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St. Louis Cardinals: Analyzing John Brebbia’s Rookie Year

John Brebbia

Earlier today my Redbird Daily colleague Kyle Reis posted a piece examining exactly how many spots on the 25 man roster need upgraded. I urge you to go read his article before going any further. But for those of you that enjoy depriving yourselves of great information, allow me to summarize it.

Kyle broke down the current projected 25 man roster and broke down every single spot on the roster that appears to be in need of an upgrade. The part that caught my eye more than anything was the bullpen. He decided that there are three relievers in need of being upgraded. Those being Sam Tuivailala, Josh Lucas, and Sandy Alcantara. I agree with Kyle on all three of those, however, I’m skeptical that those are the only three in need of being upgraded.

Just after the all-star break I took a look at John Brebbia‘s underlying numbers. He was pitching great at the time, to the tune of a 1.64 ERA and a 0.77 WHIP. Pretty good, right? I believed those numbers were nothing but smoke and mirrors. His strikeout rate was too low and his fly ball rate was far too high for that sort of success to keep up. The prediction didn’t seem too bold, or even bold at all really. Brebbia was a career minor leaguer debuting in his rookie season at age 27.  The problem is that Brebbia posted a 3.03 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP between the date of my article and the end of the season.

Obviously this isn’t an actual problem being that I’m a Cardinals fan and I like being wrong in this fashion. I still wonder, however, if this success is actually sustainable. He’s proven me wrong so far, and I hope he proves me wrong for many years. But as you can probably tell, I have my doubts.

Home Runs Started to Become an Issue

One key factor that prompted me to write my original Brebbia piece was his insanely high fly ball percentage of 54.8%. Believe it or not, his FB% actually increased by the end of the season to 56.1%. This end of season number is the third highest in all of baseball among pitchers with at least 40 innings pitched.

I said at the time that I expected more home runs to come from this extremely high fly ball rate. Only 5.9% of the fly balls he was giving up were leaving the yard. I expected his HR/FB% to regress toward the league average of about 10% and sure enough, he ended the year at 10.3% This led to him allowing 6 home runs over his final 29.2 innings. That’s about 1.8 home runs per nine innings which puts him in some very, very bad company.

Now The Good News

There were basically two main reasons that I wrote the initial article. One was his fly ball rate, which we already discussed, and the other was his strikeout rate. At the time, Brebbia was only striking out 6.14 batters per nine innings. That’s a very low number and leads to a lot of balls being put in play. What he did over his final 29.2 innings though, was impressive. He struck out 10.9 batters per nine innings, which is fantastic. It raised his season number to a very respectable 8.88 k/9. This is right about in line with the numbers that he posted in his recent minor league seasons.

That isn’t an elite strikeout rate by any means, but when combined with only walking 5.3% of his batters faced, we get to some numbers that make him look like he can have some success in the big leagues. I went digging through Brebbia’s pitch f/x data on Brooks Baseball hoping to find something that led to his higher strikeout rate. Unfortunately I mostly came up empty. He started throwing his fourseam fastball slightly more down the stretch but it wasn’t a significant enough difference to mean much of anything. This means we were likely seeing a small sample size even out and we can expect something close to his 8.88 k/9 moving forward.

He ended the year with 51.2 innings pitched, a 2.44 ERA, and a 4.13 FIP. From what I’ve found though, that just doesn’t tell the whole story. It seems to have been a tale of two halves for Brebbia. One where he wasn’t striking anyone out and getting extremely lucky on home runs, to a second half where he was striking out a good number of hitters but had normal home run luck.

What This Means for 2018

I believe John Brebbia has earned a spot in the 2018 Opening Day bullpen. Pending a solid spring training performance of course. I say that though, with the stipulation that he needs to be the last or the second to last guy in the pecking order. He’s going to have to keep striking hitters out at an above average rate if he wants to be a passable reliever with that sort of fly ball rate. While Busch Stadium is a pretty spacious park that should help with his home run problems a bit, I don’t think that alleviates the concern.

The team will need to watch his early strikeout numbers as well. In particular, the amount of swinging strikes that he’s generating. It will be obvious whether things are working for him or not as swinging strikes take a very small sample to stabilize.

To sum it up, John Brebbia is a very strange type of pitcher that could have a WHIP under 1.00 with a high ERA and it be totally legit. If he gets a chance in the 2018 bullpen, like I think he should, I’m sure you’ll be seeing another piece from me about it. This guy fascinates me.

Thanks for reading

 for plenty of offseason chatter.

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