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Mathenaging: St. Louis Cardinals bullpen usage and reliever salaries

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Chicago sportswriter Jerome Holtzman invented the save over 50 years ago. Writing at Chicago Magazine, Whet Moser quoted a Chicago Sun-Times article in which Holtzman described the creation of the stat:

I think it came about in 1960. Elroy Face was 18-1 with Pittsburgh in 1959. I was traveling with the Cubs. The Cubs had two relief pitchers; right hander Don Elston and left hander Bill Henry. They were constantly protecting leads and no one even knew about it. The year Elroy Face was 18-1 he blew ten leads. Did you know that? But they had such a good hitting team they came back in the last inning and won the game for him. Elston and Henry were terrific. I thought it was not fair and that there should be some kind of index for the effectiveness of a relief pitcher. You couldn’t judge him by his victories. You couldn’t judge him by his earned run average because it should be lower than everybody else’s. A lot of the runs he gives up are charged to the preceding pitcher. So I came up with the save rule and obviously it’s caught on.

It's amazing that the save was born in part because the pitching "win" is so unrepresentative of an individual pitcher's performance, but I digress.

From Baseball-Reference, here is a refresher on the boxes that must be checked in order for a save to take place. The pitcher must have finished a game his club won; he was not the "winning" pitcher; and one of the following conditions is met:

  • He enters the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitches for at least one inning;
  • He enters the game, regardless of the score, with the potential tying run either on base, at bat, or on deck; or
  • He pitches for at least three innings.

To his credit, St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny recognizes the arbitrary nature of the save. While discussing reliever usage and its relation to the save with St. Louis Post-Dispatch beat writer Derrick Goold, Matheny pondered: "Why a three-run lead?" he asked, rhetorically, "and not a two-run lead?" Sure, he could have asked something like, "Why have a stat based on such parameters at all? Why not use Leverage Index?" However, I still feel confident that Matheny grasps that the save as a measure of performance is flawed.

Perhaps because of the save's glaring imperfection, the stat's novelty, or the gradual evolution in reliever usage, Holtzman's creation took a little while to gain hold. But once it did so, the stat became entrenched in the game. It now has an impact on player mindsets and, more importantly, paychecks. Clubs pay more for proven closers as a general rule than setup men, whether it be on the free-agent market or during the salary-arbitration process. Just look at Steve Cishek's 2015 salary compared to Jordan Walden's as an immediate St. Louis-centric example. One was an incumbent closer; the other a setup man with some closing experience in his past but not in the season prior. And this reality informs how Matheny uses his relievers.

Goold asked Matheny a good question: Why have the save define reliever usage if the team might be better off using its best reliever against the heart of the opposing lineup in the seventh or eighth inning? From the article:

"You want to be respectful, too, to what these guys are trying to do individually," Matheny said. "For us as a team to move forward certain things need to happen and a lot of times it’s trying to create an atmosphere where each of these guys are able to achieve everything, and there are contracts involved. There are personal statistics that help drive personal achievement as far as salaries go. For us to be completely oblivious to that, I think is a mistake as well.

"Then you start having some friction," Matheny continued. "There are outside influences that are constantly pushing these guys toward the statistics that are going to get them paid someday, right?"

Rather than fight a bullpen culture war, Matheny adheres to it. In this way, he is not unlike former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. At Grantland, Ben Lindbergh wrote a very good article, "Sabermetrics Gets Soft." Like the Goold piece linked above, you should read it. For the article, Lindberg interviewed Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow recounted a discussion with La Russa regarding bullpen usage.

Luhnow recounted a meeting early in his Cardinals career when he and sabermetrician Mitchel Lichtman (who was then consulting for St. Louis) tried to explain the relationship between leverage and reliever usage to Tony La Russa, who responded with a litany of objections (relievers are conditioned to pitch at predetermined times; closers know the market pays for saves) that Luhnow and Lichtman weren’t prepared to address.

Given Matheny's adherence to reliever roles, it is not hard to imagine him raising that as an objection to a non-save-focused bullpen strategy as well. In fact, I imagine most coaches and managers would make that point—and a lot of players, too. And I suspect there is something to that. So why not redefine roles to men-on-base fireman (a la Seth Maness) or defining roles based on the part of the opponent's lineup that is due up? It's an interesting question to ponder.

I want to get back to Matheny's justification that getting players higher salaries is a driving factor behind his reliever usage patterns. Saves get a player paid. I don't think anyone disputes this. This got me to thinking about Matheny's closers during his time as manager and their saves totals. As Matheny told Goold about a year ago while the reporter was putting together an article on the manager's usage of Trevor Rosenthal:

Closers are closers. And they go out and close the game, and if something comes up they push through and still do it.

There have been a lot of saves for St. Louis closers, because the club has been good and it is rare for Matheny not to use his closer in a save situation. Here are the save totals for Cardinals relievers from 2012 (Matheny's rookie year as a manager) and this season along with where they ranked in MLB:

  • 2012: Jason Motte, 42 (3rd T)
  • 2013: Edward Mujica, 37 (11th T)
  • 2014: Trevor Rosenthal, 45 (4th)
  • 2015: Rosenthal, 32 (2nd)

Motte and Mujica put up some shiny save totals as Cardinals. Did that help them get paid? Undeniably. Mujica signed a two-year contract with the Red Sox after the 2013 worth $9.5 million. Motte inked a one-year deal with the Cubs for a $4.5 million salary. They were able to command that many millions of dollars in part due to their closing experience. But they were not able to get bigger contracts because of health concerns. Motte tore his UCL in the spring of 2013 and needed Tommy John surgery, which opened the door for Mujica to ascend to the closer job that season. Then Mujica suffered a bout of dead arm that left him largely sidelined down the 2013 home stretch and in October. With clean bills of health, both relievers likely would have commanded higher salaries.

Which brings us back to Matheny's ostensible goal of helping players earn higher salaries to achieve personal goals. Shouldn't his relievers' health factor into the manager's decisions on when to use them? We've beaten to death how often Matheny has used Rosenthal as well as late-innings options Maness and Kevin Siegrist this year. The manager is putting a lot of high-stress innings on their arms. Rosenthal and his fellow relievers are going to have a hard time achieving their salary goals if they suffer an injury to their money-makers. If Matheny adheres to the save in order to help his players earn more money, why is he seemingly paying far less attention to the stress he is putting on their arms?

At least general manager John Mozeliak seems to have put reliever health as a priority—trading for Cishek and Jonathan Broxton to help lessen the workloads shouldered by the club's late-and-close relievers.