St. Louis Cardinals: The 2017 Cardinal bullpen was better than you think

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BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 16: Trevor Rosenthal
BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 16: Trevor Rosenthal /
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While the bullpen of the 2017 St. Louis Cardinals felt like dead weight chained to the team’s ankles, there is quite a bit of potential talent around to help alleviate some of the pitching woes in 2018. However, the problem isn’t so much in the bullpen personnel, because the Cardinal bullpen is better than many people think.

Look, I get it’s clear the St. Louis Cardinals will need some outside help in the ‘pen this season, and that is evident by the twenty-nine losses tacked on Cardinal relief pitchers this season, sixth most in the league. That being said, the struggles the Cardinals had in closing out and winning games isn’t all on the bullpen.

While at first glance, the St. Louis Cardinals’ bullpen significantly struggled. However, ERA tells a different story, with their 3.81 ERA placing them in seventh among team bullpens. The worst in that metric, the Detroit Tigers, had twenty-eight losses paired with nauseating 5.63 ERA.

So what’s the story between the high number of losses and relatively low ERA? There is no question in my eyes the Cardinals have the talent in their bullpen to win games, but Cardinal relievers were pressured more than most bullpens in the league,

Two things contributed to this in my eyes outside of the relievers’ control. First and foremost is Mike Matheny’s horrendous bullpen management so many have complained about throughout the season, whether it was leaving starters in too early, ignoring certain relievers for no apparent reason, or failure at his attempt to emulate former Cardinal manager Tony La Russa by constantly making pitching changes to micromanage match ups.

The other part of this is the lack of support from the offense in alleviating pressure from situations. While this isn’t as much of a factor as the usage, it still plays a part in making life more difficult for the bullpen than it needs to be.

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There are four measurements of pitching leverage, and the Cardinal’s relievers rank quite high in all of them.

First, gmLI, which measures a pitcher or group of pitchers average leverage upon first entering the game, and Cardinal relievers were seventh in the majors with a 1.13 gmLI (.85 is considered low-leverage, 1.00 average, and 2.00 is considered high-leverage).

This demonstrates the St. Louis Cardinals’ relievers were put into tougher situations on average.

The next aspect of the leverage question is inLI, which shows how much leverage a pitcher faces at the start of an inning.

The Cardinals do not fare much better in this metric either, tying for fifth highest leverage for relievers at the start of innings. The more telling thing to note, however, is the similarity in leverage between reliever’s entrance and the beginning of a new inning for one. Here is a look at the deviation between a reliever entering the game and the start of an inning.

TeaminLIgmLIChange
Rays1.021.23-0.21
Brewers1.011.19-0.18
Blue Jays0.971.16-0.19
Red Sox0.961.17-0.21
Cardinals0.931.12-0.19
Mariners0.931.25-0.32
Giants0.91.11-0.21
Dodgers0.91.04-0.14
Angels0.91.08-0.18
Diamondbacks0.891.13-0.34

The lack of significant deviation between the leverage of a reliever entering a game in the middle of an innings and the beginning of innings where there is not immediate threat is demonstrative of not defensive struggles, but offensive ones. By being unable to relieve pressure on relievers inning by inning with offensive separation, the margin for error is dramatically decreased for these relievers.

As mentioned earlier, the Cardinals start their relievers in some of the highest leverage spots in the majors, which when combined with a low difference in inLI made life as a reliever in St. Louis much tougher than in other places. This is also an indication that the bullpen didn’t let as many games away as people thought, as situations with larger run differentials have lower leverage, so there would be no leverage if the bullpen let the game get away.

That being said, that also eliminates an far-fetched reason to explain the lack of change between the pitcher’s leverage when he enters the game (gmLI) and the metric used to measure leverage when a pitcher leaves the game: eLI.

The Cardinals eLI is 1.13, as close as it could be to their gmLI (1.12) without actually being the same, which also supports the fact that the Cardinals were not able to provide relievers with much help this season.

This also demonstrates the problems that relievers get into on their own, being pulled out of the same kinds of situations that they were tasked with stopping just an inning or two before. This is not an article to absolve the bullpen, and I will be the first to admit that there were a significant amount of control issues in the bullpen, no matter the situation, and this snowballed into other problems to cause the defeat of the Cardinals on a number of nights.

However, the blame for this cannot solely lie on the bullpen. It has been well documented that bullpen roles were all over the place for most of the season, and the injury to Trevor Rosenthal late only upset the balance even further. Pairing this with Matheny’s issues, and you don’t exactly have a recipe for success.

This all accumulates to pLI, which is the total accumulation of leverage in all the situations pitchers may be in. This season, the St. Louis Cardinals bullpen had the fourth highest pLI out of all major league bullpens at 1.09 overall. Whether it was by circumstance or self-induced, the bullpen was under pressure, which certainly makes things difficult despite a passable 3.83 ERA.

So what does all of this mean in the grand scheme of Cardinal baseball? Well, I won’t go so far as to say the Cardinal bullpen doesn’t need to look for outside help, because it certainly could use a dominating pitcher to anchor it all together.

What I will say is that the Cardinal bullpen is far more talented than the fans give them credit for, and with young arms up and coming, not paying for a top reliever won’t be as fatal to the team’s hopes next season as one might think. With Alex Reyes’ return on the horizon and guys like Dakota Hudson, Jack Flaherty, and Sandy Alcantara on the rise, there is a something to be excited about for the bullpen next season.

Next: Dexter Fowler shift helps player and team

Who do you want to see as the St. Louis Cardinals closer in 2016? Do you think the Cardinals need to pick up one or more arms this off season? Let me know in the comments, and stay tuned for a full prediction of the 2018 Cardinal bullpen.

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