One of Tony La Russa's biggest problems during the first month of the season dealt with Ryan Franklin's meltdown in the closer role.
La Russa employed Mitchell Boggs and Eduardo Sanchez in the ninth inning for awhile, but 26-year-old Fernando Salas has taken the reins and stabilized a struggling bullpen since he became the closer at the end of April.
Coming into Wednesday, Salas has recorded 11 saves with a 1.88 ERA in 28.1 innings of work. He is tied with Johnny Venters for the lead in reliever's WAR with 1.2, and fourth among qualified relievers with a 1.78 FIP. His xFIP isn't in the top 30—his HR/FB ratio of zero hurts that calculation.
Salas, who has a strikeout rate of 9.42 K/9 and a swinging strike percentage of 11.6, does not possess over-powering stuff. His fastballs average 91.4 mph, and he has recorded a swinging strike percentage of 8.7 with the pitch. His offspeed pitches—a change-up and slider—have contributed to much of his success. Salas throws the slider mostly to right-handed hitters and has posted a swinging strike percentage of 12, while his changeup's percentage is 19.8.
Salas' ability to neutralize left-handed hitters (3.39 xFIP vs. LHB) almost as effectively as right-handers (3.04 xFIP vs RHB) has set him above the rest of the Cardinals' relievers. His changeup, which he throws mostly against left-handed batters, is the primary reason for this success.
Salas should finished with an ERA somewhere between 2.60-2.80. He is due to give up some home runs and I think his 80 percent strand rate will drop slightly, however he is a significant upgrade considering La Russa bestowed the role upon Franklin for a little more than two years. Salas' emergence lets Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak off the hook of over paying for an aging closer like Francisco Rodriguez, allowing him to focus on upgrading the infield.