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A first glance at the Matheny-Maddux bullpen strategy

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For many Cardinals fans, Opening Day felt like the same old song on repeat.

Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Let me preface this article by saying that you aren’t going to win many games in which you allow your opponent to score on an errant throw to second base and strike out 15 times while drawing just one walk. I certainly didn’t expect the Cardinals to tag Noah Syndergaard for two homers and four runs yesterday, but the Mets simply outplayed St. Louis in every sense of the word.

As you might have noticed when you woke up this morning, the sun still rose and the sky hasn’t fallen. You are probably familiar enough with my writing by now to know that a one game sample size rarely dictates my overall perception of a situation. That said, there was one moment in yesterday’s 9-4 loss that aroused quite the stir both on Twitter and in the VEB game thread.

Allow me to set the stage. Put plainly: Carlos Martinez did not look sharp yesterday. “Erratic” was the word frequently used by Dan McLaughlin throughout the Fox Sports Midwest television broadcast; a word choice that I found appropriate to describe his command, or lack thereof. Through three innings, El Gallo gifted six New York hitters a free base via walk or hit-by-pitch. According to Statcast, his expected BABIP during that timeframe was .340. The Cardinals evened the score at 3-3 in the top of the fourth with a Matt Carpenter double and RBI single off the bat of Jose Martinez as Carlos worked a 1-2-3 frame in the bottom half of the inning.

That brings us to our conundrum. Due up first the next inning was the pitcher’s spot before the Cardinals lineup turned over for a vaunted third time. With Thor and his electric arsenal no longer emitting an aurora of invincibility, the Cardinals were primed to retake the lead as Fowler, Pham, Carpenter, and Ozuna loomed.

Except Martinez promptly whiffed on a 1-2 slider and the Cardinals went quietly in the fifth. All the while, the Mets opened the floodgates to score five runs in the same inning, never looking back as they cruised into the win column.

So the question becomes whether or not the offensive sacrifice of leading off the inning with Martinez at the plate outweighs the benefit of keeping the Cardinals starter in the game for his pitching as well. We are going to have to make some rough guestimations, but it is possible to crunch the numbers on this tradeoff.

Sean Dolinar created an invaluable tool that allows us to calculate how many runs the Cardinals would be expected to score in the fifth inning with Martinez at the plate compared to a pinch hitter. We are required to insert two pieces of information: the wOBA of the current batter and the run environment the game is occurring in.

Regarding the former, I have previously written about how the Cardinals’ bench projects to be one of the best in baseball. Even with Jose Martinez in the Opening Day lineup at first base, Jedd Gyorko (projected .332 wOBA) was available as a fine bat off the bench. In actuality, Yairo Muñoz was later summoned for the first pinch-hitting appearance of the season, but I will stick with the .332 figure for the sake of the calculations since I assume the Cardinals view Muñoz as more than the measly .279 wOBA he is projected to post. (Besides, the Mets were well on their way to victory with a 97% win probability when Muñoz batted, so perhaps Matheny was looking to get him his MLB debut in a lower-leverage situation.) As for Martinez’s wOBA, I deferred to his career mark of .190.

To find a ballpark estimate (my insufferable wordplay will never die) for the run environment, I used last April’s average runs/game of 4.42 (early-season games tend to feature less scoring) and applied a 5% reduction to account for Citi Field’s park factors, giving us a final figure of 4.20 runs/game to plug in. A few clicks later, here are the run expectancies based on the decision to pull or not to pull Martinez.

  • With Martinez batting: .280 runs
  • With .332 wOBA pinch-hitter batting: .472 runs
  • Difference: -.192 runs

So if the Cardinals lost .192 runs by letting Martinez hit, the point of equilibrium would be achieved by gaining .192 runs back through their pitching. With a pitch count already reaching 80 through four innings during his first outing of the season, we can reasonably assume that Martinez was remaining in the game for at most one more inning.

Those .192 runs may not sound like much, but if my junior high algebra is correct, Martinez would need his projected ERA to be lower than his potential replacement by a full 1.73 for the move to be mathematically sound. For context, Bud Norris’ 4.17 ERA projection is only 0.62 higher than Martinez’s 3.55. Keep in mind that this is without adjusting for the fact that Martinez was fatigued and facing the opposing lineup for a third time himself. Although his career splits the third time through the order aren’t as drastic as, say, Michael Wacha’s (Wacha’s FIP rises by 1.29 from the first trip to the third; Martinez by 0.48), it becomes increasingly clear that Martinez should have been yanked and pinch-hit for to begin the fifth. The two strongest counterarguments in favor of letting Martinez hit and start the fifth back on the mound are most likely:

  1. Martinez finally “settled in” with a nine-pitch fourth inning to retire the side in order.
  2. The Cardinals bullpen shouldn’t be trusted more than Martinez in that situation.

Personally, I’m not inclined to agree with either claim. In the fourth, Martinez still surrendered two batted balls that were smoked for exit velocities of at least 100.3 mph and hit probabilities of at least 58%. Pham and Ozuna were able to track these down for outs, but the point stands that this wasn’t the A game Carlos Martinez we all know and love.

To bullet point number two, St. Louis is loaded with eight relievers and an off day today. Heather Simon discussed why carrying 13 arms can handcuff a team’s roster a couple weeks ago, but the primary advantage of doing so is that it gives a manager the ability to afford a quicker, more aggressive starting pitcher hook, something Matheny has historically struggled with. The Cardinals’ skipper also has a rather lengthy track record of being over-reliant on a few relievers, a practice that completely contradicts the benefits of a bullpen that prioritizes depth above top-heaviness. I won’t defend the decision to turn to Matt Bowman (whose ERA only projects to be fifth best among available St. Louis relievers) in particular as the game’s fateful moments transpired, but the Cardinals’ solidly-assembled, above-average bullpen provided multiple options at Matheny’s disposal.

Games like yesterday’s have the potential to showcase the strategic value of depth-oriented roster construction...if properly managed. The hope was that new pitching coach Mike Maddux would help implement a more modernized approach to pitching changes in the Cardinals dugout, per Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com.

Before he started interviewing candidates for the open position, Mozeliak stressed that he was seeking a pitching coach willing to utilize advanced metrics, as well as the ability to “understand modern strategy, modern analytics and how we can leverage that to optimize our staff.”

The intent was to bring in someone who could have a louder voice alongside Matheny, who will be returning for his seventh season as manager. Maddux’s experience and coaching resume offers that sort of instant credibility.

While I won’t formulate steadfast opinions after one game gone awry, I must admit that the early returns on the ‘sabermetric-savvy Mike Maddux plan’ don’t bode well for whatever cautious optimism I had entering the season. John Mozeliak’s text message to the St. Louis Post Dispatch from when Maddux was initially hired still rings loud and clear: “Manager makes final decision.”