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Bryce Harper Would Be Awfully Nice. But Remember: It’s About the Bullpen, Stupid.

When Bill Clinton was running for president in 1992, there was a large sign posted at his headquarters in Little Rock. To remind the staff to stay on message and keep stressing the most important issue of the campaign, Clinton ’92 manager James Carville came up with this:

It’s the Economy, Stupid. 

And that message was imprinted on the brains of the campaign staffers who were entrusted to stay on point in the the daily conversations with media.

I only bring this up for a reason …

This reminds me of your St. Louis Cardinals in the current offseason.

The Cardinals acquired Paul Goldschmidt from Arizona to play first base. He’s a clear upgrade that will make the Cardinals better offensively, defensively and in base running. I don’t need to explain all of that again; Goldschmidt is a terrific addition and a superb fit. But he’s under contract for one more season, and could bolt as a free agent when 2019 is filed into history. We’ll have to see how it plays out. But the glee over the Goldschmidt trade faded after about, oh, 27 seconds.

A more feverish round of Bryce Harper mania kicked in … and man, I worry that people are losing their freaking minds. A few quickie points so that we can understand each other better:

1. I would like the Cardinals to sign Bryce Harper. Yes. By all means. I’ve been rather obsessive about this.

2.  Again, it would be great if the Cardinals signed Bryce Harper.

3. Um, small factor here: Bryce Harper gets to decide where Bryce Harper chooses to play.  Under MLB rules, for example, the Cardinals are prohibited from holding a derringer to Harper’s temple to force him to sign with their club. This comes down to a precious word “Free” — you know, as in freedom — that empowers a free-agent player to choose his next employer. It’s an amazing concept.

4. As much as I think it would be wonderful to have Bryce Harper playing right field for the Cardinals, a Harper-Cardinals match was always an extreme long shot … and I’m not sure why so many good folks seem to think that Harper is lurking outside of Bill DeWitt Jr.’s house, waiting for a chance to beg the Cardinals’ chairman to let him sign with St. Louis.

5. The chances of Harper coming here were incredibly remote before the trade for Goldy … and those faint hopes are even more unlikely now that Goldschmidt is here. Having tantrums won’t change a thing. But if you are inclined to cling hard to the dream and go into anger-triggered convulsions because Harper-STL won’t be a thing — barring a minor miracle — then feel free. Go crazy; all good with me. It’s therapy.  Hey, I  want/wanted Harper too. But I do not own the Cardinals, I do not run the Cardinals, I don’t control their spending. But by now it’s pretty damned clear the Cardinals have moved on from the Harper circus. DeWitt Jr. pretty much confirmed that on Monday’s “Bernie Show.”  I’m pragmatic. There comes a point when  it’s time for me to move on, and to another Cardinals-related concern.

6. To repeat, I would really, really, really like to see Bryce Harper play the next 10 seasons in a Cardinals uniform.

7. And while I’m at it …  I would really, really, really like to take over as drummer for the E Street Band when Springsteen begins his next tour. But I don’t think this is gonna happen, so I better focus on more realistic matters.

Which brings me to …

It’s the Bullpen, stupid. 

If they had a solid bullpen, the 2018 Cardinals would have won enough games to make it back to the postseason. As is, they won 88 games despite being burdened by the potential daily horrors of a bullpen melting down. A historically awful bullpen — at least since the Cardinals were purchased by DeWitt before the 1996 season.

Rather than stomp around and have another fit over the Cardinals and Bryce Harper or Manny Machado or — Name Your Preferred Shiny Toy Free Agent — I’ll say it again, for the purpose of retaining my own sanity:

It’s the Bullpen, stupid. 

I could go with a zillion numbers here, but will focus on two or three: Win Probability Added (WPA), strikeouts, and walks.

# The 2018 Cardinals finished 29th among the 30 teams in relievers’ WPA. In other words, only the Marlins had a bullpen more hazardous and  harmful to their own health than the ’18 Cardinals.

# The Cardinals’ minus 4.54 bullpen WPA was the worst during 23 seasons of DeWitt’s ownership.

# The Cards’ bullpen strikeout rate of 20.8 percent was 25th in the majors.

# The Cardinals’ 10.9 percent walk rate was 27th among the 30 bullpens.

In a Q&A with Jen Langosch of MLB.com, Cards manager Mike Shildt couldn’t have been more adamant about the importance of a stellar, stout bullpen.

Here are a few excerpts from Shildt’s comments on the bullpen.

— “If you look, we were in the bottom third of almost every category in the bullpen in the National League and in the entire league (in 2018.)  You look at postseason teams and guys that win in the postseason, they’re pretty strong in their bullpens. There is zero coincidence in that. It’s a big factor.”

— “I was talking to [president of baseball operations John Mozeliak] about it: All of our individual parts are important — baserunning, defense, starting pitching and, clearly, offense. But if you’re looking at a city block, one of your taller buildings would be your bullpen.”

— Shildt on the low-power strikeout punch: “That’s the way the game is going. Without strikeouts, you’re putting more pressure on your defense. Yeah, having guys able to come in, especially in the higher-leverage situations, and get a strikeout is important. Again, you look at the way bullpens are being built and some of the teams in October, they had relievers with strikeout-type stuff. The converse of that is we have guys like Jordan [Hicks], Dakota [Hudson], guys with exceptionally high ground-ball rates. There’s something to be said for that, too. I think ultimately you have to be above average at something. The lack of strikeouts was real.”

Shildt’s observations were spot on.

— The bullpens that finished in the Top 10 in the majors for Win Probability Added averaged just under 92 wins. And that average includes two-losing season outlier teams, Padres (66 wins) and the Giants (73 wins.) Seven of the top 10 bullpens (re: WPA) won at least 95 games. Six made the playoffs. including the World Series champion Red Sox, the 103-win Astros, the 100-win Yankees, the 97-win A’s and the 96-win Brewers.

— Based on bullpen WPA rankings, the worst teams to make the playoffs in 2018 were the Indians (13th), Dodgers (17th), Rockies (18th) and Braves (19th.) But that isn’t as bad as it seems;  all four of the bullpens finished on the “plus” side of WPA. They were still above average.

— The teams including the Cardinals who finished in the bottom 10 for bullpen WPA averaged 65.2 wins. None made the playoffs. Only two had winning records (Cardinals 88, Diamondbacks 82.)

— Of the 10 MLB bullpens that had the highest strikeout rates in 2018, seven of the made the playoffs.

— And seven of the 10 bullpens with the best strikeout-walk percentage qualified for the postseason.

The Cardinals haven’t found the winning formula. And that’s a shame, because even with other deficiencies they should have been a playoff team last season. The bullpen fluctuations — and instability — was too much to overcome.

And when the Cardinals played their best ball last season — the month of August — the bullpen was at its best. In August, the Cards ranked No. 3 in the majors with a WPA of plus 2.29. And their 22-9 record for the month was no coincidence. But the flimsy strikeout rates and carelessly high walk rates brought them down in September; the Cards ranked 29th that month in bullpen WPA.

Obviously the Cardinals made some poor personnel judgments with their bullpen decisions.

President of baseball operations John Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch are still trying to come up with a solid bullpen. And frankly it’s been a struggle.

Reviewing the past three offseasons — pre-2016, pre-2017 and pre-2018 — here’s the list of relievers that were hired or acquired by the front office:

  • Matt Bowman, Rule V draft: Three seasons, averaged 0.43 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) per season.
  • Jonathan Broxton, free agent: lasted less than two seasons, after signing; minus 0.1 WAR.
  • Seung Hwahn Oh, international free agent: Outstanding in 2016 (with 2.6 WAR) but was burned out by former manager Mike Matheny in 2017 (0.1 WAR.)
  • Brett Cecil, free-agent, four-year deal for $30.5 million: in first two seasons combined had a 4.86 ERA; gave up a .442 slugging percentage and .781 OPS; had a too-low strikeout rate of 19%, and walked too many hitters (9.4%.) Has 0.5 WAR over two seasons but was below replacement level (minus 0.6 WAR) in 2018.
  • Luke Gregerson signed a two-year free-agent contract for $11 million. In 2018, his first season under the new contract, injuries limited Gregerson to 12.2 innings; he had a 7.11 ERA and was below the replacement level (minus 0.1 WAR.)
  • Acquired Dominic Leone in a trade for outfielder Randal Grichuk: Leone spent much of the 2018 season on the DL and worked only 24 innings. Had 0.2 WAR.
  • Signed free agent Bud Norris to a one-year deal for $3 million: This worked out quite well for the first three months in 2018;  Norris was an effective closer. But Norris flamed out during the final three months, with a declining strikeout rate (20.2%), elevated walk rate (14.7%), and 5.38 fielding independent ERA. Norris had 0.2 WAR for the season but was below replacement level after the All-Star break with a bullpen-worst minus 0.6 WAR.
  • Signed closer Greg Holland to a one-year deal for $14 million at the start of the season: This was a disaster. In 25 innings Holland had a 7.92 ERA and had a walk rate (16.7%) that matched his strikeout rate (16.7%). He was released by the Cardinals on July 21.

Mozeliak and Girsch have to make this right. Get this right. If the bullpen flops for the fourth year in a row … well, this team will fail to make the playoffs for the fourth straight season.

So go ahead and carry those torches and pitchforks and lead a Bryce Harper protest on the streets around Busch Stadium. But just remember these words, and I will too:

It’s the Bullpen, stupid. 

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie