Playoffs come at you fast. One week, it is the bullpens doing all the hard work and heavy lifting in the playoffs. The next week, they are blowing games, not to be trusted, and all that previous heavy lifting is too blame. That last part might sound vaguely familiar in St. Louis.
It would have been appropriate to call last week at VEB, bullpen week. On Wednesday, Ben Godar made the case that the Cardinals need to adopt a quantity-based strategy for the bullpen over quality. He cited an article over at FanGraphs on the Dodgers bullpen (full disclosure: I wrote that article). Ben notes that due to chaining, depth is more important as injuries move players one rung up the depth chart:
Whereas when a team loses a starting position player, the value at that position essentially drops from wherever that starter was down to replacement level, when a bullpen pitcher is removed - even if it's the top one, likely the closer, all the other pitchers move up a slot and the team actually has to replace the lowest link in the chain.
Having as many relievers as possible to plug in helps to mitigate losses which are bound to occur to bullpen arms. On Thursday, John Fleming wondered how badly the Cardinals actually need a closer with Seung Hwan Oh gone to free agency and Trevor Rosenthal out due to surgery. John noted that many successful teams changed closers in-season and it is something the Cardinals have done in the past as well. Having an ace closer might be nice, but it isn’t a necessity.
Then on Friday, Ben Markham did a deep dive into reliever volatility, confirming Godar’s strategy of acquiring a bunch of arms as many good relievers come out of the woodwork every single year and the bust rate on all relievers is relatively high. On Sunday, the red baron followed up these articles with some specific arms the Cardinals might target, including Derek Holland, lay Buchholz, and Ian Krol.
You see the pattern, right. Almost everybody is saying avoid the big-money pitcher, throw a bunch arms out there and hope for the best. That’s what the Dodgers did and they just traded midseason when they needed to. The Astros made their trade for Ken Giles a few years back, but he hasn’t even been that good this postseason with Chris Devenski and starters like Lance McCullers, Jr. and Brad Peacock getting the most important outs.
We are now starting to see the backlash for this “bullpenning” or whatever you want to call it. The Astros made it to the World Series and are now a win away not because of any unique bullpen strategy, but because Justin Verlander has been fantastic and the schedule has allowed them to use starters, like Verlander as well as McCullers and Peacock. Even that is really only half the equation as Houston has a great offense that is going strong. Their relievers, generally, have been less than great.
Over in Los Angeles, Kenley Jansen has been on the mound in two losses. A lack of trust in other relievers led to Brandon Morrow throwing three straight nights, and the bullpen has been pushed whether trailing big or holding onto a big lead due to starters getting pulled earlier. So that bullpen stuff doesn’t seem to be working? Not quite.
Here’s Dave Cameron on what you need to do if you are going to go to a bullpen-heavy strategy.
The data supporting earlier hooks for starters isn’t supposed to encourage managers to pull them for just the same two or three guys regardless of score or situation. The theory of heavy reliever usage in October is based on data showing that tiring starters aren’t any more effective than even most team’s sixth- or seventh-inning guy, and that it’s unnecessary to ride a starter the third time through the order when a multitude of fresh arms could perform just as well. The problem Roberts is running into is that he’s not using his multitude of arms.
and near the end:
Quick hooks for starting pitchers in the postseason probably aren’t going away, despite how much protestation comes from one-half of the Fox announcer team. But the only way quicker hooks for starting pitchers can work is if a manager deploys five, six, or seven arms regularly, and doesn’t just lean on a chosen few to handle all the innings previously thrown by those starters.
So what does this have to do with the Cardinals and Mike Matheny. Up until now, the Cardinals have gotten the worst of both worlds from their manager. We know Mike Matheny pulls his starters too late based on Tyler’s Kinzy’s analysis, and John Mozeliak’s own comments acknowledging the need to find a pitching coach versed in the third time through the order penalty.
We also know that Mike Matheny overworks certain relievers, whether it is Matt Bowman, Brett Cecil, Seung-Hwan Oh, Trevor Rosenthal, or Seth Maness, the reliever that Matheny trusts at the time tends to get a ton of work while others get rusty. This is all flies in the face of Matheny’s apparent need for an eighth reliever who never gets used.
Both the Astros and Dodgers have good managers in Dave Roberts and AJ Hinch. Even they are prone to some of the same mistakes that Mike Matheny regularly makes in the regular season. The main problem for the Cardinals is that Roberts and Hinch didn’t start to manage inefficiently until their backs were truly up against the wall leaving few good choices. Matheny does it from Day 1.
The Cardinals have hired Mike Maddux to fix some of Matheny’s tendencies to panic and go with his gut when it comes to pitching decisions. A more data driven approach has been criticized heavily by John Smoltz in the World Series, but that approach has been successful for the best teams in baseball, and it has actually been managers going away from that approach that has caused problems in the World Series.
Mike Maddux has drawn rave reviews for his work in the past. He starts a new challenge with Mike Matheny and the Cardinals. He’s worked well with many managers over the years and gotten very good results. The Cardinals have generally done and good job identifying their problems and attempted to find solutions to those problems. Mike Matheny’s bullpen management has been a problem. Hopefully, Mike Maddux is the solution.