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Making the Most out of the Bullpen

Bullpens are volatile. Can we tame this beast?

St. Louis Cardinals v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images


It’s a different year. It’s the same story.

The bullpen is always trouble. Injury. Ineffectiveness. Overuse. Roster crunches. Roster rules. The label we put on the trouble changes from week to week, game to game, but the core of the problem remains.

Bullpens are volatile.

Players who were good one year suck the next. And sometimes vice versa.

And because relievers pitch later in the game, when they struggle it seems to lead directly to losses. So we “feel” the bullpen troubles more than we do in other spots.

The annual tradition of bullpen volatility (and subsequent pain) remains true this season.

Sure, it has it’s bright spots. Helsley. Gallegos is very good again. Cabrera has been great… but getting no credit. (His fWAR – a terrible measure for relief pitchers – is somehow below McFarlands.)

But then there’s Drew VerHagen, who should be good but just isn’t. And the aforementioned TJ McFarland who is not in any way better than Genesis Cabrera.

Those extremes surround mediocrity and churn. That was especially true early in the season.

It’s changed lately as the Cardinals have made some aggressive promotions from the minor leagues to reinforce the bullpen at the expense of underperforming and injured/ill veterans. Thompson has impressed. Oviedo seems like he could be an asset in long relief. Over the last few days, Junior Fernandez looks like a legitimate contributor.

Still, questions and concerns remain and I daily hear calls from fans for Mozeliak to “make a move” to reinforce the bullpen.

Is that necessary, though?

Today’s piece is what I’m going to call a “thought experiment”. I want to take a look at the Cardinals’ revised bullpen and just see where things are at. More specifically, I want to see if I can come up with a bullpen alignment that would maximize the talent they have while putting the whole pen into roles where everyone can find success.

It’s a “thought experiment” because it represents an organized ideal. A model on a graph can’t account for – here’s that word again – the volatility in pitching performance day-to-day.

But such an ideal can still help a manager respond better to those unexpecteds and to get back on target.

Here’s the logic that I’m going to use to create my bullpen plan in 3 simple points:

1. Longer outings are better outings. At this point in the season, most of the arms in the Cardinals bullpen are/were minor league starters who are equipped to go longer than 1 inning. There’s a misconception that the 90s-style “parade of relievers” somehow lessens bullpen volatility because you can just pull someone “at the first sign of trouble.” That presumes the next guy up will be better. Longer outings allow relievers to settle in and for the coaches and catcher to get a better look at what a pitcher “has” that day. Assuming some equal level of talent, one pitcher going 2 innings is no more likely to give up runs than 3 pitchers going 2 innings. Except in that second scenario you’ve burned 1/3rd of your bullpen for the day and maybe tomorrow, too.

By longer outings I don’t mean 4-5 innings. I mean 1-3 innings. But doing so very regularly. It’s also worth noting that the Cards are already doing this and created the bullpen to function this way. Kudos to them!

2. Runners on and even runs in does not mean a pitcher has “lost it”. Fans raised and trained in the “LaRussa era” have a well-entrenched mindset that when a reliever has allowed some runners on they have to come out immediately because that’s a sign the pitcher is “losing” their stuff. That might be true. But it’s not always true. If you commit to longer outings from relievers, then you also have to commit to being ok with letting relievers pitch through trouble. Within reason and limits, of course. We see starters and relievers – the good ones and the bad ones – get themselves into and out of trouble all the time. Hitting is very hard. Assuming there’s not an injury or mechanical issue, the odds are always in the pitcher’s favor. So, let the pitchers pitch while keeping a closer eye on the analytics than the runners. When velocity, spin, or command/control get out of whack, remove them. If it’s right on target, trust them.

3. Use your best relievers more than your worst relievers. This, to me, is just pure common sense but it’s also the biggest problem with the “parade of relievers” approach to roster usage. The 90s-style bullpen organized bullpens top down. The best arms were thrust into short outing (rarely above 1 IP and frequently less than that), high leverage roles in close games or winning games. This type of organization requires starters to go deep into games, which they just don’t do anymore (for good reason, but that’s another article). That type of bullpen alignment for 5-6 inning starters leaves too many innings for poor-quality relievers. So, give more innings to your best relievers. Even if that means using them earlier in games. Even if that means you don’t have a designated “closer”.

Again, these are all things Marmol is already doing. He’s smart like that. (Seriously, he’s pretty good but that’s another another article.)

Re-Organizing Reliever Roles

Ok, enough chit-chat. Let’s reorganize this highly volatile set of arms into a usage structure based on game leverage and see how the innings shake out. Then, let’s put that into a week-long schedule to see how it will actually work. This is when a thought experiment gets graphy!

The names above represent something like the “ideal” bullpen setup based on who is likely to be available over the next 2-3 weeks. That means VerHagen is in there and Hicks is back. But don’t worry too much about the names for now. We can easily slide Fernandez in for Hicks or Naughton in for VerHagen and pretty much leave things alone. It’s the roles for those names that I really care about.

High Leverage (RHL & LHL)

The Cardinals have two high leverage righties in Helsley and Gallegos. These are the two arms that should be getting the most innings in the most important situations. A notch behind them is Genesis Cabrera who qualifies as a high leverage reliever as a lefty who can go multiple innings. Honestly? I think Cabrera is the key to the whole bullpen working. The ability to bring him in in the 5th-8th inning to face a tough lefty and then leave him in for 1-3 innings is such a boon.

Middle Leverage (LML)

In this “middle leverage” category I only have one name at the moment – Zach Thompson. Thompson can essentially function in the same role as Cabrera, except he’s not quite as proven. I would like to see the Cardinals find another arm to fit here. Whitely functioned in this role last season and could return to it once he’s recalled. Pallante fit it very well early in the season and could return to it when Matz is back. Fernandez would fit here; he looks like a different pitcher. I really like what I see. For now, though, it’s Thompson alone.

Long Relief Pitcher

Then there are the two long relievers. These arms are there to provide quality long-outing relief appearances when starters can’t get to their expected innings totals. These are often higher leverage innings than we are trained to think as games are rarely decided before the 4th or 5th innings. Runs in the 5th and 6th matter just as much as the ones in the 8th and 9th. Hicks probably needs his outings somewhat scheduled, and that works ok with guys like Hudson, Liberatore, and Pallante in the rotation. I like the idea of pairing him with Liberatore and having essentially one starter out of two. (I didn’t do this below because even in an imaginary context it’s hard to make everything work.) Oviedo can be a bit more flexible. Regardless, the arms should always throw over 1 inning and should frequently throw 2-3 innings. Expect some runners and runs when they do, but it’s no different than what a starter would have provided the third or fourth time through a lineup.


Lastly are the two mop-up arms in Wittgren and VerHagen. Wittgren would be a short reliever here, pitching primarily late in losses. VerHagen is the longer reliever, coming in to clean up a mess.

One-Week of Usage

With everyone in their role, let’s just see how my three points of logic play out with this particular bullpen alignment. I took this arrangement and I put it onto a week-long schedule of 7 games in 7 days. I assumed in those seven days that the Cardinals won 4 and lost 3, alternating win/loss. Yes, I know that’s not how baseball works, but this is just an organizational experiment. Here’s how things shook out:

As I went through this experiment there were a few things I noticed:

1. It’s hard to get Cabrera/Gallegos/Helsley lined up to cover a win. The traditional lefty/setup/closer model for bullpen usage in a win just doesn’t work well with the kind of 1+ inning outings I want to use. It’s just a waste of resources to try to do so. I managed it only once and that was in a short start from Dakota Hudson and that still required Gallegos and Helsley to throw just one inning.

Better is to try to get 3+ innings from two of them. Take Liberatore’s start on day 5. Lib goes five. All Oviedo has to do is get 5 outs. Then it’s straight to Gallegos and Helsley for light outings. That’s fine. You could also push Oviedo to 6 outs and then let Helsley throw the next 6, knowing that Gallegos, Cabrera, and Thompson are resting up for the next two days.

Avoiding the Cabrera/Gallegos/Helsley triumvirate creates two different quality lefty/closer combos if the club is comfortable sliding Thompson into that fourth spot.

2. There’s plenty of space to adjust for volatility from the starters. I had quite a bit of trouble working Oviedo and Hicks into this schedule. I think this is because I have starters on their “average” start. What they actually do won’t be so clean. Hicks can cover more than 2 innings a week, though his outings probably need to be somewhat scheduled behind Liberatore, Pallante, or Hudson. I barely have Wittgren or VerHagen pitching at all. They’re pretty free to cover if a starter falters and it’s relatively safe to use them in those situations.

3. This arrangement steps down in innings based on talent but doesn’t leave anyone overexposed. If you look back at the “Group IP” on the first chart, you’ll see that the innings totals step down by group, with the highest leverage relievers getting the most innings and the mop-up relievers getting the least. The most innings I have is Gallegos at 92. That’s high, but it’s because I used a 7-game sample. Flip Helsley and Gallegos for the next week and their innings even out. 164 IPs combined for Helsley and Gallegos is where I would want them in this scenario, especially since they’re not coming in 1-inning bursts 2-3 days in a row but in longer outings with days off in between outings.

What Did I Learn?

I think I learned that this bullpen already is and can remain pretty good. I like all but two guys out there and those two guys don’t need to pitch in high leverage situations.

I really like the concept of paired late-game relievers. Cabrera + Helsley or Thompson + Gallegos. Interchange as rest and usage demand. But those four in combination should be pretty lethal. (Yes, I have that much confidence in what I’ve seen from Thompson. He can command that curveball in the zone and he’s a bear for hitters.)

I also like the potential for improvement in the pen as both starters and relievers get healthy. Slide Pallante in alongside Thompson and now four becomes five. If what Fernandez has shown holds up, then he is pushing VerHagen or Wittgren off the roster. And there’s Whitely too.

Of course, things won’t work out that cleanly. Why? Bullpens are volatile.

Let me know what you think about this thought experiment in the comments. Adjust and tweak to your liking. It is, after all, an experiment and not a finished product.

Thanks for reading!

And come back on Saturday as I hope to have my first of many interviews with Cardinals system players on the “Saturday Singles” podcast. This week it will be Memphis’ Evan Mendoza to talk art, NFTs, and maybe even some baseball. I think you’ll enjoy it!

Connor Thomas and Alec Burleson are coming up after them, provided we can get schedules to work out. I’m excited about this new content and I hope you will be too.