Relievers are Baseball Players too (aka, the potential downfall of the 2011 Cardinals)


A bent hinge pin that might need TJ surgery

In Radio Controlled (RC) car and truck racing, you quickly learn one valuable lesson.   If one important piece of your vehicle breaks – like a front shock tower, you find a replacement part and hope that it holds up for the remainder of the race or bashing session.   The one thing you don’t do is take a working part off somewhere else on the vehicle – like a rear shock tower, and turn it around in the hopes it can replace the original part.   All you have done is to put both the front and back of your vehicle at risk, and you will be a very unhappy racer.

But that seems to be exactly what is happening with the Cardinals and Kyle McClellan.   To be fair, McClellan has expressed a clear and unambiguous desire to be a starter and has done everything necessary in the last two springs to become one.   But is that the right thing for the team ?   Wouldn’t it be better for the Cardinals organization to find a way to recognize – OK, compensate – McClellan for his increasing value in the bullpen ?

It’s not 1960 any more

As an amateur historian, I like to look back at the way the game was played when I was a youngster and compare it to what we see today.  Presumably, Kyle McClellan saw many of the same things when he was learning how to pitch while watching guys like Todd Stottlemeyer and Andy Benes.  Starting pitchers are like the quarterbacks of the NFL – everybody wants to be one, but very few can reach that level.

But the game is different today.

Relief pitching is actually a talent that is actively developed in the minor leagues.   It provides an exceptional opportunity for a pitchers that have mastery of two pitches to have a long and productive career.   While many major league bullpens do have some veteran starters hanging on through the end of their careers plus a few starting prospects waiting for their chance, the majority are career relievers and should be appreciated for what they do, rather than what they can’t.

The Great Koufax

In the 1960’s, the skill gap between the bullpens and starters like Juan Marichal, Don Drysdale, Bob Gibson, Jim Bunning and Sandy Koufax kept the starters on the mound well into the late innings, even if the game goes a few extra frames.   The reason was simple – a tired Koufax or Gibson gave their team a much better chance to win than any of the fresh arms in the pen.  The result was an insane number of innings pitched – well over 300 per season.  Sometimes, the pitch counts led to a premature ending of a career, as it did with both Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.

The first attempt to fix this was the adoption of a five man rotation, over the typical four starters a team would use.   This probably prolonged the careers of Bob Gibson, Ferguson Jenkins and Tom Seaver as much as their excellent mechanics and conditioning.   Even so, dominant aces like Steve Carlton ate up innings quicker than high schoolers consuming wings on 50 cent night.

Roy Face - The Original Closer

Then came the closer.   Roy Face, Ted Abernathy (who his victims used to call Anbernasty), Wayne Granger, Al Hrabosky, Bruce Sutter, Todd Worrell, Lee Smith – I think you can take it from here.   They shortened the game by an inning or two, especially in the early years when closers were still expected to pitch multiple innings per appearance.   This was much less the case by the time of Todd Worrell, and totally gone when the big man, Lee Smith, came strolling in from the bullpen.   To replace those important innings were the setup men.  Guys like Pedro Borbon in the 70s, Ken Dayley in the 80s – not developed to be that type of pitcher, but evolved into that role by being less dominating than the closer, but too good to waste in mop-up situations.

In the Tony La Russa era of spreadsheet driven matchup determining lineup changes, not only is the setup pitcher a clearly defined role, but so is the setup guy to the setup guy.  Jason Motte gets the seventh inning, Mitchell Boggs the eighth, and then Ryan Frankin for the save in the ninth.  Throw in a LOOGY or two, lather rinse and repeat.  If the starter should somehow make it through seven innings, then Kyle McClellan became the go-to guy to shut things down until the Chinzilla arrives on scene to protect the lead.  More important though, if the game is tied late and looks like it might be heading into extra innings, that’s when the second inning from a pitcher like Kyle McClennan becomes even more valuable.

It’s not 2010 either

And this is the important point.  The 2010 bullpen was very good early, until overuse due to a revolving door of 4th and 5th starters began to take its toll.  Dennys Reyes was the first to break down.  Logging a ton of innings in April and May, Reyes entered the month of June with an ERA of 0.54.   From that point on, the big guy’s ERA ballooned to 5.91 plus he missed most of August, when he was needed most.   As a result, Trever Miller’s typical 1/3 of an inning started being more like one full inning, often times a bit more.   While tough on lefties, Miller was much less effective against the starboard siders.   Right handers hit him 70 points higher than lefties, but more importantly, slugged him at nearly twice that rate –  nearly 150 points higher.   The result – an ERA that was twice what he posted in 2009.   Like Reyes, Miller was not a factor when the Cardinals needed him most.  Just 4 2/3 innings in August with an ERA approaching that of the Big Sweat.

The 2011 Cardinals have a new lefty in the bullpen in Brian Tallet.  He’s younger and brings some experience as a former starter.  So far, he has been impressive this spring as the new Dennys Reyes.   In 6 games, he has thrown 7 2/3 innings, striking out 9 and allowing 2 runs, 1 earned.  That’s a ERA of 1.17.  That’s also a very small sample size that includes some hitters that will not be in the major leagues this season.   It does give some reason to be optimistic about his contributions, but at the same time, we must be realize that he is replacing a broken part from the 2010 season, not a superman arriving on the scene to turbocharge the bullpen into a ferocious bunch of Tasmanian devils.   He is the Dennys Reyes replacement so that Trever Miller can go back to being Trever Miller.   He is a new front shock tower so that we can use the rear shock tower in the manner as prescribed by the manufacture.

Another part of the vehicle (sticking with the RC analogy) that broke down was Jason Motte.  While he was good both before and after the time on the disabled list, his presence there should make us step back and take a few extra breaths.   It is easy to forget that Motte is still a young pitcher, and the man throws the ball exceedingly hard with some rather unconventional mechanics: a short-arm delivery that looks more like a catcher throwing out a base-runner than a pitcher expected to throw 70 or so innings.   That’s why we are gasping for breath now as we watch Motte struggle in consecutive outings in spring training.   It may be nothing more that a dead arm, which happens.  Or it could be him working on secondary and tertiary pitches.   Or it could be something leftover from late last season.   Oh, he too missed nearly the entire month of August.

And we wonder why the Cardinals faded on that awful August roadtrip through Pittsburgh, Washington DC and Houston ?   It wasn’t August that did the Cardinal in, it was the bulk of the high stress innings the bullpen had to endure in June and July, after the Brad Penny and Kyle Lohse injuries.   That’s when the 2010 season fell apart.   The 2011 season might succumb to a similar fate if the front office is not careful.

1450 innings and counting

162 games x 9 innings – a handful of road losses + a few extra inning games gives us about 1450 innings that the pitching staff will have to throw in 2011.   The actual numbers were 1453 2/3 in 2010 and 1440 2/3 in 2009.  I guess there were a few more road losses in 2009 than I remember.

When healthy, Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright should be able to take care of 450 of those innings (225 apiece).

Jake Westbrook has been somewhat of an inning eater in his career, before Tommy John surgery took away part of a couple of seasons.   Let’s put him down for 200 innings in 2011 – a very reasonable target.

Kyle Lohse is similar but with a bit less of a track record, so let’s call that one 180 innings with some optimistic upside towards 200.

And finally, the 2010 rookie phenom: Jaime Garcia.  He’s a tough one to handicap.  Using my favorite comparisons (Larry Jaster, Steve Carlton, Johan Santana) and averaging them, we should expect a small increase in Garcia’s innings pitched, but only a modest one.  180 innings, up from 163 last season, would be good – anything more is blind homey-ism, and this is not the place for that.  Later perhaps, as the wheels start coming off, but not right now.

Doing a little bit of math …..

1450 – 225 – 225 – 200 -180 -180 = 440.

So that’s 440 innings that the bullpen will be expected to cover in 2011.   With 7 relievers, that works out to about 63 innings per arm, and that’s not out of line with what we have seen the last couple of years (shave some innings off the lefties and give them to McClellan and the long man – probably Miguel Batista).

Here’s where things start to fall apart.   If Kyle McClellan moves from the bullpen into the rotation, what should we reasonably expect out of him as a starter, and how does that impact what’s left in the bullpen.

Year Team (level) Games Innings Pitched Wins Losses ERA
2003 JC (Rk) 12 67 2/3 3 6 3.99
2004 Peoria (A) 24 128 4 12 5.34
2005 QC  (A) 17 54 1 4 4.83
2006 Injured n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a
2007 PB (A+) 

Spgf(AA)

40 59 2/3 6 1 1.81
2008 STL 68 75 2/3 2 7 4.04
2009 STL 66 66 2/3 4 4 3.38
2010 STL 68 75 1/3 1 4 2.27

Kyle McClellan hasn’t been a regular starter since 2005, the year he had Tommy John surgery.  OK, that’s not true.  He has started a few games.   He did have 3 rehabilitation starts in Johnson City after returning from his injury in 2006, plus one more with Palm Beach in 2007, before being promoted to Springfield.   The rest of his work since then has been in relief.

Looking back at his 3 year major league career, which is quickly becoming an impressive body of work, we can see that McClellan has only turned the opponents batting order over once in three years.   That happened in that Ugly (with a capital U) game in Arizona on April 20, 2010 (Dan Haren vs Kyle Lohse) when he faced 11 batters  in 2 innings of work.  Other than that, it’s been 9 batters faced or fewer.

Does McClellan have the stuff to get through the order two or three times per game ?   We just don’t know.   He certainly has the repertoire of pitches to get through two innings, which he did on nine different occasions in 2010.  But the question is largely irrelevant.  Instead, we should be looking at the number of innings we can realistically expect out of McClellan, regardless of performance.

Answers, even comparative ones, are hard to come by.  CJ Wilson of the Texas Rangers was a career reliever who made the jump into the rotation.   He is a couple of years older than McClellan, but was a starter much longer in his minor league career.  He did make the jump from 70 to 200 innings, and turned in an impressive 15-8 record while doing so.   He is also a lefty and plays in a league where pitchers don’t bat.

Nelson Briles of the 1960s Cardinals might be a more reasonable comparison.   He had a pair of 150 inning seasons as a spot starter before finally making the rotation as a permanent starter in 1968 where he logged a gargantuan 240 innings.

Expecting McClellan to be able to pitch more than 160 innings 2011 is just not realistic.   It’s blind homey-ism again.  Not that we wouldn’t do cartwheels if he did, but you can’t expect a pitcher who has never thrown more than 128 innings in his professional career to go out and give the team 6 strong per start …… in August.   Even the legendary Dick Hughes suffered some arm fatigue late in his first major league season, and he was a starter for his entire minor league career.

Math time again.

225 – 160 = 65

That’s the difference in innings between what we could rely on out of Adam Wainwright, minus the those we can expect from of Kyle McClellan as a starter.   In other words, Cardinals pitchers will have to account for 65 more innings, above the 440 that we were already expecting them to throw.

Maybe if Kyle Lohse could have another career season, but the most he’s ever pitched in the majors is 201, 200 and 194 innings.  Even if we could add another 20 to take his estimate of 180 up to 200,  that’s not even 1/3 of the extra frames.  We’re already at Westbrook’s high range innings estimates, and we’ve just talked about Garcia.

Not to be a Debbie Downer, all of this assumes that Chris (with an H) Carpenter stays healthy and can throw 225 innings.  Not exactly “bet your paycheck” odds.

Fernando Salas is the favorite to replace McClellan in the bullpen, should the coaches and management decide to put McClellan in the rotation.  While Salas doesn’t have the same command of four pitchers, he is deceptive enough to occasionally turn in a second inning.  He will be a fine replacement for McClellan’s 75 or so innings, but no more.

The only other new guy is 40th man on the roster, which at this time looks like Miguel Batista.  His days as a starter are long behind him, but they will come in handy as he takes over for Blake Hawksworth in long relief.  80 to 90 innings, maybe, but that’s it.

And we still haven’t accounted for the remaining 65 innings.

Don’t even think about it …..

There is one additional way the Cardinals bullpen could pick up another 65 innings.   That would be by adding another arm, going with eight relievers instead of the seven that we expect Tony La Russa to field on opening day.  While most Cardinals fans wish La Russa would shorten his pen to six men to put one more bat on the bench, this has the opposite effect, constraining the bench even more.   But does that even make sense ?   If the pretext for the extra reliever is increased bullpen use, doesn’t that mean that relievers will come up to bat more often, perhaps one at bat every three or so games.   If so, wouldn’t we actually want a bit of a longer bench to provide the extra pinch hitter ?

Any manager that bats the pitcher eighth might choose to use another pitcher as a pinch-hitter.  In 2010, Jeff Suppan was the best hitting pitcher on the roster.  Just behind Soup is Jaime Garcia, and then Adam Wainwright.   But Wainwright’s absence is the reason we are having this discussion, so there’s no help here.

Maybe Tony La Russa can perform the greatest management trick in the history of baseball.  By carefully counting games, maybe he can actually create a three man pitching platoon out of a single roster spot by rotating Fernando Sales, Brian Augenstein and Eduardo Sanchez every 10 days, always moving one up and one down I-55 between St. Louis and Memphis.

That is almost to scary to think about – please don’t tell Tony about this idea.  Even in jest.

Fix what’s broken

The right answer to the 2011 season is to backfill the missing starter with another starter, either already in the minor league system (Lance Lynn, PJ Walters, Adam Ottavino or Brandon Dickson) or to acquire one from outside via a late spring training trade.   It’s not like the Cardinals don’t have a logjam of outfielders and first baseman that might be able to play for some rebuilding team.   With Adron Chambers just around the corner, an outfield prospect like Jon Jay plus an arm from the minor league system might be enough to get a deal done.

If not, both Lance Lynn and Brandon Dickson threw for more than 167 innings last season in Memphis.  While neither is going to replace the 225 innings and 20 wins that we had hoped for this year from Adam Wainwright, coaxing another inning per start out of either youngster, even at the risk of a few more losses, might be the best thing for the 2011 Cardinals in the long run.  Every inning eaten by the 5th starter will be one less high pressure inning taken off a reliever, and by August, that might be the difference between playing in post-season and watching it on TV.

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4 Responses to Relievers are Baseball Players too (aka, the potential downfall of the 2011 Cardinals)

  1. William says:

    All great stuff, Bob, and your arguments are well thought out presented. But there are a couple of things to remember here. The first is that “what’s best for the team,” in an understandable commitment, but it can’t always come at the expense of a human being seeking to better himself. McClellan wants to be the starter and he deserves the chance to show that he can do it. So far this spring, he has earned that right. This is important for more far reaching reasons than just the Cardinals. McClellan has a career to think about. The best paid starters still make double what the best relievers get paid (with the exception of Rivera and Papelban). The kid deserves that kind of chance for his career path.

    Secondly, if McClellan can succeed at this (and C. J. Wilson is just one example of it working. Dempster is another), then the Cardinals have a starter they can build on for the future. Beyond this year, can you tell what will become of Carpenter? Or Wainwright? Grooming starting pitchers is still more important in the grand scheme of things than so-called sure things in the bullpen. Teams will fall out of the race. Bullpen arms will become available.

    So, yeah, you want to win short term. But you have to think long term too for both the Cardinals and the player.

    A great post creates constructive discussions, so this isn’t a knock on the post. Quite the contrary.

    • Thanks William. Always appreciate the comments, especially when they turn into conversations like this one may. I hope the tone of the article didn’t come off anti-McClellan, because I intended it to be quite the opposite. I love the hometown story and the fact is that he’s becoming a very good hurler. And yes, we’re in agreement that he’s done absolutely everything necessary to earn a spot in the rotation, but ….. it’s a shame that he can’t be rewarded in a compensation neutral fashion for his role – one that he is particularly good at.

      Since you bring up Ryan Demster, I left him out of the comparisons on purpose. He had been a [sort of successful] starter for a number of seasons at the major league level and had been over 200 innings pitched several times. Like McClellan, he suffered arm troubles, and re-emerged as a reliever after three seasons of breaking down. As much as I’d love to see McClellan follow that path, his body of work to date doesn’t show a capacity of 200 innings.

      Carpenter has a team option, albeit a rather expensive one, for 2012. If he comes out of the gate strong, I almost expect to see that deal restructured a bit to give him another year or two in St. Louis, perhaps doing the Dennis Eckersley thing and pitching in the bullpen until he’s 43. Of course, if Lance Lynn learns control and masters that new 4 seam fastball in Memphis this year, that’s a totally different situation, and he may be the new 5th starter in 2012.

      It’s a tough decision, and why John Mozeliak and his cadre of slide rule guys make the big bucks. I’m still struggling to see how McClellan can absorb enough innings to salvage anything out of this season.

      But a good conversation has been started, and I appreciate that.

  2. William says:

    Personally, I can’t see any better option than letting Carpenter go at the end of the season. He isn’t getting any younger and he’ll be way too expensive as he loses stuff along the way. If you get 12 to 16 wins out of him this year, count yourself blessed to see such a great warrior battle for so long.
    That said, you will need more starters. I can’t see Wainwright being available until May 2012. Could be wrong, but it will take a while for his arm strength to return. I like Lance Lynn. I think he has a future. Garcia looks like the real deal. With Lynn, Garcia and McClellen, you have a core that could carry you for the next five years.
    As Rob Neyer is fond of saying, relievers are fungible. There will always be relief arms available. This winter has shown a grown in their cost, but cheap surprises like Benoit last year and Cruz this year in Tampa will always be out there.

  3. William says:

    A groan in their cost? Hah! An apt and ironic typo.

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