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How Brett Cecil sped up his April

The Cardinals signed Cecil to take the lefty workload off Kevin Siegrist, but he began the season as equally ineffective. After four rough outings, though, Cecil seems to have returned to form. What changed?

Chicago Cubs v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Jeff Curry/Getty Images

Several bullpens on contenders across baseball have been off to a rocky start. Whether you want to point the spotlight on the Rangers, the Blue Jays, or the Nationals, the success rate is bad. One of the surprises, though, has been the implosion of the St. Louis Cardinals relief staff. (Aside from Matt Bowman who, in 9.2 innings, has a 0.00 ERA with seven strikeouts and a 0.52 WHIP.) Their primary late-innings lefty, Kevin Siegrist, is in a downward spiral, posting a 9.95 ERA and 10.95 FIP in 6.1 innings. His BABIP is a relatively low .167, but it’s the ten walks and two homers that have really killed his stats.

From 2015-2016, Siegrist had the 7th-most innings pitched of all NL relievers (136.1), and second-most by a lefty. In the last couple months of 2016, it became pretty evident that the workload strained Siegrist. Seemingly anticipating this, the Cardinals thought Brett Cecil would be the solution, which is why they signed him to a four-year deal in the offseason.

Cecil struggled through spring training, but we all hoped he’d revert back to a pitcher who could, you know, get a batter out. Unfortunately, at the opening of the season he just sucked. In researching Cecil’s problem, I stumbled upon an article I thought scooped me. “Don’t Worry About Brett Cecil (Too Much),” read the headline. That article was actually written last year by a Blue Jays fan. You know why?

Brett Cecil tends to suck in April.

Month IP ERA FIP AVG SLG WHIP
(April) 2015 7.0 5.14 6.13 .296 .519 1.43
(April) 2016 9.1 5.79 3.90 .333 .500 1.82
(April) 2017 5.2 6.75 3.35 .292 .500 1.59

By the end of the 2015 season, the average against Brett Cecil dropped a hundred points, to .196. In 2016, it fell from .333 to .265. His WHIP decreased to 0.96 and 1.28 (2015/2016), each one a drop of more than thirty points.

April of 2017 is on pace to be ever-so-slightly better than April of 2016. Cecil went five straight appearances without allowing a hit after getting roughed up in a disastrous game for the Cardinals in Washington on April 10th. In his most recent appearance, he allowed one base hit and two walks (one of them was quasi-intentional) but left the bases loaded. Overall, his six consecutive scoreless games have lowered his ERA from 15.00 to 5.87, and his FIP from 7.23 to 4.07.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch spoke to the southpaw on April 12th in an article titled, “April showers nothing new for Cecil”. The Cardinals wondered how to make him effective right now, not on May 1st. The first step was identifying the problem.

Before Cecil’s Monday appearance, another in a string of problematic outings, manager Mike Matheny and Cecil spoke about how his schedule could be manipulated — now and in the future — to speed up the feel Cecil cannot find for his curveball.

The curveball is the problem, and it’s a significant problem because he’s been throwing it almost 33 percent of the time. If Cecil doesn’t have a feel for a third of the pitches he’s throwing, we can’t expect him to be effective. But it’s not the curveball every April; it’s just the curveball this April.

Year Curve % 4-Seam % Sinker % Changeup %
(April) 2014 38.3% 16.8% 13.2% 7.2%
(April) 2015 39.3% 30.4% 9.9% 5.4%
(April) 2016 44.9% 13.7% 22.2% 5.7%
(April) 2017 32.3% 17.2% 19.4% 19.4%

April struggles may be nothing new, but Cecil seems to lose a different pitch during the first month of each season and has to accommodate by relying more heavily on another. The use of his curveball has dropped more than twelve percentage points from last April, while his changeup usage has tripled. It looks like he lost the sinker in 2015, and relied more on the four-seam fastball that month. It’s just a constant game of chess, trying to find out what works, which pitches are up front in the arsenal and which are relegated to the reserve.

At the beginning of the 2017 season, the curveball didn’t have quite as much vertical movement and stayed slightly higher in the zone, making it a more hittable pitch. During the first four games of the season, his curve averaged -0.95 feet below the center of the strike zone. Over the next five games, however, it averaged -1.2 feet. It’s dropping an average of three inches more, making it further from the center of the zone and just as enticing but less hittable.

Of course, another big factor is velocity. Cecil’s thrown his curveball harder in recent games:

His average velocity has increased from 82.4 mph to 83.9 mph. Having an extra 1.5 mph of velocity has definitely helped his curveball blow past hitters.

In that disastrous game against the Nationals, Cecil threw nine curveballs. In his next appearance he threw only four, all of them to Bryce Harper in a, quite frankly, nail-biting at-bat. (My cuticles suffered.) Take a look at that pitch and you’ll see it doesn’t have great vertical movement. That’s why Bryce is able to barrel it up so well:

Brett Cecil curveball to Bryce Harper

Unfortunately for Bryce, Jedd Gyorko was there to make a really snazzy grab, salvaging the appearance for Cecil and keeping the momentum going in the Cardinals’ favor.

Next time out, Cecil threw only four curveballs. In the following appearance he also threw four. But the next time out he threw none at all. He doesn’t always have the curveball, so he lessened his reliance on it until he got to a point where he didn’t need it to get an out.

Cecil appears to have figured out which pitches feel right and which ones don’t. Brooks Baseball notes that in the first four games, Cecil threw eighteen curveballs. In the next five, he threw only fifteen. He’s throwing fewer curves, but those pitches now have more vertical movement and are closer to the bottom of the zone. Instead of forcing the pitch like he did in the first couple weeks, when he throws the curve now it’s because, for lack of a more appropriate phrase, he’s “feeling it.” Fewer curveballs translates into them being more effective.

We are rapidly approaching May, the month where Brett Cecil seems to annually find himself. Maybe he realigns his chakras or binge watches all four Rocky movies on April 30th. But when May comes around, Brett Cecil gets a heck of a lot better.

The question I had to ask, then, was how did he speed up his timeline? Why has he improved over his recent outings instead of reverting back to typical April Cecil?

It’s all about identifying the weakness and trusting his other pitches. In his appearance on Saturday, Cecil threw the lefties a steady dose of sliders and changeups. Then, to throw off the right-handed batters, he mixed in that four-seam fastball. He threw a couple curves, none of which were particularly effective. He and Yadi recognized that, changed the game plan, and adapted.

. . .

Audrey Stark is a Contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow her on Twitter @highstarksunday.