There was a fleeting moment in late-2011 when Terry Francona had a shot to be the next manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. He interviewed, from all reports it didn’t go well (in fact, the Cardinals reportedly badgered him about his use of pain medication), and that was that. He was then hired by Cleveland before the 2013 season and they’ve surprisingly had the best record in the AL during his tenure.
If you have a rooting interest in the Cardinals it’s fair to be envious. Not necessarily envious of Cleveland’s record, the Cardinals have the best record in all of MLB since 2013, but more of Francona’s progressive handling of his bullpen, particularly elite reliever Andrew Miller.
In Games 1 and 3 of Cleveland’s three game sweep of the Red Sox, Miller pitched two full innings in each game but never made an appearance after the 7th inning. In Game 1 he was brought in with two outs in the 5th to prevent the Red Sox from seeing starter Trevor Bauer for the third time. In Game 3, same thing. After starter Josh Tomlin allowed a single to Dustin Pedroia to lead off the 6th, Miller came in to face the heart of Boston’s order. For the four total innings pitched, he struck out seven and didn’t allow a single earned run. Cleveland one both games by a single run.
It being the postseason, Francona might be managing with a bit more sense of urgency, but this is not him acting as if this will be the last time he will ever be in the dugout, like Tony La Russa in the 2011 playoffs. Rather, Miller was used in this fashion the moment he was acquired in a trade from the Yankees at the July 31 deadline as detailed in this excellent piece by Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer in early September.
The Cardinals should try this approach in 2017. Like Cleveland, they are lucky to also employ one of the best relievers in baseball. For relievers with at least 50 innings pitched in 2016, Seung Hwan Oh finished in the top five in the NL in innings pitched, ERA, xFIP, and K%. His 2.6 fWAR was second only to Kenley Jansen. Browse around long enough on FanGraphs Leaderboards or Baseball-Reference’s Play Index and you’ll see that Oh quite possibly had the best season for a Cardinals’ reliever going back 50 seasons.
VEB’s own Ben Markham did a nice breakdown of Mike Matheny’s bullpen usage by leverage in 2016 and showed that Oh pitched in the second most high leverage situations for the relief core after Kevin Siegrist. So Oh was hardly misused in 2016, at least by normal bullpen usage standards. And none of this is a knock on Matheny with regard to bullpen roles. Francona’s the outlier here, not Matheny, who did seem to evolve and wasn’t against using Oh in a tied game in the 9th on several occasions. Had the dreaded Game 5 from the 2014 NLCS happened this year, I don’t think Matheny hesitates using Trevor Rosenthal instead of Michael Wacha.
But Matheny can evolve even further. Oh pitched before the 7th inning six different times in 2016, but not once after May. After Oh took the closer spot from Rosenthal in late June, he didn’t pitch before the 8th inning for the rest of the season. And he only came in prior to the 9th on five occasions, and on only two of those occasions did he pitch more than an inning and a third.
Here’s why this all matters. Below are the NL teams ranked by the number of batters faced by starting pitchers their third time through the order in 2016:
Only the Nationals’ starting pitchers saw more hitters their third time through the order and they had an OPS more than 100 points lower than the Cardinals in these situations. The Cardinals’ allowed OPS in these situations also ranked in the bottom half of the NL. What’s more, in the 6th inning, Cardinals’ pitchers allowed hitters an OPS of .848 which is 68 points higher than any other inning (.780 in the 1st).
How many games in 2016 were lost in these moments? And how many times could Oh have prevented it? Tough to say, but it seems fair to conclude that by letting the starters pitch to hitters their third time through the order as often as they did, the Cardinals cost themselves a Wild Card birth. Opposing teams had a .739 OPS versus the Cardinals in high leverage situations. Against Oh that number dropped nearly 100 points (.643).
In 2015, Matheny quite honestly (and admirably) admitted that contracts matter when setting bullpen roles, that is to say, a lot of saves look nice during a contract negotiation. While this view is hardly dying, it’s not universal. As Lindbergh noted, Miller is proof that teams will pay for a reliever who isn’t filling up the save category (Miller signed a four-year $36 million deal in December 2014). There are too many smart people working in front offices now to not recognize true value in relievers while looking outside the save category.
None of this is easy as it sounds. Relievers brought in to handle high leverage situations have to get warm on a moment’s notice without the luxury of a scheduled inning. And when they are brought in the damage may already be done. But assuming Oh doesn’t have some Huston Street-like aversion to pitching before the 9th inning, the Cardinals should use him next year to their fullest advantage.