Is it time for a new Cardinal closer?

Rob Neyer

Rob Neyer

Before getting into the specifics of the Rosenthal Affair, a semi-instructive list ....


Papelbon
Kimbrel
Rivera
Axford
Hanrahan
Madson
Putz
Walden
Santos

According to fWAR, those were the nine best closers just three seasons ago. How many remain? Just two. The top two. Some of the others aren’t even pitching any more, let alone pitching well in the majors.

Granted, I did stack the deck some by looking at just closers. In 2011, just as in 2014, some of the best relievers didn’t actually have the glamour role. In 2011, non-closers Greg Holland and David Robertson were outstanding, and now they’re outstanding closers. If you can pitch brilliantly for a whole season, in whatever role, there’s a decent chance you’ll still be pitching brilliantly three seasons later.

Granted, that’s no guarantee, either. The 10 best non-closers in 2011: Robertson, Sean Marshall, Holland, Rafael Betancourt, Glen Perkins, Mike Adams, Daniel Bard, Tyler Clippard, Matt Thornton, Jason Motte.

I’m glad that list closed with Motte, who did actually take over as closer late in that season. You might also remember that he was lights-out in the first two rounds of the postseason tournament before getting roughed up some by the Rangers in the Serious. In 2012, Motte led the National League with 42 saves. He didn’t pitch at all in 2013, and has struggled this season.

No problem for the Cardinals, though! Trevor Rosenthal!

Oh.

and:

leading one to wonder ...

Rosenthal thrived last season as a setup man, then took over as closer when Edward Mujica spit the bit, and pitched brilliantly in October. And this season? He hasn’t been terrible, with a 3.61 ERA and 36 saves, and just one home run allowed all season (way back in April). He’s blown five save chances, which is roughly average for a decent closer.

So why all the concern? The fifth of those blown saves came Monday night. The Cardinals are fighting for their (postseason) lives, and in Rosenthal’s last three appearances, he’s issued six walks and given up four runs. Which is hard to watch, I guess, if you’re a Cardinals fan.

I wasn’t watching, though. So it’s easy for me to say this: IT WAS ONLY THREE APPEARANCES. In his 13 appearances before that, Rosenthal had issued two walks and given up two runs.

Look, maybe there’s something wrong with him. His walk rate is certainly elevated this season, which should be a concern. But good pitchers, and especially good relief pitchers, can look terrible in two or three straight outings. That’s what happens when the sample size is just four or five batters.

Rosenthal’s throwing as hard as usual. He’s just missed his spots too often this season. I doubt if anyone can know why. But that’s a question for the biomechanics and the psychologists and the psychics. Here’s a question for the Mathenies and the usses: Do the Cardinals have anyone better for the job?

There are three candidates: Pat Neshek, Seth Maness, and Carlos Martinez.

Martinez’s walk rate is nearly as high as Rosenthal’s, but with more home runs and fewer strikeouts. So he’s out.

Maness has a low strikeout rate, but doesn’t walk anybody. Statistically speaking, he could probably handle the job decently enough.

Then there’s Neshek, who’s having a season for the ages. He’s been great at everything this season, resulting in a 0.86 ERA. Neshek entered this season with a 2.45 career strikeout-to-walk ratio; this season it’s 9.50.

Is Neshek for real? Hey, anything’s possible. What’s more likely is that he’s a good pitcher having a great season. This does happen, especially to good relief pitchers. I don’t believe Neshek would be terribly miscast as a closer. Unlike Maness, he doesn’t have much of a platoon difference in his career.

Then again, why mess with success? These days you need two and often three right-handed firemen in a close game, and the Cardinals have three good ones. You can shift Neshek to the ninth inning, but you’ll still be using Rosenthal in high-leverage situations.

You should be, anyway. Because he’s still a good pitcher.

He seems to be, anyway. Maybe there’s really something wrong. But the people who run the Cardinals aren’t fools. You sorta have to trust that Mike Matheny and the bright boys in the front office know more about Rosenthal’s low-grade control issues than we do.


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