Where the bullpen falters

by on June 18, 2008 · 0 comments

Ok, who can come up with the most jokes quickest here?

“Any Major League ballpark?”

“Any field that has dirt?”

“Everywhere?”

As I was watching the Cardinals’ blow another good start by Braden Looper, this time with Kyle McClellan the culprit, I was thinking about what the major downfall of this year’s bullpen has been.

Well, given tonight’s outcome, and last night’s outcome, surely it’s the insane amount of home runs this bunch has given up so far, right? (Well, not to mention that without Albert Pujols in the lineup, the Cards are only providing their pitching staff 1.5 runs per game against the lowly Royals.)

The statistics seem to indicate that long balls are not the problem. In fact, at 61 home runs surrendered as of last night, the Cards ranked second in the National League in fewest home runs allowed. To go one step further, only 21 of those homers were allowed by the bullpen – a proportionate amount to the starters’ 40 when you figure that Cardinal pitchers have gone 429 innings as starters and 217 2/3 as relievers (again, these stats are through last night’s loss).

No, where the issue could possibly lie – and bring up a hilarious Tim McCarver reference in the process – is in the number of walks being surrendered by the bullpen.

Now, before you completely crucify me – listen to the evidence. The Cardinals are surrendering, as a team, the second fewest walks in the National League. Great stat, right? However, digging deeper, a quick look at the splits between starters and relievers for the Cardinals reveals that and innings-to-virtually everything comparison falls in line – except for earned runs and walks. Innings-to-HR, innings-to-hits, innings-to-SLG, they’re all real close ratios.

The walks go off at 120 for the starters in 429 innings versus 102 free passes issued in 217 2/3 for the relievers.

That is an astounding number that begs the question – are the Cards relievers that bad, or are their starters that good – at avoiding walks? A quick review of the other National League teams would suggest that it’s probably both. The starters do such a good job of not walking any hitters that the bullpen looks much worse in comparison. And since we have two “career” relievers in our starting rotation who are still learning (slowly) to get past six innings in their starts, LaRussa has to get into his ‘pen earlier.

The Cardinals have been as successful as we’ve seen this year based on the strength of their starting rotation and their 33-16 combined record. The bullpen is 9-14. Certainly could be worse, but they have been bailed out a few times even despite themselves.

What has happened to this crew since their 30-12 campaign last year?

No Tyler Johnson for one. I think Johnson would go a long way toward healing what ails this bullpen. Randy Flores is clearly not the answer as LOOGY – he can’t even do that effectively anymore. Ideally, Flores would assume Ron Villone’s current role, with Johnson being the shut-down lefty.

Jason Isringhausen’s implosion has created the other rift in the bullpen fabric. That’s not to say the other guys haven’t pitched well in his absence. Ryan Franklin has held his own in the closer role. Russ Springer (outside of one or two games) hasn’t been terrible. McClellan has performed admirably as a rookie.

But some these guys are currently mis-matched for their roles. Franklin could perhaps be even more successful in the set-up role he inhabited while Izzy was still blowing games. He was, if I recall correctly, leading the NL in holds at the time Izzy went on the DL (May 15). He had a 1.80 ERA. Villone has not been successful assuming the long-relief role (which I still say was being manned successfully by Mike Parisi before they threw him into a couple of starts and subsequently gave up on him). Perhaps the return of Brad Thompson will help to take some of the pressure off of Villone in those situations?

At any rate, there is going to be a conflict in the roster soon, with Thompson due back off of the disabled list any day. Sure, he’ll probably get spot starts for the most part until one of the regular starters can get back to regularly starting. But then what? Surely they won’t send Villone down, as Tony needs to have his lefties available for matchup scenarios. Springer has pitched well enough that he won’t be sent out. Anthony Reyes is probably on a fast train back to Memphis already as it is. But then who is the odd man out? Chris Perez, the rookie who has excelled in middle to setup work? They need to get Perez his innings this season to get him ready for the closer’s role next season.

Might be time for Mozeliak to deal from some strengths here (outfield overcrowding, anyone?) to shore up spots like LOOGY and second base.

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Writing about the Cardinals and other loosely associated topics since 2008, I've grown tired of the April run-out only to disappoint Cardinal fans everywhere by mid-May. I do not believe in surrendering free outs.
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