I find myself stuck on Friday night's game. The first game back from the break. The Cardinals have a fully rested bullpen and a capable Jake Westbrook on the mound. The game ends disastrously with a antagonist particularly malicious for Cardinals fans in Brandon Phillips. This game certainly heightens the cries for pitching help be it in the rotation or the bullpen. Should it though?
Presumably the assumption is that adding a pitcher to the rotation allows the Cardinals to bump Kyle McClellan to the pen. Assuming the Cardinals manage to add a good starting pitcher, there are some potential benefits there. Obviously a good starter will be inherently better than McClellan who has done an admirable job despite a terrible strikeout rate. We've certainly seen the Cardinals employ worse in the rotation before. The other, more ancillary benefit, might be in a better pitcher's ability to go deeper into games.
Kyle McClellan hasn't been bad at all about going deep into games. Really none of the pitchers except Westbrook have had that problem this year. Compared to 2010, the Cardinals are getting similar starts in terms of innings out of their rotation. Set aside that this isn't really a problem, and assume that a new pitcher is able to average about an inning more a start than McClellan. With McClellan in the bullpen, this gives Tony LaRussa an additional arm that he has great trust in and McClellan is likely a candidate to get some saves.
Should that be important? Fernando Salas has racked up 16 saves on the season after settling into the role. He has a 9+ K/9IP strikeout rate and is walking 2.22 batters per 9IP. Kyle McClellan has never done that as a reliever. More statistically telling, the ZiPS projections have Salas as a better pitcher than McClellan moving forward even accounting for a change in role. Kyle McClellan is not the key to what ails the bullpen.
What if the Cardinals acquire a closer at the deadline instead? It bumps someone like PJ Walters back to Memphis and given that Eduardo Sanchez is looking like a less reliable candidate to return this year (should we bet on labrum or rotator cuff?), there's room for another right handed reliever in the pen. Step back for a moment though. The pen is currently comprised of Mitchell Boggs (2.93 FIP), Jason Motte (2.54 FIP), Lance Lynn (1.63 FIP) and Fernando Salas (2.98 FIP). Looking at their projections rather than their single season FIPs doesn't change the impression that this is a talented and stable bullpen. Is the difference in the Cardinals 2011 fortunes the difference between having 5 good relievers rather than 4?
Let's go back to Friday night's game. Jake Westbrook is pulled after the 5th inning on just 82 pitches. He'd struck out 5, walked no one and given up two unfortunate solo shots to Chris Heisey. The Cardinals were down 2-0 heading into the 6th. That's not a big gap. Westbrook was first up in the 6th inning and the Cardinals have fresh bullpen so it's not an unreasonable move to take Westbrook out. I have a hard time second guessing LaRussa on that decision.
LaRussa calls on, arguably, his worst reliever in the bullpen to pitch the 6th inning. Valdes allows two hits before LaRussa calls in PJ Walters to finish off the inning. Valdes had thrown 8 pitches. Walters manages to get out of the inning despite throwing just 5 of 13 pitches for strikes. The Cardinals would take the lead in the 7th inning.
Again, with three innings left for the bullpen, LaRussa calls on another short reliever in Mitchell Boggs who has one of his atypical but not unseen nights where he struggles badly with his command. Boggs gives up the lead with the help of Trevor Miller who fails to retire Joey Votto. The pitch to Votto by Miller (which is hit for a ground rule double) was a fat, ugly pitch from Trevor but of all the left handed hitters Miller is going to struggle with, Votto, one of the best hitters in the game, is probably near the top of that list. Jason Motte is called in to clean up the mess left by Miller and Boggs. Motte pitches out of the inning without allowing Votto to score. The Cardinals again manage to take the lead in the 8th inning on Albert Pujols HR, which scores Colby Rasmus.
Presumably the Cardinals now have two innings left to pitch and LaRussa feels the need to double switch. I find this move to be inexplicable if admittedly not a negative one. He trades David Freese (who has long been heralded by the club for his defense) for Daniel Descalso and Jason Motte for Lance Lynn. That looks like a neutral move to me. If you want to fault LaRussa's management at any point during the night, I'd fault him for being short sighted in the 8th inning and making a move that is utterly meaningless. Lance Lynn pitches a perfect 8th striking out 1. The Cardinals do not score in the bottom of the 9th.
Fernando Salas strikes out the first batter. Zach Cozart singles to center. Joey Votto lines out to Lance Berkman. BOOM. Brandon Phillips hits a home run. Fernando Salas did not pitch poorly; indeed, he retired the Reds best hitter. He allowed an incredibly ill-timed homerun.
I'm not sure what buttons LaRussa could have pushed differently. I'm never a fan of the parade of 1000 relievers but, outside of the 6th inning that didn't affect the outcome of the game, he was using his best relievers through the crucial innings. Mitchell Boggs failed to perform. Trevor Miller got beat by the Reds best hitter. Fernando Salas failed to perform. You can fault LaRussa for not playing in a fashion that preserves his bullpen for the next few games but I don't see anything that is indictable for the loss.
Where does that leave us? Perhaps it leaves us in need of the reminder that sometimes, despite having the best players in the right spot to position the team to win . . . the team loses. The team will lose games despite having their best pitcher on the mound and a lead. The team will lose despite retaking the lead in late innings and scoring 5 runs. The team will simply, inexplicably lose some games.
It's been suggested by some of the less cogent media members that the game's management is an SOS. Really? An SOS for what? Mind you, those same persons, in the same breath then vigorously defend the manager's decisions while insulting their readers. If LaRussa didn't make a management mistake, what kind of "message" was he trying to send? The bullpen cannot, and will not, get appreciably better through a midseason acquisition. Outside of left handed relief, the Cardinals do not lack for viable options in the pen. And truthfully, if this is the manager sending out an SOS, more than anything else that would be a sign of the front office's dysfunction that centers around that manager.
Ultimately, Friday night's game was not a cry for help. It was not a sign that the Cardinals need to acquire another player. It doesn't fit any larger narrative. In crucial spots, the team simply failed. They suffered bad results. Those happen in baseball. As the non-sabermetric types are so fond of crowing, "That's why we play the game." Sometimes you win, and sometimes, despite your best planning, you lose.
On Friday night, the Cardinals lost.