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Mike Matheny doesn’t have a plan for an eight-man bullpen: Week 1

I know it’s the hot new trend with the cool kids, but if the manager isn’t going to make use of a big bullpen, the Cardinals shouldn’t have one.

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

For most of recent baseball history, teams have constructed their 25-man rosters in a familiar way: eight starting batters, five starting pitchers, a five-man bench of extra batters, and seven relief pitchers. The fact that nearly all teams did this at nearly all times illustrates that managers had come to regard the five-man rotation and seven-man bullpen as the optimal way to balance the workload required over the roughly 1,440 innings that need to be pitched during the regular season.

Today, as recognition of the so-called “third time through the order penalty” filters through the managerial ranks, the trend of aggressive early starter pulls and expanded bullpen use has spread from its roots in the playoffs into the regular season. Managers (The Gabe Kapler Experience notwithstanding) aren’t as quick with the hook in the regular season as they are in the playoffs — they can’t be, or their exhausted relievers will eventually corner them and beat them up — but the trend is clear: from 2011 to last year, the number of innings thrown by starting pitchers in the regular season fell by nearly 10%. Games haven’t gotten shorter, so there’s only one place for those innings to go: the bullpen. Inevitably, more pressure on bullpens creates a new need: bigger bullpens.

This isn’t, in and of itself, a strategically bad thing. It’s probably good! The Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros — two teams known for being progressively run in terms of analytics, from the front office to the dugout — are both carrying eight-man bullpens to start 2018, for example. So are a number of other teams. So are the Cardinals. Whatever you may think of it aesthetically (if you hate games with six pitching changes per side, I don’t blame you, and they sure consume more time than mound visits do), the eight-man regular-season ‘pen is likely here to stay.

At the end of the day, though, it’s important to remember that an eight-man bullpen is just a thing, not a strategy. It’s a tool. Merely owning a hammer is not a plan; owning a hammer because you know you’ll need to nail things together sometimes is a plan. If you’re not planning to nail anything together ever in your life, you’re just a person with a hammer sitting around.

The only good reason for a manager to be given an eight-man bullpen is that he plans on using it to address a need. The process goes like this:

Recognize gains to be made with more aggressive pulls —> make more aggressive pulls —> need more bullpen innings —> get a bigger bullpen

Returning to the example of the Dodgers, last year they had one of the best groups of starting pitchers in the majors (3rd in the league by fWAR per inning pitched), but they collectively threw only the 17th-most innings. You’d expect, generically, teams with the best starters to get the most starter innings, and so on. If starter quality and starter inning quantity diverges, it presumably reflects managerial preferences. Dave Roberts has good starters, yet he pulls them aggressively because he sees the gains to be had by doing so. So, Dave Roberts is a guy who has a plan for a big bullpen. Good job, Dave.

How about Mike Matheny and the Cardinals?

Here’s a visual illustration, with a quick-and-dirty stat I just made up and am calling the Kapler Unit. It’s each team’s 2017 ranking in starter IP totals, minus its ranking in fWAR per IP. Being on the left edge shows an inclination to early pulls, relative to starter quality, and being on the right edge shows the opposite:

This is obviously a deeply imperfect stat. Most obviously, it omits bullpen quality altogether, which is an important factor in divvying up innings. Nevertheless: last year, Cardinals starters finished 10th in the league in fWAR per IP, yet they threw the 6th-most innings. The quality-to-quantity ratio is the opposite of what Dave Roberts did with the Dodgers. Closer to the right side than the left.

This isn’t a problem, in and of itself — the Cardinals had pretty good starting pitchers last year, and a not-great bullpen, so the starters threw a lot of innings. Yes, the team likely left some value on the table by not pulling starters a little earlier, but the overall picture isn’t egregious. The real problem is that Mike Matheny had an eight-man bullpen last year that he just wasn’t using. Some criticisms of Matheny have practically become items of faith at this point, to the point that they are simply recited and believed to be true whether they describe reality or not, but this is not one of them: Matheny last year insisted upon an extra reliever that, given the way he actually managed the pitching staff, he didn’t really need or use.

But now it’s a new year, there is a new pitching coach (who ostensibly will have some input on usage patterns), and there’s a very new bullpen. Maybe Matheny will trust it more, go to it earlier, and actually use everybody in it. Maybe not. There haven’t been enough games for us to really judge, yet.

But there have been some games, and we can look to them for clues. Starter inning totals really won’t tell us much on a weekly basis. There’s just too much noise. But looking at a week of games and asking one basic question — did Mike Matheny actually need and use eight relievers last week? — on a regular basis seems like, although maybe not the most fun thing in the world, a reasonably diverting experience. So I’m going to do it, every week, starting today. Today there is a whole post on the subject, but on future Mondays there be a post about something else, with this bit awkwardly tacked on.

So here we go: did Mike Matheny actually utilize his eight-man bullpen last week*?

*plus the first two games

No, he sure didn’t. Here’s a chart of the Cardinals’ week one bullpen usage, with pitch counts:

Matt Bowman appeared in six of the team’s first nine games. Dominic Leone, Jordan Hicks, and Tyler Lyons appeared in five each, and Bud Norris in four. Despite being on the roster the whole time, Sam Tuivailala appeared in only three, and Mike Mayers in just two. Mayers went over a week between appearances.

This isn’t what an eight-man bullpen is for. This is just dumb. And we don’t have to guess about what Matheny was holding Mayers in reserve for — he told us over the weekend:

Manager Mike Matheny said that Mayers, as one of the few pitchers “stretched” out during spring for multiple innings, has been earmarked for a role that becomes necessary in extra innings or when a starter falters early.

Mayers would have been used later in extra innings Thursday had the Cardinals rallied from a two-run deficit, Matheny said. But he wasn’t warming up for that.

“He’s a righthanded arm that we feel can come in and help us in a number of different situations,” Matheny said. “I don’t need to tell you or anybody else, we’re still sorting our way through it. He has been stretched out. There have been only so many guys who have had that extra push through spring training that would allow us to use them for multiple innings. That is a valuable asset to us.”

So there you go: the 8th reliever currently on the team is there just in case they go to extra innings, basically. It’s not so that Matheny can push the envelope and gain advantages by deploying relievers for a greater share of innings — it’s just because it makes him nervous to think that someday he might run out of pitchers. Even though that’s a fear that managers with traditional seven-man bullpens have been successfully navigating since the dawn of the modern bullpen, Matheny isn’t comfortable with it, so there will be an extra guy sitting in the bullpen. Just sitting.

Maybe someday this fear will prove to be justified. This week, it wasn’t. Mike Matheny has no plan for how to use eight relievers, and until he comes up with one, they should take the extra guy away.