ST. LOUIS – Right around this time last year, the St. Louis Cardinals changed course with their bullpen and started handing Ryan Helsley more opportunities in traditional closer spots than Giovanny Gallegos. Lately, it seems that script has flipped a bit, but not completely.
Gallegos has earned saves in each of the last three Cardinals’ victories, all within the past calendar week. On Tuesday, he passed Helsley in saves this season, now leading seven to six.
Heading into June, Gallegos and Helsley are the only Cardinals’ relief pitchers with at least one save this season. It seems the Cardinals, for now, are flip-flopping between Helsley and Gallegos when it comes to closing out games, rather than letting one hurler firmly grasp the role like years past.
For the season, Helsley has taken the mound in slightly more save opportunities than Gallegos, 10-8. In the month of May, save opportunities trended more in favor of Gallegos, 7-4 over Helsley.
For Helsley, who earned a 2022 All-Star nod as an emerging closer for the Cardinals, that doesn’t mean the Cardinals are totally dismissing him from the closer’s role. His most recent save came on May 23, one night after lengthy extra-inning duties in an eventual Cardinals loss. He also had an opportunity to close out May 28, though suffered a blown save and loss when the Cleveland Guardians rallied for a walkoff win in the ninth inning.
“He lost it there to a couple of hitters. It seemed like he was trying to be perfect and kept missing,” said Cardinals manager Oli Marmol on Helsley’s last save opportunity. Five days before, in Helsley’s most recent save, Marmol said, “he got tough guys on [the basepaths] late, but able to get out of it.”
The closer by committee role is bit unconventional, though shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Marmol hinted at a bullpen management strategy last year that seems to be taking shape now. Before the 2022 season, Marmol didn’t particularly want to name anyone on his pitching staff a closer, but try to find the best high-leverage situations to use his top-performing pitchers.
For instance, Helsley entered two games during the Cardinals’ recent Ohio roadtrip in tight, low-scoring contests. In both cases, the games went to extra innings, and Helsley was asked to cover more than an inning. The Cardinals suffered a walkoff loss in one (May 22), but Helsley paved the way to victory in the other (May 27).
In that latter victory, plus another from May 20 against the Dodgers, Helsley entered the ballgame tied before the Cardinals rallied to take the lead in their next turn after Helsley pitched. Gallegos eventually earned saves in both of those games. So even though Helsley might be thrown into a role that a traditional closer might be called upon, he didn’t end up with the saves or save opportunities.
It’s also worth noting the Helsley and Gallegos thrive behind unique set of strengths. Helsley’s success largely depends on his fastball, while Gallegos turns to the slider for success. Scouting reports on different teams might call for using one as a closer or earlier than expected.
On May 3, the Cardinals brought Helsley in a high-leverage, non-closer situation against the Los Angeles Angels after they saw a series of breaking-ball specialists. St. Louis appeared on the verge of snapping a lengthy losing streak, and a flamethrower like Helsley could change the pace of the game at any given point. With runners on in the seventh inning, he did just that. Helsley escaped a jam to preserve a one-run lead with inherited runners and followed up with a clean eighth inning, all on just 10 pitches of work.
Despite the efficiency, Gallegos was called to close the game in the ninth inning. In just a matter of minutes, it became his roughest outing of the season, and the Cardinals’ lead slipped away. Three-time MVP Mike Trout played hero late, and the Cardinals didn’t have the option to turn to Helsley when things got rocky.
Marmol defended the decision to not only bring in Helsley early, but let Gallegos close out that specific game. And it seems certain splits factored into the decision too.
“You definitely think about [Helsley] going back up there, but that’s three up-downs. At that point he’s done his job,” said Marmol. “There hasn’t been a guy [in the Cardinals bullpen] punching out righties and lefties and keeping their OPS down better than Gio, so you trust him there in the ninth.”
Amid the Cardinals’ ambiguous closing situation, Gallegos too entered some May games in high-leverage situations that didn’t involve the work of a closer. That included games on May 17 and 23 in which he worked at least one inning before Helsley was called on for the save.
Marmol hasn’t announced any changes that would deem Gallegos or Helsley as the main closer, so it seems St. Louis will continue with a committee approach in back-end situations for the foreseeable future.