Dissecting a manager’s use of the bullpen is a national pastime, and St. Louis Cardinals fans (me included) love to do it as much as anyone, if not more so. Bullpen management is probably a fan’s favorite thing to gripe about, except for maybe lineup construction, so I will try to avoid being too nitpicky. Hindsight in 20/20, as the saying goes, but Oli Marmol’s management of the pitching staff is extra interesting considering that he is a first year manager.
If you’ve been on Cardinals Twitter at all recently, then you might think you know where I’m going with this, but you would only be partially right so let’s dig in.
We’ll start with Marmol’s leash with his starters. Remember April 30th when the Cards lost to the DBacks 2-0? You probably remember, but this is what Marmol said after the game.
Oli Marmol was critical of his decision to bring Mikolas out for the 8th, even with Helsley and Cabrera warming up.
“Miles did his job. I didn’t do mine. He was really good through seven. He was at 91 pitches. We’ve got a pretty damn good bullpen. I should’ve gone to it.”
— Katie Woo (@katiejwoo) April 30, 2022
Miles Mikolas had tossed 7 scoreless innings when Marmol kept him out for the 8th, and it backfired as the righty surrendered two runs in the 8th to take the loss. It was refreshing to hear Marmol take the blame for running Mikolas out there too long, and it was great to hear him recognize how good the bullpen is. After he said that it felt like he had learned a lesson and I felt pretty good about where his bullpen management was heading.
Two weeks later and I’m not so sure.
Let’s take the most recent example. In Steven Matz’s last start, he threw six innings of one run ball against the Orioles before finishing with two more runs charged against him in the 7th. He left after throwing 101 pitches. This is a guy who got hammered his third time through the order last season (.374 wOBA allowed), the best year of his career.
Sure he was cruising, but he had already thrown a lot of pitches and in a one run game it feels safer to go to the bullpen, which as Marmol said, is really good.
In the other loss to the Orioles, Packy Naughton threw a pair of scoreless innings before giving up two in the third and one in the fourth. None of us really knew how long he was going to last but he should probably have been on a short leash after two innings. He’s not exactly the most talented arm on the staff and he’s been a reliever all season. He should have been out of the game as soon as he allowed a runner to reach base in the third, if not before.
The list goes on, but it certainly feels like Marmol has been reactive and not proactive. Each of Jordan Hicks, Dakota Hudson, and Miles Mikolas have been pulled midway through an inning in the last two weeks because they got into jams and gave up runs in their final innings.
I’m going to avoid being hypercritical here. I’m sitting in a chair writing an article about what Oli Marmol is doing so he’s clearly smarter than me. There’s a lot of variables that go into making a pitching decision and who am I to say that I would have made the right call in his shoes? Still, after his above quote, I thought that I would be less frustrated in the past two weeks. Instead, it feels like the bullpen is oftentimes not used early enough.
It’s the bullpen usage that has also been frustrating.
The most used reliever has been a veteran middle reliever with 1.2 career fWAR. He was a scrap heap signing who has been fine but not much more, yet he’s on pace for 79 appearances this year. Only two pitchers in all of baseball have made more appearances than Wittgren, and each of them have an ERA under 1.
Marmol isn’t the only manager who has gotten attached to an average middle reliever, though. There are eight other relievers who have made 16 appearances and three of them have FIPs higher than Wittgren’s, though, of the group, Wittgren has the second highest ERA.
T.J. McFarland is the third most used reliever on the team and he may not be on the roster much longer if he keeps pitching like he has been.
Gallegos is on pace for 59 appearances, which would be a large step down from 73 last year. Helsley has a negative FIP and 0.6 fWAR already, but he’s only on pace for 44 appearances. In fact, his last appearance came on eight days of rest. Eight. For the best reliever on the team (currently). That’s a problem. Not only has he been the best reliever on the team, he’s legitimately been the best reliever in baseball through his first 11 2⁄3 innings. He also pitched on six days rest earlier in the year and twice on four days rest.
Jake Woodford has it worse though. He went a whopping 14 days between his first appearance and his second appearance and has only been used sporadically since then. He’s certainly not a top reliever on the team, but he seemed to have been forgotten about at times. Why can’t he take some middle inning work? Is there really a major difference between Woodford and Wittgren? I don’t know if Wittgren can pitch effectively if he appears in nearly half the games this season but using Woodford more would help keep Wittgren’s arm fresher.
Marmol is likely trying to save his best relievers for the end of games or the biggest moments, and this is leading to him overusing mediocre pitchers and underusing Helsley. In any given situation, would you rather have Wittgren or Helsley in the game? Using Helsley to preserve a lead or a narrow deficit outside of a high leverage situation may take away from his availability later, but when that’s the only thing considered, it’s easy for Helsley to go a week without pitching. That shouldn’t happen.
As Cardinals fans, we’ve seen this before.
Before the season, Marmol made a lot of comments that sounded like he would be a change from Mike Shildt and Mike Matheny before him. Yet, here we are, 33 games into the season, and Marmol doesn’t feel like a significant difference, at least in terms of bullpen management.
He’s overly attached to his middle relievers, saves a long reliever for long stints only (Woodford), and doesn’t use his best relievers often enough.
I’m starting to see fans who have lost their patience with Marmol’s use of the pitching staff and now claim to prefer Shildt over Marmol. It’s been 33 games. Also, it’s been Marmol’s first 33 games.
Marmol is learning on the job. He’s a rookie manager. It’s easy to rationalize saving the best guys but they need to be on the mound more and It’s easy to rationalize leaving a starter in for an extra inning. He needs to learn how to be proactive. Put the best relievers in more games and take starters out before they give up damage.
I’ve never understood why managers take an all or nothing approach when it comes to a starter’s final inning. It seems like they either pull him or try to get him through the full inning. A middle-ground could be letting him start the inning but then pulling him as soon as he allows a base runner. A starter shouldn’t be trying to pitch his way out of a jam 85+ pitches into the game.
These are growing pains for a manger. It’s okay to be concerned. I want to see more of Helsley too. But let’s not overreact just yet. Marmol needs time to grow just like any rookie does. There are other parts of his managing that have left me encouraged, so let’s not just focus on the bad.
I appreciate that Marmol is willing to change the lineup depending on the matchup and I like Marmol’s honesty in press conferences. He is willing to admit his mistakes, but now he needs to grow from them.
Helsley has had a historically good start to the year, Woodford has pitched well when he’s seen the mound, Wittgren is just an average pitcher, and McFarland has simply been bad. Marmol needs to learn how to optimize his usage of these arms in order to put the best players on the field the most times while keeping everyone fresh.
Not every rookie can be like Juan Yepez and do everything right immediately. Managing is complex and Marmol needs time to make mistakes and learn from them.
He is learning which starters he can ride and which ones he can’t. That much is evident from the fact that he always pushes Mikolas an extra inning and Hudson was pulled after 5 scoreless inning and 80 pitches in his last outing. Marmol did a great job of going to the ‘pen early instead of bringing Hudson out for the sixth.
These good decisions simply need to happen more often. It’s still early in Marmol’s managerial career, though, so I still have plenty of hope that he can become a savvy bullpen decision maker.