How well did the Cardinals shut the door this year?
Closer is an interesting baseball phenomenon. It’s not really a set position so much as a special designation to a relief pitcher. There are a lot of expectations that come with being a closer, and if you don’t meet them you can lose your job pretty quickly. The Cardinals only had two players take the mantle of closer this year. How did they do?
Not great! Yes, Trevor Rosenthal had a rough season. He had a 4.46 ERA and a 1.902 WHIP. His walks were up, he blew 3 saves and nothing was going right. A season like that will make you forget a season like this: 2.10 ERA, 2.7 WAR, 11 K/9, 48 saves and an all star. That was Rosenthal one year ago. Rosenthal was put on the DL late in the season, July 26, with a shoulder issue. After coming back, he threw 7 innings with 8 strikeouts, one earned run and two walks. I’m not saying that Rosenthal is completely fine, but it is very possible that he hid his shoulder injury and it was causing him issues while pitching.
Unfortunately, the alternative is that Rosenthal is so broken mechanically that he has messed up his arm forever. Again, the evidence at the end of the season does not point to that, but it is possible. Rosenthal had a pretty poor season this year, but I wouldn’t sleep on him next year. He’s only 26 and one of the most electric young arms in the league when he’s right. The Cardinals seem to think he’s fine, as he’s being considered for a starting pitching role for 2017. He could probably win his closing job back with a resurgent season, if not for…
Seung-hwan Oh was absolutely lights out this year. The 33 year old rookie relief pitcher took the reins from Rosenthal and never looked back. He had a 1.92 ERA in 79.2 IP. His ERA+ was a whopping 214, he had a WHIP of 0.916 an averaged 11.6 K/9. The raw stats show you just how unstoppable he was this season. There weren’t a lot of relievers that could match his production.
There are some concerns about Oh’s age and durability. He is 33 years old, but his stuff isn’t ridiculously overwhelming and he was still very good down the stretch. His fastball averaged around 92 all season with the slider settling in at 87. Since he’s not an absolute flamethrower, I don’t expect him to start deteriorating any time soon. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised if he regressed a bit next season just because the numbers are so incredible, but he will still be one of the best relief pitches in the league.
The only other possible issue with Oh is that his performance was a fluke or a result of small sample size. Fortunately, Oh’s ability to locate and control his pitches make this theory unlikely. Fangraphs did an excellent piece on him earlier in the season and highlighted how accurate he is with his slider. His ability to locate that pitch to the exact same spot almost every time is remarkable, and it graded out as one of the most unhittable pitches in baseball this year. Oh is right up there in the top tier relief pitchers like Britton, Melancon, Chapman and Miller.
Although Rosenthal was pretty awful, it was offset by some truly excellent bullpen pitching from Seung-hwan Oh. Plus, Rosenthal only blew 3 saves and his performance was probably due to his shoulder injury anyways, and Oh’s pitching style seems to indicate he has a few more quality years left in him. The Cardinals should be in pretty good hands when they enter the 9th inning with a lead next year. If you ever take Oh for granted, go watch the 9th inning of game 4 of the Cubs-Giants NLDS and realize that the Cardinals have it better than most.