Cardinals Chain of Strength

Sequencing is important. The order in which events happen has an incredible impact on the way we perceive them. As Parkes pointed out yesterday, many people around the Cardinals believe trading Colby Rasmus for Edwin Jackson, Marc Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel pushed the Cards over the edge into the playoffs.

Parkes convincingly argued this is not the case and I tend to agree. I don’t think the Cardinals made the playoffs because they traded Rasmus; the Cardinals traded Rasmus and then they made the playoffs.

Just because one event happened before another doesn’t mean they’re directly related. What I will argue is the move to acquire Dotel and Rzepczynski solidified the Cards bullpen, independent of their individual regular season performance. A little something we like to call “addition by subtraction.”

The idea behind bullpen chaining is why, in my mind, Wins Above Replacement isn’t a great measure of a relief pitcher’s worth. The basic premise is any given reliever isn’t replaced by a “freely-available” player since their job is defined by roles.

If the closer goes down, he isn’t replaced by the minor leaguer called-up to take his spot on the roster. The 8th inning guy becomes the 9th inning guy and so on. When Parkes suggests the Cardinals bullpen cavalry posted rather modest fWAR numbers, he’s absolutely correct.

The value in acquiring Rzepczynski and Dotel isn’t in their immediate on-field performance, it is in their ability to take over roles previously held by much, much worse pitchers. Consider the below graph, which is rather confusing, I admit.

This chart displays the average Game Leverage for Cardinal relievers by month. The higher the leverage index, the more important the moment in the game. The important thing to notice is the effect of RZep and Dotel on the remaining relievers.

By removing Trevor Miller and Brian Tallet from the equation, the Cardinals are already ahead in the exchange. The addition of right-handed specialist Octavio Dotel relegates Kyle McClellan and Mitchell Boggs to strictly mop-up duty. The introduction of Rzepczynski allows the Cards to release Raul Valdes and refuse pile pick-up Ron Mahay. Dotel’s ongoing success moved Fernando Salas into a more liquid role as Jason Motte moved up into the non-closer closer’s role.

In a perverse, “being chased by a bear” way, the new guys don’t have to be good. They just need to be better than the bums they’re replacing.

Even during the regular season when the former Jays didn’t pitch nearly as well as they have this post-season, the impact of their arrival reverberated across the Cardinals bullpen. Once the Cardinals arrived in Baseball’s Second Season, the value of their entire group, as a collective, cannot be overstated.

One very, very, important note: this is not to suggest the Cardinals “won” the Rasmus trade. The Cardinals could have bolstered their bullpen in a very similar fashion without paying so a steep price as a 24 year-old five tool center fielder. But that’s the price they paid and here they are, ahead in the World Series.

Trading Rasmus while strengthening their bullpen are two small parts in a very complex series of events, culminating in the Cardinals unlikely run to the World Series (and, it should be noted, makes them one very good player poorer.) Could the Cardinals have made these playoffs without making this trade? Maybe. But the acquisitions of Dotel and Rzepczynski did make their team better for the pennant run and certainly contributed greatly to their post-season success, for that they deserve credit.