Due to a plethora of worthy candidates to consider for the 2015 Springfield Reliever of the Year honor, deciding the most valuable, dependable, and effective relief pitcher over the course of the 2015 season was particularly difficult. Settling on one individual was especially challenging considering the fact there was increased fluctuation in player movement compared to previous seasons in the upper levels.
With a younger starting staff at hand, one that often faced growing pains as they gained Double-A experience, the Texas League Cardinals bullpen was put to the task of compensating for the starters and help them grow and acclimate to Texas League offensive environment.
Manager Dann Bilardello and pitching coach Jason Simontacchi relied on their relief corps for a total of 516 1/3 innings on the season. That is more than a third of the 1235 2/3 inning workload for the entire Springfield pitching staff, a group that finished second for the most innings worked in the Texas League.
The Cards finished near the bottom of the league in run prevention, with a 4.36 ERA for seventh in the eight-team Texas League. However, the bullpen - a staple of Springfield’s success – had a miniscule 2.34 mark, indicating a huge differential in ERA compared to the starters.
After the loss of mid-season all-star closer Kyle Barraclough in a trade to the Miami Marlins, Bilardello explained his approach became a bullpen by committee scenario: “I always tell my guys to be ready for any situation,” he said. “We kind of have a jack of all trades down there with our pitching staff, which is sometimes a benefit. Most guys like to fit into a role, but right now it is all hands on deck as we are trying to get to the end here in first place... It is whoever is available, whoever is throwing well at this time is going to get opportunities. We will see how this plays out, and everyone has contributed in a certain way.”
Succeeding Barraclough for closing duties was The Cardinal Nation choice as the Springfield Cardinals Reliever of the Year for 2015, Ronnie Shaban. Shaban's late-inning presence helped stabilize the Cardinal bullpen down the stretch, as he converted 10 of 15 save opportunities, including four pivotal saves during the final two weeks of a tight division race.
Shaban, 25, has pitched in two separate stints with Springfield over the last two years. In 2014, the right-hander got hit around, allowing nine earned runs on 20 hits in 15 innings for a 5.40 ERA. Shaban struggled in April 2015 as well, with a 10.12 ERA in three games. He then bounced back and forth from High-A Palm Beach to Springfield with a short time on the disabled list before settling in at Double-A by July.
Among the Cardinals relievers with a minimum of 35 innings pitched, Shaban, St. Louis’ 33rd rounder in 2012, was first in appearances (43, next closest was Corey Baker with 38), ERA (2.76), saves (10, edging Barraclough’s eight), and games finished (26, next closest was Chris Thomas with 18).
"Nothing really changed for me, except the inning I was pitching,” said Shaban on what changed with a more significant role. “My mindset is to throw strikes and get outs whether it be in the second inning or the ninth. I felt like my 2015 was a successful year from the standpoint that I learned a lot and was able to make adjustments throughout the year."
Armed with a low 90s sinking fastball and usable breaking pitch when ahead in counts, Shaban held a solid 1.14 WHIP, the second lowest of any Springfield reliever, and a 46-to-14 strikeout to walk ratio.
A wise choice to consider was Chris Thomas. Had it not been for Shaban's late-inning resurgence down the stretch, Thomas would have been a runaway winner. The deceptive right-hander compiled a 3.34 ERA for second on the relief staff over 56 2/3 innings and struck out 52 batters to 11 free passes issued. His 1.04 WHIP was the lowest among qualified relievers.
"I felt pretty good about the season overall," said Thomas of his 2015, which ended with Triple-A Memphis. “I honestly felt like it could have been better and would definitely love to have a few outings back, but hey, I'm sure that is every pitcher. I would say that this is the year I faced the most adversity, and so I definitely learned a lot with that and I think it only helped me, mentally and physically."
"I would describe myself as being a competitor on the mound," said Thomas. "I try to be a perfectionist out there and be at my best every single outing."
Although he pitched in a variety of roles in 2015 for Springfield, sinker-baller Corey Baker threw enough innings in relief to qualify for this award. He could be very well wind up as an honorable mention as a starter, too, because of a career-best shutout performance on August 31.
Baker, a versatile weapon, made 27 relief appearances, logging 46 1/3 innings while striking out 53 batters against 21 walks. The former University of Pittsburgh right-hander had a 3.88 relief ERA. His "super-sinker" induced 46% of his outs on the ground.
“Splitting time is something I take pride in," said Baker on the progress he made in 2015. “It is difficult to bounce back and forth, but at the end of the day, you have to go out and make pitches. So the role I'm in is only an opportunity to show what I can do. I feel I made tremendous progress this season.
“The proof is how I finished the season with my last two starts. Something I think I learned a lot of this year was being comfortable pitching to contact inside the strike zone, which Simo (Jason Simontacchi) helped me with tremendously.
"I think my sinker was better this year than in previous years," Baker said of the improvements of his stuff. “Just playing with grips and releases really helped it this year, and it definitely helped separate me this year. I think a lot of my strikeouts this year were a product of being able to attack with my sinker without having to show an off-speed pitch until two strikes.
"Having the confidence in my sinker that it's a pitch I can pound the zone with and attack hitters was huge for me this year and will be going forward as I progress," Baker said.
Kurt Heyer was also a worthy candidate after shifting into to the bullpen for the 2015 season. Like Thomas, Heyer ended in Memphis but spent most of the summer pitching in a swingman role for Springfield, making five starts over 31 outings. 5-1 in relief, the right-hander owned a 3.35 ERA out of the bullpen, struck out 34 batters against 11 walks, and even racked up three saves in as many opportunities.
"I was excited about making the transition to the bullpen,” Heyer said. “I knew when I got drafted, I was going to make the switch sooner or later. It was going to be great getting more opportunities to pitch. I feel that being a reliever will allow me to help the St. Louis Cardinals in the future.
"When I started in the bullpen, I noticed my velocity went up a little and my stuff was sharper," Heyer added.
Concluding our honorable mentions is our prior Springfield Reliever of the Year, Joey Donofrio. After a phenomenal 2014, Donofrio had a troublesome 2015. His control was the biggest issue as his WHIP jumped 36 points from last year, to 1.44 this season, contributing to an ERA that rose from 0.87 to 4.30 year to year.
Despite missing a playoff berth, the 2015 Springfield Cardinals relief corps was a major contributor to the club's success, with Ronnie Shaban leading the way. This is his third TCN Reliever of the Year honor in his four-year professional career, after being named in Johnson City in 2012 and at Palm Beach in 2013.
Link to master article with all 2015 award winners, team recaps and article schedules for the remainder of this series. Of course, that includes our selections as the Springfield Cardinals Starting Pitcher and Player of the Year.
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