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A Rational Defense of Miguel Batista

I'm not sure I can properly express how much I hate being put in this position. Need someone to rail about the injustices of Allen Craig on the bench? I'm your robot. Need someone to bemoan Colby Rasmus getting a day off against a right handed pitcher? I'm your robot. I'm ready to bang my metal hands against my hollow chest and bellow my internet rage from our lofty Cardinal focused blog.

But, defend the inclusion of Miguel Batista on the roster? [sigh] I'm your robot. . . I guess.

It's at least once a week that I bang my hand on a desk and do my best Dennis Green impersonation.  Miguel Batista is who we thought he would be.  Marcel projected him for a 4.79 FIP which would be around replacement level for a reliever.  I'm not here to shill some nonsense about "watching him" and seeing something different or that the Tony LaRussa/Dave Duncan pixie dust will make him Mariano Rivera. It's not going to happen. Batista is something near a replacement level reliever.

So, what's the rational argument for keeping him on the roster?

Let's consider a quick depth chart of right handed relievers. You start with Franklin as your nominal closer, Jason Motte and Mitchell Boggs as your nominal setup men and Bryan Augenstein with Miguel Batista as your mop-up guys.  Beyond that you have two relievers in Memphis that are capable of stepping up to the major league club at any time: Fernando Salas and Eduardo Sanchez

Now at the end of spring training you've got a guy who there was some speculation was hiding an injury (Motte), a guy who walked 5+ per 9 IP in two of the last three years (Boggs) and a minor league starter with exactly 17 innings of prior big league experience (Augenstein). You also have Fernando Salas who has options left and can shuttle safely back and forth between St. Louis and Memphis for a full season.  As you make this list, there's also a player (Batista) who a) has wanted to play for your manager, b) your manager has long wanted on his team, c) is only about half a win worse on paper than Fernando Salas and d) you lose completely if he doesn't make the team.

The inclusion of Miguel Batista allows the Cardinals to hedge their bets in essence. If they let Batista go, include Salas on the roster and have an injury, they immediately use their first contingency (Eduardo Sanchez).  In risk planning, you would assess 1) what's the likelihood of a first contingency situation and 2) what's the next worst thing that could happen (i.e. second contingency). The likelihood of needing another relief arm at some point in 2011 has to be assessed as high - something like 80-90% I'd say. Even if it's as simple as an overworked pen, you're going to call someone up at some point.

The Cardinals second contingency is far dicier than their first. (Remember, we've released Batista and Salas is already part of the pen at this point.) When you start reaching in to Memphis a second time do you go with failed starter Adam Ottavino? How about no-stuff PJ Walters? Mechanically revised, fireballer Lance Lynn? Or what about a pair of pure relief arms in Blake King (lowest BB rate in full season minor league work was 5.7BB/9IP) or Adam Reifer who has 1 inning at AAA prior to this year?  None of those are attractive options.

So what the Cardinals have done is upgraded their first and second contingency situations by including Miguel Batista on the roster. Do they take a hit compared to Fernando Salas? Yes. Certainly. Is it less than what they'll absorb on paper if they're forced to use guys like Ottavino/Walters/Lynn/King/Reifer for 40 innings over the course of the season? That's the bet their making and I think there's a convincing argument that it's at least a reasonable bet. (If you think it's completely unreasonable, you're too trusting in your math and personal assumptions -- remember we're talking about relievers who throw like 40-60 innings here.)

So, as unpalatable as Batista being on the team is at first blush (and I assure you, it's caused me as much angst as anyone else) there's a rationale for him being on the team in SOME fashion. Basically, the option was to lose Batista all together for a marginal upgrade but riskier backup plans or to take an initial hit up front for better backup plans.  What's baffling after the first two series is Batista's usage.

Batista has been called on twice in the first two series. The leverage index (a measure of how critical a game situation is - higher means more critical) for when Batista enters the game was 1.83, which is very, very high. (Mariano Rivera's career gmLI is 1.78.) I'd say that we should call two games over two series a measure of how Tony LaRussa plans to use Batista but, on opening day, with a full complement of bullpen arms and a high leverage situation, there was little hesitation in who to use.

If I'm grasping for explanations, and I am, perhaps we can couch this in an attempt to see whether Batista is viable as a reliever in regular season games. A kind of trial by fire, if you will. I think the more likely, less well reasoned explanation is that Tony LaRussa has a blind spot for certain players - or types of players - and Batista just fits that mold of trusty bullpen veteran all to well. It's not a blind spot that's unique to LaRussa as a manager but still . . . it's painful for fans and potentially detrimental to the team.

I can see a justifiable scenario where Miguel Batista is on the team. It's a scenario where he pitches innings in a blow out or in a "Break Glass In Case of Fire" type of way. It's not a scenario where he's pitching late and close games. In other words, it's at all the way that Tony LaRussa seems inclined to use him.

Quiet! [Holds his hand up to his hear, listening] A questionable prospect is being overlooked. I have to go!

(Note: All stats in this post are courtesy of Fangraphs and include only the Padres and Pirates series. I was strangely inspired to write about Batista early in the week. I expected this to be fleeting -- like my sanity -- and wanted to take advantage of it while I could . . . on Thursday.)