Sunday morning we were greeted with news that the Cardinals were closing in on signing Korean relief pitcher Seung Hwan Oh. VEB is a community that places a lot of emphasis on statistical analysis, and the public statistical analysis clearly values relief pitching at less than what Major League teams values them. Thus members of the community have balked at the front office signing relievers on the free agent market.
Usually, rather than pay what they're worth on the open market, the Cardinals have opted to pick from their surplus of starting pitching prospects to find relievers. Trevor Rosenthal and Seth Maness wound up in the bullpen this way. Carlos Martinez found himself in a similar role in 2013 and 2014, but his talent was enough to justify moving him back to the rotation. After Tyler Lyons rode the Memphis Shuttle as a starter several times over the last three years, he is now out of options and will become another starting caliber pitcher moved to the bullpen.
But now Mo is dabbling in the market. This off-season didn't only involve signing Oh, but also Johnathon Broxton to a two year, $7.5M deal. So what's going on? I think the Cardinals' need for relievers can be explained pretty easily in this chart:
|G||Rank in G||IP||K/9||BB/9||FIP||xFIP||WAR|
Siegrist and Maness were both completely over-used last year. Siegrist was just as likely to appear in a game as not appear in a game. Rosenthal probably would have been used even more often if not for his agent urging the Cardinals to be cautious. Choate was used in a large number of games, but he was also only useful as a LOOGY, which would be the reason he only recorded 82 outs in his 71 appearances.
Leaving Starting Pitchers in too long
This over-use was not a direct consequence of Cardinals' starters not going deep into games. On a team level, the Cardinals were 22nd in terms of reliever innings and 4th in Starter innings. Of the Cardinals' 485 relief innings pitched this year, Rosenthal, Siegrist, and Maness combined for 206 2/3 innings or 42.6% of reliever innings, and that seems to be what the Cardinals want to fix.
On top of our three best relievers taking too large of a portion of reliever innings, there's some evidence that Manager Mike Matheny left his starting pitchers in too long. This certainly was a common theme to anyone who participated in the Game Threads last year. Matheny gained a reputation for too often letting his pitchers hit for themselves, and then start the following inning but not finish said inning.
There is some confirmation in the stats of this phenomenon. When looking at when pitchers were sent to the plate in 2015, the Cardinals had the largest Leverage Index (pLI) of any NL team. Basically, on average Cardinals pitchers hit with more leverage on the line than any other NL team's pitchers, meaning Matheny let pitchers hit when the game was to close to give away an out more often than any other manager who regularly had to bat the pitcher in the line up. Second and third were the Braves and Phillies who weren't even really trying to win.
This to me really sums up an important problem in 2015: Matheny did not trust his middle relievers, and in doing so pushed his starting pitchers to go longer than they should have, and once he did pull the starter he relied on his top relievers way more than he should have. The solution: fill the bullpen with enough good options that Matheny will be okay with using.
This plan seemed to be put into action last year when the Cardinals acquired Jonathon Broxton and Steve Cishek at the deadline. In the second half Cishek matched Rosenthal and Choate in appearances with 27, with Broxton getting one less appearances than that. Siegrist and Maness still led the team, but as a whole Rosenthal, Siegrist, and Maness combined for 39.3% of reliever innings, compared to 45.4% in the first half. That represents a 13% decrease, which is something.
This plan seems to be continuing this off-season. One in-house move will be Lyons replacing Choate. Lyons will likely be the lefty specialist in 2015, but his splits aren't so extreme that he'll be useless against right-handed hitters. For his career, Choate has a 2.99 xFIP against LHH compared to a 5.24 against RHH. With Lyons it's 3.41 and 3.71. That's with over two-thirds of his career innings coming as a starter. As a starter Lyons has put up a 3.86 xFIP while in the bullpen its been 3.07. So there's reason to believe Lyons will be almost as good as Choate against lefties, while being good enough to also face right-handers as well. In terms of innings pitched, Lyons should be a big upgrade over Choate.
Retaining Broxton for $7.5M over two years helps as well. While most people here have been pessimistic on Broxton, he pitched to a 3.24 xFIP last year over 60 innings. That's compared to an average reliever xFIP of 3.90 in the majors. Broxton isn't the flashiest of signings, but for less than the cost of a win on the free market the Cardinals acquired two years of an above average reliever with the veteran status that Matheny values. As we saw in the second half, Matheny was able to use Broxton to somewhat limit the appearances of Rosenthal, Siegrist, and Maness.
We can argue about relievers being overpaid all you want, and that sentiment is correct, but when you need relievers and you don't want to trade talent for them, you're going to have to part with some cash. Mo was able to part with a fairly small amount of cash in order to pick up the reliever. Using MLB Trade Rumor's handy Free Agent tracker shows that nine relievers received deals larger than Broxton this off-season, and none of them are of the lights-out, dominating mold. Sure, you could argue some of those guys are a tier above Broxton, but the point is that Broxton is above average and only cost a fairly insignificant amount of cash.
Enter "Stone Buddha". Oh won't be the "Final Boss" in St. Louis, that job is reserved for the Magical Trevor. And if something happened to Rosenthal, Siegrist would probably be next in line, at least at the moment. But like Lyons and Broxton, Oh helps add some real depth to the bullpen.
Oh's probably won't have the same success here as he did the last two years in Japan, but he doesn't have to. Even if the Cardinals exercise their 2017 option, the deal only maxes out for $5M, even less than what Broxton received. Last year in Japan he had a 8.6 K/9 and 2.1 BB/9, so there's margin for error for the K's to creep lower and the BB's to creep higher, and still be a good pitcher.
So that brings it to six quality relievers: Rosenthal, Siegrist, Maness, Broxton, Lyons, and Oh. Right now the seventh and last bullpen spot is filled by Rule 5 pick Matt Bowman. His stats took quite the plunge last year, pitching to a 5.03 FIP at Triple-A as a 24 year old after posting a 3.04 FIP at the same level the previous year.
The Cardinals evidently see something they like in Bowman, but if things don't work out it would open a spot for either Sam Tuivailala or Miguel Socolovich. VEB's own The Red Baron slapped and 80 grade on Tui's fastball along with a slider that at times flashed 65, other times lack of command made it more like 35. Of course, Tui has his problems with command, walking eight hitters in his 14 2/3 inning cup of coffee in the majors as well as over five hitters per nine innings in Triple-A. Tui's command could take a step forward and turn into quite the valuable reliever piece, but the important thing is that these acquisitions mean the Cardinals are not depending on it.
Socolovich was a minor league free agent signing prior to 2015, so you wouldn't bet on him ever turning into anything. But he did turn in a cromulent performance this past year, striking out 8.19 per nine and walking 3.03. He pitched to a 2.76 FIP but a lot of that had to do with limiting homers over a small sample of just under 30 innings; his xFIP still came in at 3.82, lower than the average xFIP among MLB relievers in 2015.
What about Walden?
We managed to make it this far without even mentioning Jordan Walden. The Cardinals' activity in the reliever market may indicate that they don't expect much from Walden this year. He essentially takes Jaime's role from last year, where everyone just assumes he won't pitch, and if he does, well that's just gravy. In his 222 inning career Walden has posted a 2.76 FIP, and if he does turn up healthy he adds another dominating late inning presence to the bullpen.
With all this depth, there's also the possibility of a trade. Trading Rosenthal could be a boon for the team's farm system based on the value given up by teams recently for top-end closers. Walden and Siegrist have shown that they can easily be dominate enough to hold down the closer's role when healthy, and Oh didn't earn his nickname in Japan for nothing. Add in Tuivailala's elite potential and that gives the Birds four possible top-end closers. I wouldn't expect the Cardinals to do something like that this off-season, but if these relievers do end up creating a logjam, it could eventually lead to a trade.
But, as the saying goes, "You can never have too many pitchers", especially good ones. Pitchers get hurt a lot, but Mozeliak and company have now built a Matheny-proof bullpen. But really is it just Matheny? The Cardinals played a ton of close games last year and in the middle of an historically strong three-way divisional fight. With the free agent market valuing wins at $8M per, I get the need to try to win every game. This year the Redbirds are likely to be competing for the playoffs again, in a somewhat crowded Wild Card picture where the Pirates, Giants, Mets, and Cardinals are all considered basically equal teams.
As currently constructed there should be no reason for anyone to pitch three days in a row, or even three out of four days. The Cardinals also have the bullets required to stave off injuries, with two adequate middle relievers likely starting off the season in Memphis. And that's without even considering Walden, who would probably be the second best reliever if he was healthy.
At the same time, there should be no reason to push any starter to go late in the game. If the starter has been struggling through five and the pitcher's spot comes up with runners on, Matheny has no excuse not to pinch-hit. He'll have six quality options for four innings. Mozeliak has set up the roster, Matheny just has to follow through, giving up his reliance on his starters and his best few relief options. It's not often that I have confidence in Mike, and maybe it's just off-season optimism, but I actually believe he can do this.