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Cards’ Bullpen Is Improving With Fresh Arms, Revised Roles and Smart Managing

The Cardinals’ bullpen was a mess.

Tired, beaten down, ineffective and thinned by injuries.

The turmoil and unrest were extreme.

Closer Trevor Rosenthal was lost for the season after tearing an elbow ligament Aug. 16.

After gradually losing steam, a worn Kevin Siegrist was designated for assignment.

Lefty Zach Duke was utilized too much and overexposed.

Poor Matthew Bowman looked fatigued and ready to crack.

Last year’s closer, Seung Hwan Oh, was mugged by LH batters who cranked out a 1.025 OPS against him this season.

Consistency continued to elude expensive free-agent signee Brett Cecil.

Assorted arms were summoned from Cards’ Triple A Memphis affiliate, but Josh Lucas and Mike Mayers couldn’t salve the lacerations.

Between Aug. 10 and Aug. 24, the Cardinals’  relievers were set afire by opposing hitters that hung a gruesome 7.11 ERA and whopping .876 OPS on the bullpen gate. There was no relief in sight — pun intended.

But the smoke has cleared. The relievers are dousing flames instead of standing accused of arson. We can are seeing a cooling-down phase.

The Cardinals bullpen has a nice-looking 2.10 ERA, a substantially improved strikeout-walk ratio (4.00) and a .208 batting average and .627 OPS allowed in the team’s 12 games since Aug. 25.

Basically it comes down to this, and I’ll break it down into three quick parts:

1 — Ineffective or exhausted relievers were cleared out or given reduced roles.

2 — John Mozeliak and/or Michael Girsch made phone calls to Memphis secured the necessary help to stabilized the weakened bullpen.

3 — Manager Mike Matheny has done a good job of slotting his relievers into more suitable roles. He’s done excellent work in moving some relievers away from the flames, and turning to other relievers to handle emergencies.

The turnaround began Aug. 25 with the promotion of lefty rookie reliever Ryan Sherriff. He’s been outstanding.

That sensible promotion was followed by Sept. 1 callups of RH John Gant and rookie Sandy Alcantara. The two hard throwers (especially Alcantara) haven’t worked much to this point, but will likely be needed to contribute at times from here on out. They give Matheny additional options, joining RH Sam Tuivailala on the auxiliary relief squad.

The overworked Matthew Bowman was able to wrap ice packs on his right elbow and shoulder and gulp down some oxygen.

Oh has been given shelter when LH batters walk to the plate.

Duke, who should be a lefty specialist, has been repurposed to do just that.

Matheny put lefty veteran reliever Tyler Lyons deeper into high-leverage roles, and increased his trust level in RH John Brebbia.

All of this has combined to give the Cards’ bullpen a much needed reset.

To understand how the bullpen responsibilities have shifted, just take a look at these informative counts. Take a look at how some of the busiest relievers are now among the lightly used. Take a look at how a couple of Memphis graduates have taken on more responsibility late in the season…

Here are the numbers of batters faced by Cards’ relievers over the last 12 games, since Aug. 25 and I’ve excluded Gant and Alcantara because they’ve each made only one appearance  during this isolated stretch of games:

Sherriff,   27

Brebbia,  20

Lyons,  20

Cecil,  16

Tuivailala,  16

Bowman,   10

Duke,  8

Oh,   7

A few things here are shouting:

Think about how much we saw Bowman, Duke and Oh there for a while … all the damn time …. or so it seemed. Take note of how much that’s changed.

Only 10 batters faced over the last 12 games for Bowman? It’s a vacation! …

Oh hasn’t disappeared; he’s just facing mostly RH batters now. Of the seven batters that have stepped in against Oh since Aug. 25, five batted from the right side …

Seven of the eight batters encountered by Duke were LH hitters. That’s how it should work with a specialist …

Sherriff has been a valuable newcomer. He’s allowed one run in 7 IP, with eight strikeouts, and RH batters are only 3-for-15 against him (.200) …

Brebbia has faced 20 batters, and 11 have come in high-leverage or medium-leverage scenarios …

Lyons, for the most part is evolving into the de facto closer — which make sense given his nasty strikeout rate and wickedly good numbers against both right-side and left-side hitters …

And the new acquisition, RH Juan Nicascio, should solidify the pen. Especially if he can continue to tame LH batters — something that was a problem for him in past seasons.

The test for any bullpen is sustainability. After tonight’s finale at San Diego, the Cardinals have 22 games remaining on their reg-season schedule. Will the bullpen hold?

The question is irrelevant.

Point is, changes had to be made … and changes were  made.

Point is,  the work-load assignments had to be redistributed … and that’s happened.

Point is, the reliever roles had to be revised … and were.

Matheny has smartly reorganized the bullpen.  And if Matheny keeps the bullpen in its proper alignment, it will be up to the relievers to get the job done.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: Miklasz – The Cardinals’ Second-Half Success Isn’t a Fluke

  • rightthinker4

    Have to give credit to Matheny. At this point, he is managing the bullpen effectively, and the bullpen has responded. Starters are also going deeper into the game, which helps the bullpen and helps the manager make better decisions.

  • If_My_People

    OK, I’ll give MM credit but how much of it was out of expediency because they failed to help the team when they had a chance too? Oh was cooked as the closer by June. Cecil was just getting his himself righted. Duke wasn’t an option and Rosey was used in moderation as he didn’t get rolling until late July. How many games we’re blown at that point? All-in-all they could and should be in a playoff spot right now and if not for the FO and MM they very well might be.

  • cryscomo

    Say what — you’re saying good things about Matheny (first the team, now the coach)? That’s fair, because he deserves it. Given all of the bumps in this season’s road, and the team be where it is — pretty amazing feat.

    Too many judge him, mgmt, the team simply because they don’t “get it …”. There are several good books on baseball management; read “The Extra 2%”, “The Craft of Baseball”, Bill James, … to name a few. “The Matheny Manifesto” allows some access inside this complex, analytical coach’s mind. A bit of intellectual curiosity/research will definitely improve the comments made here and elsewhere.

    • If_My_People

      This is the same genius who brought in a guy (Oh) who’s given up 13 hits and 5 runs in his last nine innings in a close game tonight? It doesn’t take a “complex, analytical” mind to realize when your manager is a f’n moron who costs your team valuable games. If he’s so amazing as a skipper why did his GM publicly call him out in June putting his job in jeopardy? Give me a break here.

    • Christopher Toth

      Complex, analytical mind? Seriously?

      I am as intellectually curious as the next intellectual, however I detect relatively little brain activity behind most of Matheny’s in-game managerial decisions and am confident that a deer standing there on the dugout steps would make pretty much the same choices.

      Ok, I exaggerate.

      But before we declare Matheny a chess God of baseball, let’s not forget how that allegedly intellectual mind of his that we mortals can’t possibly begin to understand it in all its analytical glory, utterly failed him in paying 5X what a commercial property was worth in the valley and then utterly failed him again when he tried legally appealing his bank wrongfully foreclosed on it for only the amount of his indebtness at the foreclosure sale instead of the property’s market value.

      Never mind that practice has long been upheld by courts, precedents, etc., and that only a fool would waste a cent let alone a dollar pursuing that argument that has idiot written all over it.

      Moreover, managing requires more than just war planning or making moves.

      It also means managing the well-being of the athletes you have and not overusing them to the point of significant injury.

      But again, I am intellectually curious. If you can give us specific examples of how his grey cells have served him well to get his team to this point, I’m all eyes and ears.

      • cryscomo

        On the subject of Matheny and his real estate deals — grind that axe with someone else.

        I’ll have to parse my earlier comments — I was specifically referencing (and suggesting that one read) books written on baseball management — including Matheny’s – hence satisfy curiosity, expand intellect.

        I’m not a baseball manager, I’m a baseball fan. I enjoy the strategy of the game, the stats, the athleticism and the artistry. To try to better understand this game, to satisfy my own intellectual curiosity, I read books on management, by managers; I read books on the game, by players; I read/listen to a select number of sportswriters, sportscasters — those that bring substance, insightful observations to the table. Others representing sports can share an opinion, speculate, stir the pot, piss on everything to improve their ratings — just not of much interest to me.

        Doubt any of this answers your question b/c I won’t get in the weeds on specifics. Managers assess a situation with whatever tools they have (experience, knowledge, talent, stats, gut instinct, et al … ) and make a decision, call a play. The outcome sometimes has nothing to do with the intent; it’s what is called a calculated risk.

        What specifically has Mike (& Co) done to get this team to where it is — ? Seriously? It’s mid-Sept, we’re in the running — and that is despite the expert’s expectations and the varied physical, mental wounds of the team/mgmt/owners (some self-inflicted). And then there’s this little variable thing of youth called a farm system … to add to the juggling act.

        My husband was an NCAA-level umpire. That was such a learning opportunity. I was fortunate to gain an additional perspective of this game. The umpire is one with specialized knowledge and is in the best position to make the call; though they sometimes get it wrong, they mostly get it right.

        I apply that same skill-set to the manager — they know all the players’ ability, they have access to all the stats, they have an idea of their players’ mental/physical state for game-time. They make the decision, call the play — I have to believe they have done their best calculations, analysis to make this complex decision.

        • Christopher Toth

          Just a quick acknowledgement of your note. Am traveling but will respond this weekend. Thanks for being gracious. I strongly believe in decency of comity in civil debates and discourse and simply didn’t live up to my own standards. No one deserves to be belittled in the manner I did simply for expressing their opinion and I was flat out wrong for doing so. To be clear, as I’ve stated many times here, I believe Matheny to be a decent guy and wholly agree with his approach to youth sports. More later. Best.

          • cryscomo

            Comity — a great word; doesn’t get used often in communication or application.

    • Christopher Toth

      I re-read my post and in doing so think I’ve been overly rude to you and for that I apologize.

      My points are the same, but I could have been far more tactful. Rather than delete it, I’d prefer to leave it with this public apology attached. Best.

      • cryscomo

        Thanks and no worries. When you lean in at this “plate” you better expect a few old-style brush back pitches.

    • badgerboy23

      Complex? MM is a lot of things, nice guy primarily. But when it comes to managing a baseball team, he is as “complex” as a fence post. Stubborn? Yes. Loyal to vets? Yes. Boring and passionless? Yes. Damn fine ML catcher? Yes. Enabler of fundamentally moronic baseball? Yes. Butt patter? Yes. Allowing players to tell him what they will do, where they will play, when they will play?yes. Strategy wonk? No. Competent bullpen manager? No. Able to coach young players through the adjustment period? No. Calling MM “complex” is the funniest thing I have ever seen in writing about him.

      • Christopher Toth

        Sorry for the delay. Had some friends and family in Florida who took precedence over my time.

        If this helps, here’s how I tend to analyze sports. I am an economist by background and focus on trending more than anything and then breaking down those trends to exactly the hard data or facts driving them.

        Losses – be they in a company or on a field – tell me more than profits or wins as typically they are far more often tied to specific management teams and/or hierarchies. Wins and profits usually are driven by an entire organization wherein individual contributions are outweighed by the collective efforts of all.

        As background, I’ve had two overarching themes to my comments this year regarding Matheny and the Cards.

        One was repeated calls for a much stronger bench coach to guide Matheny through his in-game decision making and the other was it was way too premature to write-off the homegrown or Memphis Redbirds in a massive kneejerk sell off without first trying to add to Matheny’s staff or an altogether new manager.

        Beyond doubt, Matheny deserves credit for wins. But so too does the entire organization as well as the players.

        It isn’t the same with losses though because as manager, he even more than players directly affects how the team as a whole attacks any given game.

        Managing 162 games a year is a war made up of many battles and like a fighter pilot off on a mission, you can’t use up all your ammo in one game or series lest you don’t have enough to finish all of the fights.

        One of your arguments is Matheny has actually outperformed what he’s been given in terms of wins and losses. I’d argue just the opposite.

        E.g., when two years in a row you have a relief pitcher with the most appearances – Manness and Bowman – by far and each of those pitchers suffer injuries as a result (ditto the overuse of Rosenthal and even a Lynn; although in fairness to Matheny, Lynn claims he didn’t tell him he was pitching hurt), you as a manager are ruining your profit center in effect to achiece the financial equivalent of a one time gain. That’s great for this quarter if no one notices, but lousy for annual results.

        There are other similar categories where Matheny falls short. They include his inability to bring along home grown talent without repeated demotions to the minors despite that very alleged talent being the number one reason he was hired. Ditto his bizarre double switches that all too often leaves his line-ups decimated and in poor shape to climb back offensively into games that get away early as evidenced by his dismal 1 run win/loss record. Ditto his belief that a starter should be allowed to give up 5 or 6 or 7 earned runs in the first few innings despite having many times an extremely well rested bullpen.

        So, a valid question from you and others would be how do you account for the recent turnaround.

        No doubt you’d credit Matheny but while I will credit Matheny for making adjustments, I’d also point out that those positive changes didn’t occur until Mo pruned his coaching staff and brought long time minor league hitting and pitching gurus and invited the Chris Carpenters and Ozzie Smiths into the dugout.

        If you have to clean up your manager’s coaching staff and supplement it with knowledge base abilities he and Mabry proved they are too often deficient in, then you can’t argue wow, what a great manager Matheny is and credit him in the process with this turnaround any more than if I have to bring in a ton of additional staff because one of my division chiefs can’t handle the entirety of the job he was hired to do.

        To be clear, as I’ve often stated here in agreement with Bernie, Matheny isn’t going anywhere. And as long as the Cards keep playing the way they are even if they just miss out of making the playoffs, I would do exactly what Mo is doing and keep crediting Matheny even though I know he’s a huge reason why we had problems the last two seasons.

        If pushed, I’d guess Matheny isn’t going anywhere in the off season either but I suspect Mo will insist on Mabry and other Matheny favorites being carted off as a price for his staying.

        In wrapping this, for Matheny’s sake because again, by all accounts he is a decent guy, I hope he realizes he needs to grow. And as for his biz deals, I will gladly litigate those elsewhere but in doing so would respectfully assert to you they are very germane and informative to this discussion.

        Many people are strategists but how they get there varies. Some make their best decisions away from the fray in the peace and solitude of their offices. Others are fighter pilots and know how to slow down time in the moment so as to make rapid fire decisions.

        Matheny can’t slow down time. He is a guy who clearly commits to his strategy at home and then doesn’t vary from it regardless of what’s happening in real time. That works in some businesses but fails in others such as sports or in not so disimilar military scenarios.

        When Matheny couldn’t reconcile the strategy he originally devised for his biz project, he likewise in the heat of court actions couldn’t understand that the legal realities he was facing were very different than what he had originally envisioned.

        The point here is not to embarrass him over it. We all fail at times. My only point in raising it is it’s informative to how his mind works and how he goes about making decisions and gels perfectly all too often with the ill-advised decisions he frequently makes or more appropriately fails to make from the dug out steps.

        Best to you.

    • All major league seasons have bumps in the road. All. Of. Them. There is nothing amazing about this team being “where it is.” In fact there is nothing amazing about any team being where it is right now, except maybe for the Dodgers being in freefall. The Cardinals have been a .500 ballclub for most of the season and are playing better than that lately. If a team plays .500 ball for 120 games and .600 ball for 42 games, they end up at 85-77 or 86-76, which is where the Cardinals seem headed. Maybe a playoff slot. To call this “amazing” and imply you arrived at this due to your intellectual curiosity and research strikes me as intellectual snobbery. But, hey, we will all try to “improve our comments.”

      • cryscomo

        We disagree on adjectives and that’s ok. Intellectual snobbery? — hardly. “But, hey, we will all try to improve our comments.”

  • geoff

    Bernie is back to earth mocking Matheny with his “beloved leader of men” narrative and talking about those bitter fans and in the case of Bernie himself , a bitter sports talker/radio person(who has started to channel kelvin satan) who up until a week or so ago didn’t realize that the Cardinals were having a pretty good second half. It is so funny listening to Bernie as he kisses up to Mo, and NEVER EVER spewing the vitriol he directs toward Matheny. I have to seriously question how Bernie would know how any of the players feel about their manager. Does Bernie ever go into the club house??? Does he ever have any of the players on his show and ask them??? Heck, does Bernie ever even go to games. We all know that what we see live is so much different than what we see on TV. If MLB wants to attract a younger audience they should talk to all of their TV Partners about how they televise the action. Right now, all they really show live is the pitch, pretty much every thing else is replay. I think in Bernie’s case watching a game is nowhere near as important or interesting as trying to ascertain what happened via the game stats. There are many people who really enjoy that aspect of the game. Maybe it would behoove Bernie to go face to face with Matheny and find out more about the man that he daily mocks ridicules and criticizes, I am certain his press credentials could get him in the door. I know Bernie used to talk face to face with LaRussa and I loved it. There was banter and back and forth, but there was respect and understanding. I get the feeling that, at some point, Matheny must have dissed Bernie and his reaction has been to attack Matheny on a personal and professional level. This is kinda strange, because it is a significant change in style for Bernie.

  • LawrenceKScardsfan

    Totally agree Bernie – the bullpen renovations were long overdue. Really like the additions of Brebbia and Sherriff. It will be interesting to see how Nicasio responds. The key question is can this bullpen sustain a wild card chase and, if luck holds, a World Series ring? I’m cautiously optimistic. Why? The kids – both in the field and in the rotation have been like breaths of fresh air.

    Now is the time for Carlos Martinez to take the forkin bull by the horns and pitch like a Cy Young contender. We need to be able to count on him to shut down the opposition every fifth game. And fingers crossed that Wacha can continue to work his way through lineups. The guy has guts.

    The last big question is Adam Wainwright. As much as I have loved this guy over his career, I worry about giving him the starting assignments down the stretch. But I also am not sure it makes sense to have him pitch out of the bullpen either. Big question. Thoughts?

    • Big T

      Agreed!! It is exciting to watch “the Cardinal Way” of drafting, developing and deploying, new talent thru the farm. Given the plethora of young arms here and close future is looking good. MM has shown recently that he can manage his pen and it was fair of Bernie to acknowledge that he has.

      Flaherty’s # of innings pitched is getting up there. Given his point of development, is a concern too.

  • geoff

    That last sentence should read…And if Mike Matheny is able to keep the bullpen in the proper alignment, it will be up to the relievers to get the job done, as it has been all year. Problem has been that the bullpen was bad coming out of Jupiter and didn’t really get good help until August. Considering the pitchers he had to work with, MM hasn’t been as horrible as many have thought.