Before we close the book on the 2004 Cardinals, I’d like to acknowledge one more aspect of the team that has so far gone unaddressed and was a vital aspect of their road to 105 wins. The Cardinals starting staff was competent, but slightly below average. I’m sure there was value in them making every start, especially given the state of the Cardinals farm system at the time, but they weren’t even close to a staff that usually accompanies a 105 win team. But they did have something that pushed their overall pitching into the top 10 in the majors: the bullpen.
The great, mystical, unpredictable bullpen is your enemy and your friend. The volatile nature of the beast means that, no matter your plans, the bullpen has its own idea. Which isn’t always a bad thing, as you can get your Pat Neshek to break out for nowhere for cheap. But for Cardinals fans at least, it usually just means we pay stupid money to a reliever who quickly falls apart. The 2004 squad was a friend.
Much like the 2004 rotation, the Cardinals bullpen is marked by consistency. Just seven pitchers threw 20 or more innings during the entire season. This is where the benefit of a reliable innings-eating rotation comes into play. As a comparison point, the 2019 team isn’t quite as different as you’d think, with nine pitchers throwing 20 or more innings, with a 10th throwing 19 innings.
Even though the 2019 bullpen was great, the 2004 bullpen separates itself by who threw the majority of the innings. Of the pitchers who threw 20 or more innings, all of them were above replacement level pitchers. Of the pitchers who threw 19 or more innings for the 2019 Cardinals, there are three below replacement pitchers and two essentially replacement level pitchers. If La Russa trusted you in 2004, you were a good pitcher.
It all starts with the closer, and Cardinals Hall of Famer, Jason Isringhausen. Isringhausen breaks the Cardinal rule of never signing a reliever, which may be why Bill Dewitt keeps approving bad reliever deals now. A former top prospect for the Mets, Isringhausen had reinvented himself as a reliever for the Oakland Athletics. He was reliable the first year, but became an elite reliever in his second season with them. He entered free agency, and the Cardinals inked him to a 4 year, $27 million deal. By 2004, he had a career year in 2002 (2.5 fWAR) and an injury-affected, but still good 2003 (0.9 fWAR). He didn’t match his 2002, but the 31-year-old came close, with 75 innings of 2.87 ball and 1.7 fWAR.
So Izzy is a benefit of the Cardinals putting resources in their bullpen, and not really a benefit of how bullpens being unpredictable can work out. The second place leader in innings was absolutely a product of bullpens being unpredictable however. Cal Eldred was once a 17th overall pick for the Milwaukee Brewers, and after a few seasons of living up to the billing, became an unreliable, injury-prone starter for most of the rest of his career. I’m guessing the 36 starts and 258 IP in 1993 might have something to do with that.
Before the 2003 season, Eldred found himself coming off a missing 2002 and just 6 innings pitched in 2001 due to injury. So the best deal he could get was a minor league deal with the Cardinals. He follows two tried and true methods to having a good bullpen, which is converting a starter who can’t remain a starter (whether due to injury or performance) into the bullpen and throwing minor league deals at older pitchers and hoping one sticks. Eldred was a 35-year-old pitcher whose career was virtually done when signed, but he pitched well enough in spring training to earn a spot in the bullpen, and he ended up being one of the few bright spots of an atrocious 2003 bullpen. He essentially repeated his 2003 in 2004, but within the context of the 2004 bullpen, he was a weaker part of it and thus essentially the long reliever of the group.
The second best reliever and a truly terrifying individual was Julian Tavarez. Tavarez had a bit of a weird career. He made the majors at 20, had very few chances to impress the Indians, and didn’t, and ended up in the bullpen full-time by 22. He stayed there until the Rockies claimed him off waivers in 2000. The Rockies, desperate for starters, eventually gave him 12 starts, and in free agency the next year, the Cubs signed him to a 2 year deal to start. He pitched good in his first year, but the Cubs traded him and he was well below average in his second year with the Marlins. He was forced to sign a one-year deal with the Pirates, where he was better in the bullpen than he’d been since 1995.
Tavarez signed before the 2004 season for 2 years, $4.2 million as a 31-year-old. Here’s what LaRussa did to maximize Tavarez. In the 2003 season, Tavarez pitched in 64 games and threw in 83.2 IP. In 2004, he pitched in 77 games and threw only 64.2 IP. I suspect, though I can only speculate, that Tavarez was used better. Tavarez was not a good pitcher against lefties, but was quite good against righties. Although my theory cannot be tested - he actually faced lefties a higher percentage of the time in 2004 than 2003, although that doesn’t take into account leverage.
Speaking of lefties, Ray King represents something that will no longer exist and to be fair, has stopped existing before the new rule: the LOOGY. King was an effective LOOGY before he came to the Cards: he was at least a 0.5 fWAR pitcher for four seasons prior to 2004. He was included in the JD Drew trade, and the backdrop to the 2003 bullpen disaster is helpful in understanding his inclusion. There were warning signs as he had a career high BB rate and a K rate that declined for the third straight season. He defied the odds for one more season in 2004, benefiting heavily from a 2% HR/FB. He never had lower than a 10% HR/FB for the rest of his career, which explains why he quickly wasn’t good. In 2004 at least, he had a 2.61 ERA and 0.8 fWAR.
The other LOOGY was Steve Kline, who was unusually reliable for a career reliever. After a 1.1 fWAR season in 2000, he was traded with Dustin Hermanson for Fernando Tatis and Britt Reames. The trade worked, because Tatis was horrendous with the Expos, but Kline’s last season before free agency, in 2003, was his first poor season in a while. At 31, he signed a 1 year deal for $1.7 million. He ended up having an entirely misleading 1.79 ERA, which came with a 3.68 FIP.
Kiki Calero only pitched 45.1 IP, and should have pitched more, but spent time in AAA too. His career starts in 1996 when he was drafted in the 27th round by the Kansas City Royals. He made it to AA as a starter by 1997, but didn’t actually make the AAA team until he was 27-years-old in 2002. In the offseason, the Cardinals signed Calero to a minor league deal and he made the bullpen as a non-roster invitee. He was the rare bright spot in the bullpen, but only pitched 38.1 IP due to injuries. In 2004, he was pretty close to a modern day reliever with a 28% K rate and a 5.9 BB%. For the season, he had 0.7 fWAR. And then, well, he was traded in the Mark Mulder trade and had a few more good seasons.
The last guy to throw 20+ innings was Dan Haren, who actually wasn’t particularly good there. He started the 6th most games on the team with just 5 starts, and when he was in the bullpen, he functioned as a long reliever, pitching in 9 games for his 20.2 bullpen innings. He did have a 2.61 ERA, but it came with a 5.66 K/9, 3.48 BB/9, a 3.58 FIP, and a 4.40 xFIP. There wasn’t much indication of what he’d become while he was a Cardinal.
To be clear, not everyone in the bullpen pitched good or had good results even if they didn’t pitch great. Jason Simontacchi, who didn’t have a good year in 2003 but it was better than a lot of other members of the 2003 bullpen, completely collapsed in 2004. He pitched in 15.1 IP, which seems like an impossibly high number for someone with 3 strikeouts and 7 walks and 9 earned runs. LaRussa certainly had his blind spots. Mike Lincoln had a 5.19 ERA, but a 3.40 FIP in 17.1 IP. And Carmen Cali pitched 7.1 IP of 8.59 ERA ball. But that’s the list of bad pitchers in the bullpen. And Lincoln can hardly be described as bad, just a bit unlucky.
Randy Flores made his start in 2004 and he wasn’t particularly good in his 11 innings, although he only allowed two earned runs. Rick Ankiel pitched his last major league innings and was actually quite good, with 9 strikeouts to 1 walk in 10 IP. He did still allow two homers and hit two guys, so his ERA ended up being 5.40 and his FIP 4.75. His xFIP was 3.29 and his SIERA was 2.69, so for his last few innings he still kind of had it as late as 2004. 35-year-old Al Reyes, who made his presence more known in 2005, had a ridiculous 12 IP pitched in 2004, with 0.4 fWAR and a 0.75 ERA.
It goes without saying that there’s no way the Cardinals win 105 games without this good of a bullpen. It was marked by one great pitcher (Izzy), a lot of good pitchers, and very few things actually going wrong. In 2004, the Cardinals had the best bullpen ERA in the majors with a 3.01 ERA, and they had the 5th best bullpen fWAR. As a result, even though they had the 18th best rotation by fWAR, they had the 10th best pitching in the majors by fWAR and tied for the best ERA in the majors with the Braves with a 3.75 ERA. Cardinals deserved it after 2003 though. If only the bullpen can be this good and reliable every year.