Why Don’t the St. Louis Cardinals Have Miguel Socolovich in the Major Leagues?

May 5, 2015; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Miguel Socolovich (63) point to catcher Yadier Molina (not pictured) after getting the third out against the Chicago Cubs during the eighth inning at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Cubs 7-4. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
May 5, 2015; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Miguel Socolovich (63) point to catcher Yadier Molina (not pictured) after getting the third out against the Chicago Cubs during the eighth inning at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Cubs 7-4. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports /

The St. Louis Cardinals’ bullpen has struggled significantly in recent weeks. Why haven’t they called up the righthander who dominated when utilized in 2015?

What if I told you that the Cardinals had a relief arm in a glass case down in Triple-A who threw 29 1/3 major league innings last year, holding hitters to a .221 average while posting a 1.82 ERA and stranding six of the seven runners that he inherited?

Well, they do, and that guy is Miguel Socolovich, who has somehow failed to earn any trust through a year-and-a-half in the organization. It started last season, when he was bumped off the roster (at the conclusion of a July where he’d posted a 0.77 ERA in 11 2/3 innings) to accommodate trade acquisition Jonathan Broxton, who had posted a 5.89 ERA and allowed hitters to bat .287 against him in 40 appearances with Milwaukee. He was kept in the minor leagues until rosters expanded in September, and though he pitched well over the final month, the Cardinals decided to keep Seth Maness (who underperformed significantly in the second half) and Carlos Villanueva (who was largely unnecessary as a long reliever) on the playoff roster rather than affording Socolovich a spot.

This year, Socolovich has again been continually overlooked. After a strong spring during which he posted a 2.57 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, and .200 opponent batting average over seven innings, Socolovich was optioned. Despite having a rough spring, Tyler Lyons made the team (as expected) because he was out of options, and after Jordan Walden was shut down near the end of camp, the Cards decided to keep Rule 5 pick Matt Bowman in their big-league bullpen, despite the fact that he’d put up poor numbers while throwing in a hitter’s park the year before for the Mets’ Triple-A team.

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Fast forward three months later, and Socolovich still has not been given a shot. He’s put up very respectable numbers in Triple-A–especially respectable considering that he’s pitching in a hitter-friendly PCL–as he’s posted a 2.89 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, and .229 opponent average while stranding all 11 runners that he’s inherited. Fortunately for the team–and somewhat unfortunately for Socolovich–the Cardinals have been blessed with relative health on their pitching staff this year, and they’ve used just 14 pitchers over the first half. That’s not to say the bullpen has been exceptionally effective, though.

Former closer Trevor Rosenthal can no longer be trusted, having posted a 5.16 ERA and 1.99 WHIP while blowing three saves in 17 opportunities this season. Broxton has been up and down this year and hasn’t been reliable when thrown into high-pressure roles, posting a 4.15 ERA and 1.62 WHIP in late and close situations. Even Seung-Hwan Oh, who was dominant for most of the first half, has crashed back to earth since being given the de facto closer’s role, and he has allowed opponents to collect a .348 OBP against him in five ninth inning appearances.

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In regards to their non-leverage guys, the team is currently carrying two ground ball specialists who are basically redundant: Bowman, who has gradually transitioned from long relief to a double-play specialist role and has posted a 3.31 ERA in 32 2/3 innings, and Maness, who hasn’t really looked right all year long and put up a 5.71 ERA and 1.85 WHIP in 17 1/3 innings. Between the two, Bowman has been much more effective, holding hitters to a .211 average, though he’s allowed five inherited runners to score in eight chances.

Kevin Siegrist was one of the bullpen’s few reliable options (other than the six homers that he’d allowed in 32 1/3 innings, anyway), but he went on the DL with mononucleosis last Friday and was replaced on the roster by Sam Tuivailala, a pitcher who touches 100 MPH with his fastball but hasn’t been as effective at the major-league (3.07 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, .228 opponent average in 2015) or minor-league (5.06 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, .232 opponent average with Memphis this year) level as Socolovich has.

The fact that he hasn’t been given a chance yet became all the more disappointing on Thursday morning, when the Cardinals elected to replace the injured Matt Carpenter on the roster with a third catcher, Michael McKenry, rather than a 13th pitcher. Thus, rather than helping out a taxed bullpen and giving Matheny an extra option among a group where he’s afraid to use Rosenthal and Maness in high-leverage situations, the front office chose to give Matheny a second backup to Yadier Molina, who he has given 10 days off this season (and that’s not even counting the games that Molina has entered as a defensive replacement). As a frame of reference for how much Matheny might use a third catcher going forward, consider that he used third catcher Ed Easley just twice in the 24 games that he was on the active roster for last summer.

Miguel Socolovich St. Louis Cardinals
May 3, 2015; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Miguel Socolovich (63) throws to a Pittsburgh Pirates batter during the fourteenth inning at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Pirates 3-2 in 14 innings Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports /

At this point, it’s hard to argue that Socolovich’s success has been an anomaly. Over his past six minor-league seasons Socolovich’s year-by-year opponent batting averages have been .191, .222, .183, .286 (which came while he pitched his home games in a Las Vegas stadium that’s widely considered to be the best hitter’s park in baseball), .165, and .229. Obviously, there are other stats that should be looked at when evaluating a pitcher, but since he’s consistently missed bats and has never had major control issues, it’s really hard to make a case that he’s not a good pitcher.

There are only two logical explanations for why the Cardinals don’t consider Socolovich a legitimate major-league bullpen piece. The first is that he’s 29 years old and has spent most of his professional career toiling in the minor leagues, having pitched 314 games in the minors compared to just 40 in the big leagues. When a player gets that deep into his minor-league career, there are going to be skeptics who label him as a “AAAA” player no matter how successful he becomes.

The other is that his velocity just doesn’t match up compared to most of the other guys in the Cardinals’ bullpen. According to Fangraphs, Socolovich averaged just 90.2 MPH on his fastball, 90.6 MPH on his sinker, 81.7 MPH on his slider, and 81.3 MPH on his changeup during his major-league stint last year. That’s far less powerful than the high-90s stuff that guys like Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist, and Jonathan Broxton throw, and since they’re mostly trying to replace the production of Rosenthal and Siegrist at this stage, it’s somewhat understandable that they’d want to call up another flamethrower like Tuivailala.

With that said, Tuivailala hasn’t been thrown into the leverage situations where his skill set would really be valuable, as he’s been limited to mop-up duty in losses thus far. Though it was a rather small sample size, Socolovich showed that he could handle important situations when given the opportunity in 2015, holding hitters to a .172 average while posting a 1.08 ERA in late and close situations last season. For a bullpen that is currently relying on Broxton, Bowman, and Tyler Lyons as its late-game leverage guys, it wouldn’t hurt to have another reliable option.

It’s not as if Maness has been effective this year, either, and it wouldn’t hurt for the Cardinals to send him down and get him straightened out, as they already tried to do once this year before Maness revealed that he was suffering from elbow soreness and ended up hitting the DL. At least that would create greater skill set diversity in the Cardinals’ pen, subbing out a ground ball guy in Maness for more of a strikeout pitcher in Socolovich. Maness has averaged just 5.19 strikeouts per nine in 2016, while Socolovich is averaging 9.40 strikeouts per nine at Memphis this year this year and averaged 8.19 with the big-league club last year.

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In the end, the team’s best option is probably to subtract a catcher and expand to a 13-man pitching staff, but the primary point remains the same: the Cardinals shouldn’t rush to trade for a relief pitcher until they’ve definitely determined that Socolovich, who was so trusty in 2015, can’t provide them another major boost this season.