Leverage and La Russa

While I was thinking about looking at this I wasn't sure whether the (relative) fungibility of relief pitching made it more likely to reveal a manager's innermost thoughts and desires—i.e. he can use anybody, and there are lots of candidates for the role, so he can lean toward his older pitchers if he wants—or less, that they were so difficult to predict that when one reliever does well he's as good as any other, age be damned. I'm still not sure. But I thought it would be interesting, now that its inclusion on Baseball Reference makes it the next big stat to be overused by lazy bloggers, to take a look at the leverage index of some ghosts of La Russa Relievers Past, just while we're on the subject and there's no game to talk about. 

As our arbitrary object lesson I've chosen 2000, because the personalities are far enough away and the bullpen bad enough to be interesting.

PITCHER AGE G IP K BB HR ERA aLI
Dave Veres 33 71 75.2 67 25 6 2.85 1.91
Mike Timlin 34 25 29.2 26 20 2 3.34 1.538
Matt Morris 25 31 53.0 34 17 3 3.57 1.235
Mike Mohler 31 22 19.0 8 15 1 9.00 1.134
Mike James 32 51 51.1 41 24 7 3.16 1.092
H. Slocumb 34 43 49.2 34 24 9 5.44 0.788
M. Thompson 29 20 25.0 19 15 4 5.04 0.703
G. Stechschulte 26 20 25.2 12 17 6 6.31 0.540
Alan Benes 28 30 46.0 26 23 7 5.67 0.441

The 2000 Cardinals were a young team, but all that youth was on offense—J.D. Drew, Fernando Tatis, Edgar Renteria, Rick Ankiel... the other four starters ranged from 28 to 32, and the top three relievers, appearance-wise, were between 32 and 34. But really, past the closer, I think La Russa would have preferred all of the pitchers on this list to appear exclusively in blowouts; there's the high-priced bust in Heathcliff Slocumb--who was not only nearly traded  with Albert Pujols (Jocketty eventually insisted the Padres take Ben Johnson) but was traded for Carlos Hernandez, the stiff behind the plate when Rick Ankiel, uh, began his career as an outfielder; the flailing LOOGY (eventually replaced by Jason Christiansen, high-priced bust number two); and a cast of several low-leverage non-prospects mopping up after each other. The Mike Timlin trade... was astute.

Keeping that in mind, there are some interesting players here, if you're looking to read La Russa's mind. Matty Mo is the Young Pitcher in this bunch, but given his previous experience as budding ace he didn't exactly have to prove himself all over again. But as a high leverage, multi-inning pitcher he was something of a rare breed, the kind of reliever La Russa probably wouldn't choose to pull out of thin air.

He mopped up in his first appearance, in the end of May, but from then on he was used just about every way except on zero days rest; he mopped up (his lowest LI was 0.06, when he was the first pitcher out of the pen following a 1.2 inning 9 ER beatdown at the hand of the Astros) and he finished one run games, often in back-to-back appearances. He was also used extremely regularly; after his return from the DL there was only one run in which he sat for more than five days at a time. In September his LI rose all the way to 1.72, with only two blowout appearances in seven and four leveraged past 2.0. La Russa could be--can be--flexible both ways. Slocumb's LI falls month-to-month in a neat line until he's traded, moving from 1.11 in April to 0.56 in July.

His capacity for moving relievers around as they wax and wane (much less predictably than the moon) throws his inactivity in the face of Isringhausen's two blow-up years into stark relief, doesn't it? Isringhausen obviously deserved a little more rope than Heathcliff Slocumb, but in 2008 his leverage index was completely unmoored from his ERA; 1.8 in April, 2.12 in May (as his ERA rose, you'll recall, from an even 6.00 to an even 8.00), 1.59 in July (perhaps his best month) until he finally put Izzy on the blowouts-only shelf in July. The same was true in 2006; Wainwright was used increasingly aggressively as the season wore on, moving into high leverage positions more often in the second half, but La Russa's usage of Isringhausen was completely independent of his effectiveness.

That's why it was so infuriating, why so much of what La Russa does--even when it's effective, as it often is--is infuriating. He often displays a finely tuned, intuitive sense of a reliever's abilities and weaknesses. When one falls behind another, considerably moreso than in the rotation, he is likely to recognize it and act accordingly, even when it's a Kyle McClellan or an Adam Wainwright. But he doesn't seem to make any connection between the arbitrary and fickle world of the bullpen and his anointed closer.

I don't doubt that he has some reason for this behavior--maybe it's the baseball equivalent of that old "shooters keep shooting" trope in basketball--but I do doubt its usefulness. If a closer needs to be looked after, mentally, in such a way that it becomes detrimental to the team, he's cut out for high leverage innings anyway, is he?

This is something to watch should Franklin--who, to his credit, has now had two seasons with this brilliant command out of three--regress. He's not the most typical of La Russa closers; he's old, yes, but he began the season behind two youngsters on the depth chart and has already faded badly once before. If somebody can prove himself reliable behind Franklin, and I am not holding my breath, I'll be interested to see how the ninth inning falls.

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