the 2017 bullpen. Unfortunately, as a late-inning or high leverage situation reliever, the sample size is too small to bank on whether Lyons would be a reliable closer or not.
If you’re a listener of the Two Birds on a Bat podcast (which you should be), chances are you have heard Jim dispute the case for Sam, “Tui”, Tuivailala. The podcast host often states that Tui hasn’t been given the opportunity to do what he was “groomed” for early-on in his career—and he is correct. Over his 6-year career, the right-hander has saved 46 games in 57 chances; all coming at the minor league level. As for his career in St. Louis, Tui has only thrown 67-innings over a four-year span—42 of them coming last season. Overall, he should be considered as an option in the 9th inning, but I feel there are guys ahead of him in the closer-role pecking order.
Finally, in the deal sending Randal Grichuk to Toronto, the Cardinals received two young relievers—one of them being Dominic Leone. The right-hander amassed 70 innings last season, compiling 81 strikeouts; and his opponent batting average was .202. Similar to Tui, Leone seemed to have been “groomed” as a closer in the minors. During his minor league career, he recorded 23 saves in 27 opportunities in 173-innings pitched. Unfortunately, his success as a closer has not transferred to the highest level thus far—only 1 for 9 in save opportunities. Nonetheless, last season’s progress is a positive sign for the Cardinals’ bullpen. Leone possess a plus slider, which may be the best breaking ball on the staff. There are other skills in his repertoire which has convinced me that he could save 30+ games in 2018.
To determine which reliever could be successful as the Cardinals’ closer, I paired together Gregerson/Lyons and Leone/Tuivailala. Of the four, Gregerson and Lyons have pitched the most innings in the last three seasons (179.2 and 120.1). Mainly though, I wanted to pair Leone and Tui together because of where they are at in their careers. Both are younger relievers, as well as having similar minor league resumes.
Gregerson vs Lyons
As I previously mentioned, Gregerson surpassed Lyons in the prior three seasons for innings pitched. In addition, Gregerson has kept his walks per 9-innings (BB/9) below 3.00 and his Swing% above 48. Other than that, Lyons has improved while Gregerson has declined. Each year, Lyons exceeds his total innings pitched from the previous season; and his numbers seem to be getting better and better. He threw 54-innings in 2017 and posted a 2.83 ERA; while Gregerson completed 61-innings and his ERA climbed to 4.57. Rest assure, both of their K/9s will be great contributing factors to the bullpen. Gregerson’s K/9 slightly declined last season, falling from 10.46 to 10.33—either/or are acceptable in my book. His counterpart, Lyons, emerged last season as a decent strike-out pitcher; raising his 8.63 K/9 from 2016 to 11.33. In the end, these two relievers do have plus features that should positively impact the Cardinals’ pitching staff. However, they are questionable closers at this point. It was close, but I do have Lyons as a better closer option than Gregerson. He does need to improve his Swing% and lower his BB rate if he wants to keep the closer role for the entirety of the season. The deciding factor for not choosing Gregerson is because of his overall decline in effectiveness and his awful success rate in closing situations.
|IP||61 | 57.2 | 61||18.1 | 48 | 54|
|ERA||3.10 | 3.28 | 4.57||2.95 | 3.38 | 2.83|
|K/9||8.70 | 10.46 | 10.33||8.84 | 8.63 | 11.33|
|BB/9||1.48 | 2.81 | 2.95||0.98 | 2.63 | 3.33|
|HR/9||0.74 | 0.78 | 1.92||1.96 | 1.69 | 0.50|
|HR/FB%||13.2% | 13.9% | 23.6 %||20.00% | 20.00% | 6.50%|
|Swing%||51.6% | 48.1% | 48.2%||44.60% | 44.70% | 41.50%|
|Hard%||20.2% | 28.0% | 29.5%||31.40% | 44.10% | 32.80%|
2015-2017 Statistics provided by FanGraphs
Leone vs Tuivailala
Between Leone and Tui, there are numerous components that can be compared here. However, the major difference is Leone has pitched in almost 100 games more than Tui—giving him the edge on MLB experience. It’s interesting to notice that in 2015 the two pitchers recorded close to the same number of outs. Despite the minuscule innings, Tui had the better year—14.2 IP, 3.07 ERA, and 12.27 K/9. Fast-forward to their 2017 numbers, Leone is obviously the better reliever. The more innings Toronto gave him, the more he evolved into a solid arm out of the bullpen. Comparing last seasons’ numbers, Tui did not beat Leone in any category featured below. The year before, Tui only threw 9-innings for the Cardinals; while Leone at least threw 27. Overall, their fastballs are both a tick above-average; but Leone’s out-pitch is sharper and more effective than either of Tui’s mediocre curveball or slider. In this head-to-head, of course I have Leone besting Tui in the role of the closer. Reasoning: Leone seems to pitch with confidence and his cutter/slider are devastating for both right- and left-handed hitters. I have a feeling Tui will not get many opportunities to close games; and with Reyes coming back in May (or June), he may find himself on another team if he doesn’t do well the first couple of months.
|IP||15 | 27 | 70.1||14.2 | 9 | 42.1|
|ERA||8.40 | 6.33 | 2.56||3.07 | 6.00 | 2.55|
|K/9||5.40 | 7.67 | 10.36||12.27 | 7.00 | 7.23|
|BB/9||5.40 | 4.00 | 2.94||4.91 | 6.00 | 2.34|
|HR/9||1.20 | 2.33 | 0.77||1.23 | 0.00 | 0.85|
|HR/FB%||11.1% | 20.6% | 8.2%||16.7% | 0.00% | 10.3%|
|Swing%||47.7% | 52.6% | 48.6%||43.3% | 40.5% | 46.4%|
|Hard%||35.8% | 31.0% | 29.5%||24.3% | 34.4% | 29.8%|
2015-2017 Statistics provided by FanGraphs
Leone vs Lyons
The final comparison to determine a closer is now between Lyons and Leone; one lefty, one righty. I strongly believe both relievers will have career-high seasons with the Cardinals in 2018—yes, another bold prediction. The two have proven to minimize the HR factor and influence a good amount of swings on their pitches. Their hard-hit percentage (Hard%) are not the best in the league, but it is a category we could see an improvement in as the season goes on. Their worst statistic, in my opinion, is their BB/9. In 2017, Lyons’ BB rate surpassed 3.00, and Leone finished a little below that. As long as both of their K/9 remain above 10.00, then I can live with a higher BB/9; especially if their Swing% improves. When judging Lyons’ K/9, I think we can assume it was a bit of an outlier season; recognizing his previous two seasons hovered around 8.6 to 8.8. Unlike Lyons, Leone has only one full season under his belt, making his K/9 a little sporadic. Although, there is a good possibility he stays around the 10.00 mark. Similar to Gregerson, Leone is moving away from a powerhouse division in the American League. Combining that with going to a below-average division (NL Central), I think it’s safe to assume Leone could have one of the best K/9 in the NL.
With the potential of having two above-par 9th inning arms, the Cardinals’ coaching staff could play match-ups. And no—I’m not talking about lefty-lefty. I am referring to batter vs pitcher matchups. Hitters in the NL Central have now seen Lyons for a few years, it may be best to give the ball to Leone in those cases. Maybe having a 2-man closer committee wouldn’t be so bad in the long-run. Whichever way the Cardinals want to handle the 9th-inning, I still feel Leone is the best option. His off-speed pitches trump Lyons’ pitches, which influences more swings and misses. Leone also has the lower Hard%–meaning hitters don’t barrel-up his pitches as well. Lastly, I find his season to season accomplishments to be intriguing. Dominic Leone could be the next Cardinal closer to reach 30 saves in a season.
|IP||15 | 27 | 70.1||18.1 | 48 | 54|
|ERA||8.40 | 6.33 | 2.56||2.95 | 3.38 | 2.83|
|K/9||5.40 | 7.67 | 10.36||8.84 | 8.63 | 11.33|
|BB/9||5.40 | 4.00 | 2.94||0.98 | 2.63 | 3.33|
|HR/9||1.20 | 2.33 | 0.77||1.96 | 1.69 | 0.50|
|HR/FB%||11.1% | 20.6% | 8.2%||20.00% | 20.00% | 6.50%|
|Swing%||47.7% | 52.6% | 48.6%||44.60% | 44.70% | 41.50%|
|Hard%||35.8% | 31.0% | 29.5%||31.40% | 44.10% | 32.80%|
2015-2017 Statistics provided by FanGraphs