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Nearly 1,000 Games Into Managing, Mike Matheny Is Still Mishandling the Bullpen

Six seasons into the job, and with the training wheels off, Mike Matheny still struggles to manage a bullpen.

I’m actually being too polite there, so please allow me to rephrase:

Mike Matheny still doesn’t  know how  to run a bullpen.

The best managers make mistakes, and lots of them. And yessir,  pitches are accountable for their performance. When bullpens implode late in games there’s more to it than the manager’s decisions.

Except: a substantial part of a manager’s job is putting his players in the best position to succeed. That may be the most important aspect of a manager’s mission. Maximize your players’ chances for success when it’s at all reasonable to do so. Don’t utilize them in a way that puts them at a certain disadvantage.

The Cardinals opened their post All-Star-break schedule by dropping two of three games in Pittsburgh.

Unfortunately Matheny’s hand prints were all over the losses on Friday and Sunday.

Friday, 9th Inning: Seung Hwan Oh vs. Josh Bell

In the ninth inning of a 2-2 game, Matheny had RH reliever Seung Hwan Oh give a free pass to the Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen, and the intentional walk brought up young Pirates slugger Josh Bell. Now, in a sense you can understand the reluctance to take on McCutchen. There was a runner on second with one out. The Pirates needed a run to win, walk-off style. And McCutchen has been on a scorching hot streak. Get the ground ball. Get a double play. End of threat.

Yeah, except it wasn’t that simple. Bell is a switch hitter, meaning that he’d take the AB from his left side. Understand that Bell is better from the left side; this season his OPS against RH pitchers is 54 points higher than his OPS vs. lefties.

And considering with Seung Hwan Oh’s horrendous numbers against LH hitters this season, it’s a terrible idea to choose him face a dangerous left-side hitter.

Here’s Oh vs. LH bats this season:  88 batters faced … shredded for a .363 batting average … .414 onbase percentage … .688 slugging percentage … 7 homers and 5 doubles in 80 at-bats … a 1.102 OPS. Among active and qualifying MLB relievers in 2017, none have been crushed for higher OPS by LH batters than Oh.

Oh’s stats against RH bats are much calmer and reassuring: a  .209 average, .266 OBP, .279 SLG, only 1 homer in 86 at-bats, and a .545 OPS. When there is a negative 557 percentage-point difference in Oh’s OPS splits based on RH and LH hitters, why would you put Oh in such a tremendous matchup disadvantage with the game on the line? Does this make any sense? of course not. And by the way, even though its a mini sample, McCutchen is 1 for 5 against Oh over the last two seasons.

You know how it ended.

Bell hit a three-run homer off Oh.

Pirates win 5-2.

With a chance to snuff a ninth-inning threat and extend his team’s opportunity to grab the first game of a three-game set at PNC Park, Matheny literally selected the worst pitcher possible  for the assignment vs. Bell — not just the worst choice among Cardinals relievers; we are talking about the worst possible relief option in the entire major leagues  to face LH batters in 2017.

Sunday: Brett Cecil in the 9th instead of Trevor Rosenthal

After the Cardinals took a 3-2 lead on Yadier Molina’s solo homer in the top of the 8th, Matheny summoned Trevor Rosenthal in to attack the  Pirates on the bottom of the inning. Good choice. But not the right choice.

By pitching Rosenthal in the 8th, Matheny made a decision to hand custody of this game to Brett Cecil in the ninth. Get three outs, the save, and a series win. To open the inning rookie STL shortstop Paul DeJong couldn’t make a play on a grounder; the fumble was generously scored  as a “hit.” That was a big moment. Cecil couldn’t overcome it.  After two more hits and two runs allowed, Cecil was charged with a blown save. He didn’t pitch well. It was a bad performance.

Again … not so simple.

Cecil came into the contest on a streak of 15 consecutive scoreless relief appearances; during his positive stretch opponents batted .137 against him. But just about all of that fine work came before the ninth inning, in non-save scenarios? Cecil was becoming an eighth-inning shutdown arm, and that’s a valuable piece. So why slot him in the 9th?

The 9th inning takes Cecil out of his comfort zone. And while I completely agree that it’s ludicrous for relievers to be gripped with anxiety over roles — if you can pitch well in the 8th, then why would you dissolve in the 9th? — we aren’t going to change the modern reality. This is how how relievers are wired; they prefer a specific role and get antsy when taken out of their designated bubble.

As a big-league reliever Cecil has a career 2.48 ERA and .620 opponent OPS in non-save situations.

In career save situations, Cecil has a 4.73 ERA and .699 OPS allowed.

This season: 1.11 ERA in non-save situations; 8.53 ERA in save scenarios.

That’s only one part of this. The other is Rosenthal’s history as a very good closer when healthy.

Rosenthal had one rough stretch earlier this season, but he’s been roaring in his last six appearances. All scoreless. He faced 19 batters and didn’t allow a hit or walk. The only blemish was one hit by pitch. And in retiring 18 of the 19 batters faced, Rosenthal struck out 10.

This season Rosenthal ranks 6th among qualifying MLB relievers in strikeouts per 9 innings (14.37.) Rosenthal’s overall strikeout rate of 38.2 percent is seventh among relievers. His fielding independent (FIP) ERA, 2.15, is tied for 12th. This month, Rosenthal has a 1.19 FIP.  Except for June, when he labored, Rosenthal’s monthly FIPs have been 1.64 or less. And his wildness has been tamed in June; his walk rate this month is only 8 percent — and with a 44 percent strikeout rate.

Botton line: Rosenthal’s 1.2 WAR is tied for 14th among relievers. His Wins Above Replacement is equal to that of Cubs’ All-Star closer Wade Davis. As an added bonus, Rosenthal has been equally potent against LH batters and RH batters.

Why would anyone be surprised by this?

The young Rosenthal took over as the Cards closer in the final month of the 2013 regular season. From that time through the 2015 season, Rosenthal bagged 96 saves in 106 opportunities, a strong save rate of just under 91 percent. He pitched in the heat of postseason, powering to a 1.04 ERA from 2013-2015.) Rosenthal had 45 saves in 2014, and followed with a team-record 48 saves in ’15. Last year Rosenthal was decommissioned as the closer because of arm trouble, but he’s clearly returned to form this season.

Rosenthal should be closing.

He’s having his most wicked strikeout-punch display of his career. He’s has the experienced head for these pressure assignments. He got through last season’s injury, and this season’s slump. To his benefit, TR has learned to diversify his pitch selection, and vary the speed on his fastball.

The Cardinals have their closer. And if the manager was willing to Rosenthal for a third consecutive day, the ninth inning should have belonged to him Sunday. It’s absurd to use Rosenthal as a setup guy and push Cecil into a closing/save situation. One reliever has a positive history as a closer, Rosenthal. The other reliever, Cecil, is excellent in the setup innings but has a poor history in the quest for saves.

In post-game comments relayed by  STLtoday and the Post-Dispatch, Cecil had some revealing thoughts on the subject. The bullpen chaos and blurring of roles. The indecision over who should be the closer.

“That is our fault because we haven’t really solidified any roles for anybody,” Cecil said. “Just kind of grind and be ready when the phone rings. I think it all starts with that last inning. Once we get that solidified no matter who that is, the rest will take care of itself. That’s really what needs to happen. Need it. Definitely need it.”

Agreed. But Matheny has managed the Cardinals for 944 games including postseason. And he’s still doing the same screwy things with his bullpen management. When does he get smarter? Will it take eight seasons? Maybe 10 or 12 seasons? You got me.; I don’t know the answer. I’m the fool who thought Matheny would get it figured after two or three seasons of managing. Nope.

It’s easy to point at Matheny, which I am doing here. But I think it’s appropriate to shift focus. The longer this goes on — with the Cardinals giving away too many games that they can’t afford to lose — the burden of responsibility should be placed on the executives who hired Matheny. The executives who fully support Matheny. The executives who almost get offended by criticism of Matheny or questions concerning Matheny’s job security.

If DeWitt and Mozeliak are cool with all of this, if they won’t hold Matheny to a higher standard … well, Matheny isn’t the real problem. The true problem is upstairs, with the team chairman and the president of baseball operations.

Thanks for reading…

–Bernie

More: To Make the Playoffs, the Cardinals Have Many Boxes To Check; Here’s a List