The playoffs are a crapshoot. There is no magic formula to ensuring a team's success once it reaches October. Once the playoff field has been narrowed down to eight teams, the teams are all so good and so close in talent that no result is a true surprise. Good pitchers have bad games. Great hitters can't seem to get a ball to drop. The reliable reliever has a bad game. These events happen, and they can shape a series, causing some teams to advance, or in the case of the Cardinals, to head home before the ultimate goal could be achieved. A manager cannot ensure a World Series victory nor can his presence guarantee a defeat, but that does not excuse a manager for his role in defeat nor does it prevent praise in the case of victory.
For several years, Mike Matheny has been learning on the job, making decisions he has never been faced with before in filling out the lineup card and making important choices during games. At the time he was hired, young mangers without any managing experience were en vogue. Brad Ausmus and Matt Williams were hired after Matheny. Don Mattingly succeeded Joe Torre. Walt Weiss and Robin Ventura were selected to manage the Rockies. For the most part, these managerial hires have not been successful. We have witnessed A.J. Hinch become successful in his second shot as manager--succeeding with the Houston Astros after struggling with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Managing is a tough profession, and it can be particularly tough without experience.
Matheny has gotten better with some decisions: bunting has gone way down for the Cardinals over the last few years, he managed his closer much better this season than he has in the past, and he has maintained the respect of the clubhouse without allowing his message to grow stale. There are aspects of his game where he has failed to get better, and it is important to recognize those weaknesses, even if they are created by strengths, and work to improve to get better as a manager. Players put up incredible numbers and still work hard to get better no matter how good their numbers were in the previous season. Wins do not give a manager a pass nor are they necessarily a reflection of the job performed when the players exercise the most control over wins and losses.
The easy route at this point would be to recite a litany of errors and complaints that have continued to frustrate fans. This season's playoffs came with puzzling pitching moves in Games 2-4 after making positive choices in the first game when John Lackey pitched well for seven strong innings and got the first batter of the eighth inning. Facing more adversity the rest of the series, Matheny could not seem to find the right move to put the Cardinals in a position to win. Citing individual errors can be constructive in uncovering problems, but without evidence of continual poor choices or a solution that provides consistent strategy moving forward, the benefit is limited. With that in mind, I have come up with some prospective suggestions that, in this author's humble opinion, would help improve the quality of the managing for the St. Louis Cardinals as they turn the page on this season and look forward to the 2016 season.
Use the Entire Bullpen
The Cardinals moved into this season with Trevor Rosenthal as the closer, Jordan Walden as the setup man and Seth Maness as the presumptive seventh-inning reliever. Walden was injured early on, but fortunately Kevin Siegrist stepped in and filled the setup role. Unfortunately, no other relievers were trusted, leading to Siegrist to be overworked after a lost, injury-filled 2014 season. Matt Belisle might have developed into an option if injuries had not taken his season. Along with LOOGY Randy Choate, Rosenthal, Siegrist, and Maness all received more than 60 appearances. No other pitcher had more than 35, and aside from trying to mix in trade acquisitions Johnathan Broxton and Steve Cishek no other relievers were trusted in important situations.
The Cardinals were second in all of MLB with 142 relief appearances on zero days rest, per Baseball-Reference. They have been near the top of the league in no-rest appearances every year Matheny has managed the Cardinals after being average or below during the last six seasons of Tony La Russa's tenure. This is even more troublesome for 2015 given that the Cardinals appearances were concentrated in so few pitchers. The Cardinals had four pitchers in the Top-25 of MLB on pitching with no rest. Only one team had three such players (Pittsburgh), and only the Angels, Giants, and Cubs had two. Even leaving aside Randy Choate, the Cardinals had three pitchers who were coming in without rest on roughly one-third of their appearances. The number of close games put Matheny in a bind in relation to his closer, Trevor Rosenthal, who made nearly all of his appearances in either tie games or games with a save situation. There is less excuse when it comes to Maness, and particularly Siegrist.
Much was made of Kevin Siegrist's potential reverse split in the playoffs when he was brought in to face Anthony Rizzo in Game 4 and then left in to face Kyle Schwarber. The results were poor, but facing a left-hander might not have been the real problem. When Siegrist had at least one day of rest last season, he struck out 31% of batters, but when pitching on no rest, Siegrist struck out just 21% of batters.
While it might run counter to comfort, it might be best to limit the top three relievers to the eighth and ninth inning rather providing set roles for the seventh and eighth. Going with his gut before every game leads to overwork. Proper planning can prevent the overuse seen this past season.
Aside: I realize it is theoretically best to simply insert the best relievers into the game whenever the most important moment hits. While this very well might be the best, in current practice, this method is not feasible. As the closer/best reliever is locked in the ninth, to try to take a team's second best reliever and put him in every high-leverage situation prior to the ninth ends up with a worn out Kevin Siegrist. As a result, I have proposed this method in order to prevent overworking members of the bullpen.
Both Maness and Siegrist got a lot of work in both the seventh and eighth inning last season. Leaving aside whether those two are the second and third-best relievers on the team, if we assume they are, letting them alternate important eighth innings should keep both fresh for the duration of the season. The rest of the relievers, there should be four, should be given multiple opportunities before the eighth inning, be it the sixth or seventh whenever the starter is finished. These pitchers might be less experienced or lower on the chain, but they need to be given the opportunity to get important outs on a regular basis to get experience and gain the manager's trust. The difference in winning a game over the course of the season is likely very small and could be positive if relievers receive more appearances fully rested.
Pinch Hit for the Pitcher if He Might Come Out Next Inning
This is one we saw in the playoffs. Michael Wacha hit after struggling through four innings in Game 3 of the NLDS. He came to bat in the top the fifth, made the out, and then struggled even more in the bottom of the inning as the game was blown wide open. Anecdotally, this a problem for Matheny. Watching the Cardinals, it feels as though the pitcher often comes to bat fairly late in the game, only to pitch to just a few more batters. (If some enterprising person wanted to go through this season's starts and determine how often a pitcher hit in the half inning before being removed from the game, that would provide more evidence.).
Looking at the number of high-leverage plate appearances taken by pitchers, we can see just how often Matheny let the pitcher hit in important situations. High leverage plate appearances are generally those plate appearances that have the biggest potential to swing a game either to winning or losing. In 2015, high-leverage plate appearances accounted for roughly 10% of all plate appearances, per FanGraphs. The Cardinals led all teams in high-leverage plate appearances by pitchers with 31 plate appearances, per Fangraphs. This might seem like a small amount, but consider that once every five games, the Cardinals went with an automatic out in a key situation.
Letting the pitcher take important at bats is not a new phenomenon for Matheny. We could chalk this season up to very close games and a fantastic starting rotation if this was the only year the Cardinals ranked near the top of MLB. The Cardinals have been first or second in three out of Matheny's four seasons as manager, and they have generally had poor hitting pitchers in that time. Since Matheny took the helm, no team has more high-leverage plate appearances or at bats from their pitchers than the Cardinals. This is unfortunately a carryover from Tony La Russa's days as he was often near the lead as well. Playing the run-prevention game is fine, but when a team is starved for offense and pitchers get later in games when their effectiveness wanes, there is little reason to let pitchers hit.
In addition to stifling the offense, letting the pitcher hit and come out to pitch the next inning has the added negative of likely letting the pitcher pitch to hitters a third time through the order. Pitchers tend to pitch worse the third time through the order, often aptly named the third time through the order penalty. The Cardinals, despite having excellent pitchers are not immune to this rule. When Cardinals starters faced hitters for the first and second time, their 22% strikeout rate and 6.9% walk rate were both solid numbers, per Baseball-Reference. When starters faced hitters the third time through the lineup, often against a team's best hitters as they tend to hit near the top of the lineup, the numbers go down. The Cardinals strikeout rate against a lineup a third time goes down to 19.7% and the walk rate creeps up to 7.4% while relievers have a strikeout rate of 22.8% the first time they face a batter.
Hitters got 1102 plate appearances against Cardinals starters the third time through the order while the league average is 75 batters fewer. Among all managers, only Robin Ventura was more passive than Matheny when it came to letting his pitchers pitch at a disadvantage. Matheny has gained the trust of his team, the pitchers especially, by letting them pitch as deeply as possible into games and allowing them to keep pitching or hitting to try and get a virtually meaningless pitcher win when the team win should trump a pitcher win.
As a result, my suggestion is minor: if the pitcher might get pulled the next inning if he runs into minor trouble, do not let the pitcher hit. Use a pinch hitter. This will provide a dual benefit of helping the offense as well as preventing runs as the bullpen is more likely to get the hitter.
While it is possible to view these two suggestions as counteracting each other as going to the bullpen earlier could possibly result in overworking the same, if the full bullpen is actually used, including a Memphis shuttle if need be, innings can be easily spread among relievers to prevent overworking.
As this post has become a bit lengthy, it will stop here. Part II will cover providing rest to regulars and utilizing shifts and timeshares.