this season has some elements eerily similar to last season. great offensive team starts hot out of the blocks, suffers under bullpen misfires, in-division opponent gets suddenly and unreasonably hot mid-summer, the pirates somehow inject themselves in the mix . . . . a very strange parallelism.
earlier this season, considerable angst was vented against the cardinals' bullpen, some of it merited (mcclellan, romero), some of it poorly thought-out. suggestions that the bullpen's performance would even out were, in many cases, met with derision.
while i don't want to paint a rosy picture of what is, in reality, a pretty ordinary bullpen, they ought to get some credit for good performance in small sample sizes, just as they did for bad performance in small sample sizes.
last night, with two two-inning scoreless performances from jason motte and fernando salas to preserve a tie game into extras, was a potent example of how well the bullpen has performed this month.
in july (through yesterday morning), the cardinals bullpen has a 2.49 ERA, a 3.57 FIP, and a 3.49 xFIP, good for 12th best in the majors by FIP, 5th in the majors by xFIP, and 6th by ERA. four relievers haven't allowed an earned run at all this month. six haven't allowed a homer this month.
indeed, the poor results for the month have fallen mostly on the heads of two relievers, neither of which are with the club currently: victor marte and maikel cleto.
this too shall pass. we may have more months when the bullpen looks terrible. at its base, it's still not very good. but at least this month yielded some great results.
and don't buy the notion that miracle additions to the bullpen made it work out: some of the relievers with the most troubled outcomes in the spring put up excellent numbers. jason motte flashed a 0.54 FIP to go with his 0.00 ERA. marc rzepczynski put up a 2.71 FIP to go with his 0.00 ERA. fernando salas put up a 2.44 FIP to go with his 0.93 ERA.
in may, salas and rzepczynski put up 8.22 and 5.40 ERAs, respectively. in june, 5.59 and 9.39 ERAs.
yes, new additions barret browning and trevor rosenthal looked sharp-ish or at any rate tolerable (4.76 and 0.00 ERAs respectively). but a large portion of the good outcomes lie with those relievers whose outcomes were the worst earlier this season.
reliever outcomes are just extremely volatile. you can't look at what a reliever has done over a month or two months and make that the book on that reliever - especially if you ignore the reliever's past performance and current peripherals.
while i don't think that victor marte is quite the same reliever that salas or rzepczynski is, one should probably keep that in mind while thinking about his performance before making the same mistake twice.
if everybody who has crappy results over 5 innings gets released, we won't have much of a bullpen left.
anyway, this isn't the fifth or sixth or twelfth best bullpen in baseball. i wouldn't wager any money on any one reliever having a 0.00 ERA next month. but this bullpen might be adequate to our purposes.
just for WMT, i will note these outcomes by FIP- and xFIP-: we still have the second-worst FIP- for all MLB bullpens (114), although the xFIP- is more positive (103). for july, those numbers are 95 and 90. if our bullpen's second-worst HR/FB rate regresses towards league average, our bullpen might have halfway decent results by the end of the season.
this improved performance takes a little heat off john mozeliak as the trade deadline inches closer. a good trade for a reliever looks more like a positive step, rather than a necessity. a good reliever might be something we trade for if we have a good match, rather than something we overpay for. motte, boggs, salas, and rzepczynski could be a solid core to the bullpen, just as they were last season. a good pitcher could move the bullpen from the bottom third of all MLB teams to the middle third.
as an interesting note, one remarkable stat about our newly-successful bullpen is that in july, the bullpen has thrown the second-fewest innings of any bullpen in baseball. it is not surprising that, where our rotation can keep the bullpen's load light, the bullpen can make use of its best pitchers. in june, we put 12 innings each on victor marte and sam freeman, and an exhausting 13 innings on jason motte, although that usage had something to do with fear of salas and rzepczynski's bad outcomes and eduardo sanchez's demolished control, as well as fewer innings coming from the rotation.
while it's tempting to react badly to recently poor performances, it's a wasted and foolish exercise unless it is backed up by some larger context and understanding as to why it's occurring. the recent, though fortunately short-lived, complaints about a lack of timely hitting from a baseball team that carries probably the best offense in the National League verged on the farcical - at least to the extent that they stated anything beside the obvious fact that it was occurring and that it was frustrating.
unfortunately, many such complaints about "inconsistency" occur in a vacuum of reference as to what is the normal variation from day-to-day on an ordinary club. i would love it if the cardinals won 162 games 5-4. the reality is that the infinite variations of quality of matchups dictate that even a great team can win 16-1 one day, lose 11-0 the next, and then lose four low-scoring games by a run. baseball is simply not a consistent sport.
we have an exciting race towards the postseason beginning now. we can't do anything about whether the reds win at a .700 clip the rest of the way, but this team is positioned to play some pretty good baseball. to the extent any movement is appropriate at the trade deadline, the team probably needs nothing more than tweaks. let's not pout because the season hasn't turned into a coronation. let's enjoy the excitement of this race, even starting from third place, because that race is what baseball is all about. in three months or so, nobody will be playing any baseball at all. the next three months are the very best part.