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Randy Choate and LOOGY collateral damage - Mathenaging

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Randy Choate would like Mike Matheny to take the ball from him mid-inning more often in 2015.
Randy Choate would like Mike Matheny to take the ball from him mid-inning more often in 2015.
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Under general manager John Mozeliak, the St. Louis Cardinals have taken an interesting approach to bullpen construction. The Cards have populated their bullpens largely with cheap, cost-controlled arms. As I broke down when the Andrew Miller rumors sprang up early in the Hot Stove, the Cards haven't often signed free agents and, when they have, the deals have typically been short and for not much money.

Given the high volatility in reliever performance, this has proven wise.  When it comes to cobbling together a relief corps, it's best to have lots of options, easily tried. It's easier to make changes in the bullpen when you can demote players to Triple-A or release them and eat what remains of a single season's worth of salary. Or at least that seems to be Mozeliak's thinking.

Here are the three longest reliever contracts to which Mozeliak has agreed as GM:

  • Dennys Reyes (free agent): 2 years, $3 million
  • Trever Miller (free agent): 2 years, $4 million (club option for third year)
  • Ryan Franklin (extension): 2 years, $6.5 million (club option for third year)
  • Jason Motte (extension): 2 years, $12 million
  • Randy Choate: 3 years, $7.5 million

As you can see, there has been one type of reliever that the Cardinals have had trouble developing internally and signing to a one-year deal: the lefty specialist. Most recently, the Cardinals signed Randy Choate, who was entering his age-37 season at the time, to a three-year deal. At the time the Cardinals and Choate agreed to the three-year pact, MLB.com's Jenifer Langosch reported that they had targeted a specific skill set and believed Choate best fit what they wanted:

The Cards were eyeing a specific sort of lefty, too, one who could fill a lefty-on-lefty specialist role.

Choate fit that bill better than any other available southpaw reliever, including Sean Burnett, who doesn't profile so much as a lefty specialist. Though the Cardinals did meet with agents representing other lefty relievers, Choate was the team's target from the start.

Choate was the Cardinals' man, so Mozeliak signed him to the longest reliever contract he has agreed to during his time as GM.

The sabermetric term Lefty One Out Guy (LOOGY) is one of those turns of phrase that is technically a misnomer but nonetheless truthful. The OOGY subset of reliever has a highly specialized skill that often comes with an acute vulnerability. While the OOGY is very good at retiring same-handed batsmen, opposite-handed hitters can do real damage against him.

Manager Mike Matheny seemed to deploy Choate in 2013 with his specialized skills and weaknesses in mind. Even though Choate fared well when facing righthanded batters in 2013, Matheny was careful to limit his exposure to them. Choate made 64 appearances, totaling just 35 1/3 innings. Of the 141 plate appearances against Choate during his first year wearing the birds on the bat, 99 batted lefthanded. That 70.2% share was quite a bit higher than Choate's career percentage of 57.7%. Matheny had skillfully used Choate in a way that maximized his skills and minimized his weaknesses. Not surprisingly, Choate posted a 2.29 ERA and 2.57 FIP.

Something seems to have changed since that pennant-winning season.

We first learned of it in spring training a year ago, when Matheny was discussing whether having two OOGYs in the same bullpen would work. At the time, the conventional wisdom was that Pat Neshek was essentially a righthanded version of Choate. Both were same-handed specialists who needed to be handled with care. Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported the following from Jupiter during spring training:

"If we’re looking at the possibility of having (Neshek) on our club, you’d be very hand-tied if you had a lefty like Choate who can only face lefties and a righty who can only face righties," Matheny said. "It doesn’t work. You’d end up killing the rest of the bullpen. You’d end up using three guys in one inning."

This quote naturally made me wonder how many times former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa used three relievers in an inning, but I digress.

Matheny sang a similar tune in April, when asked about Choate's usage during the season's opening month. Goold reported at the time:

Choate, who has built a career on retiring lefties and pitching often in short-burst appearances, had two unusual assignments in one evening Thursday at Cincinnati. He faced all righties and had his position in the order not come up the next inning, Choate would have thrown multiple innings. Manager Mike Matheny explained that Choate cannot be just a lefty specialist for them right now.

"I think he was that kind of guy before he got here," Matheny said. "That’s not how we’re using him. We can’t afford to. When he’s continuing to make good pitches to righthanded batters when we need him to, it’s not using him wisely. If things change, we change. Right now, if we hold on to him to run through a righty or two to get to a big part of their lefthanded lineup, we know that he’ll be careful."

Matheny's usage of Choate changed from 2013 to 2014. In Choate's 36 innings pitched, the share of lefthanded hitters he faced fell from 70.2% to 59.5%, a percentage much closer to his career share of 57.7%. Perhaps relatedly, Choate's ERA shot up to 4.50 and his FIP rose to 3.58. (It should be noted that 6 of the 18 runs Choate allowed in 2014 came on May 12 against the Cubs, when Matheny called on him to handle the ninth inning of a game the Cards were losing 11-5 and left him in to face three lefthanded hitters out of nine total as Chicago batted around before Daniel Descalso came in to relieve the LOOGY.)

Then, after the Cardinals lost to the Giants in the NLCS, Mozeliak and Matheny held a joint press conference. During it, as reported by Goold, Mozeliak indicated the Cardinals would seek to go in a different direction on the port side of the pen during the 2014-15 Hot Stove:

The Cardinals will rethink the makeup of the bullpen when it comes to lefthanded relief. They will look to move Randy Choate this offseason. Mozeliak said that Choate's role is very "specialized" and that it was difficult as a result to get him the work that he desired during the regular season. The Cardinals would look for a lefty reliever who could do some of what Kevin Siegrist did at full strength or Marco Gonzales did in the postseason.

"I think we both feel that if we can upgrade there or have an additional arm to choose from, that makes sense," Mozeliak said. "We’re certainly not ruling out Siegrist. I think in Choate’s case, for us, he’s fairly one-dimensional. That makes it difficult for us to use him, particularly during a long season."

Two offseasons after the Cardinals specifically targeted Choate because of his narrow specialty, the club appeared ready to cut ties with him because his narrow set of skills makes him hard to use. But the Cardinals were unable to deal Choate or add another lefty to the bullpen mix, so the sidewinding southpaw is in Jupiter, readying for another season as a Cardinals reliever. At the stltoday.com, Goold reported on what might be some friction between the 39-year-old LOOGY and his manager regarding his less specialized usage in 2014:

Matheny, understanding, said, "He's a guy who wants to throw 162 games and I have a great respect for that. I'd love to be able to have that kind of roster. You saw that in September, when we had more (pitching) arms, we were able to use Randy a little more like Randy needs to be used."

The club can use just 25 players for the first five months of the season and Matheny said he essentially had told Choate last year, "You can't completely cater to one guy if it's going to beat up two other guys where they can't do their job. How does that work? He got that, but still the frustration remained."

This makes me wonder which relievers got beat up or killed (to use Matheny's strong word choices from springtime a year ago and last week) by the highly specialized usage of Choate in 2013. As Joe noted with the NLDS against the Dodgers looming, Choate can be a valuable weapon if used correctly. The problem with using Choate correctly, as Matheny tells it, is that it increases the stress on other relievers. This makes the LOOGY hard to use indeed.