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Challenge For Cardinals’ Manager Mike Shildt: Rethink His Bullpen Strategy

If designated Cardinals’ closer Bud Norris is worn down, no one should be surprised. That’s especially true of the members of the team’s front office, and analytics department, plus pitching coach Mike Maddux and manager Mike Shildt.

This isn’t new. As an MLB reliever Norris has a clear career pattern of fading late in the season. This isn’t a personal attack. This isn’t anything against Norris’ character. He’s obviously a great competitor.  This isn’t about heart, or determination. But if his right arm is tired … then it’s tired. It’s as simple as that.

And you don’t need to be Bill James to be blinded by the garish flashing of warning lights or hear the jolting sound of alarm bells to know this.

Norris began pitching in relief in 2015. This is his first season as a reliever, exclusively. Norris hasn’t made any starts. He became too valuable as a reliever and closer. He did a terrific job until wearing down.

Before the All-Star break, Norris had a strikeout rate of 33 percent.

After the All-Star break, his strikeout rate is 18.4 percent.

Walks? Before the All-Star break, only 4% … after this year’s All-Star break, 13.2%.

That means Norris had a strikeout-walk ratio of 8.3 in before the break — and a K-BB ratio of 1.4 after the break.

After allowing less than a homer every nine innings in the first half (0.8), Norris has gotten blasted for  2.2 HR/9 after the break.

His ERA, 3.05 in the first half, is  4.86 since the break.

His fielding independent ERA, aka FIP? 2.68 first half; 6.57 second half.

Sunday, in a brutal 6-4 loss to the Reds at Busch Stadium, Norris was smacked for two homers and three runs in the 10th inning. Making matters worse, Shildt kept Norris in the game to face two more batters and throw 10 more pitches. Instead of trying to make sure Norris would have enough in the tank for Monday’s game at Washington, Shildt stayed with Norris for 26 pitches in Sunday’s lost-cause appearance vs. Cincinnati.

I was stunned to see Norris enter Monday’s game in the ninth to protect the Cards’ 3-1 lead over the Nationals.

I was surprised for a few reasons:

  • Norris hasn’t been the same pitcher since the end of June.
  • Norris had just labored through control issues, and 26 pitches, the day before
  • His command is so off, the worst thing to do is bring in a guy who is a threat to walk a Washington hitter and bring the tying run to the plate.

Norris walked Washington’s first batter in the 9th, got an out on a fielder’s choice — then had a nothing pitch turned into a moon landing when Bryce Harper launched a two-run homer to center to tie the score 3-3. Even then, inexplicably, Shildt allowed the wiped out Norris to stay in the game to face three more batters, throw 10 more pitches, and get into a two-out, two-on jam —  until finally summoning lefty Chasen Shreve to get the Cardinals out of the ninth inning with a  chance to win in extra innings. It didn’t happen; the Nationals won 4-3 in 10 innings.

A day after running up a 26-pitch count in the loss to the Reds, Norris was pushed for another 21 pitches against the Nationals. Norris was on fumes, and Cardinals fans were fuming.

What’s going here?

Shildt is smarter than this … and better than this … and that’s why it was so confusing and frustrating to watch him mess up a game and squander a victory by going with a burned-out reliever for the second consecutive day.  How can managers — any manager — stand and watch a depleted reliever go up in flames and do nothing?

I really believe Shildt is different. I believe he’s capable and willing to make make independent-minded choices about deploying relievers and deviating from the idiotic “book” that so many Shemp-like managers lean on …

That “book” — evidently written by fools for fools — insists that a manager MUST use his CLOSER in every SAVE situation to get the SAVE — and no other relievers shall EVER be considered.

(Unless the closer is unavailable to pitch.)

Again: Shildt absolutely is smarter than this, which makes his decisions with Norris so odd.

Norris is following a pattern that’s been in established since he first began to work as a reliever in ’15. I don’t want to numb you with too many numbers, but here’s some of what I’m referring to … and this includes his relief work only:

Norris, Start of the Season Through June, Since 2015 

3.12 ERA, 2.66 FIP

33.1 percent strikeout rate; 3.7% walk rate.

Strikeout-walk ratio:  9.0

1.0 homers per nine innings

Two-strike K rate:  51.7%

Norris, From Start of July Through End of Season Since 2015 

4.43 ERA,  5.90 FIP

20.6% strikeout rate;  12.0% walk rate

Strikeout-walk ratio:  1.7

1.8 homers per nine innings

Two-strike K rate:  37.3%

Those statistics are glaring. Norris hasn’t held up very well during the duration when working as a reliever. There’s a huge dropoff in K rate, a huge increase in walk rate, and a sharp decline in his ability to finish hitters off on two-strike counts.  And it isn’t very smart to expect to see Norris come in and pitch like he’s fresh and sharp and rested when he’s actually drooping,  erratic and exhausted.

Who should close? I don’t know. The Cardinals’ bullpen isn’t in the best of shape right now.

Over the last 15 games, Cards’ relievers have the worst walk rate (14.3%) and the third-worst strikeout rate (17%) in the majors. Their 4.92 FIP ranks 22nd. Their expected FIP (4.97) ranks 28th.  The Cardinals need a puncher who can pile up the strikeouts, and be stringy with walks. Good luck finding that profile.

Take a look at these strikeout-walk ratios since the All-Star break, and keep in mind that the league-average K-BB is 2.00:

(L) Brett Cecil,  0.71

Carlos Martinez,  0.75

Tyson Ross,  0.80

Dakota Hudson,  0.91

Dominic Leone,  1.00

Daniel Poncedeleon,  1.17

Bud Norris,  1.4

Jordan Hicks,  1.5

Luke Weaver,  2.0

Chasen Shreve,  2.2

John Brebbia,  2.4

Mike Mayers,  2.5   (currently on DL)

(L) Tyler Webb,  6.0

With a couple of exceptions — that’s really, really bad.

Final thought: 

Could this be a job for … Adam Wainwright?

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

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