“Have you seen his body of work this year?” Shildt replied, more curt than usual.
It was a small moment, in the heat of a pennant race and after a tough loss. I wouldn’t put much importance on the remark itself. Nor do I think that, in a vacuum, the ill-fated decision to go to Gant on Sunday is any kind of grand failure to manage the bullpen. (Jones followed up by pointing to Gant’s high walk rate, and Shildt conceded “I get that.”)
But I wanted to highlight that moment, and that comment, to illustrate something that I do think is important: The bullpen you begin the season with is not the bullpen you end the season with. Shildt makes it a point to stick with his guys, but when it comes to a bullpen that can be a recipe for disaster.
To illustrate this point, I always think back to the 2011 Cardinals. Here was the bullpen they went into the season with: Ryan Franklin, Jason Motte, Mitchell Boggs, Trever Miller, Brian Tallet, Bryan Augenstein and Miguel Batista. Of those seven relievers, Motte and Boggs would be the only two to pitch in the World Series. Fernando Salas, who didn’t even make the opening day roster, spent most of the year as the closer. Lance Lynn, who did not make his major league debut until June, was pitching in a prime setup role by October.
Perhaps those 2011 Cards are an extreme example, but I don’t think that they are. Bullpens are incredibly fluid, to the point that relief pitchers are nearly disposable. That’s why I’ve written on numerous occasions, one of my few, immutable baseball beliefs: Don’t pay for relief pitching.
(Andrew Miller currently has a -0.4 WAR.)
But this philosophy is not just about offseason signings, it extends to how a bullpen is managed during the season.
Relief pitchers are disposable and should be used that way. Think of them like the plastic cup you get at the gas station. You fill it up with soda or coffee; you enjoy that soda or coffee. Maybe later in the day, you need some water, so you fill that same cup up again with water. But at a certain point, probably later that same day, that cup has served its purpose and so you pitch it in the garbage.
Have you ever tried to hang onto a styrofoam cup for more than maybe two or three uses? The thing disintegrates in your hands. It wasn’t designed to last longer than that. The same is true for relief pitchers.
An organization might attack a season with one starting lineup, plus some reserves, and one starting rotation, with a few arms ready to fill-in for injury. But it takes an ARMY of relievers to get through a major league season. Sure, there’s those guys on the opening day roster, but then there’s at least that many arms in the minors ready to step-up, plus a handful of guys who will make their way into the mix after being DFA’d somewhere else, not to mention a couple guys likely to arrive via trade.
This is not a knock on the skill or character of relief pitchers - far from it. These guys are asked to do an incredibly difficult thing, to pitch several days in a row, on an intermittent schedule, throwing as hard as they possibly can, often in the most stressful moments of the game.
Many relievers fail. Others succeed, but it’s rare that they can sustain that success consistently through the entire season. That’s why a savvy manager has got to be ready to toss them aside, like a Big Gulp cup that’s losing its shape and the lid won’t fit any more.
And that brings us back around to John Gant. Here is a guy who performed admirably in the bullpen throughout the first half of the season, so much so that some thought he could even be the Cardinals All-Star representative. Now to be fair, the underlying numbers were always a red flag, and Gant’s 2nd half is more a regression to the mean than a collapse. But however you look at it, John Gant in September is not the same thing as John Gant in April.
Whatever you do, whether it’s with John Gant or any reliever, DON’T look at their body of work. That’s how teams wind up signing Andrew Millers and Craig Kimbrels and Greg Hollands to contracts that they will never live up to. Their body of work is a thing that they did, but it is not indicative of what they will do tomorrow or next week.
Brebbia, Gallegos and Gant have pitched a ton of innings this season. Gant and Gallegos both have shown signs of wearing down. That’s okay. It’s what happens. We should thank them for their service and Shildt should begin giving more of those innings to Genesis Cabrera, Ryan Helsley and Junior Fernandez.
If the Cardinals are going to make a run into October, much like the 2011 Birds, we should be seeing a very different looking bullpen, especially featuring this fresh crop of young arms.
To his credit, Mike Shildt has done a pretty masterful job of managing the bullpen so far. But we are now in the endgame where even the smallest move can have massive ramifications, and I hope “body of work” will not be the deciding factor for who gets the ball in critical situations.