The Cardinals have a deep bullpen, loaded with talent and flexibility. And they’re going to need it. The philosophies in Major League Baseball continue to evolve, and we’ve seen more of the pitching workload gradually transfer to relievers. That trend almost certainly will get heavier after the short-schedule 2020 season.

 Teams are trying to protect vulnerable starting pitchers by limiting their innings. And according to the prevailing theory, it’s dangerous to ask starters to go 30+ starts and throw close to 200 innings after a truncated 2020. Last season only 17 starters reached 70 or innings or more, and none topped 85 IP. 

In 2011, 40 MLB starters went 200 or more innings. But in the last full season (2019) only 15 starters logged 200+ IP. That shows the modernized way of distributing innings. Going forward, 150 is the new 200. 

Here’s another reason that shows why the front offices, managers and pitching coaches are being careful with the arms. This: from ESPN: 

“There were a combined 235 stints on the injured list by pitchers from 2018 to 2019. In 2020 alone, when COVID-19 forced spring training to shut down and several players ramped up too quickly for the summer restart, there were 197 non-COVID IL stints by pitchers, according to research from ESPN Stats & Information. 

 

“Those injuries — and the lack of a minor league season, which forced noncompetitive teams to often use major league games for development — prompted several high-profile prospects to debut sooner than projected.” 

The Cardinals are being extra cautious with Alex Reyes, deploying him in the bullpen to avoid the temptation of having him cross the desired 100-inning maximum as a starter in 2021. We can debate the wisdom and practicality of the team’s decision; the rotation is rather sketchy. 

But if the Cardinals plan to upload the bullpen into games sooner than later, the bullpen takes on added importance. And in that context Reyes could be a more effective weapon when utilized in high-leverage situations instead of starting and pitching a few early innings each time out. Sure, the outcome of games can be determined — or greatly influenced — by events in the first three or four innings. But so many games come down to the end, and managers have turned more aggressive about saving a row of reliever-conquerors to defend late leads. 

According to ESPN: From 2016 to 2020, the percentage of regular-season innings handled by relievers has grown every season. In 2016, the bullpen was responsible for 36.7 percent of the innings. By 2019, that had increased to 42 percent, and it spiked again (44.5%) last year. 

The Cardinals are part of the trend. Take a glimpse at the percentage of innings supplied by their relievers in recent seasons: 

2015:  33.1%

2016:  35.5%

2017:  36.7%

2018:  38.4% 

2019:  39% 

2020:  41% 

And it’s not like the Cardinals were hindered by lousy starting pitching during the six seasons of note. They never finished worse than 13th among 30 teams in starting-pitching ERA, and had a top-three rotation ERA in three of the six years. Over the entire six-season period the Cardinals ranked third in the NL and fourth overall with a rotation ERA of 3.75. 

The bullpen did its part by coming in at No. 6 in ERA over six seasons. In fact, the STL relievers had the same ERA, 3.75, as the starters. Opponents batted .238 with a .317 OBP and .379 slug against Cardinals relievers in the six years. And the bullpen held opponents to a .307 wOBA, sixth-best in the majors over that time. 

Overall, based on the Win Probability Added metric (WPA) the Cardinals starters were better (in the MLB rankings) than the relievers from 2015 through 2020. But that wasn’t a problem. The point is, those bullpens were a plus, and reliable, and could save some wear and tear on the starters. Those bullpens could cut down on the number of times tiring starters were laboring through the other team’s lineup for the third time in a game. 

The 2021 bullpen should have abundant firepower, and enough matchup range to cover most situations. Imagine having to squirm through a late-inning setting and needing runs with the Cardinals aiming Genesis Cabrera, Andrew Miller, Giovanny Gallegos, Jordan Hicks and Alex Reyes at your hitters. And that’s just the front line. 

If Cardinals relievers stay healthy — and that’s always an X Factor — the team’s rotation will still matter. Yes, very much so. But as major-league baseball marches forward with the bullpen parade, the starters won’t matter as much as before. 

Unless, of course, the best relievers break down. 

Thanks for reading …

Please check out Bernie’s sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen live online and download the Bernie Show podcast at 590thefan.com  … the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.