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Three Mikes and a Bullpen

Mike Shildt runs a bullpen differently than Mike Matheny. It’s maybe not always obvious just how different it really is, though.

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

This is the story of three men named Mike.

The first Mike in this story is Mike Matheny, who began the year as the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. Mike Matheny, as we know, had a lot of very traditional ideas about the game, but even more than that, always felt like a guy who wanted things to run on auto-pilot. Remember those infomercials for the little rotisserie ovens that Ron Popeil used to sell? They never worked very well; the electric countertop oven just never got hot enough to create a proper Maillard reaction in most foods, at least that I tried. It made good hot dogs, but most other things my girlfriend at the time and I made with it turned out pallid and not very appealing. It was a shame, too; Sarah sacrificed a whole Christmas worth of gifts from her grandma to get that shitty little rotisserie.

Wait, what was I talking about?

Oh, that’s right; Mike Matheny and the bullpen. Well, you see, the tagline on those rotisserie ovens, targeted at luring you in with promises of ease and convenience, of pushing one button and some time later having a proper home-cooked meal on the table, was, “Set it...and forget it!” That seemed to be the way Mike Matheny wanted to use a bullpen. Defined roles, predetermined patterns of usage, and very little to no thought given to matchups and the like.

What Matheny wanted was that little automatic rotisserie oven to just cook him up a win at the push of a button, without requiring constant attention and planning in terms of how to use the bullpen. And to be fair, it’s easy to understand why one might want that. It’s simple. It’s less stressful. And when something goes wrong, it’s easy to fall back on the formula you always use, throw your hands up in the air, and conclude that something other than you is what failed, since you did it exactly the way the instructions said. You set it, you forgot it, and then your kitchen caught on fire. Must be the rotisserie.

The second Mike in this story is a Mike named Maddux. Before coming to the Cardinals, Mike Maddux was the pitching coach for the Washington Nationals. Before that, he was in Texas with the Rangers, and before that he helped shepherd a young group of pitchers in Milwaukee years ago.

For a long time, Maddux has had a reputation as one of the more innovative, intelligent pitching coaches in the game. He’s never really been one of the top superstar pitching coaches at any one moment; the guys at the very top of the reputation pyramid at any given moment are almost always those with a specific,easily-defined philosophy. Dave Duncan was famous for sinkers the way Colonel Sanders was famous for white suits and chicken. Leo Mazzone went for the panoramic approach and had Bobby Cox to browbeat umpires for him. Dan Warthen taught all his pitchers to throw a particular type of slider. Ray Searage preached two-seam fastballs and ownership of the inside half of the plate. There are others, but not many others, in terms of fame.

Maddux didn’t seem to fit as neatly into a box as some of those other guys. He’s always been thought of as smart and innovative, but in a less specific way, and harder to define. He likes high fastballs, but isn’t a Jim Hickey-level fundamentalist about four-seam spin. Maddux doesn’t seem to have one particular breaking ball he pushes over all others. His pitching staffs have generally been seen as progressive, but not in a way that immediately makes one say, “Yep, that’s a Maddux staff for you.”

Something we Cardinal fans did believe would be true when Maddux came to town was that he would have a large amount of influence in guiding the usage of the bullpen, and that the prevailing usage pattern would be of the progressive, more flexible variety. Fewer tightly-defined roles, more multi-inning opportunities, more data-driven decisions. In short, when the Cardinals let Derek Liliquist go and brought in Mike Maddux this past offseason, it felt like the club giving Mike Matheny a real resource to help him run the pitching staff.

And then, of course, we saw essentially the exact same usage patterns this year that we had seen in years past. There was seemingly nothing any more innovative or unusual or even really interesting about the way the bullpen was being used in 2018 than there had been in 2017. Or 2016. Or 2015. Or, well, you get the picture. A lot of fans assumed they had been sold a bill of goods by the club about Maddux’s level of innovation.

Which brings us around to the final Mike in our story, a man named Shildt. Mike Shildt was brought on to the big league staff as something called a quality control coach, which, broadly defined, means he was in charge of trying to ensure the team was operating under something resembling best practices, if at all possible. Now, the Cardinals have a Jose Oquendo to run fielding drills, and they have hitting coaches to work with hitters, and pitching coaches to work with pitchers. With all that coaching muscle in place, the best anyone could figure about a ‘quality control’ coach is that he’s basically the guy checking the math on decisions and usage patters, to try and make sure the club isn’t leaving dozens of wins on the table due to terrible decision making by the manager, or the people who set the on-field philosophy.

And, of course, when Mike Matheny was shown the door, it was the team’s internal choice to check the math on the decisions who got the gig, at least temporarily. Mike Shildt became the 50th manager in Cardinal history, and there was plenty of debate on what kind of difference we might see in the way the club was run.

Well, obviously there has been a difference; the 2018 Cardinals of Matheny were 47-46 when the change was made, while the Cardinals of Mike Shildt are 21-11. Of course, it’s hard — by which I mean impossible — to completely separate out what has been so different about the Shildt Cardinals from those of Matheny. Basically, it mostly boils down to, “They’ve just played better,” and how much credit for that one wishes to give to Mike Shildt is mostly determined by what one thinks about managers, the two men in question specifically, and baseball in general. For my part, I think the tactical changes have been a part of the story, certainly, but the cultural change in the team, and the near-immediate lightening of the mood once Matheny was let go, has been the far larger change. Can we quantify how much better a happier, looser team is going to be? Absolutely not. Can we see the results on the field? I believe we can.

And yes, it’s also a fact that the Cardinals remade their bullpen, jettisoning some of the less-effective pitchers they had in place, as well as having what can really only be described as good luck in an injury to an outfielder opening up an opportunity for younger players to take over jobs previously held by non-productive entities. I don’t believe in ever rooting for, nor celebrating, injuries to players just trying to do their jobs, but let’s face it: when a player unexpectedly suffers an injury and it clears a roster spot without payroll politics affecting the decisions, it’s helpful. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

There is, however, one very interesting, but fairly small, aspect of the Mike Shildt management style I believe we can very directly credit, and it ropes in Mike Maddux as well.

One of the greatest complaints consistently heard, time and time again, during the Mike Matheny era was that Matheny tended to have too slow a hook with his starting pitchers. Always too slow to go get a struggling starter and replace him with a fresh bullpen arm. How many times over the past six years was it obvious a starter was sinking, but equally obvious was the fact the manager was unwilling to go get him before he could qualify for the win? How many fifth innings have seen a Cardinal starter unable to get out of a jam, only for Matheny to wait just a batter or two too long to get him out of the game? I’m sure if one wished one could dig through box scores and figure it out, but I’m not going to do that.

Instead, I’m just going to offer four relatively simple numbers that illustrate, I believe, the difference in approach between Mikes Matheny and Shildt in terms of their handling of struggling starters and the bullpen in general.

Mike Matheny was fired after the 93rd game of the 2018 season. In those 93 games, Cardinal starters threw 523 and 23 innings. That is an average of 5.63 innings per game, or basically 5 23 innings. Starting pitchers for the Matheny Cardinals in 2018 got through two outs in the sixth inning, essentially.

In the 32 starts since Mike Shildt took over as manager, Redbird starters have accumulated 171 and 23 innings. That comes out to 5.36 innings per start, or almost exactly 5 13 per outing. Now, of course we have to acknowledge that the nature of baseball innings, the fact they only move in thirds, means our decimals are always a little shaky, but we actually kind of luck out here and get numbers that are really close to thirds of an inning. So we have Mike Shildt starters going one out deep into the sixth on average, and Mike Matheny starters going two outs deep into the sixth in their games.

What a fascinatingly small difference, one might tend to say. And yet, when you’re talking about a difference of one out that very likely comes in the fight or sixth innings, that one out could make all the difference in the world between a win and a loss. Think how often Mike Matheny left his starter in just one or two batters too long. One fewer out per start is basically those exact one or two batters you wish a starter hadn’t faced.

So that’s two numbers. Now let’s look at the other two in our group of four.

In Matheny’s 2018, Cardinal relievers made 321 appearances, and threw a total of 316 and 23 innings. That is 0.986 innings per appearance. Now in this case, given how many more appearances we have, we can a little more comfortably ignore the rounding issues our trinomial counting system creates. (And yes, I’m aware trinomial isn’t exactly the word I want here, but you get what I mean, right?) So Cardinal relievers, in general, threw just under one inning per appearance under Mike Matheny this season.

Now for the Mike Shildt Cardinals.

Mike Shildt relievers have made 98 appearances. They have thrown 113 innings, good for a 1.153 inning per appearance average.

That may not look like a huge difference, and in terms of raw numbers, it really isn’t. You’re talking about not quite two-tenths of an inning difference between how long relievers pitched under Mike Matheny and how long they pitch for Shildt. And yet, I think here we have an even more stark philosophical difference visible here than we did in terms of starters being pulled even just one out earlier.

The reason is that I would argue there is a huge divide between a manager using his relievers for less than one inning, and a manager using his relievers for more than one inning, on average. That is a philosophical difference, an elemental difference, even. The numbers look close, but the ideas reflected by those small differences could not be more different.

We could look at it another way, too. Mike Matheny in 2018 used 3.45 relievers per game. He managed 93 games, and his bullpen accumulated 321 appearances. So Matheny, even after leaving his starters in too long, as most believe, still managed to use almost three and a half relievers per game.

Mike Shildt, on the other hand, has used 3.06 relievers per game in his tenure. He’s more aggressive going to his bullpen earlier, even if only by a few batters oftentimes, and yet uses fewer relievers per game in aggregate than his predecessor.

Now, of course, it’s important to understand what these numbers mean in actual practice. There’s no such thing as .45 of a reliever, nor .06 of one, either. These numbers only move in whole integers, just like innings only move in thirds. So the most likely number of relievers to see in either a Mike Matheny or Mike Shildt game, I would hazard to guess, is probably three. And yet, just by shifting the usage ever so slightly, the actual outcomes can be shifted significantly.

What I’m most fascinated by is the simple fact the Mike Shildt Cardinals have used relievers, on average, for more than an inning per appearance. Way back when Mike Maddux was hired, there was a lot of conjecture that we would see the Cardinals move toward a more flexible, progressive bullpen deployment, and a lot of that is basically code for using relievers all year like you do in the playoffs. More multi-inning appearances, going to the ‘pen earlier, and not being beholden to the concept of a starter, nor the concrete one-inning reliever trope which has been so prevalent in baseball over the past couple decades. For most of the season, we didn’t really see much — or any, really — of that kind of thing. We saw the same usage patterns we had always seen under Mike Matheny.

But now, finally, we have something really different. And sure, that something really different might not be so world-shatteringly large as to jump out immediately when you look at them, but if we really think about what those numbers are telling us, we find a different story entirely.

Under Mike Shildt, the Cardinals are pulling their starters earlier in games, using fewer relievers per game, and using relievers for longer outings more often. The average Cardinal reliever these days is getting more than three outs a decent amount of the time. And yes, there are still things to fret about, specific relievers who are getting a lot of work and maybe you worry about the workload, but that’s probably an unavoidable reality of baseball in this present form. There’s always going to be someone throwing more often than maybe you’d like, no matter how diligently the manager attempts to spread the appearances around.

But the big stuff, the big, philosophical changes, those we can see. We can see that Mike Shildt and Mike Maddux do things differently than Mike Maddux and Mike Matheny did. In fact, we can see they do things differently in a pretty big way.

Even if the numbers look very small, it really is a big difference.