Cardinals news from a Sabermetric point of view

NLCS: To relieve in the fifth inning, or not to relieve?

In Game 1 of the 2011 NLCS, the Milwaukee Brewers burned Tony La Russa for sticking with his starter, Jaime Garcia. Thus chagrined, La Russa, didn’t want to come anywhere near the flame in Game 2, and when starting pitcher Edwin Jackson felt the slightest warming of the Brewers’ bats in the fifth inning, La Russa went to the bullpen (if not his main fireman).

Did TLR flinch too early? It’s hard to say, of course, but it’s equally hard to argue with the results, a 12-3 win going away. Of primary concern to the question is when a pitcher begins to lose his effectiveness, and then at which point a given reliever becomes a better option. Starting pitchers by their position are almost always better overall pitchers than relievers. But even the best ones are subject to fatigue — some are more resistant — so when does it make sense to bring in a fresh, if less talented, arm?

Let’s first look at the career splits of the Cardinals’ four playoff starters by Gross-Production Average by time facing a batter in a game:

*Even though Garcia has been successful in 4+ plate appearances (.185OBP/.200 SLG), we didn’t include them because he has had only 27 PAs (fewer than 2% of his total batters faced).

In all four cases, plus the NL average over the last five years, pitchers are hit harder in their second time through the order. But results vary when it comes to the third time. Kyle Lohse and average NL pitchers keep getting worse, but Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia and Edwin Jackson actually stem the tide. In Carpenter’s case, he even keeps rolling through the fourth time though the order and is almost as lights-out as he is in the first time through. This of course may largely be due to a self-selecting data set: He’s more likely to be left in to face batters a fourth time if he’s on his game.

In any case, Jackson was starting on his third time through the order in Milwaukee when he ran into trouble. But, the walk to Corey Hart and double to Ryan Braun notwithstanding, he typically does just fine the third time. Arthur Rhodes and Lance Lynn, who followed Jackson, obviously were facing batters for the first time. How do their first-batter performances in relief stack up against Jackson’s third as a starter?

So although Rhodes is much more effective in his first time than Jackson is in his third, Lynn is actually about the same. We don’t have any reason to think that Jackson was extraordinarily taxed — he threw 82 pitches in the game — so La Russa may not have bought much (Rhodes’s appearance notwithstanding, though he of course walked his man) by replacing Jackson with Lynn. Again, it may be a case of the ends justifying the means, but it’s not always a given that a reliever is a better bet than the starter — even the third time through the order.

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