After a 3 1/2 hour rain delay, the Cardinals and Giants resumed play last night with St. Louis holding a 3-1 lead after seven innings. Mike Matheny had already used Trevor Rosenthal, Edward Mujica, and Mitchell Boggs in relief, so he needed to get six outs to secure the victory and only had his closer available from the group that is generally entrusted to hold leads. Joe Kelly, Fernando Salas, and Marc Rzepczynski were available if he wanted to play the match-ups, but instead, Matheny just told Motte that he was going to get six outs instead of three.
For Motte, this is actually becoming the norm in October, and he’s proving to be pretty good at it.
Last year, Motte appeared in 12 playoff games, and in three of those, he was brought in to protect a lead before the ninth inning began. This year, he’s entered in the eighth inning in three of his five playoff appearances (including the wild card game). And, despite the idea that closers aren’t comfortable being asked to pitch in a different role in October, Motte is six for six at holding postseason leads when he enters the game in the eighth inning. In those six games, he’s pitched 9 1/3 innings, allowing just one run, one walk, and recording five strikeouts. And, because Motte just pounds the zone with strikes, these longer outings haven’t really stretched his pitch count to uncomfortable levels.
In those six outings, Motte has thrown 106 pitches, or an average of 17 pitches per appearance. In the regular season this year, Motte threw 1,125 pitches in 67 games, an average of 17 pitches per appearance. If he had lousy command and put a lot of guys on base, this might not work out so well, but as a strike-throwing fly ball pitcher who gets quick outs, Motte is essentially the perfect multi-inning closer. He can get four to six outs and expend less energy than many relievers can in getting three, and there’s no reason to limit Motte to three out duty when he has the skills and ability to be effective for more than three outs.
And, while Mike Matheny might bunt too much for my tastes, he deserves a lot of credit for preparing Motte for this role during the regular season. Motte entered the game in the eighth inning seven times during the regular season, recording four or five outs in each instance. The Cardinals won all seven games, as Motte didn’t allow a single run and only put five guys on base in 10 innings pitched during those outings. All told, the Cardinals are now 10-0 when Motte enters the game in the eighth inning this year.
Of course, the argument can be made that giving your relievers heavier workloads — at least in terms of getting outs — in October isn’t as likely to show up on the day you extend them, but in their next appearance after getting stretched further than they’re used to. So, let’s look at Motte’s results in his next appearance after recording more than three outs this year.
May 15th: Three days off after throwing 33 pitches, 1 IP, 1 R
May 23rd: One day off after throwing 23 pitches, 1 IP, 0 R
May 30th: Four days off after throwing 25 pitches, 1 IP, 2 R
June 6th: One day off after throwing 23 pitches, 1.1 IP, 0 R
June 9th: Two days off after throwing 20 pitches, 1 IP, 0 R
June 23rd: Five days off after throwing 29 pitches, 1 IP, 0 R
July 4th: Two days off after throwing 13 pitches, 1 IP, 0 R
July 20th: Three days off after throwing 16 pitches, 1 IP, 0 R
July 26th: No days off after throwing 22 pitches, 1 IP, 0 R
August 31st: Three days off after throwing 12 pitches, .1 IP, 2 R
September 7th: Three days off after throwing 31 pitches, 2 IP, 0 R
September 9th: One day off after throwing 20 pitches, 1 IP, 2 R
The obvious thing to note here is that Motte was only asked to pitch the day after recording more than three outs once — he struck out the side in recording that save on July 26th, by the way, and then threw a scoreless inning on July 27th as well. However, while you might think that all those days off hurt the Cardinals by not allowing them to have their closer available in a follow-up game, there was not a single game where Motte threw multiple innings and then was given the day off while a replacement took his place the next day. In every single situation but one, the team either lost due to an early deficit or won by a margin that didn’t require a closer. The one outing — June 20th — where they won a game by fewer than three runs following a multi-inning appearance from their closer, Jake Westbrook threw a complete game.
Only once all season was Motte needed in a game after which he threw more than one inning, and not only did he pitch that day, he pitched the next day as well, and he racked up a couple of saves in the process.
This is why you don’t worry too much about the next game with closer usage in the playoffs. Quite often, the next game doesn’t even require a closer, and when it does, the act of getting four, five, or six outs isn’t so taxing that you can’t ask him to resume his normal role as three out closer. And, because of the scheduled off days in playoff series, you know you’d never have to ask him to pitch more than three days in a row.
Motte’s already thrown four innings over three days during the regular season, and showed no ill effects from that sequence of appearances. If you just looked at his total runs allowed in outings following a multi-inning appearance — his ERA was 4.97 in the 12 games we listed above — you might think there’s some evidence of fatigue, but four of the seven runs he allowed came after having three or more days off, making it tough to argue that he was worn down after recording multiple outs several days prior.
Matheny probably doesn’t want to have to use Motte in the eighth inning of every game, but the fact that he’s willing to do so with some frequency is a boon to St. Louis’ playoff chances. By aggressively inserting his closer into games where his team has a chance to win, he’s maximizing the innings he’s getting from his best reliever, and in turn, giving the Cardinals their best chance of advancing in the World Series.
By not just saving Motte for the ninth inning, Matheny is deploying his closer as a legitimate relief ace. He might be a rookie manager, but this is what good October bullpen management looks like.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.