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The pen is mightier than...?

I've decided I really like the theme of discussing bullpens in general, and the Cards' specifically, so I thought I'd continue today by discussing how the relievers were used by LaRussa last year and how they might be used in '08. On Monday, LB's theme was to discuss who might be in the Cards' pen in '08 and so I wanted to pick up on that in discussing the relievers' expected roles. Of course, we know one man's role - Izzy's - but the departure of Percival and the anticipated arrival of Perez and/or Worrell and others this season leaves the other roles TBD.

Back in July, Erik looked at LaRussa's pattern of use with his relievers since 2002. Part of that discussion was a 1st half evaluation of Tony's use pattern for the '07 relievers. What really stood out about Tony's use of the pen during the 1st half of the season was the degree to which Tony used Randy Flores. Flores was awful during the first half, and indeed for most of the year, yet Tony trusted him in tougher situations than most of the staff. Erik examined this by using relievers' leverage index - a measurement that tells us how important a situation a pitcher is being used in. A LI > 1.00 tells us that the situation is more important than at the beginning of a game and an LI less than 1.00 tells us that the situation is less important (i.e.: a blowout) than the beginning of the game. As of early July, LaRussa trusted Izzy (duh!), Franklin, and Flores among regular relievers in difficult situations and didn't trust Springer, Johnson, or Thompson in tough situations.

Let's see how '07 ended:

Izzy 2.75 14.79 1.34
Franklin 1.59 15.02 1.27
Springer 1.55 20.70 0.89
Percival 0.89 13.48 0.61
Johnson -0.19 -3.76 0.77
Flores -0.74 -12.88 1.12
Thompson 0.07 -5.69 0.65
Wellemeyer 0.21 3.59 0.81*

* -- w/ Royals and Cards

One little statistical notation - I chose to use gmLI from fangraphs rather than pLI. gmLI reflects the leverage index at the point when the reliever was brought into the game whereas pLI reflects the leverage index for each plate appearance the reliever faced. IMO, using gmLI gives us a better indicator of Tony's decision-making. It's interesting, for example, that Flores' gmLI is 1.12 but his pLI is 0.95. This means, of course, that the game situation was much tighter when he entered the game than it was when he exited, since the LI of subsequent plate appearances (on average) fell. Considering how poorly Flores pitched, this tells me that he often entered the game when it was close and exited when it, unfortunately for us, wasn't.

So what do we see here? First of all, what a bimodal bullpen - half is great and half is downright stinkorific! Another thing that stands out is the fact that Springer was one of the Cards' best relievers last year and yet was the 4th most likely to be used in a tough situation. Even discarding the fact that Izzy was used in special situations (closing only), Springer was Tony's 3rd choice in tough situations. Considering how good Franklin was for most of the year and the fact that Flores is left-handed, there is some logic here. Still, by most measures Springer was even better last year than Franklin.

We can also see why Ron Flores, Randy's brother, was brought to town. I mentioned in the comments on Monday that I would hope that we wouldn't have 3 lefties in the pen. Well, it's plain from these numbers that someone was needed to push Johnson and Randy b/c Johnson was just not very good last year and Flores was positively ghastly. I mean, lock up the women and children awful! Of course, Ron wasn't exactly Billy Wagner out there, what w/ his -0.66 WPA and his -2.33 BRAA. Still, I doubt that Randy poked a lot of fun at Ron around the Thanksgiving or Christmas bird!

Finally, we have to wonder (and I know many did during the game threads) why Tony was so, what's the word - pampering?, w/ Percival last year. He was, for the most part, tremendous yet Tony trusted him less than Brad Thompson? Is there any reason to think that, when it became apparent that Flores wasn't going to get lefties out consistently, Percival and/or Springer couldn't get them out? Isn't a good righty better than a bad lefty vs. a left-handed hitter? Good grief!

Wellemeyer's performance has been largely forgotten in the Cards' blogosphere this offseason. I know some have advocated using him as the 5th starter but I've always liked him more in the `pen. He can get a K (15 in 14.1 relief innings) and his BB's are less likely to do a lot of damage coming out of the pen. Also, as the numbers above indicate, he really was pretty good after coming over from the Royals.

As for '08, we know Izzy will be the closer and that the pen will have at least 2 lefties. God help us if one is Randy and he's as horrendous as he was last year. As bad as Flores was last year, I'm probably more disturbed by Tony's use of him than I am Flores' actual performance. I realize the fact that lefties are, generally, much tougher on lefties and Tony has said, on more than 1 occasion, that he trusts in Flores' ability to get righties out as well. Or maybe what he really said was that Flores is as effective vs. righties as he is against lefties b/c that's pretty much the truth. In 106 PA's last year vs. lefties, they beat Flores around to a .326/.385/.435 clip. Righties actually had 41 more PA's vs. Flores last year and they were only able to muster a .299/.338/.403 year against our too-often used lefty.

So we have 3 not-very-good-lefties for 2 spots. That's not really true, I guess. I do like Johnson's stuff - his problem is throwing strikes. He had 3.79 BB/9 last year and, when brought in to face 1 guy, he can't walk him. Presumably, Franklin gets first crack at the 8th inning slot he filled last year. I'm going on record as being opposed to this. Franklin had 4 K's /9 IP last year and his BABIP was .255. For a guy who allows so many balls to be put into play, it's unrealistic to expect such a low BABIP again. The odds of Franklin being as great as he was for most of '07 just aren't very high.

So that brings us to Springer, Thompson, Wellemeyer and anyone else (Worrell, Perez, Kinney, Politte) who might make the staff. Personally, I like Springer for the 1st crack at the 8th inning role. Last year he K'd 9 per 9 IP and that's pretty well in line w/ his career #'s (8.08 K/9). He is older (39) but, if he's healthy, he seems to be a better fit for a high-leverage role than Franklin. I'm not opposed to Wellemeyer getting a crack at the 7th inning role. He may have to work up to that sort of role, but I think he's got the stuff for it.

I also think that Perez deserves every shot to make the team out of spring. If he doesn't, though, I expect we'll see him beneath the arch before the All-Star break. With Izzy's contract up at the end of the year, we're going to have to find us a closer and Perez is being groomed as the closer of the future. Hence, we need to see what he's got next year. Here's a crazy idea: could Wellemeyer do it? Hmmmmm!

The biggest problem I see (aside from the complete ineptitude of our lefties) is that LaRussa is likely to trust some of our inferior relievers in tougher situations and have less faith in some of our better relievers. Now, I'm not saying that Wellemeyer is definitely a better option than Franklin but I believe that Springer is. Franklin was very lucky last year and Springer was still at least as good, and quite possibly better. There was some discussion earlier this week about relievers' roles. I think that relievers need to have their roles and need to know them. However, they shouldn't be so locked into them that the manager is loathe to change them.

Moreover, while it's important to find relievers who can get lefties out, we shouldn't be so locked into the mindset that lefties are inherently better than righties against left-handed hitters that we forget that we might have some righty relievers who are just plain better - better vs. righties and lefties. Kinney, Springer, and Wellemeyer have all been better vs. lefties in the past than Randy Flores was last year. Will we keep putting Randy into those high-leverage situations while the others wait their turn? Maybe Flores will be better in '08 but I should state here that he wasn't that much better in '06.

An opportunity is there for the `pen to be one of the Cards' strengths in '08. It's going to have to be for the Cards to approach .500. However, that also means that the better pitchers should pitch in the tougher situations. Does this mean eliminating their roles? Not at all. It means changing who fits into each role and not being locked into the idea of having 2 or 3 lefties just so we can have more "versatility." I'd rather have more "ability", even if that means less "versatility" and I think the Cards' pen would be better off for it.