Cards-Rangers: Bullpen phones will be busy

In 1952, Brooklyn pitcher Joe Black relieved 52 times in winning the Rookie of the Year award; in the World Series, he started more games (three, including Game 7) than the regular season (two).

In 1950, Jim Konstanty relieved 74 times to win the MVP award and the pennant for the Phillies, who then took him out of the bullpen and started him in Game 1 of the World Series.

Today the trend is moving in an opposite direction — the Rangers took their second-best starting pitcher and put him in the bullpen for the postseason — and it’s not always about who pitches the most innings, but who pitches the most important innings.

The World Series begins Wednesday with two teams — St. Louis and Texas — who have combined for four quality starts in 21 postseason games; each won their championship series without a single quality start. In six games, the Cardinals didn’t have a starting pitcher record an out in the sixth inning. As you might have surmised, that’s never happened before.

It’s indicative, yes, of the two teams’ mediocre starting pitching, strong bullpens and managerial acumen, but also how the game has evolved. Perhaps a quality start should no longer be finishing six innings and surrendering three runs or less, but reaching the fifth inning with a lead (doing the former requires only a 4.50 ERA; that might be quality, but not high quality).

There was a time when the setup man was a novel concept; today teams have setup men on top of setup men. There was a time when multi-inning saves were common (Rich Gossage got the last eight outs for the Yankees in their 1978 playoff at Boston); today a four-out save is considered extreme.

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa had eight relievers on his roster for the NLCS, and he used them all. He’s made 45 pitching changes in 11 postseason games (and one of those was a complete game); the Rangers’ Ron Washington has made 40 in 10. Both World Series teams have bullpen phones that need call waiting.

(Almost 30 years ago in our playback league, a manager had such mediocre starters and great relievers, he would remove the former as soon as he could. He was so quick to take his starter out — A.J. Burnett’s leadoff walk to Austin Jackson would have sufficed, for example — we legislated against it on the grounds it wasn’t realistic. Turns out, it is now; he wasn’t radical, just prophetic.)

La Russa and Washington did what they’re supposed to — they gave their teams their best chance to win, even if it’s entirely opposite how Brooklyn’s Charlie Dressen and Philadelphia’s Eddie Sawyer thought to do it 60 years ago.

For the record, Konstanty lost 1-0 in 1950’s Game 1, then came back to relieve in Games 3 and 4, including a 6.2 inning stint in the latter; he pitched 15 of the 35.2 innings the Yankees batted. Today, the Red Sox can’t get their pitchers to watch that many innings.

In 1952, Black won Game 1, but lost Game 4 2-0 and Game 7 4-2; he threw 21.1 postseason innings after 142.1 in the regular season — 163.2 innings total with just five starts. Alexi Ogando, the starting pitcher the Rangers moved to the bullpen for the playoffs, has made 29 starts in 2011 — 24 more than Black in 1952 — and pitched 179.1 innings, just 15.2 more than Black.

And before someone bemoans the change in philosophy, consider this: Black was never again an effective pitcher and retired in 1957; Konstanty, who was 33 in 1950, pitched seven more seasons and had only one other good one. There’s a reason Tigers manager Jim Leyland declared Justin Verlander off-limits every time he was tempted to bring him back on one- or two-days rest.

You can decry the specialization in today’s game if it offends you, but here’s why teams do it: it works.

Take Arthur Rhodes — which, ironically enough, is what the Rangers said to 29 other major league teams in August. The Cardinals did, even though Rhodes was a 41-year-old lefty reliever (42 next week) with a 4.81 ERA.

La Russa crafted a narrow but defined role for Rhodes: he gets the opposition’s most dangerous left-handed hitters in the middle innings. Rhodes has faced eight batters in five postseason games, and the closest La Russa has come to letting Rhodes see a righty is in the on-deck circle.

We can assume Josh Hamilton’s World Series preparation includes watching lots of tape of Rhodes (and Marc Rzepczynski). Hamilton will offer more resistance than Ryan Howard did — he was nearly 200 points of OPS better vs. lefties this year — but Rhodes has allowed only a walk to Prince Fielder this postseason. It’s a courageous manager who’s going to send up John Mayberry to bat for Ryan Howard in the sixth inning just because a 41-year-old lefty is in.

In years past, of course, this wasn’t how games were managed. From 1962-71, every deciding game of the World Series was won by a complete game; in the last quarter-century, that’s happened only twice (Josh Beckett, Florida, 2003; Jack Morris, Minnesota, 1991).

The Cardinals’ and Rangers’ success doesn’t mean this is the only way to win — the Giants won last fall with starting pitchers going deep into Games 4 and 5. The Phillies’ starting pitching staggered, but they lost more because the offense only scored 10 runs in the last four games. And lest we forget, the Cardinals won Game 5 of the NLDS this year with a Chris Carpenter complete game. We know Zack Greinke remembers.

But there was probably no more important moment in the NLCS than the fifth inning of another Game 5: two on, two out, Cardinals leading 4-1, Ryan Braun batting. Jamie Garcia was one out short of a potential win, and La Russa pulled him. Why shouldn’t he? If Garcia couldn’t get Jerry Hairston out, why should La Russa entrust him to retire the Brewers’ best hitter? Who offered the Cardinals a better chance to win: Garcia or Octavio Dotel? We’ll never know about the former, but the latter fanned Braun, and the Brewers’ chance to win the series was never as good.

It’s irrelevant, of course, if all the pitching changes and matchups and platooning are good for baseball. As the Cardinals and Rangers have shown, they can be good for winning.

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6 Responses to Cards-Rangers: Bullpen phones will be busy

  1. Mike says:

    Makes an interesting argument for starting your closer and letting your normal starter come in an inning or two later.

    • not sure i’d go that far. But sabermeticians have long raised the question of what’s the best use of the stopper, and how it’s not always the last three outs. To me, no out was as important in the NLCS as Braun in Game 5; La Russa didn’t use his stopper, but he used the next most important piece of his bullpen awfully early, because he thought so, too.

  2. Ron White says:

    There’s a pretty incredible story in what the Cardinals have accomplished with their relief pitching this season. St. Louis had seven relief pitchers on the opening-day roster, and not a single one of them had success. The lefties, Trever Miller and Brian Tallet, Miller faced 77 batters for St. Louis and gave up walks or a hit to nearly half of them. That’s terrible for a guy who is supposed to get one out. Tallet had an 8.31 ERA in 18 appearances. Enough said there. Ryan Franklin, the opening-day closer, was a disaster. He had an 8.46 ERA this season. Miguel Batista struggled, too. The only two relievers who had anything to offer were Jason Motte and Mitchell Boggs. And both threw nothing but straight gas.

    So Dave Duncan and the management team went to work. Via a series of moves, they parted ways with five of their seven relievers and brought in substantial replacements. The Toronto trade brought them Scrabble, Arthur Rhodes and a new starter in Edwin Jackson. That solved their lefty reliever needs. It also allowed them to put Kyle McClellan back in the pen after he had spent half of the year as a starter. The Cardinals also promoted Fernando Salas, Lance Lynn and Eduardo Sanchez. All three young guns struggled at times, but they were much better than the likes of Franklin and Batista. Meanwhile, Boggs learned how to get some movement on his gas, and that made a huge difference. Their straight stuff got pounded a lot of the time. His ability to fill the closer role late in the season has been a huge benefit.

    Had St. Louis decided against trading Colby Rasmus, the Cardinals wouldn’t be in the World Series. Almost every supposed sports guru wrote a column calling it a horrible trade for St. Louis and carrying on about Colby’s potential. The reality is exactly the opposite. Rasmus is a head case who will never amount to much, and St. Louis added three arms to their bullpen while ridding itself of Colby and his dad, who liked to butt into things in the same way that a Little League parent might do.

    The last piece of the puzzle was Furcal, who has much more left in the tank than anyone seemed to think. He had a superb season at the plate just a few years ago but had been dealing with a lot of injuries that probably have something to do with his bulldog approach. Furcal added speed that was desperately needed at the top of the order, and he is a better defensive player Theriot. St. Louis was among the bottom of the league in defense when they made that acquisition, and they improved in two key spots by upgrading at short with Furcal and upgrading at second with Theriot replacing Schumaker, a converted outfielder who lacked range and had poor footwork for the position.

  3. Morton Kotler says:

    I think that 1 run off Konstanty was a dinger by Joe Dimaggio.

  4. Morton Kotler says:

    I was wrong again. The Homer was in game 2 off Robin Roberts.

    • You’re not often wrong Mort. You’re batting .500 here. Konstanty lost on a double and two flyballs — the RBI sac fly by longtime Padres announcer Jerry Coleman. Konstanty pitched a four-hitter over eight innings, walked four and fanned — none. In his great 1950 season, he fanned 56 and walked 50 in 152 innings. In 1955 he had a 2.32 ERA for the Yankees, but fanned only 19 in 73.2 innings. Not sure how he did it, but he did

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