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ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI - APRIL 6:  Relief pitcher...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

Steve’s note:  Our new contributor likely needs no introduction to the Cardinal saber blogosphere.  Chuck has been an author at VEB as well as The Hardball Times.  We’re very happy to have him contributing here at GHG.

Quick…who was the Cardinals’ best reliever in 2010?  By FIP, it was Jason Motte.  By WAR…Jason Motte.  What about xFIP?  Jason Motte.  By saves…Ryan Franklin.  (Ok, Franklin won WPA and WPA/LI also.)  By most standards, Jason Motte was the Cardinals’ best reliever last season and yet there’s been no discussion whatsoever of his moving into the closer’s role, at least while Franklin is still under contract.  Just another example of Tony’s hating the young’uns, right?  Far be it from me to use my first post here to defend Tony La Russa (or the idea that “experience” should trump talent) but it’s a bit presumptuous to say that Tony’s preference for Franklin in the closer’s role is due to reverse ageism.

What do Hong-Chi Kuo, Matt Thornton, Joaquin Benoit, Rafael Betancourt, Wilton Lopez, Hisanori Takahashi, Ryan Madson, Joel Hanrahan, Darren Oliver, Scott Downs, Daniel Bard and Sean Burnett all have in common?  Give up?  All of them, as measured by FIP, were the best relievers on their respective teams last year.  Many of them, like Motte, were also the best relievers on their teams as measured by WAR.  While I’ll agree that some of them were surprises – who thought that Benoit would be better than Rafael Soriano and who even knew who the heck Wilton Lopez was, for example – many of them (Thornton, Betancourt, Downs, Bard, and Madson) were not surprises, at least to their teams.  It’s likely that their teams knew going into the season that those three were the best relievers in their pen and still gave the closer’s role to an inferior pitcher (Jenks, Street, and Lidge).

The chasm between “traditional” baseball theory and sabermetric baseball theory may be most profound when discussing bullpen usage.  Traditional baseball theory, of course, holds that the closer should be the team’s best reliever and he should be used in the 9th inning to preserve save situations.  Sabermetric theory, on the other hand, holds that a team’s best reliever should be used to preserve games in the highest leverage situations.  It may be most important to have the “closer” enter in the 7th inning with 2 outs and the bases loaded even if that means an inferior reliever pitches the 9th inning and receives the “save.”

The disconnect between the two theories is exacerbated by the fact that saves are incentivized in major league baseball.  Relievers are rewarded, both in the free agent market and in their arbitration years, for “saving” games, even if they’re simply closing out a 3 run lead by getting 3 outs in the 9th.  It appears, then, that many teams have figured out that, by leaving their best reliever in the role of setup man, it allows them to use that reliever in the highest leverage situations while leaving their 2nd best reliever in the closer’s role.  They can use the “setup man” when they need to – at the beginning of an inning or when runners are on base; against lefties or righties – and save him for another game if he’s not needed in a game with a 3 run lead.  Moving someone like Bard to the closer’s role (and, therefore, pushing Jonathan Papelbon to a setup role) would create a tremendous amount of problems within the Red Sox clubhouse and would, in effect, make Bard less valuable to the team.  This is Jason Motte’s role.

The White Sox have done this for a couple of years with Thornton, probably one of the top 5 relievers in the game, with much success and it appears as though the Cardinals, and others, are doing the same thing.  Motte won’t get many “saves” (and, therefore, won’t receive as much money at the end of 2011, his first year of arbitration) but he will be used as well as he can be used within the current framework.  La Russa can have him enter the game to begin the 8th or in the 6th or 7th when the game is on the line.  Need him to face one tough hitter with runners on base?  No problem.  What about a couple of righties and a lefty?  He can do that, too, if La Russa would prefer not to burn Trever Miller or Brian Tallet.  And Franklin will get the glory, and all the handshakes that go with it, in the 9th.

The best part of this strategy from the team’s perspective is that it avoids the team having to overpay a “closer” by signing him to a rich free agent contract.  The team can allow the current closer to leave via free agency and promote the next best reliever to the closer’s role.  Motte inherits Franklin’s role at the end of his contract and the next guy to come along – Eduardo Sanchez, Fernando Salas, Francisco Samuel, Adam Reifer, or someone else – and assume Motte’s role as the pen’s best versatile reliever.  Gone forever (hopefully!) are the days when closers receive 4 and 5 year contracts worth tens of millions of dollars per year simply because they have more saves at the end of the year than other relievers have.  Instead, the Cardinals pay Ryan Franklin a couple million bucks to chalk up 30-35 saves and pay Jason Motte a fraction of that to do the heavy lifting.  Most importantly, the team saves its resources to pay Pujols, Holliday, Wainwright and, in a couple years, Rasmus – all players who contribute much more to the team’s success than the guy pitching the 9th does.  There may still be that huge chasm in the organization between the sabermetric folks and the “old schoolers” like La Russa, but this seems to be one area of genuine agreement between them.

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Chuck Brownson

Though he grew up in Texas, Chuck inherited his Cardinal fan-dom from his father, a life-long Cards' fan. Still a Texas resident, Chuck teaches government and economics when bored by baseball's offseason. He is the proud father of a daughter and a son.

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2 Responses to “That’s a Relief!”

  1. Chuck… great first post!

    Quick question: Do you think this is a strategy the Cardinals and TLR have intentionally utilized? According to FanGraphs’ gmLI (pitcher’s average leverage index when entering game), Motte actually trailed both Franklin and Miller.

  2. I don’t know if it’s one that the team has intentionally used. As far as La Russa goes, we know he likes “veteran experience” so he’s probably hesitant about using a young guy like Motte in the closer’s role. That said, we also know that he likes strikeout pitchers in the setup role — Russ Springer, Calero, Al Reyes, etc. Those guys, according to La Russa and Duncan, need to be more able to get strikeouts than closers do because he’s going to bring the closer in w/ no one on in the 9th. Maybe it just works out the way it should because of Motte’s skillset and Franklin’s experience.

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