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Getting the Cardinals’ relief some rest

To maximize effectiveness in 2017, Mike Matheny should pitch relievers on consecutive days as little as possible.

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Cincinnati Reds v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Somewhere between my continued wallowing about the Alex Reyes-Tommy John news and learning that Kevin Siegrist skipped a throwing session on Wednesday due to shoulder tightness, I stumbled upon a timely column at Baseball Prospectus ($) by Matt Trueblood in which he floated the idea of outlawing the use of relievers on consecutive days in order to both protect pitchers and to speed up the pace of action. It’s an idea very much in its infancy and Trueblood noted that there could be unforeseen consequences if ever to come to fruition, but I found it worth thinking about anyway, particularly as it pertained to the first issue. To that end, Trueblood writes:

Pitching on zero days’ rest is bad for your arm. That’s a fact with which we’re all pretty comfortable, right? Relievers who pitch two, three, or even four days in a row inevitably look tired and usually lose effectiveness, and the risk of injury increases when they do that with any consistency. That alone is almost reason enough for the players to approve this kind of change. Sure, the rule would cut into the ability of closers to rack up saves, and that would marginally affect their pre-free agency earning potential, but they'd probably make back whatever they lost in that regard by being healthier and more likely to reach free agency without a cadaver’s UCL in their arms.

It sure makes sense to me. And even if you don’t feel comfortable with an additional rule in the books, it would be in most managers’ best interest to adhere to it anyway for the perceived performance benefits. This could be the one unwritten rule that would actually serve a useful purpose, right? Well, maybe.

NL relievers in 2016 threw 8,099.1 total innings and accumulated a 4.02 ERA. But relievers on zero days rest were actually better, at least as far as ERA was concerned. Relievers who pitched on consecutive days logged 1,600.2 innings with a 3.91 ERA. Relievers with one day rest: 2,182.2 innings pitched with a 3.99 ERA; two days rest: 1,652.2 innings pitched with a 4.15 ERA. And so on.

But here’s the thing: This probably doesn’t refute the original point. It’s likely the better relievers who are pitching more often on consecutive days. And ignoring the more important health aspect for a second, I still find it hard to believe it’s wise to have relievers pitch with no rest when it can be avoided, and the stats for the 2016 Cardinals certainly back this up.

In 2016, Cardinals relievers threw 514 innings with a solid 3.62 ERA - just inside the top half of the NL. But when pitching with zero days rest, they were more than a whole run worse, 82.2 innings pitched with a 4.79 ERA. Only division-mates the Reds and Brewers had a larger discrepancy in the NL, and the 4.79 ERA for relievers on consecutive days pitched was the 4th worst in the league behind the Reds, Diamondbacks, and Brewers.

Here’s what the NL looked like as a whole (what the Pirates pulled off is pretty astounding):

For individual Cardinals pitchers, the top six relievers by innings pitched in 2016 (including Brett Cecil) were Seung Hwan-Oh, Matt Bowman, Kevin Siegrist, Jonathan Broxton, Tyler Lyons, Trevor Rosenthal, and Cecil. Here’s how they did in 2016 without rest:

Those are a lot of small samples, but man are they ugly, nonetheless. Except for Oh. He led the club with 22 appearances with no rest including a double-header with the Padres on July 20, 2016, when he pitched in both games. This also includes four stints when Oh pitched three consecutive days. His ERA was still impressive. Broxton had the second-most innings with no rest, an unfortunate stat given he’s a bit down the pecking order as far as effective relievers go, and because the stats pointed to a much better Broxton when rested. Again, this is a post about relievers so by its very nature we’re dealing with small samples but on days when he had one day of rest, Broxton had a 1.88 ERA in 14.1 innings pitched.

Now’s the part where I guess we yell at Mike Matheny for throwing guys out there too often with no rest. I just assumed he’s a major offender here and in 2015 he certainly was. According to the Bill James Handbook, in 2015 Mike Matheny called for a reliever to pitch on consecutive days a National League-high 142 times. Seth Maness led the club with 26 appearances on no rest. Siegrist and Rosenthal each had 22. The narrative that the bullpen was ridden too hard was probably true.

However, in 2016, whether by design or not, Matheny showed marked improvement. Again, according to the Bill James Handbook, Matheny only used relievers on consecutive days 95 times, the second lowest in the NL behind the Reds. (Take a look at the Reds’ pen in 2016 and it’s not surprising that they were hesitant to use a guy so quickly after his last presumed terrible outing.) Although the counter-argument here might be that the Cardinals’ starters in 2016 faced more batters their third time through the order than anyone in the NL besides the Nationals.

And this doesn’t provide the context of how and when Matheny was deploying a reliever without rest in 2016, but the low number is still an encouraging sign. It might not always be practical - Oh without rest is often a better option than Broxton or Lyons with plenty of rest, especially if the goal is the use the best reliever in high-leverage situations rather than to strictly accumulate saves (something I have advocated for). Still, there’s probably a healthy balance and Matheny should continue to limit the use of relievers on consecutive days, when feasible. For instance, assuming Oh will be the designated closer, maybe don’t use him for save situations with a three-run lead. Given the health risks as well as the unsightly ERA numbers above, a strategically well-rested pen is a nice goal for 2017.