The Cardinals are Being Sunk by a Bad and Badly Managed Bullpen

The numbers have not been kind to Cardinals relief pitchers—nor have they been kind to manager Mike Matheny.
July 1, 2016, 2:16pm
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Last October, Ben Lindbergh tried answering a complicated question: which major league manager deployed his relievers in the most- and least-optimal ways. Lindbergh used a metric called BMAR―an esoteric standard for measuring "how much better were the relievers he did choose than the relievers he could've chosen at random?" Basically, each skipper's bullpen usage was compared to that of a random number generator's.

In a reassuring victory for baseball's vetting and hiring practices, as well as humankind's ongoing feud with chance, every manager performed better than the random number generator . . . except for one: Mike Matheny of the St. Louis Cardinals, whose seasonal performance checked in at 18 percent worse than optimal. Matheny also finished last in Lindbergh's multi-year look at manager performance, proving that 2015 was not an aberration. There are two possible conclusions to draw from this: 1) BMAR is silly and so is the anecdotal evidence discrediting Matheny's bullpen usage; or 2) Matheny is the worst bullpen handler in baseball―perhaps by a sizeable margin.

So, then, citizens of St. Louis, here's a scary thought: the Cardinals' playoff hopes could hinge on Matheny's ability to tame an unruly bullpen.

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For those who haven't been paying attention to the Cardinals, they've been experiencing what every contender dreads: a closer controversy. Incumbent fireman Trevor Rosenthal, who led baseball in saves over the last two seasons, has been a mess. He's already allowed more runs this year than last year, and he's close to repeating the trick with his walk total. Rosenthal's recent performance offers no hint that better days are coming: he hasn't turned in a 1-2-3 inning since June 11, making him 0-for-his-last-6.

Rosenthal's struggles have been compounded by poor performances up and down the bullpen. The Cardinals recently suffered through a five-game losing streak that featured three late blown leads. Add the fact that the Cardinals lack their customary divisional lead―or even so much as a courtesy Wild Card lead―and something, at some point, was going to have to change. Sure enough, something did change.

Whether out of a sense of loyalty or a sense of Doing What Managers Do, Matheny stuck with Rosenthal as his ninth-inning guy for as long as he could. That turned out to be until after last Friday night's meltdown against the Mariners, in which Rosenthal blew a two-run lead without notching an out. The Cardinals have since demoted Rosenthal from his closer post and committed to a committee. That means Matheny is tasked with picking from Jonathan Broxton, Kevin Siegrist, and Seung-hwan Oh, depending on availability and matchups.

Under normal circumstances, this would be applaudable. Rigidity is seldom a good thing―in baseball as in life. Approaching the late innings of a close game with flexibility and a healthy sense of opportunism is probably the ideal way to go about things. But it's also easier said than done. In addition to having enough cachet to get away with taking an unconventional route through the late innings, a manager has to have the analytical and instinctive components―otherwise all that theory is unlikely to yield results. Putting an unskilled driver on a four-lane road might give them more options, but it doesn't make them a better driver.

The Final Boss. Maybe he should be the only boss. Photo: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports.

Bruce Bochy of the Giants is a good driver who seems to have all the requisite tools. Matheny? Not so much. He's seemingly a genuinely good person with solid emotional intelligence, and there's legitimate real-world and baseball value in those attributes―otherwise the Cardinals probably would've dismissed him to hire Joe Maddon, or Bud Black, or Terry Francona, or whoever you want to slot in here as the managerial ideal. But, at the same time, Matheny also seems like the kind of tactical manager who is at his best when he's doing his least―e.g., not having to traverse multiple lanes.

Besides, Matheny's endgame trio isn't as nice as the ones in New York or Baltimore. Sure, the Cardinals' bullpen ranks fairly well in ERA, but its advanced measures point to it being more of a closer-to-average unit than anything. Take a picky look at the pitchers being discussed and you'll discover the kind of warts that teams hate putting on display in late-and-close situations, particularly with Broxton and Siegrist. Broxton has a worse strikeout-to-walk ratio than Rosenthal, can't seem to get lefties out, and has been notoriously inconsistent the past few seasons; Siegrist, while effective overall, blew two of those leads himself, and has been too prone to the long ball―plus he's doing that weird reverse splits thing again and he really just needs to cut it out.

Comparatively, there's not much to nitpick with Oh. If you're unfamiliar with him―and that's a forgivable sin, given that he's a 33-year-old Korean import―he's having a stellar season: his 263 ERA+ and 4.82 strikeout-to-walk ratio are the best marks on staff, and he's allowed all of one home run and 11 walks in 40 innings. Oh doesn't have the power arsenal you'd suspect from someone with the nickname the "Final Boss" but his low-to-mid-90s fastball plays up due his abrupt arm action and quality command, and he mixes in a highly effective breaking ball (batters have whiffed on more than half their swings). Oh also lacks a damning platoon split or troubling walk and home-run tendencies.

All together, the Cardinals effectively have one very good reliever, another who is pretty good but too susceptible to giving up home runs, and one who shouldn't be viewed as more than an exploitable middle reliever. This does not exactly scream "closer by committee." Instead, the more practical move would seem to be naming Oh the closer and simplifying things for Matheny, who could seem to need all the help he can get when it comes to bullpen management.

Granted, the committee itself is probably just a scheme to bide time so Rosenthal can reclaim the ninth inning down the road without much bleating from Oh or anyone else. But for a Cardinals organization that's among the game's best―at winning, at developing players, at annoying other teams' fanbases―their willingness to place Matheny in a seemingly substandard position is curious.

Worse yet, it might be costly if Matheny doesn't manage the bullpen better than his history suggests he will.