The 8-man bullpen. It’s been a point of ridicule for the St. Louis Cardinals, namely Mike Matheny, for the past two seasons. Often described as a crutch or safety blanket that the manager desired, most fans and media had a distaste for that aspect of the roster management. This discontent was not so much in the general idea of an 8-man bullpen, and thus shorter bench, but rather with the utilization of it. Too often the Cardinals employed a “break glass in case of emergency” long reliever that rarely saw the light of day. Matheny designated one of those guys even when he had only 7 relievers, which led to extreme overuse of the other 6. In an effort to provide him with both a safety net and a full compliment of usable relief options, the front office appeased him with the extra arm in 2017. Because of his aversion to use the emergency reliever, the team essentially opened every game with 24 players (20 if you subtract off-day starting pitchers). This one change in one roster spot had a dramatic effect on how the players on the roster should be used, and what in-game decisions could be made.
It didn’t work with Matheny.
It works with Mike Shildt.
Old School vs. New School
Back in June of 2017, at the Blogger Day event at Busch Stadium, John Mozeliak expressed that the front office preferred the traditional 12-man pitching staff, but they added the extra arm because they wanted to give their manager the tools that he felt he needed to win games. With that in mind, when Shildt was first given the interim position, I was very interested to see if the team would drift back to the more traditional 13 hitter/12 pitcher alignment with a 7-man bullpen, as opposed to the 13-man staff requested under Matheny. Immediately, they ran into a 5 games in 4 days situation and thus stacked extra arms at every opportunity. I thought that maybe once they cleared that, as well as the run of rookie starts in Cincy, they would settle in and trim back the quantity.
They haven’t. But that’s ok.
The 8-man bullpen, and subsequent 13-man pitching staff, is no longer the novelty that it was even a year ago. The advent of applied analytics, chiefly pulling starters earlier in games, has led more teams to employ an extra reliever. Currently, 12 of the 15 teams in the National League are carrying 13 pitchers. This is how a Major League roster is built in 2018. That’s perfectly fine when your manager knows how to properly utilize the given roster.
As I’m writing this, Kolten Wong is due to be activated from the DL and it is highly likely that a reliever is optioned to make room, rather than demoting Yairo Munoz. If that’s the case, they will have a 7-man bullpen again, but I do believe that eventually they will work back to the 8-man setup, so hopefully this doesn’t age too poorly. That’s how it goes when you’re blogging.
What is Different Under Shildt?
Even in a short, 16-game sample, we can clearly see the ways in which Mike Shildt is making better, more complete use of his roster than his predecessor. The perfect example of how to properly use the 8-man bullpen was on display in Wednesday’s game against the Rockies. With Luke Weaver laboring in the 3rd inning but the game still well within reach, Shildt went to Daniel Poncedeleon to complete the frame and pitch the following 2 innings. He didn’t try to milk Weaver — who has been notorious for having innings snowball on him this year — through the 3rd inning (or worse, see if he could push him through 5 for the chance at a win). We didn’t run the risk of hearing the same old “He’s a pitch away from getting out of it” line in the post-game because this manager actually utilized the extra reliever in the exact situation it exists for.
And it goes beyond replacing a struggling starter early in a game. We have seen multiple instances where Shildt would pinch hit for a pitcher that wasn’t struggling, electing to go all-in with a run scoring opportunity, rather than getting one more inning out of his starter. He knows he has 8 bullpen arms and that he can cover the innings both today, and tomorrow, by using his long relievers properly.
It is the knowledge that he has a 8 relievers at his disposal that allows him to go to the bullpen before a game gets out of hand with the starter. We saw that in the Sunday night game with the Cubs. It was a 2-1 Cardinals lead in the 5th with Anthony Rizzo coming to bat and a man on. Shildt recognized that this was the game, right there, in the 5th inning. He pulled John Gant, who had allowed a HR to Rizzo earlier, and went to the bullpen to shut it down. It was right move and would have worked if not for a costly, 2-out error. Still, confidence to make that move is rooted in the confidence that you have plenty of innings in your bullpen, and having plenty of innings in your bullpen comes from properly managing it over multiple games.
It’s Not Just About the Bullpen
To take Wednesday’s example a step further, there is another detail worth noting. When Poncedeleon was brought into the Top of the 3rd, he was due to lead-off the bottom of the inning. You know what happened? Mike Shildt left him there. There was no double-switch to get a position player in that spot, which would simultaneously burn a different position player, in the 3rd inning of a game. Do you think it would have played out that way 3 weeks ago? No? Me either.
That is the other side of the coin with the 8-man bullpen. You have to also be smart with your shortened bench. Matheny would both fail to utilize the extra reliever AND burn through a short bench with superfluous moves, most notably his infamous double-switches. We have seen Shildt use double-switches as well, when the situation calls for it or for the late-game replacement of Jose Martinez, an obvious defensive liability. He doesn’t use one or two per night, just to move the pitcher around in the batting order. If you know how to manage your bullpen, both in a narrow 1-game scope, and in a broader whole-week view, you can decrease the unavailability of multiple pitchers on a nightly basis and thus decrease the necessity for stretching relievers multiple innings. Not worrying about getting extra outs from relievers means you don’t have to worry about when they are due to bat, because when they come up, you can simply pinch hit.
We have seen the effects of not handicapping your bench. Because Shildt doesn’t put himself at a disadvantage, he can deploy his best pinch hitters whenever the situation calls for it. If it’s calling for Jose Martinez with the bases loaded in the 5th — or even 4th, if that’s where you think the game’s pivot point is — then so be it. The manager is confident that he will still have players left on his bench when the 9th inning rolls around, because he isn’t going to back himself into a corner.
Having an 8-man bullpen is about so much more than just having an extra arm to cover innings. It’s about knowing how to use it. It’s about knowing how the use of every unit on a roster can affect, or be affected, by another unit on the roster. The Starters affect the bullpen, the Bullpen affects the Bench, the Bench affects the Bullpen. All things are intertwined.
It’s nice to, once again, see a manager that knows how to make these units work together, and work for him.
Thanks for reading!