Springfield Cards 2012 Reliever of the Year

With a 2.39 ERA in 67 2/3 over 57 appearances, 6'1", 215-pound hard-throwing right-hander Eric Fornataro is our pick as Springfield's 2012 top relief pitcher.

The 2012 Texas League champion Springfield Cardinals were fortunate to have a very strong starting pitching rotation throughout the year. Even after losing most of their entire opening day rotation to Memphis, St. Louis or roster shifts, the Double-A Birds inherited great starting pitching from Palm Beach throughout the summer. With the starting rotation carrying the biggest part of the load for most of the season, the bullpen, which was inconsistent at times, was relied upon much less.

When attempting to determine the top reliever for the Double-A ball club, I looked for some consistency in an inconsistent pen. That statement in itself led to only two pitchers coming to mind, but I will let statistics do the talking as we take a closer look.

Similar to my colleagues, I set some minimum qualifications that I wanted pitchers to meet before I could consider them for top reliever honors. The minimum criteria includes:

* At least 50 innings pitched
* Primary role as a reliever instead of a starter
* ERA less than 4.00
* WHIP less than 1.35

First, let's examine the first criterion of at least 50 innings pitched. So far, we have Scott Gorgen, Michael Blazek, Kevin Thomas, Eric Fornataro, Justin Wright, and Keith Butler in the running. The next criterion was that the pitcher's primary role with the team was as a reliever as opposed to a starter. Gorgen and Blazek were the only pitchers who met the first criterion to make starts in the 2012 season. Gorgen spent most of the year as a starter, so he is eliminated from the pool.

When determining the minimum ERA for the top reliever in Springfield, taking into account that they were throwing in the hitter-friendly Texas League, meant I had to expect some inflated ERAs. However, I couldn't, in good conscience, allow myself to go any higher than 4.00 on my ERA limit.

Still with the higher limit, this criterion eliminated all but two pitchers, with Butler and Fornataro being the only Springfield relievers with ERAs below 4.00. Finally, both Butler and Fornataro meet the criterion of a WHIP less than 1.35. For reference, if not already eliminated by the ERA qualification, Blazek and Thomas both had WHIPs below 1.35.

Now that we've gone through the minimum criteria, we've whittled the field down to two. They are both logical choices as Fornataro was the setup man and Butler was the main closer for most of the season.

Butler caught the eye of many early in the season when he was thrust into the closing role and began to thrive early. Forced into several based loaded jams early in the season, Butler found himself to be somewhat of an escape artist as he excelled in bailing the team out of late game sticky situations. In his 53 appearances, Butler finished 42 games, earning 25 saves during the regular season and five more during the playoffs. Butler threw 58 2/3 innings, compiling a 5-1 record and a 2.76 ERA while striking out 59 batters. The closer ended the season with a 1.30 WHIP.

Fornataro had a breakout season in 2012 as he was repurposed as a reliever. Thriving in the setup role, the burly righty earned success with his 97-98 mph fastball that sometimes touched 99 mph and a hard breaking ball. His fastball is a great fit for short-bursts of success out of the bullpen, which is the reason you would usually see Fornataro enter for a shutdown eighth inning.

Fornataro threw the most innings out of the bullpen, ending the season at 67 2/3 innings. In his 57 appearances, Fornataro had a team-leading 16 holds, a team-best 2.39 ERA, and tied with starter Seth Maness for the lowest WHIP at 1.06. Fornataro ended the season with a 3-3 record while striking out 41 batters. Overall, Fornataro had the most consistent performance throughout the year and is my pick as The Cardinal Nation/Scout.com 2012 Relief Pitcher of the Year for the Texas League champion Springfield Cardinals.

It should be noted that first-round pick Michael Wacha was also spectacular in his eight innings of relief work with Springfield. In his four outings, Wacha allowed one run on three hits while striking out 17 batters. Wacha is almost certainly destined for a spot as the potential ace of the Double-A rotation to start the 2013 season, but had he been given the entire year in the pen, Wacha could have been in the running as the top reliever in 2012.

Link to master article with all 2012 award winners, team recaps and article schedules for the remainder of this series.

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