Don't blame the bullpen, blame the offense

A few weeks back, I did a study where I looked at the bullpen through the lens of WPA and came up with a few conclusions. Izzy was absolutely brutal, to the tune of about 3 games in the standings; Franklin was just fine as long as he wasn’t trying to close games (and he wasn’t that bad compared to the alternatives); the two main lefties put a lot of runners on base, but Villone got away with it for the most part; and, a few other things. It also made me curious as to how our hitters did in similar situations, how the opposing relievers did against our guys.

The 2008 Redbirds started out hot; the day after Albert came scampering home from 2nd on Ankiel’s grounder, the Cardinals were 22-12, 10 games over .500. Unfortunately we suffered through a 2-8 slide immediately afterward, starting a chain of alternating good and maddening play. This was punctuated with the now infamous 7/12 T.E.S.S. game, an utter failure by the bullpen that took an 11-run offensive outburst against the Pirates & turned it into one of the most humiliating defeats I can remember.


But the Cardinals won the following day and came out of the All-Star Break with a satisfying 4-game sweep of the pathetic Padres, topped off with the highly-improbable walk-off grand slam by Aaron Miles. This was a rather important moment in the 2008 season: it was their 100th game, a nice round number to work with; the team was 14 games aboveboard, their highest mark on the year; and it was basically the moment where the bullpen stopped being the whipping boy and it was handed to the offense, namely in save-type situations.


The first half of the campaign was dotted with contributions from many of the position players. Schumaker had walk-off hits against the Astros, Cubs, & Rays; Ludwick won the VEB-Meet-&-Greet game versus the Rays with an extra-inning bomb; Duncan won a game with the Phillies by taking advantage of their awful defense at 1st; Glaus homers off the Mets to win it; Ankiel singles in two against the hated Cubs for the biggest WPA impact of the year (+0.727); & the aforementioned GS by Mini-Me. Of course, many of these were necessitated by (and several others were negated by) the bunglings of the bullpen.


The comparison that I want to do here is to look at the bullpen numbers in Save and/or “Pressure” situations (qualify for save or game tied or down by one) and put that up against our position players, or, more precisely, the opposition’s relievers. I don’t want to bother with posting the numbers in table format, but here are the grand totals:

  • STL Bullpen before-(and-including)-Miles’-Grand-Slam (BMGS): -3.186 WPA
  • STL Offense v Opp. Bullpen BMGS: +2.902 WPA

Now there is a bit of a symbiotic relationship between these two numbers. If the bullpen doesn’t blow as many chances as they did, the offense doesn’t get as many opportunities to save the day; if the position players don’t perform as well as they did, hitting game-tying and go-ahead hits, the relievers’ mistakes don’t have as much impact. But it is fairly obvious who was doing their job & who wasn’t.


Quick highlights:

  • Best 3 hitters: Glaus (+1.424), Pujols (+1.058), Ludwick (+.780). There were quite a few impact players BMGS - Miles (+.676), Skippy (+.461), & Mather (+.345 in 8 PA’s).
  • Worst 3 hitters: Ankiel (-.839), Stavinoha (-.409 in 8 PA’s), LaRue (-.375). Ankiel was actually worse than the pitchers (-.462 combined, in a lot fewer PA’s), despite having the best play of the year and basically getting all of the credit for Pujols’ mad dash against the Rockies (a difference of roughly +.400).
  • Lots of impact hits - 7 players had at least four RBI that either tied the game or put the Cardinals ahead (team total 42, Glaus 8, Ankiel/Luddy/Miles 5 each, Duncan/Pujols/Skip 4 each). Compare that to the bullpen, which allowed 48 decisive hits in the same period (led by Izzy’s 12)
  • Best 3 pitchers: Franklin (+1.777), Springer (+.662), McClellan (+.366); the only three to post positive WPA value.
  • Worst 3 pitchers: Isringhausen (-2.723), Flores (-.859), Parisi (-.772). Plenty of blame to go around - Thompson (-.739), Perez (-.456), Mulder (-.374).
  • Pitchers were allowing runs at a rate of over six per 9 innings and a WHIP of nearly 1.7


Something that I noticed with our bullpen & the opposition was that, as bad as our guys looked, the other team was nearly as bad, thanks to the game-saving heroics of the offense. If you combine Saves & Holds and compare that to the Blown Saves, the Cardinals converted 80.5% of their opportunities BMGS; our opponents - 81.0%. I think the biggest contributing factor to this whole mess was that St. Louis just played a lot of close games and they weren’t well equipped to handle that from the back end of the bullpen.


Now we come to the Milwaukee series that followed, a 4-game sweep by the Brewers that exposed both sides of our late-inning game. Franklin coughs up 3 runs in the 10th, McClellan allows a 9th inning, 2-out HR to Bill Hall, Sabathia shuts them down, & Franklin surrenders the 2-run shot to Braun; all the while the offense can’t put up more than 3 runs in any game and has just the game-tying Sac Fly by Skip in the opener as the only tally against Milwaukee’s bullpen. The late inning antics on both sides cost the team at least a half game each in the standings (bullpen -1.005, offense -.626).


From the start of that series through the end of the season (AMGS), the bullpen rights the ship and stops hurting the team, posting a WPA of -.011 (and that includes the MIL debacle). The offense staggers the rest of the way, reversing their success from the first half with a -3.098 showing.


Before I go through the lowlights, I wanted to bring up a statement that Tony LaRussa made during the 2nd half of the season. I don’t remember precisely when it happened, but I think it occurred after the bullpen had blown another game in the later innings & TLR countered by blaming the offense for the loss. We had seen many examples of the bullpen’s follies & the batting exploits of Albert & Co., and many of us blew off his comment as mere spin-doctoring. But I think that, after looking at these numbers, he might have been more right than we gave him credit for.


Now for the particulars:

  • Best 3 hitters: Brendan Ryan (that’s right folks; +.545), Glaus (+.466), LaRue (+.344). Pujols led the way with 4 impact runs driven in, but only a +.203 WPA & twice as many outs as times on base.
  • Worst 3 hitters: Miles (-.789), Ankiel (-.707; reached base twice, created 19 outs), Schumaker (-.617). You want more? Mather (-.490), Izturis (-.481), Stavinoha (-.380), Molina (-.343), Ludwick (-.260).
  • The offense went from scoring at 5.4 runs/9IP in pressure situations against the bullpen to 3.6 runs/9IP, with only 12 impact runs over the final 62 games. The bullpen improved from 6.1 R/9 to 4.3 R/9 and only 19 decisive tallies the rest of the way.
  • Something to keep in mind - over the entire season, Ludwick reached base 39 times compared to creating 64 outs; of those, 29 came via the strikeout. Others guilty of the same - Ankiel (66 outs, 28 K), Barton (12/8), Mather (18/8), Stavinoha (14/7), plus Lopez & Washington.
  • Best 3 pitchers: Thompson (another shocker; +.499), Garcia (+.434), Motte (+.383). To be honest, these guys had limited exposure and only combined for 48 outs.
  • Worst 3 pitchers: McClellan (-.669), Franklin (-.396), Izzy (-.307). Nearly a complete reversal of the best 3 BMGS (Springer was 4th at -.253); this appears to be a matter of mis-/over-use.
  • Taking another look at the problem from the perspective of Saves/Holds, our offense only forced 3 blown saves over the final 62 games (compared to 15 in the first 100). Our bullpen converted Saves/Holds at 86.9%, better than the league average.


I think we can safely say that Tony was rather correct in criticizing the offense for their poor play over the final 10 weeks. They were as much or maybe more to blame AMGS than our bullpen BMGS.

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