Pointing a Finger at the Pen

Yes, the St. Louis Cardinals starters are in the midst of a terrible stretch of baseball, but they have been let down by their bullpen for much of the 2006 season.&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp

After Sunday's Cardinals game, during which a down-and-almost out Sidney Ponson could have mailed in a mediocre performance but didn't, I realized that I need to speak out more about what I believe to be a real soft spot of the 2006 Cardinals.

No, not the rotation. I mean the bullpen.

Sure, the five starters have struggled in recent days, but with Anthony Reyes' arrival, there is hope – for the remainder of 2006 and the future.

On the other hand, I frankly don't see a Reyes-like impact player anywhere on the near-term horizon for the ‘pen. Note: I will be happy to eat my words if guys like journeyman Brian Falkenborg or Josh Kinney get a chance and excel.

This pen problem began long before Randy Flores and Brad Thompson conspired to ruin Ponson's and the Cardinals' Sunday afternoon.

Back on May 31, I wrote a story entitled, "Cards Bullpen: Are They Pulling Their Weight?". In it, I noted that the overall pen numbers - ERA, save percentage, etc. - stacked right up there with the team leaders in the National League.

However, a further look showed several key members of the pen were having trouble in either retiring their first runner faced or were letting large numbers of inherited runners to score or both. This can inflate starters ERAs and more importantly, allow close games to get away.

What is the cause and what is the effect? Well, here are the ERA rankings of the overall staff, the starters and the relievers on May 26 and on Monday, June 26.

5/26 6/26

% Increase

Staff 3.61 #1 4.45 #7 23.3%
 Starters 3.81 #2 4.69 #10 23.1%
 Relievers 3.18 #1 3.94 #5 24.0%

You'll note that the ERAs of both the starters and relievers grew at just about the same rate over the last month, though the starters fell much further in comparison to the remainder of the 16-team National League.

Difficult to point any fingers there.

But, let's look at the pen's ability to come in and get out that first batter they face. While the current mark of 66% is not terrible, it represents a three-year downward slide and worst since the bullpen debacle of 2003 – a group that included such memorable luminaries as Estaban Yan and Pedro Borbon, Jr.

Cards pen

1st Batter Faced

1st Batter Retired

2006 to date
















Certain individuals have had more to do with the 2006 failing than others. In fact, the guys upon whom you would think you need to depend are the most inefficient in retiring first hitters.

2006 1st Batter  1st Batter  2005 YTY
Cards pen Faced Retired
Thompson 29 14 48.3% 74.4% -26.1%
Isringhausen 32 19 59.4% 65.6% -6.2%
Flores 31 19 61.3% 67.3% -6.0%
Looper 31 20 64.5%
Bullpen total 207 137 66.0% 69.0% -3.0%
Hancock 28 19 67.9%
Johnson 19 14 73.7%
Wainwright 27 22 81.5%

Brad Thompson, Jason Isringhausen, Randy Flores and Braden Looper are all below the team average. In fact, each three of the holdovers from last season, Thompson, Isringhausen and Flores, have seen their first batter retired numbers drop from year to year. In Thompson's case, the decline is huge.

But, putting runners on base doesn't necessarily mean scoring is involved, right?

Well, the data shows that the problem is much worse than just putting the first batter on base. You see, in 2006, these bullpenners have been hurting the starters by allowing their inherited runners to cross the plate at an abnormally-high rate.

Specifically, the members of the Cardinals' pen have allowed 44.2% of their inherited runners to score this season.

That is:

• Worst in the National League this season.

• 10.2% worse than the current NL average of 34%.

• 18.2% worse than the 2005 Cardinals pen.

• Worst in Tony La Russa's 11-year tenure as Cardinals manager.

On the latter point, it isn't even close. The 2006 rate is 7.6% higher than the lousiest previous La Russa pen – those infamous 2003 Cardinals.

Cardinals Inherited Inh. Runner
Bullpens Runners Score
2006 95 42 44.2%
2006 FY pace 208 92 44.2%
06 @ 05 pace 208 54 26.0%
2005 246 64 26.0%
2004 213 57 26.8%
2003 254 93 36.6%
2002 210 72 34.3%
2001 257 64 24.9%
2000 215 76 35.3%
1999 281 99 35.2%
1998 243 85 35.0%
1997 205 53 25.9%
1996 226 65 28.8%

Also, the Cardinals actual number of inherited runners to score, 42, is tied for the most in the NL. The actual difference in runs allowed between the 2005 actuals and the current 2006 pace is a whopping 38 runs. That could mean a number of losses.

Worse is that there are five teams in the League under 30%, including poorer teams like Pittsburgh and Washington. So, even bad teams can strand inherited runners. And finally, other than the Cardinals and Reds, every other team in the League with a higher than average rate also carries a losing record.

2006 Inherited Inh. Runner
NL Bullpens Runners Score
Cardinals 95 42 44.2%
Florida 84 37 44.0%
Milwaukee 74 32 43.2%
San Francisco 101 42 41.6%
Cincinnati 82 32 39.0%
Philadelphia 99 36 36.4%
NL Average 97 33 34.0%
San Diego 77 26 33.8%
Houston 92 31 33.7%
NY Mets 81 27 33.3%
LA Dodgers 92 29 31.5%
Atlanta 138 42 30.4%
Chicago Cubs 111 33 29.7%
Washington 130 37 28.5%
Pittsburgh 117 33 28.2%
Colorado 117 32 27.4%
Arizona 75 18 24.0%

Who from the Cardinals pen is at the bottom of this?

2006 Inherited Inh Runner  2005 YTY
Cards pen Runners Scored
Looper 13 9 69.2%
Thompson 14 8 57.1% 25.0% -32.1%
Hancock 21 11 52.4%
Flores 11 5 45.5% 21.9% -23.6%
Bullpen total 95 42 44.2% 26.0% -18.2%
Johnson 10 4 40.0%
Isringhausen 13 5 38.5% 10.00% -28.5%
NL pen avg. 97 33 34.0%
Wainwright 2 0 0.0%

Sadly, the two expected to be the most dependable set-up men out of the pen, Braden Looper and Brad Thompson, are the worst at protecting their teammates.

But, this is truly a team effort. Every one of the six relievers who regularly come on with runners in place is below the National League average. That is pretty bad.

As above, the three holdovers, Isringhausen, Flores and Thompson, each are allowing more inherited runners to score - by an ugly double digit percent margin this year compared to last.

(Note that Adam Wainwright is excluded from this, as he generally starts innings, having had only two inherited runners all season.)

So, it seems reasonable to conclude that some part of the Cardinals starters ERA problems have been aggravated by a bullpen that is allowing a higher percentage of their inherited runners to score than other teams in 2006 and past Cardinals squads, too.

Knowing this won't make the losses any more palatable, but it might affect some of the questions and concerns being raised across the Cardinal Nation.

For example, would you now be as anxious to move Adam Wainwright from the pen to the rotation and expose the pen even further? If you were to add a pitcher, would you add a quality starter or a lights-out reliever? Would you make a pitching fix a higher priority than an impact bat?

If nothing else, this analysis affirms there is no one clear answer as to what pieces would contribute most to putting the 2006 Cardinals over the top.

But, for starters, a majority of the current members of the bullpen need to do a lot better job keeping inherited runners from crossing the plate.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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