Cardinals: The “26th Man” Isn’t Intriquing, It’s Just A Re-Packaging of an Old Thing

Sep 18, 2019; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals pinch hitter Matt Wieters (32) celebrates with third baseman Tommy Edman (19) after hitting a two run home run off of Washington Nationals starting pitcher Max Scherzer (not pictured) during the seventh inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

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Yesterday I discussed how Tyler O’Neill has walked throughout his minor league career, and the notion — being discussed in the media — that walks have never been a part of his game is misguided.

Today, I’m out to bust another Spring narrative: the intrigue of the 26th man.

I’ve heard a local sports personality repeatedly mention how interested he is in how the team will deploy the “new” 26th man on the active roster. He isn’t alone. I’ve seen plenty on Twitter discuss this topic, especially the aspect of carrying 3 catchers.

Here’s the thing about the 26th man, though. It’s not really new.

I mean, it is, the active roster has never contained 26 players — other than the allowance for double headers — but it’s practical application is not new, at all.

Practically, the 26-man roster allows a max of 13 pitchers — which has become standard in baseball — and a 5-man bench. That 5th bench spot has been the focus of the conversation and the source of intrigue for some. It’s new and shiny.

Except, again, it’s not.

It you think waaay back to…2016, 5-man benches were the norm in baseball. The typical roster configuration involved 13 hitters and 12 pitchers, and some AL teams in the past even going as far as 14 hitters and 11 pitchers, to allow for 9 regular hitters (DH) and a 5 man bench. 13-man pitching staffs, namely 8-man bullpens, were rare occurrences when teams felt that the schedule or other circumstances required an extra arm, temporarily.

I’m not sure who pioneered the 8-man bullpen movement, but I know that it began in 2017 for the Cardinals. That was the year I started blogging and it was a topic of conversation within the blogosphere, being brought up in a 2017 blogger event Q&A with John Mozeliak. He expressed that the 8th reliever was a desire of the coaching staff — an appeasement to Matheny’s “break glass in case of emergency” reliever. That was, the reliever that Matheny never ever used, which was problematic with a 7-man pen, because he was running the other 6 into the ground, but was doable with an 8-man pen — at the cost of a bench spot.

It was new in 2017.

By 2018, it was prevalent. I wrote about how the application of the 8-man pen changed with Mike Shildt in August of that year. This is the snippet from that post I want to highlight:

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.

Beginning in 1911 — with short-term changes and rule nuances along the way — the 25-man active roster has been in place. I would guess that for a century (and change) no team carried less than 13 position players unless there was some dire pitching emergency. Starters threw a ton of innings, bullpens were smaller and benches were bigger. For most of the last 20+ years, the 13/12 hitter/pitcher split was how teams built their roster.

Then over the course of 3 seasons (maybe 4 in some cities) that shifted to 12/13.

MLB reacted to this shift and expanded the roster by 1.

This was not done to increase the size of the bench, per se. It was done to accommodate the new 13-pitcher norm.

So, full circle, that accommodation brings back the 5-man bench, something that existed for 100+ years and only fully died out 2 years ago.

So it’s not intriguing to me at all. It’s a return to normal.

How will it be deployed? Probably like it was from ?-2016.

Specifically for the 2020 Cardinals, they aren’t going to carry 3 catchers. Having Knizner rot on the bench to give Matt Wieters 2 pinch hitting appearances a week is a poor use of roster space. I know he is a switch hitter, but carrying basically anyone else as a pinch hitting option and not having a little used 3rd catcher is the smarter play.

Once Brad Miller was signed, in my mind, the bench was almost set. Wieters, Edman, Miller, Ravelo, and probably Lane Thomas are the most likely bench. That changes is Dylan Carlson forces his way onto the roster, forcing O’Neill or Bader to the bench and pushing Ravelo or Thomas to AAA.

It’s not too complicated.

Now, it’s worth stating that this return to normal is probably temporary. Brace yourselves…the DH is coming.

What seems to be the inevitable advent of the DH in the NL would reduce the bench again to 4 players.

On one hand, this is MLB adjusting roster size for the prevailing trend in roster construction. Consider that with a 25-man roster, if an AL team wants to carry 8 relievers and start 9 hitters, they have to reduce themselves to a 3-man bench — essentially 2-man since one of the 3 is a backup catcher. They now have the ability to do both without severely limiting their bench.

And NL teams will be able to do the same in a few years, probably.

So on the other hand, this is MLB laying a little groundwork for the addition of the DH in the NL.

But in 2020, it is a return to what once was normal, in the ancient year of 2016.

And so while I like the ability to carry the extra bat again, I’m not overly intrigued by how it will be used. We’ve seen it before — we’ve seen it recently — but the packaging has just changed a little.

Thanks for reading.

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Last updated: 03/26/2020

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