The Untold Story Of LaRussa’s Bullpen Management

One of narratives leading up to Game 1 of the World Series emphasized the Cardinals’ and the Rangers’ heavy use of their bullpens in the Division and League Championship Series. We were told to expect pitching changes early and often, especially from Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa, who has a reputation for micromanaging his pitching staff to get just the right match-up.

In Game 1, LaRussa did not disappoint. Cardinals starter Chris Carpenter threw six innings, giving up five hits and two runs. After LaRussa pulled Carpenter for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the sixth, he used five relievers out of the bullpen to pitch the final three innings. The ‘pen acquitted itself well: three innings, one hit, no runs.

In the Division Series, the Cardinals’ starting pitchers threw 30 total innings to 14 for the bullpen. That’s 68% of the innings for the starters; 32% for the relievers. Over the five games played, LaRussa averaged 3.2 pitching changes per game.

In the NLCS, Cardinals starting pitchers were on the mound for only 24.1 innings to the bullpen’s 21.2 innings, a ratio of 53% to 47% over the six games played. LaRussa made an average of 4.67 pitching changes per game.

Despite LaRussa’s reputation, his bullpen management in the NLCS is the exception, not the rule, of his reign as the Cardinals skipper.

Let me explain.

LaRussa’s first year as Cardinals manager was 1996. In 12 of his 16 seasons in St. Louis, LaRussa’s bullpen pitched fewer innings than average for all National League teams. Only in 1998, 1999, 2002 and 2007 did the Cardinals relievers throw more innings than the National League team average.

Take a look.

Year Average IP by Starters per National League Team IP by Cardinals Starters Average IP by Relievers per National League Team IP by Cardinals Relievers
1996 970 1016 500 430
1997 978 1001 468 455
1998 988 936 464 534
1999 970 913 475 514
2000 976 1001 467 433
2001 960 969 481 467
2002 948 917 496 529
2003 951 979 494 484
2004 943 996 504 457
2005 973 1048 467 398
2006 942 942 504 488
2007 929 889 524 547
2008 932 955 514 499
2009 942 1034 502 437
2010 958 991 485 463
2010 972 999 481 463

* Numbers were rounded

Here’s a look at the numbers on a percentage basis.

Year Percentage of IP by Starters per National League Team Percentage of IP by Cardinals Starters Percentage of IP by Relievers per National League Team Percentage of IP by Cardinals Relievers
1996 66% 70% 34% 30%
1997 68% 69% 32% 31%
1998 68% 64% 32% 36%
1999 67% 64% 33% 36%
2000 68% 70% 32% 30%
2001 67% 67.5% 33% 32.5%
2002 66% 63% 34% 37%
2003 66% 70% 34% 30%
2004 65% 69% 35% 31%
2005 68% 62.5% 32% 27.5%
2006 65% 66% 35% 34%
2007 64% 62% 36% 38%
2008 64.5% 66% 35.5% 34%
2009 65% 70% 35% 30%
2010 66% 68% 34% 32%
2010 67% 68% 33% 32%

* Numbers were rounded

With LaRussa at the helm, the Cardinals made the postseason nine times (1996, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2011) and advanced to the World Series three times (2004, 2006 and 2011).

In the 2004 NLDS (Cardinals won 3-1), Cardinals starters pitched 23.1 innings to 13.2 for the relievers. That’s 62% of innings pitched for the starters, 7% below the season percentage for the Cardinals starters. LaRussa made an average of three pitching changes per game.

But in the 2004 NLCS (Cardinals won 4-3), the Cardinals starters pitched 65% of total innings, closer to the season percentage of 69%. In the seven games of the series, LaRussa averaged 3.43 pitching changes per game. Fewer innings pitched by the relievers compared to the NLDS, but more relievers used.

In the 2004 World Series (Cardinals lost 4-0), Cardinals starters threw 17.1 innings with relievers on the mound for 16.2 innings, nearly a 50-50 split. LaRussa made an average of 3.75 pitching changes per game. Woody Williams’ start in Game 1, in which he gave up 8 hits and 7 runs in only 2.1 innings, significantly affected the numbers in the four-game series.

In the 2006 NLDS (Cardinals won 3-1), the starters pitched 64% of the innings, compared to 66% in the regular season. LaRussa oversaw 3.5 pitching changes per game. In the 2006 NLCS (Cardinals won 4-3), the starters carried the load, pitching 69% of the total innings over the seven games. Even with fewer innings pitched, LaRussa still made an average of 3 pitching changes per game.

The Cardinals starters worked even harder in the 2006 World Series, pitching 80% of the innings in the five total games (the Cardinals won 4-1). LaRussa used only 2.4 relievers per game on average.

In the 2004 postseason, LaRussa’s bullpen worked harder than in the regular season, but in the 2006 postseason the relievers worked less than in the 162-game schedule. And in both seasons, the Cardinals bullpen pitched a lower percentage of innings than did the average bullpen in the National League.

While this year’s NLCS is a poster child for bullpen micromanagement by LaRussa, the NLDS starter/reliever percentage split for the Cardinals was precisely the same as in the regular season: 68% v. 32%. And that split favored the starters more than the average for all National League teams this season: 67% v. 33%.

In baseball, sometimes the facts support the narrative. Sometimes they don’t.

We hoped you liked reading The Untold Story Of LaRussa’s Bullpen Management by Wendy Thurm!

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Wendy writes about sports and the business of sports. She's been published most recently by Vice Sports, Deadspin and NewYorker.com. You can find her work at wendythurm.pressfolios.com and follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.

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MikeS
Guest
MikeS

This is nice analysis and a big sample size but it does not take into account the relative strengths and weaknesses of the starters and relievers. No matter a managers proclivities a good one* will use his best players more than his bad ones. So if LaRussa has historically had stronger starters than relievers that could skew the results. I’m not enough of a Cardinals fan to know if that is the case. This answers the question “does TLR use his relievers more than other managers?” It does not answer the bigger question which could be phrased as “if every team had the same staff would TLR use his relievers more than other managers do?”

*I know not every one will agree, but 5 pennants and 2 world championships suggest he has something going for him.

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11

So if LaRussa has historically had stronger starters than relievers that could skew the results.

Ryan Franklin has been the closer for th elast 3 years. I’ll let you decide whether that indicates a talented bullpen or not. *grin*

IMO, this year’s bullpen has been one of the best of the last decade in StL. The additionals of Scrabble, Dotel and the move of Kyle back to the BP and Motte to closer, while Jackson adds more quality IP to the starting staff have turned this team into a force. If StL plays the whole season with the team they have had over the last 2 months (including Furcal at SS and Jay in CF), they have the best record in the NL, IMO.

Anon
Guest
Anon

I won’t say they would have got the best record, but it is a likely possibility. I would take the Phillies 1st (would have won 106 if they won half of the post clinch 8 game losing streak).

Spoilt Victorian Child
Member
Spoilt Victorian Child

Setting aside what the Phillies’ record might look like if they’d been in danger of losing HFA the last two weeks of the season — are you saying that a few more months of Jay, Furcal, Dotel, and Rzepczynski would account for 13 extra wins?

Anon
Guest
Anon

The Cards bullpen had 20 blown saves before the trade deadline. Using the save rate after the trade deadline, that would have been 12. Also, look at an improved rotation, deeper bullpen in earlier innings, and better defense for at least 2B, SS, and CF. Consider offense and health on top of all that, and 13 wins isn’t as hard to find as you might expect.

Antonio Bananas
Guest
Antonio Bananas

Really Circle? I think they’ve played well, but even 20 games is a small sample in baseball. They play in a super weak division (2 worst teams, come on), so that had to inflate the numbers a bit already.