ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Cardinals have argued that the end (45 saves) justified the means through which Trevor Rosenthal navigated the closer's role last season. However, that's not to say it was always easy to watch.
Extended innings, dramatic finishes and an elevated walk rate trailed Rosenthal throughout his first full season as a closer. He finished with more saves than anyone in the National League except the Braves' Craig Kimbrel, but he also knew there was a need to close more of those games with ease.
Now, some two months into the 2015 season, no closer's path has been smoother.
Rosenthal has saved 20 of the Cardinals' 39 wins, more saves than anyone in the NL and one back of the MLB leader, Twins closer Glen Perkins. He's converted each of his last 12 save opportunities and blown just one save all year. That was on May 3. Rosenthal hasn't allowed a run in 16 1/3 innings since, giving him the longest active scoreless innings streak in the league.
"He had a pretty good year last year, too, but statistically, it looks a little different [this season]," manager Mike Matheny said. "That has to do, too, with having advantage counts and working ahead -- kind of what his game-plan goals should look like in Spring Training."
The early-season dominance has Rosenthal on pace for 54 saves, a total reached only four times in history and never by a Cards closer. The franchise record for saves in a season is 47, set by Lee Smith in 1991 and matched 13 years later by Jason Isringhausen.
"It's kind of a simple mindset; just kind of throwing strikes, really," Rosenthal said of his improved results. "There's no great answer. It's not complicated. I'm just trying to throw better pitches, throw strikes, get them out sooner. It's easier said than done. That's what I was trying to do last year."
Rosenthal just wasn't having nearly the success, particularly with the first batter he faced. In his 72 appearances in 2014, Rosenthal allowed 39 percent of the first batters to reach. This year? It's happened to him just five times in 28 appearances.
The oft-complicated innings last year led Rosenthal to pitch primarily out of the stretch. He was sharper when doing so, which led the Cardinals to encourage him to abandon the windup altogether this year. Rosenthal did so in spring and hasn't gone back.
"The results have been good, so I might as well stick with it," said Rosenthal, who has positioned himself as a likely first-time All-Star next month. "As a pitcher, you make your most important pitches out of the stretch, so it makes sense."
How impactful that switch alone has been is debatable, but the numbers don't lie. Through 28 games a year ago, Rosenthal had a 1.33 WHIP and a 3.99 ERA. In the same span this season, he has a 0.97 WHIP and a 0.62 ERA, the third lowest by an NL reliever. Rosenthal's walk rate has plummeted -- from 5.1 per nine innings last year to 3.1 now -- and he's throwing first-pitch strikes 61 percent of the time.
It's led to Rosenthal making 11 appearances without allowing a runner to reach. Last season, he had just 17 such outings over six months.
"It is simplified pitching, is what it is to me," Matheny said. "I'd like for these guys to just master that stretch, and I think Trevor has been a good representation of that theory of getting real good at one thing. There's just something about a good rhythm that you don't want to mess with."
Other than the simplified mechanics, little has changed with Rosenthal's repertoire. The only noticeable difference is a jump in the use of his cutter. According to Fangraphs.com, Rosenthal has thrown 8.5 percent cutters this year after using the pitch sparingly last year.
Rosenthal's velocity is also up about one mph for each of his four pitches, though that has not driven up his strikeout rate.
Then there's the impact of being fresher. Matheny has been more intentional in getting Rosenthal the necessary rest after seeing how heavy usage weighed on Rosenthal last year. The Cards have capped his workload at pitching three consecutive days, something he's done three times this year. When Rosenthal pitched on four straight days last season, he blew two saves.
"It's been a good learning process for me," Rosenthal said. "I'm trying to mature and know how to take care of myself and let them know when I need a day, which as a competitor is probably the hardest thing to do."