Ryan Helsley Records a Save

For pitchers on the fringes of the major leagues, 2020 has been a strange year. The dense schedule means teams are cycling through bullpen pieces faster than ever in an attempt to keep fresh arms available. There are no minor league games for the players who aren’t on the active roster, merely alternate sites and live batting practice. It’s a strange, peripheral experience.

For Cardinals pitchers on the fringes of the major leagues, it’s been stranger still, because their schedule has been even more compressed. A string of double headers means pitchers who would normally be relief arms are making spot starts, which calls for more relievers to back them up. Twenty-one players have made relief appearances for St. Louis this year, all the way from Roel Ramirez up to Giovanny Gallegos.

Shuffling relievers means shuffling relief roles. That’s how Ryan Helsley, a hard-throwing righty who split time between Triple-A Memphis and St. Louis last year, ended up taking the mound for the Cardinals with a chance to record his first career save on Friday evening. Gallegos, the team’s nominal closer, is on the Injured List. Génesis Cabrera, the reliever who has thrown the most innings for them this year, had already pitched in the game. Alex Reyes, the most dynamic arm in the ‘pen, was gassed; he’d thrown 39 pitches already. Hence Helsley, who needed only two outs against the woeful Pirates to add “big league closer” to his resume.

The scouting report on Helsley starts with his fastball, which touches 100 and sits in the 97-98 mph range. He complements it with a platter of middling secondaries: cutter/slider, curveball, and changeup. So yeah — he started Bryan Reynolds, the first batter he faced, with his bread and butter:

That was the last pitch Helsley threw before things got strange. Pitchers being forced into new roles? High fastballs that batters swing under? That’s just baseball. The rest of this game? It was enough to make you forget what regular baseball looks like, and almost enough to make Helsley unravel on the mound.

It all started innocuously enough, with a fastball left a little low in the zone. Reynolds was on it:

Want to get your heart rate up? Look back after giving up a scorched line drive and watch your All-Star shortstop, with some of the surest hands in baseball, juggling the ball. Talk about a roller coaster of emotions — dejection on contact, elation when DeJong was there, disbelief when the ball popped out, and finally relief when it all ended okay. It all happened in the blink of an eye, but this slow-motion replay probably approximates how it felt to watch in person:

It would surely be fine now. One out to get, with Kevin Newman at the plate. Time for a few more fastballs. After Newman watched one go by, he took a hack at the next:

One strike to go. Hey, this save thing is easy, at least when it’s only two outs against the Pirates. Helsley threw his first offspeed pitch of the night, a beauty:

Newman froze up completely. Helsley could taste it… and the umpire didn’t call it, as often happens. That pitch was in the rulebook strike zone, but only barely; similarly-located pitches are called strikes on 0-2 counts less than half of the time. Is that a strike, then? Your mileage may vary. But to Helsley, it surely felt like the world was against him. That was it, the game, right there!

No matter — it was still a 1-2 count. After another curve that Newman fouled off, Helsley went fishing:

Close, but no cigar. Newman was fooled by the cutter, though, so Helsley went fishing again:

And almost got him again! Newman just managed to hold back, which meant the count was full. By now, he was a check-swinging machine:

They say the last thing you should do in baseball is think too much, particularly when you’re pitching. If you just walked somebody, that’s in the past. Bear down on the next batter. Helsley didn’t get that option, though. Umpire Jordan Baker called that pitch ball three, and the Pirates dugout started chirping at him. It was clearly ball four. Helsley and Yadier Molina knew that, of course, but they couldn’t exactly just tell the umpires “yeah, send him to first.” Maybe they lost track of the count in the haze of repeated bounced pitches. Heck, even the score bug said it was 2-2.

It took three minutes and 48 seconds to solve it. There was a replay review. New York got involved. Sesame Street could have used this as a teaching moment. How many balls? One, two, three, four, ah ah ah! Through it all, Helsley stood on the mound, alone with his thoughts. One strike away! Heck, zero strikes away! That curveball was already game over. What did he do to deserve this?

No matter — retire Erik González, the next batter, and this charade wouldn’t matter. Helsley tried to throw a fastball a million miles per hour and missed badly, but somehow fooled González:

Okay. Calm down. 0-1, just throw him another fastball, he won’t be able to handle it:

With that pitch, it was 0-2 again. Time for Helsley to throw his sixth pitch where one more strike could end the game. Baseball’s a hard sport and all, but come on! One of these would have to turn into the last out, by pure luck if nothing else, at some point. Right? Right?

It’s as easy as that. All that had to happen from there was for DeJong, one of the most accurate infield arms in the game, to throw a lob across the diamond to Paul Goldschmidt, one of the best defensive first basemen in the game by both advanced metrics and reputation. So of course, you know what’s coming:

Was it a bad throw? Yeah, it wasn’t great. It hit Goldschmidt’s glove squarely, though:

That was the fourth Cardinals error of the game, a continuation of a sloppy evening in Pittsburgh. Twelve pitches, eight strikes (heck, maybe nine strikes), nothing out of the infield — and here Helsley was, a single away from blowing a save.

Pitching coach Mike Maddux came out to calm him down. What could he say? “You’re doing great, luck just hates you”? “Keep it up, these guys play great defense behind everyone else”? Helsley’s day just kept bouncing from one indignity to another, normality tantalizingly out of his grasp. You know the feeling, because you’re a person who is alive in 2020.

Okay — pinch hitter Josh Bell up. Time to bear down… again. Time to get out of the jam for a third time. Only, can you imagine how difficult it would be to keep your focus? Closers, relievers in general really, exist on adrenaline. Helsley had been out there forever, and he’d gotten the sugar rush of recording the third out so many times without actually, you know, recording the third out. Things were about to start spiraling:

That’s another borderline strike, depending on the whim of the umpire. It went Bell’s way, but it was a good idea for a pitch; Bell didn’t look even a little close to swinging at it. At this point, though, Helsley had, in his mind, executed two perfect pitches on the corner and gotten two balls for them. He’d gotten two balls hit to his elite infield defense, with a near-error and an error to show for it. He’d thrown three breaking balls in the dirt and gotten 95% of a check swing each time. What are you supposed to turn to next?

Well, not that. That’s just a nervous pitch, nowhere near being in a useful location. So close to a major league save! And now it was all spiraling away, one yanked pitch at a time:

Or, fine, two yanked pitches at a time:

Now the bases were loaded, and it’s not hard to imagine what Helsley might have been thinking. I come in, the game evaporates around us. The Cardinals needed this game. In a 60-game season, with so many games in so few days, with the team below .500, this wasn’t an optional win. Helsley is too talented to simply disappear from the majors after a disastrous outing, but try telling him that while he stared in, shell-shocked, at Molina. Shuttle to the alternate site, population: Ryan Helsley. His next pitch wasn’t even competitive:

He had been getting away from what worked. He threw four straight breaking balls to Bell, and one to John Ryan Murphy. Time to go back to the heater. Please, he must have thought, let me have control over this pitch:

Oh god. No fastball control?! This day was really falling apart. Two more balls and it would be a tie game, and then four more and the Pirates would walk it off, and then the next day would see Helsley optioned to the minors, and then:

Sure. He had it the whole time. It’s hard to get a hit in baseball! Of course, even if Helsley told himself that in the aftermath, he wasn’t feeling it at the time. He was feeling sheer, unadulterated relief:

If you wanted to read far too much into this, you absolutely could. It’s a story of how your life can always be one well-executed pitch from turning around. Tough umpiring, bizarre replay reviews, shoddy defense, a total lack of control; toss one good-enough fastball, and it can all go away, replaced by pure elation, your first major league save. That seems like a bit of a reach, but hey, I’m not above the occasional reach.

Much more germane, to me, is the sheer depth of experience available in baseball. From a high level, RotoWire’s description of the game checks out: “Helsley walked two batters without allowing a run in two-thirds of an inning to record his first save of the season.” That’s true! It’s incomplete, though, in the same way that any short description of baseball is incomplete.

The surface statistics don’t tell the whole story. The detailed statistics don’t tell the whole story. Baseball is great, and it’s not just because I can tell you Helsley’s strikeout rate (12.2%) or his walk rate (17.1%). It’s great because he went through the entire range of emotions in his outing, and we got to experience it. The whole story is in the game, actually in the game. Baseball statistics are awesome — they’re my job! — but Helsley’s descent and triumph fascinated me more than any goofy statistic I could find this weekend, try as I might. Ryan Helsley recorded his first save — and that doesn’t come close to describing the highs and lows.

Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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“…and it’s not just because I can tell you Helsley’s strikeout rate (12.2%) or his strikeout rate (17.1%)” That second one should be his walk rate (though what the hell – it’s 2020 so let’s just let him keep his two strikeout rates).

More seriously, though, this was a great read! Baseball is the best.