Dissecting a manager’s use of the bullpen is a national pastime, and St. Louis Cardinals fans (myself included) love doing it as much as anyone, if not more. Managing the bullpen is probably the fan favorite thing, with the possible exception of building the roster, so I’ll try to avoid being too picky. Looking back in 20/20, as the saying goes, but Oli Marmol’s management of the pitching team is particularly interesting considering he’s a freshman manager.
If you’ve been on Cardinals Twitter lately, then you might think you know where I’m coming from, but you’d only be partially right, so let’s get to it.
We will start with Marmol’s leash with his starters. Do you remember April 30 when the Cards lost to the DBacks 2-0? You probably remember that, but that’s what Marmol said after the game.
Oli Marmol criticized his decision to take Mikolas out for the 8th, even with Helsley and Cabrera in the warm-up.
“Miles did his job. I didn’t do mine. He was really good until he was seven. He was at 91 pitches. We have a very good paddock. I should have gone.”
— Katie Woo (@katiejwoo) April 30, 2022
Miles Mikolas had pitched 7 scoreless innings when Marmol kept him out of the 8th, and it backfired when the right-hander gave up two runs in the 8th to take the loss. It was refreshing to hear Marmol take the blame for making Mikolas run too long, and it was great to hear him acknowledge how good the bullpen is. After he said that, I felt like he learned a lesson and felt pretty good about the direction his management of the bullpen was going.
Two weeks later and I’m not so sure.
Take the most recent example. In Steven Matz’s last start, he threw six one-run innings against the Orioles before finishing with two more runs against him in the 7th. He left after throwing 101 pitches. He’s a guy who got hammered his third time in 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-point game he feels safer going 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. Neither of us really knew how long he was going to last, but he probably should have been on a short leash after two runs. He’s not exactly the most talented arm on the team and he’s been a reliever all season. He should have been out as soon as he got a runner to base in third, if not before.
The list goes on, but it certainly feels like Marmol has been reactive, not proactive. Each of Jordan Hicks, Dakota Hudson and Miles Mikolas have been pulled mid-innings for the past two weeks because they got into jams and gave up runs in their final innings.
I will 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 are a lot of variables that go into the decision to pitch and who am I to say I would have made the right call in his place? Still, after his quote above, I thought I would be less frustrated over the past two weeks. Instead, it feels like the bullpen often isn’t used early enough.
It was the use of the enclosure that was also 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, but he is on pace for 79 appearances this year. Only two pitchers in all of baseball have made more appearances than Wittgren, and each of them has an ERA of less than 1.
Marmol isn’t the only manager to have attached himself to an average mid-range reliever, however. There are eight other relievers who have made 16 appearances and three of them have higher FIPs than Wittgren, although, of the group, Wittgren has the second highest ERA.
TJ McFarland is the team’s third most used reliever and he may not be on the roster much longer if he keeps pitching like he has been.
Gallegos are on pace with 59 appearances which would be a big step up from 73 last year. Helsley already has a negative FIP and 0.6 fWAR, but he’s only been on pace for 44 appearances. In fact, his last appearance was during eight days off. Eight. For the best reliever on the team (currently). It is a problem. Not only was he the best reliever on the team, he was rightfully the best reliever in baseball in his first 11. 2⁄3 sleeves. He also pitched on six days off earlier in the year and twice on four days off.
Jake Woodford has it worse though. It spent 14 days between its first appearance and its second appearance and has only been used sporadically since then. He’s certainly not the best reliever on the team, but he seems to have been overlooked at times. Why can’t he take a mid-inning job? Is there really a major difference between Woodford and Wittgren? I don’t know if Wittgren can throw effectively if he appears in nearly half the games this season, but using Woodford more would help keep Wittgren’s arm cooler.
Marmol probably tries to save his best relievers for late games or bigger moments, which leads him to overuse mediocre pitchers and underuse Helsley. In a given situation, would you rather have Wittgren or Helsley in the game? Using Helsley to hold a narrow lead or deficit outside of a high debt situation can hurt his availability later on, but when that’s the only thing considered, it’s easy for Helsley to go a week without pitching. This shouldn’t happen.
As Cardinals fans, we’ve seen this before.
Before the season, Marmol made a lot of comments that seemed like a change from Mike Shildt and Mike Matheny before him. Still, here we are, 33 games into the season, and Marmol doesn’t feel like a meaningful difference, at least in terms of bullpen management.
He’s too attached to his middle relievers, only keeps a long reliever for long stretches (Woodford) and doesn’t use his top relievers often enough.
I’m starting to see fans who have lost patience with Marmol’s use of pitching staff and now claim to prefer Shildt over Marmol. It’s been 33 games. Also, it was Marmol first 33 games.
Marmol learns on the job. He is a rookie manager. It’s easy to rationalize saving the top guys, but they need to be on the mound more and it’s easy to rationalize leaving a starter for an extra inning. He must learn to be proactive. Put the best relievers in more plays and knock out starters before they give up damage.
I’ve never understood why managers take an all-or-nothing approach when it comes to a starter’s last inning. It looks like they’re pulling it or trying to get it through the whole inning. A middle ground might let him start the inning but fire him as soon as he clears a base runner. A starter should not try to get out of a block of more than 85 shots in the game.
These are growing pains for a manger. It’s normal to be worried. I want to see more of Helsley too. But let’s not overreact just yet. Marmol needs time to grow like any rookie. There are other parts of his management that have encouraged me, so let’s not just focus on the bad.
I appreciate that Marmol is ready to change the line-up depending on the game and I like Marmol’s honesty during press conferences. He is ready to admit his mistakes, but now he has to come out of them.
Helsley has had a great start to the year historically, Woodford has pitched well when he saw the mound, Wittgren is just an average pitcher and McFarland has just been bad. Marmol needs to learn how to optimize his use of those arms in order to put the best players on the pitch more often while keeping everyone fresh.
Not all rookies can be like Juan Yepez and do everything right immediately. Management is complex and Marmol needs time to make mistakes and learn from them.
He learns which starters he can ride and which he can’t. This is evident from the fact that he is still pushing Mikolas an extra inning and Hudson was retired after 5 scoreless innings and 80 pitches in his last outing. Marmol did a great job going to the pen early instead of taking Hudson out for the sixth.
Those good decisions just need to happen more often. He’s still early in Marmol’s managerial career, so I still have a lot of hope that he can become a wise decision maker.