Decoding the Cards' Tandem Use at Palm Beach

Digging into the St. Louis Cardinals' use of the tandem system for starting pitchers at Palm Beach of the Class A-Advanced Florida State League in 2008.

Some would observe the second season of the tandem (or piggyback) system for starting pitchers at the lower levels of the St. Louis Cardinals minor leagues is right on schedule, having never been intended to last the entire season. To them, the recent move off the system at the highest level implemented, with Palm Beach of the A-Advanced Florida State League, is of no surprise.

The tandem system was first implemented at the bottom rungs of the Cardinals' minor league system in 2007 after having been deployed in the Texas Rangers and Cincinnati Reds organizations earlier in the decade, among other places.

Its primary benefit is to enable the organization to develop eight starters rather than five by pairing four groups of pitchers. The two in each pair take turns starting every fourth day, with the other following in relief. The starter might go five innings or 70-80 pitches, with the second starter scheduled to take over in the sixth.

The roster typically still includes the closer plus three other relievers to complete the 12-man staff.

The tandem system is not universally admired by players, coaches or fans. When implemented in the lower levels of the Cardinals minors last season, there were grumbles from some baseball traditionalists. The concerns included pitchers not being allowed to stretch out, not receiving the opportunity to work out of jams, etc.

Yet the only vote that really matters is held by the Cardinals player development leaders, who considered it enough of a success to bring it back for a second season. In 2008's first month and a half, the system had been being utilized at every level of the minors playing other than Triple-A and Double-A – until now, that is.

Cardinals Director of Minor League Operations John Vuch confirms the natural and planned progression is continuing.

"In terms of the tandem, we're reaching the part of the season where we're able to start transitioning into the five-man rotation as we've done elsewhere when we started the season with the tandem."

Those changes could have been driven by injury, but fortunately here in 2008, it has been more due to upward promotions than any other factor. Vuch explains.

"We began the year with eight starters and with Mark McCormick, Jess Todd and Tyler Herron all being promoted to Springfield, we were generally able to fill their slots when they left with pitchers who are more traditional relievers, enabling us to now use the five-man rotation at Palm Beach."

I would agree, with the possible exception of a couple of the eight who will no longer be deployed as starters since that the tandem system has been retired in Palm Beach for the remainder of 2008.

The evolving tandems

To that end, let's connect the dots by looking at the evolution of the roster of Palm Beach's starting pitchers from the season opener on April 3 up through today.

Opening Day Sprf. Promo Replacements 1st game
Tyler Herron T1 5/4 Shaun Garceau (QC) 5/8
Brandon Dickson T1
Mark McCormick T2 5/15 Eddie Degerman (EST) 5/17
Brad Furnish T2
David Kopp T3
Kyle Mura T3
Jess Todd T4 5/4 Elvis Hernandez (DL) 5/12
Kyle Sadlowski T4

You can see the initial tandem pairings, listed as T1, etc. The first of the three that were promoted to Double-A Springfield were Herron and Todd, on May 4. They were followed by McCormick 11 days later.

Of course, their roster spots were filled by others.

Shaun Garceau was promoted from Quad Cities and assumed Herron's pairing with Brandon Dickson. He has since started twice and relieved once.

Elvis Hernandez was activated from the disabled list and picked up where Todd left off, with two relief appearances behind partner Kyle Sadlowski and one start.

The often inconsistent, but talented Eddie Degerman stepped in for McCormick. To date, he has made one 4.1 inning relief appearance as the season-opening tandem rotation began its transition last Saturday, May 17.

The changes

At that point, the five-man rotation began to unfold with David Kopp, and following in succession, Brandon Dickson, Tyler Herron, Brad Furnish (Tuesday's starter) and Kyle Mura (to take the mound on Wednesday).

The three now assigned to the pen and available for normal relief duty are Degerman, Hernandez and Sadlowski.

5-Man Rotation Bullpen
Garceau Degeman
Dickson Hernandez
Furnish Sadlowski
Kopp
Mura

Of the three new relievers, only Sadlowski had been in the tandem system all season long. Hernandez was given just one start and Degerman none. Sadlowski was also the only one of the original eight to post an ERA over four with Palm Beach this season, though his 4.08 mark is hardly an embarrassment.

The details

Next, let's see how the tandem starters were used and fared in daily action. Following is a game-by-game log of innings pitched and wins/losses, providing a visual impression of how the Cardinals' tandem rotation was run and how it evolved in the last week to the more traditional five-man approach.

Codes: S=starter, R=reliever, Sv=save, BS=blown save, DNP=did not pitch, To Sprf=promoted to Springfield.

Pitcher TH BD MM BF DK KM JT KS
PB ERA 3.00 3.64 2.43 3.32 3.76 3.93 1.65 4.08
                 
3-Apr S-4 R-2.1            
4-Apr     S-3 R-3-W        
5-Apr         S-4 R-3-W    
6-Apr             S-3 R-3-W
7-Apr R-3 S-4.2-L            
8-Apr     R-2 S-4        
9-Apr         R-3 S-4-L    
10-Apr             R-4-Sv S-5-W
11-Apr S-3 R-2.1-L            
12-Apr     S-4 R-4-W        
13-Apr         S-4 R-3    
15-Apr                
16-Apr             S-5-W R-4-Sv
17-Apr R-3 S-5            
18-Apr     R-3 S-4-L        
19-Apr         R-4-Sv S-5-W    
20-Apr             R-3.2-W S-4
21-Apr S-5-W R-2.1            
22-Apr     S-4 R-4-W        
23-Apr         S-4 R-3-W    
24-Apr             S-5-W R-4-Sv
25-Apr R-4-Sv S-5-W            
26-Apr     R-3 S-2-L        
27-Apr         R-4 S-4    
28-Apr             R-3.2 S-5-W
Pitcher TH BD MM BF DK KM JT KS
30-Apr S-5 R-3-W            
1-May     S-4.1 R-3-BS        
2-May         S-4-L R-3    
3-May             S-3 R-3.1
4-May To Sprf. S-6-L         To Sprf.  
  SG (QC)           EH (DL)  
5-May     R-3 S-5        
6-May         R-3.2-L S-3    
7-May             R-1.1 S-4-L
8-May S-5-W R-4-Sv            
9-May     S-4-L R-4        
10-May         S-5-W R-1.1    
12-May             S-3 R-2.1-BS
13-May R-3-W S-3.1            
14-May     R-3 S-5        
15-May     To Sprf.   DNP S-5    
      ED (EST)          
16-May             R-2-W S-5
                 
                 
17-May     R-4.1   S-2.2-L      
18-May   S-4-L            
19-May S-6-W              
20-May       S        
21-May           S    
Pitcher SG BD ED BF DK KM EH KS

With the exception of a Mark Mulder rehab start slipped in on April 15, the alternating pairings were followed religiously through May 14. The only other disruptions to the pattern were the promotions of Herron and Todd on May 4, with Garceau and Hernandez stepping in.

With the upward departure of McCormick the next day, on May 15, the reconfiguration of the rotation began. Kopp was spread out to seven days before making his first start in the five-man system. Garceau, Furnish and Mura were each out six days between starts as Sadlowski took what would be his last turn in the tandem system on the 16th.

The bigger picture

There were 40 games played under the tandem system through May 16, excluding Mulder's April 15 start. The club's record was a stellar 25-15 (.625), the second-best mark in the Florida State League and a major contributor to their four-game lead in the FSL East Division.

Tallying the details from the above log, there are some interesting conclusions, though others are skewed by rules and usage patterns.

The tandem starters actually had a rougher go of it, at least in terms of wins and losses, in comparison to their relieving tandem partners. This is likely in a large part due to the fact that starters have to pitch at least five innings to get a win, while they can incur a loss during any length of outing. Relievers faced no such restrictions.

It also took some time for the starters to get stretched out to five innings. In fact, the relievers already had three victories in the bank before any starter had logged five innings in any game (April 10).

Over half the starts resulted in no-decisions, and the starter picked up the win in less than 25% of their starts (9 of 40). On the other hand, the relievers were credited with more wins and had a far better won-loss percentage than the starters (83% vs. 53%). The tandem relievers also made good on 75% of their save opportunities.

 

Won-Loss

No-decisions

Saves/opps

Tandem starters

9-8

23

 

Tandem relievers

10-2

 

6 of 8

The bottom line is winning and the tandem system looks to have been a contributor to the Cardinals' fine start in 2008. Excluding no-decisions, there were six possible outcomes for the tandem pitchers. Three are positive and three are negative.

The final view presented shows that for the tandem starters and tandem relievers in aggregate, the good outcomes outstripped the bad by a margin of just over two-to-one, better than the club's win mark (.676 vs. .625)

Positives 25
Wins as starter 9
Wins as reliever 10
Saves 6
Negatives 12
Losses as starter 8
Losses as reliever 2
Blown saves 2

While the short-season clubs scheduled to begin play in June are also expected to deploy the tandem system in 2008, it remains to be seen what the organization's plans are for 2009 and beyond.

For now, the Cardinals seem satisfied. Vuch summarized matters quite succinctly.

"As with Quad Cities last year, the tandem at Palm Beach was not designed to be a full season program, but a way to get the bulk of the innings early in the year to those pitchers who showed the potential to work as starters."

With that goal in mind and results in hand, it is difficult to argue.



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

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