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Will Matheny's bullpen mismanagement force the Cardinals' hand?

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After another disappointing weekend in St. Louis, the heat should be on Mike Matheny and his bullpen management.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Let's call this past weekend a squandered opportunity. The Cardinals remain in the thick of the postseason (two games out of the last wild card spot) and there's still two and a half months left on the calendar. But gone is the "in the second half the Cardinals need to do such and such and they'll be fine." The second half is now. The time to win is now. And the opportunity to buck the disturbing trend of losing at home (now 20-28) and position themselves better for October couldn't have been laid out more perfectly than three games with the Miami Marlins who were a game ahead of them in the postseason standings heading into the series and who, hey, lucky for us, are objectively worse than the Cardinals.

The Cardinals have a +90 run differential - third best in all of baseball - the Marlins sit at an even 0. The Cardinals (as of Sunday) have an NL-leading 109 team wRC+; the Marlins are 7th at 94. Since June 1 the Cardinals' starting rotation is tied for first in the NL with the Nationals with a 5.1 fWAR. The Marlins are at 2.2. By ERA, FIP, xFIP, fWAR, you name it, the Cardinals have the superior bullpen.

So it was no surprise when all was said and done the Cardinals outscored the Marlins for the series. Not dramatically so, only 14-13, but more's more. But hey, you can't predict baseball so, of course, the Marlins took two of three partly because manager Mike Matheny mismanaged the bullpen in the only two games when a bullpen was required (thank you, Waino), and thereby gifted the Marlins eight runs in the 7th, 8th, and 9th innings of games 1 and 3.

On Friday, Matheny went to Trevor Rosenthal in a high-leverage situation in the top of the 7th inning with the Cardinals leading 4-2 and two runners aboard. It was head-scratching at the time and infuriating when it ended in predictable fashion. Rosenthal, mind you, has the second worst walk rate (15.8%) for all relievers in the NL who have pitched at least 20 innings and the third worst ERA (5.64) for relievers who have pitched at least 30. It's why he was bumped from the closer role three weeks ago. In fairness, his walk rate had decreased to a sound 6.9% from the time of his demotion heading into Friday in just six total inning pitched, but batters were also hitting .333 against him in this span which contributed to a 4.50 ERA. And what's clear is that a high-leverage situation such as this was not the best time to test whether or not Rosenthal was fixed.

Yesterday, Matheny stacked the lineup with righties even though Marlins' starting pitcher lefty Adam Conley has reverse splits which favor lefties (.733 OPS vs. .707 for righties). I'm not sure the splits are so profound where this constitutes a big deal. What is a big deal is that Matheny made the same mistake he made on Friday and brought in Jonathan Broxton in a 3-3 game in the 7th, another high-leverage situation, with two lefties (Christian Yelich and Derek Dietrich) and Giancarlo Stanton due up. Broxton's 12.9% walk rate is 16th worst for NL relievers who have logged at least 20 innings and nearly across the board his stats are second worst to only Rosenthal in the Cardinals' pen.

When the inning was over the Marlins were up 5-3 while lefties Kevin Siegrist and Tyler Lyons sat unused on the bench. Now Siegrist and Lyons are not perfect options. Siegrist has his usual reverse splits as lefties have a .766 OPS against him in 40 plate appearance, and Lyons seems like the perfect candidate to deliver up a ball to Stanton that will end up in the Mississippi (and since Seung Oh has been unofficially anointed closer we can assume he was unavailable whether sensical or not), but they are both more effective at keeping runners off base and suppressing runs than Broxton. And in the 7th with the score tied, the 3-4-5 hitters due up, and the series on the line, that's what matters.

The Cardinals have the worst win percentage in baseball in one-run games and they are tied with the Dodgers for most one-run losses in the NL. Several factors can impact a team's record in one-run games over the course of a season, including something as simple as bad luck, but bullpens do seem to matter, and the mismanagement of such a thing is what may cause Jon Mozeliak to seek bullpen help as the trade deadline approaches. That's the casualty of all this. That the Cardinals may have to depart with actual commodities to ensure the bullpen is as failsafe as possible for their manager.

Final thing, my column last Thursday linked to an article from Bernie Miklasz, which called into question Matheny's performance this year as skipper. One line from Miklasz caught me off guard and, it seems, several commenters as well, and it was this (emphasis mine):

The strongest leaders make tough choices — and, if necessary, unpopular choices if it's best for the team. Managers shouldn't be bending to boost players' statistics in a gratuitous way. But Matheny, who has an insecure personality, wants to curry favor with his players. But that can be an awfully slippery slope.

I like Matheny and I've long wanted him to succeed, but if Miklasz's reading of his personality is correct, this is as troubling as any in-game strategic deficiencies that have been cooked up in the Cardinals' dugout the last few years. The one saving grace during Matheny's reign is the belief that there was a method to his "why is he still trotting out Edward Mujica, can't he see he has nothing left?" madness. That showing faith in players who had long lost the faith of fickle fans and blogs was all for some greater good that was lost on all but those allowed inside the clubhouse. If that's in fact a sham, and Matheny's decision-making, mainly bullpen management, doesn't improve before the season draws to a close, the Cardinals' brass will need to eventually sit down and figure out exactly what he's bringing to the table.