Exploring Trevor Rosenthal's Potential and Baseball's Valuation of the Save

Rosenthal was one of the most controversial figures in St. Louis this season. Is this because of his performance, or because he's responsible for achieving the overvalued final out?

Trevor Rosenthal has been a lightning rod of controversy in St. Louis. His 2014 season has been riddled with inconsistency, a season only made better by his success in the out dated statistic that is the save.

Now, this article isn’t intended to bash Rosenthal. Rosenthal, if we’re speaking strictly by his ability to save games, has been just fine. He converted 45 of 51 save opportunities, good for second-best in the National League. However, as I said before, saves are dead weight as a statistic, an inaccurate way to perceive the actual success of a modern day reliever, and a deceptive stat that changes how a manager manages.

Rosenthal and the Cardinals are a prime example.

Rosenthal: Save Machine, Pedestrian Reliever

In 2014, Rosenthal converted 45 saves. Aside from that, his numbers aren’t that pretty. Rosenthal’s FIP (fielding independent pitching) of 2.99 was the 45th best off all relievers with at least 50 innings pitched, while his 3.73 xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching) could be found all the way down at 88th in baseball under the same parameters.

Of the pitchers with at least 35 saves in 2014, only Joe Nathan had a higher ERA than did Rosenthal. His walks per 9 innings (BB/9) was nearly a whole walk higher, than the next highest with at least 35 saves. His BB/9 was over 5.

But this isn't to say that Rosenthal isn’t adequate. His job is to get the last three outs of the game without giving up the lead. Something is to be said about his doing that 45 times this season. His ERA was also a solid 3.20, and his ERA+ (adjusted ERA) of 115 isn’t bad by any means.

We have to realize, however, that the way we look at relief pitching statistics should be different than the way we look at starting pitching. This is why I’m not buying that he is an elite reliever, but it is also why I’m not buying that he’s the worst pitcher to ever play, like some Cardinals fans would suggest. At this point, Rosenthal is just about average, as far as relievers go. He can become an above-average reliever by doing two things.

Throw The Changeup

Rosenthal is a guy that is still trying to find his identity as a pitcher, and although his numbers took a hit in 2014, he is starting to find his identity. That process will speed if he realizes that his changeup is his best pitch and if he throws it like it’s his best pitch. In 2014, his changeup drew a swing and miss 21% of the time, and his 6.5 wCH was the second highest in baseball among relievers. Despite his success with the changeup, he still isn’t throwing it enough.

In 2014, Rosenthal threw his fastball 77.6% of the time, while only throwing his changeup 16.8% of the time. Although that is an improvement from just 6% in 2013, that number is still just a bit to a low for a guy whose changeup is that effective.

To compare, guys like Felix Hernandez and Alex Cobb, who are the top two pitchers in baseball in wCH, threw their changeups 32% and 38% of the time, respectively. It is also important to note that, although his fastball has electric velocity at times, it hasn’t been dominant, registering just a 1.7 wFB in 2014. That is comparable to the wFB of 39-year old Jamey Wright.

Rosenthal's changeup is successful. He just has to throw it more.

Throw Strikes

If you watch him pitch, you will see that he struggles to command his fastball. Actually, command is the wrong word. Control is the better word. Rosenthal can’t throw strikes, let alone command his pitches. He has good velocity, averaging just a tick under 97 miles per hour on his fastballs, but nearly 35% of those fastballs aren’t strikes, according to Brooks Baseball. As I said before, Rosenthal walked 5 batters for every 9 innings he pitched, the highest of any pitcher with at least 35 saves.

However, despite his control issues, he still does a decent job missing bats. His changeup drew swings and misses 24% of the time in 2014. His Z-Contact% was also fairly low at 78%. That mirrors the Z-Contact% of Adam Dunn, who struck out in 31% of his at bats in 2014

His K/9 IP was not too shabby either, at just over 11 punch outs over every 9 innings of work. He has swing-and-miss stuff when he is throwing his fastball for a strike and keeping hitters off balance with the changeup. History has proven that a good fastball-changeup combination leads to good things, and Rosenthal has showed signs of being no different. He just has to throw more strikes. As we saw from James Shields last night in game one of the World Series, a good changeup is ineffective when the fastball is consistently out of the zone.

So What’s The Point?

When it comes to Rosenthal’s success, the solution would seem pretty easy. As a reliever, he doesn’t need a large repertoire of pitches to become successful. Craig Kimbrel, Greg Holland, and Aroldis Chapman have become elite major league closers, largely on just two-pitch repitores.

If Rosenthal can build on his changeup's success, going forward, he could become an above-average relief pitcher. With all this being said, why was Rosenthal such a lighting rod for controversy in 2014? All things considered, he was, at the very least, an average relief pitcher, if only supported by his ERA+. The reason he was so scrutinized, is undoubtedly because he is paid to get the last out of the game, which has been inaccurately exaggerated as the most important out of the game.

Don’t take that sentence wrong. The last out is unique, and it is of the utmost importance. However, the mismanagement of that out and its value is a growing epidemic among major league managers.

Let's use Mike Matheny as our example - not because he manages Rosenthal but because he gives us the best understanding of this concept. After Michael Wacha gave up a three-run walkoff home run to Travis Ishikawa, ending the Cardinals season, Matheny was asked why he went to Wacha and not Rosenthal. His answer?

“We can’t bring him in, in a tie-game situation. We’re on the road.”

Herein lies the problem. Now, it is easy for me to write about this in hindsight. Would I have brought Rosenthal in? I have no idea. Matheny’s bigger crime was that he brought in Wacha, a pitcher who hadn’t pitched in nearly a month. However, Matheny tied his own hands together by lending himself to the narrative of closers only pitching for saves, a precedent shared by most, if not all, major league managers.

The bottom line is that the Cardinals see Rosenthal as their guy. The guy they want closing games and, by association, the guy they want making the biggest outs of the game. And they were just eliminated from the playoffs as he watched from the bullpen.

Bullpen management is not easy, by any means, and if a manager makes the right decision but it backfires, he still gets crushed by fans. It happened when Pat Neshek, hands down the Cardinals best reliever, gave up a home run the previous inning to Mike Morse to tie the game.

Managers sometimes make the right move, and it doesn't work out. That’s part of the deal. However, the save is changing the way we look at pitchers and how we value them, as well as affecting the way managers use their pitchers. And as this is happening, more and more teams like the Cardinals are losing games with their closer still sitting in the bullpen.