Breaking down the Cards bullpen

The words selected for the title might be misinterpreted, especially if I had added a colon between “down” and “the”, so let’s instead choose the less-controversial meaning – a look into the numbers behind the performance of the St. Louis Cardinals relievers through the first nine games of the season.

The timing is certainly not random. As most Cards fans know, starter/ace Chris Carpenter had to leave Tuesday’s game against Arizona after three innings with a ribcage injury. That left 18 outs or six innings for the bullpen to secure, or as it turned out with the game going into the tenth inning, the revised goal became to get 21 outs.

Unfortunately, out number 21 was never made as the tenth batter facing Brad Thompson, Eric Byrnes, stroked the winning hit into the left-field corner to end a very disappointing 7-6 loss.

The most damaging blow prior was a three-run home run served up by Josh Kinney with two outs in the eighth. The right-hander walked the opposing catcher, Miguel Montero and hit Justin Upton with a full-count offering before pinch-hitter Conor Jackson slammed a long ball to left (pictured). That turned a one-run lead into a two-run deficit and became the first blown save of the year for Kinney and the third for the Cardinals against three saves.

As a group, the 2009 Cardinals bullpen was expected to be a younger, more improved relief corps compared to their inconsistent and disappointing 2008 predecessors. As the data below shows, through nine games, the anticipated improvement is not there.

In just about every measurement, the 2009 relievers have started more poorly than the 2008 group, whether you consider won-loss record, save conversion rate or ERA. In the latter case, the 2009 pen is three-quarters of a run per nine innings worse than last season. The only area of improvement shown here is strikeout-to-walk ratio.

I also listed the National League bullpen averages as a secondary point of comparison. Not surprisingly, the 2008 Cardinals pen was worse than the NL average in every one of these categories. Only a low walk rate keeps the same statement from being made about the current crew.

Though the 2009 totals are small, note that the members of the Cardinals pen have thrown more innings than the NL average this season. That is a contrast to their level from last year, a period during which some considered the relievers had become overworked.

2008 relievers W L W % Sv BS Sv % ERA IP BB K K:BB
Cardinals 22 31 0.415 42 31 0.575 4.20 499 230 381 1.66
NL average 26 27 0.493 38 23 0.623 4.09 514 219 432 1.97
2009 relievers W L W % Sv BS Sv % ERA IP BB K K:BB
Cardinals 0 2 0.000 3 3 0.500 5.06 26.2 8 19 2.38
NL average 1 1 0.481 2 1 0.667 4.45 24 12 20 1.63

Following are the current stats from the seven individuals that make up the 2009 Cardinals bullpen. Note at the lower right that the relievers’ ERA is over three runs per nine innings worse than the starters.

2009 W/L Sv Opps Sv % Inh Rnrs Score IRS % 1st Btr Ret 1BR % ERA WHIP OBA OBP
Franklin 0-0 1/1 100 1/0 0 2/2 100 0.00 0.38 0.111 0.111
Kinney 0-0 0/1 0 4/1 25 3/2 66 13.50 2.25 0.200 0.467
McClellan 0-0 1/1 100 3/0 0 3/3 100 2.25 1.00 0.188 0.235
Miller 0-0 0/1 0 3/2 66 3/2 66 0.00 1.00 0.231 0.231
Motte 0-1 0/1 0 0/0 NA 4/1 25 11.25 2.25 0.320 0.455
Reyes 0-0 1/1 100 2/1 50 4/3 75 0.00 0.27 0.083 0.083
Thompson 0-1 0/0 NA 0/0 NA 4/3 75 6.75 1.80 0.345 0.375
Relievers 0-2 3/6 50 13/4 31 23/16 70 5.06
Starters 1.96
Team 2.98

Won/loss: Thompson and Jason Motte have the only bullpen decisions – a pair of ugly bookends. Motte earned the defeat on opening day and Thompson took it on the chin in the most recent contest on Tuesday night.

Save opportunities: On Tuesday, Kinney joined Motte and Trever Miller in the negative category. The three conversions were by Ryan Franklin, Dennys Reyes and Kyle McClellan.

Inherited runners scoring: Miller has the poorest early record here, as two of the three runners on base when he entered the game came around to score. Reyes allowed his first inherited runner to cross the plate on Tuesday night. McClellan has been the best here so far.

First batter retired: Generally, this looks ok with one exception. Tuesday night marked the first time in his four outings this season that Motte kept his initial batter off the bases. His troubles have been of his own making. Each time, Motte has been allowed to come in with the bases empty.

ERA/WHIP: There is no in-between. Kinney, Motte and Thompson aren’t getting the job done in the early going. Way too many baserunners with too many of them crossing the plate. (As a reference point, a WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) of 1.40 or slightly under is league average.)

Opponent batting average/on-base percentage: Kinney’s lack of control is killing him, Thompson’s problem has been hits while Motte is struggling in both areas.

What to do?

I seriously wondered if Chris Perez was only the eighth-best reliever on the Cardinals this spring and am continuing to ask myself the same question.

Sent to Memphis to open the season, Perez has pitched four innings over three games. He has a win and two saves on no hits and three walks. Perez has fanned four Triple-A batters.

If the Cardinals need to call up a pitcher from Memphis to backfill Carpenter, it may be someone who can start, such as P.J. Walters, but the shaky bullpen appears that it could use a shot of life, too.