Cardinals Inch Closer to Postseason with New Closer

This really happened. Tyler Greene got a plate appearance in September. He hit a double off the top of the wall and some bogus metal railing preventing a near home run. Take it in. You don't see this often. It's like a double rainbow or a velociraptor.

For the last two weeks, I had secretly written articles to spur the Cardinals onto continued success.  It was all reverse psychology and now I'll nimbly jump on the band wagon!

Okay, okay. That's a fib on both accounts. The Cardinals statistically determined chances appear to be something between 8% and 9% at the time of this writing.  So, yes, I'm saying there's a chance and the Cardinals appear determined to try and hit that razor thin margin as they continue to pursue the Braves. This tack in September is not the one I would have chosen for the team but it's the one that it's manager, Tony La Russa, who just won his 1400th game on Friday and number 2720 overall, has chosen to play for October baseball in his own bizarre way.

On Friday,  that way included Corey Patterson getting some important late inning gametime. Shane Robinson at the plate during a critical at bat. Tyler Greene playing ... in left field. And none of Lance Berkman, Jon Jay, Allen Craig or David Freese in the game by the time it ended. Fortunately, Adron Chambers and Tyler Greene saved the day for the skipper as they drove in the go ahead and insurance runs during extra innings.

Since I'm writing this from Saturday morning, I can only guess at the hilarious hijinks that will ensue on Saturday's game. And the Cardinals will probably win it just to spite my belief in probability even further. Baseball writers everywhere, if they're able to hold back their collective orgasms, can begin to pen their thousand word submissions on the Cardinals team chemistry and the leadership of their #3 all time wins leading manager.  I can almost taste my personal bile now. 

The Cardinals continued defiance of the odds is puzzling and impressive. Friday's game at least had the added fun of watching some of the Memphis squad come through in big ways. Adron Chamber's after game interview with Jim Hayes was particularly entertaining with the ear to ear grin.

* * *

Commenter dronemc posted this excerpt in Friday's morning thread but I thought I'd explore it a little more. From Jayson Stark at ESPN:

Whitey Herzog once said the two things a guy needs to succeed in the managing biz were a sense of humor and a good bullpen. Well, here's the proof: If all games had ended after the eighth inning this year instead of the ninth, the Cardinals would be leading the Brewers by 4½ games instead of trailing by 5½.

That is a rough stat to read. The Cardinals early season woes with blowing games late was maddening. For a time, Fernando Salas calmed an unsteady bullpen with his excellent command and three pitch repertoire. Salas was never really pegged as a closer with somewhat middling stuff that played up with the command. Like virtually any closer, Salas hit a rough patch, and the bullpen faltered again. As the season has drug on, Jason Motte has been anointed the un-anointed closer in Tony La Russa's bullpen.

While Stark's comment is prima facie shocking, a step back reveals a very simple truth: Teams that don't blow leads late in games win more.  Duh, right? Mostly, fans put a face to that rule in the form of a closer or a late inning reliever. For the Cardinals that face this season was undoubtedly Ryan Franklin and Miguel Bautista. (I'll leave someone with real photoshop skills to merge those two faces.)  It's disingenuous to expect a closer or reliever to never blow a save but the Cardinals duo were particularly frustrating this year. Some of that was expected, some of that less so.

As the season comes to a close and the Cardinals trail the Braves, the standings have started to show the first of the playoff contenders with Detroit clinching this week to join Philadelphia. Nearly all of the contenders have featured a player with an impressive record of closing out games.

Saves Blown Saves
Yankees (Mariano Rivera) 41 5
Tigers (Jose Valverde) 45 0
Rangers (Neftali Feliz) 26 6
Red Sox (Jonahtan Papelbon) 30 1
Phillies (Ryan Madson) 31 2
Brewers (John Axford) 43 2
D'Backs (J.J. Putz) 40 4
Braves (Craig Kimbrel) 44 6

 

As a predictive device, the save statistic is awful. As a purely descriptive one, it is functional but my usage here is nothing more than a tacit endorsement of a very specific instance. Of these closers, only Feliz has had a mediocre year. The others have all been varying degrees of exceptional with continued incredible performances from Rivera and Papelbon to newcomers like the Braves Craig Kimbrel.

The Cardinals identity at the tail end of the bullpen for the last few years has been Ryan Franklin. A soft tossing right hander who worked with his command far more than his stuff. Slowly that has changed over the course of this season. The transition to Salas with his fastball/slider/changeup combo was a pitcher with better stuff but one who still excelled because of his command. As Motte has taken over the role, we approach something more closely resembling the pitchers on the list above.

There are other pitchers with more saves this season than some of the contenders. A closer is not a panacea to a season. It is not a golden ticket wrapped inside a candy bar. It's one element of a team. But if we look at the team's whose closers are having success, fastball velocity is important. Of the list above (excluding Rivera), the slowest average fastball speed is 93 (Putz). Three of these pitchers, Kimbrel, Axford and Feliz, have a fastball velocity that averages 96.

Maybe that is surprising but in much the same way that Stark's comment was hiding a relatively simple truth so is this analysis: fastball velocity is important.  It is not the only factor but it is one that undeniably matters. When Ryan Franklin lost his control, he threw a 91 mph meatball. When Jason Motte loses his control, he's still throwing a 96 mph fastball.

The Cardinals may or may not make the playoffs this season. They may or may not look back at the early season failures of Ryan Franklin and Miguel Batista ruefully. Finding a new closer can become a fixation for clubs in the offseason. At times, it can be a monetary boondoggle. In this one aspect of the team, the Cardinals appear to be resolving an issue before the offseason. If you think that's too late for the post-season, I guess depends on how optimistic you are this morning.

* * *

Rules for a Velociraptor World: As fall approaches and the weather turns cooler, make sure to lock your doors at night. Velociraptors seek warmer habitats during the winter and the invention of modern heating has led them to seek that inside at times. The simplest way to achieve a velociraptor free house is to make it routine. Last thing before bed, check your locks. First thing in the morning, make sure there are no velociraptors napping near the fireplace.

 

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