Mike Matheny’s bullpen tomfoolery

Tonight the St. Louis Cardinals found a way to once again snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, courtesy of some late game decisions by manager Mike Matheny. For fear of sounding like a broken record, this is consistently one of the most troubling things about his game management to me. Unfortunately, it seems to be getting worse before it gets better.

Let’s not talk about the double switch that took Kolten Wong out of a tie baseball game when he has been 5-for-11 over the three days since he got the call back up. The same double switch that put Mark Ellis, who doesn’t even have 5 hits over the last two weeks (4-for-26), into the game.

By the point that double switch was made, the writing was already on the wall. The game was already lost. And lose it we did. The double switch was made after Trevor Rosenthal walked the bases loaded and then proceeded to walk the next guy to allow the Braves to tie up the game. After bringing in Carlos Martinez, Martinez put one to the backstop that gave the Braves the lead.

The first problem here is that the Cardinals had Martinez ready to go in the bullpen to back up Rosenthal. Why? Because they were concerned about his pitch count because this was going to be the fourth day in a row that he was going to pitch. Personally, if you have to have someone backing up your closer in the 9th inning, it seems like you already know you shouldn’t be using him in that spot. You aren’t putting him in a position to succeed.

You had Pat Neshek, who threw 3 pitches to get out of Kevin Siegrist’s mess in the 8th inning. He also happens to be the team’s best reliever so far this season. His WHIP is 0.556. If you don’t understand what that means, that means that he allows roughly one base runner for every two innings he pitches. His ERA is also the best in the bullpen among pitchers who have thrown more than one inning. But apparently he was too tired after throwing 3 pitches to return to pitch the 9th inning.

The right decision would have been to stick with Neshek in the 9th inning to finish out the game or go to Martinez to begin with. Martinez had a good April, but has struggled in May.

Through the first 44 games this season, the “Big 3” in the bullpen (Rosenthal, Martinez, and Siegrist) have thrown 50.2% of the team’s relief innings. To understand this, here are the percentages of relief innings thrown by the top-3 relievers in each of the last five seasons:

2014 – 50.2%
2013 – 42.4%
2012 – 43.1%
2011 – 43.9%
2010 – 44.8%
2009 – 42.2%

So right now you have a major problem. Your main three relievers are struggling and they’re also suffering from over use. For Martinez, it may be a symptom of overuse. For Rosenthal, he’s been off all season. For Siegrist, I’m not quite sure.

But here’s the craziest part of all of it. While the big three are relied upon for over 50% of the relief innings by the Cardinals, the rest of the bullpen is actually better.

The Big 3: 4.09 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 61.2 IP
The Rest: 3.98 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 61.1 IP

Right, that’s not a huge difference. But let’s take out the inning that Randy Choate took one for the team last Monday night against Chicago and see what that does to the rest of the bullpen’s numbers.

The Rest (minus taking one for the team): 3.12 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 60.2 IP

Almost a full run of difference in ERA. Granted, the Big 3 see a lot more high leverage situations than the rest of the bullpen, but it is even still a marked difference. One that I believe is worth exploring.

Matheny is relying on the Big 3 when he maybe doesn’t even have to.

Pat Neshek, as documented, has been fantastic this season. Randy Choate, except for that one appearance, has been solid despite being totally misused in a regular relief role.

The bullpen currently has Sam Freeman. Freeman has been up for a week and only pitched one inning. In that inning he walked the first batter and then struck out two and escaped without a hitch in extra innings. Last year he was good as well, with a 1.05 WHIP over the 12 innings he appeared in for St. Louis. Why hasn’t he earned more opportunities to pitch?

Heck, how about Jorge Rondon who has pitched well in Memphis and has spent 9 days with the Cardinals this year and hasn’t gotten an opportunity. (And honestly, Eric Fornataro needed to be the guy sent down to activate Garcia thanks to Fornataro’s 1.92 WHIP over his last four appearances.)

With the offense finally figuring out how to score runs over the last couple weeks, Matheny can no longer afford to give the bulk of the relief innings to three pitchers who are struggling and, as a result, costing the team games. He needs to expand his horizons and start giving these guys some opportunities to earn his trust and perhaps become options for him in the late innings. As Matheny said when asked if the team was going to commit a bulk of the playing time to Kolten Wong, “We’ve got win.”

Mike, we can’t commit the bulk of innings to these guys who have proven to be struggling. We’ve got to win. If that involves playing Ellis over Wong, you can afford to go with Freeman with a one run lead in the 9th when Rosenthal has nothing in the tank.

He’ll get to add Jason Motte to the mix on Tuesday, but that only treats the symptom. We need to deal with the cause and that is not trusting more than half of your bullpen with a close game even when your main relievers are all toast due to overuse.

As I said when I was arguing for more playing time for Peter Bourjos, I may not know if letting these guys get opportunities to pitch in tight games will work, but I do know that what we’re currently doing isn’t working. Time to try something new.