closer calls

heads up from will carroll: he’ll have an interview today with cards’ assistant gm john abbamondi on Baseball Prospecus radio. you can download the show here.

last night’s game . . . . . where to start? they squandered too many scoring chances; that pattern continues. for the second time this year, pujols made a fielding misplay that cost the cardinals a late lead. above all, isringhausen blew another save and took another loss. i’m not trying to downplay the concern over the bullpen, because it’s serious; they need to get that problem under control before it starts costing them bushels of games. but it hasn’t cost them bushels so far; it only seems that way. i can really only fault the pen for 2 losses: last night’s, and the april 25 loss to the astros. in both games, the cards’ win expectancy was above 90 percent until the bullpen got involved. have there been other blown saves? sure, but no bullpen is perfect; you can’t hold every lead or preserve every tie. the cards have played a lot of close games this year, and they’ve won more than their share.

we tend to lose sight of that fact when we witness maddening failure as we did last night; we tend to forget how often the bullpen has come through and sealed a win --- as it did just a couple nights previous, on monday, when four relievers pitched 6 innings of 1-run ball and enabled the cards to steal a very tenuous win. or the night before that, in the sunday night ESPN game, when the relievers held the cubs to 1 run over 4 innings and brought home a 5-3 victory. last night’s defeat left the bullpen with a net WPA of about +0.23 for the season ---- not great, but far from terrible. and Baseball Prospectus’s win-expectancy metric, WXRL, has the pen at about +1 win for the year after last night. and both metrics look prettier when you eliminate brad thompson’s stats (0-1, 7.71 era as a reliever) from the equation. does the bullpen have issues? absolutely. but let’s keep them in perspective; the pen isn’t killing the team.

yet.

i might be telling a different story in a week or two, however, if they don’t get izzy out of the closer’s role. here’s the statistic that scares me about him: only 11 percent of his strikes have been swing / misses this year. throughout his career, that figure has been at 18 or 19 percent; even in 2006, 16 percent of his strikes came on whiffs. he’s just not missing bats anymore. here’s how it breaks down on a per-pitch basis:

year pitches whiffs pct
2004 1177 132 11.2
2005 921 104 11.3
2006 1051 102 9.7
2007 1055 110 10.4
2008 273 20 7.3

his offerings are running into bats nearly 50 percent more often than they did last year, and 33 percent more often than they did even during izzy’s peg-legged 2006 season. the league whiff-per-pitch average is 9.9 percent, meaning izzy is well below average this season. it's not just a case of a few off games, or a few unlucky hits that have fallen in. isringhausen isn't the same pitcher he used to be, not by a longshot --- he can’t throw it past hitters anymore. and for that reason, the cardinals can’t keep sending him out there to protect leads.

before i go on: i don’t share the impassioned and unhealthy hatred for is’hausen that is so regrettably common among cardinal fans. he’s the most dependable closer in franchise history; his failure rate has been lower than hrabosky’s, sutter’s, or worrell’s and about even with lee smith’s. he’s appeared in 19 postseason games for the cards and only cost them one --- the kent walkoff homer in game 5 of the 2004 nlcs. the guy’s a great pitcher and a class act; sure it’s frustrating to see him blow games, but he doesn’t deserve the personal abuse that gets heaped on him. spew venom if it makes you feel better; i can’t stop you. but it says more about you than it does about izzy. to me, that guy’s a winner in every respect.

unfortunately, he’s no longer getting the job done; for the team’s sake, he’s got to be replaced. it will take a while (maybe weeks, maybe months) before la russa comes around to that conclusion; when he finally does, what options will he have? a quick look:

  • chris perez. after last night’s game he has a 1.72 era at memphis, with twice as many strikeouts (20) as hits allowed (10). he’s got a dominating combo of pitches (fastball-slider) and a mean streak. perez still walks too many guys, but if duncan can get todd wellemeyer to throw strikes than he ought to be able to do the same with this rookie. he’d be my first choice; get him on up here. but hey, speaking of wellemeyer . . . . .
  • todd wellemeyer. think outside the box w/ me here. welley has been unhittable in the first inning of his starts in 2008 --- 26 batters faced, 2 hits, 2 walks, 9 ks, no runs allowed. in the one-inning closer’s role, he could be fearsome. there’s also the fact that, pitching out of the cardinal bullpen last year, wellemeyer posted a 1.26 era and held opposing hitters to a .174 average (albeit in a tiny sample of only 14.1 innings). if the team decides that perez still isn’t ready because of his control issues, my second choice would be wellemeyer. has he been good in the rotation? sure --- but let’s not act as if he’s irreplaceable. in 7 outings to date he has 2 quality starts; the cardinals have a pitcher at triple A (reyes) who can pitch at the back of a big-league rotation and another on the current roster (parisi) who probably can, too. this is my second choice. 
  • kyle mcclellan. he didn’t exactly cover himself in glory last night; in fact, his line was nearly identical to izzy’s (one single, one triple, one out). the league is still just getting to know mcclellan, and there’s a pretty good chance he will start losing effectiveness once the hitters have a book on him. and let’s not forget, we’re talking about a guy who as of this time last year was in class A. but his k / bb data are great, he has only yielded 2 extra-base hits so far, and he’s kept 8 of 10 inherited runners from scoring. he’d be risky, but what the hell; they stuck a rookie out there (wainwright) last time izzy went down, and it worked out ok. my 3d choice.
  • braden looper. he has experience in the job but was never particularly good at it; too valuable now as an innings eater in the rotation. leave him where he is.
  • anthony reyes. no way. he’s not suited to it, and the manager doesn’t trust him.
  • ryan franklin. if an when isringhausen gets replaced, franklin is probably going to get the first crack at the job by default. it’ll make a lot of folks foam at the mouth; i won’t like the decision either, though i’ll try to keep my outrage in check. there's a decent chance franklin can do a passable job in the short term. if dave weathers can close in the big leagues (he converted 33 of 39 opportunities last year), i reckon ryan franklin might be capable of it too. understand, i’m not endorsing this option; i think it’s a terrible idea. but i’m preparing myself to live with it.
  • jason motte. like perez, he has twice as many strikeouts (24) as hits allowed (11) at triple A; he has walked just 4 men in 15 innings. but he’s got less than 2 years’ experience as a pitcher and hasn’t yet developed a quality second pitch to play off his scorching fastball. i love what i’ve seen so far, but i need to see more before i entrust him w/ a high-leverage role.
  • mark worrell. only 4 saves last year at memphis, none this year. vulnerable vs left-handed hitters. not an option.
  • al hrabosky. madness never dies.

so how would you handle it? vote below. i'll be at the game this afternoon, cheerfully neglecting my responsibilities; a win would give 'em three series in a row and sweep away last night's frustration. temporarily, at least. . . .

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