Enter Offense; Exeunt Bullpen

Great timing, guys. I don’t think I could have timed it better myself. Wait three weeks for the offense to re-emerge while the pitching staff pitches mostly lights-out, then once the offense busts through the front door, the bullpen runs out the back and leaps out of a fifth-story window.

The win probability graph to the right (via FanGraphs) says it all. After Cole Hamels allowed three runs in the first inning (BABIP!) to start this afternoon’s ballgame against the Minnesota Twins, the Phillies had a 27.5 percent chance to win. That percentage moved all the way up to 93 percent after Raul Ibanez led off the bottom of the third inning with a solo home run to bring the score to 8-3. The Phillies looked like they had this game in the bag, but then they handed the game over to the bullpen.

It was 9-4 when Jose Contreras toed the rubber to start the top of the ninth inning. That’s fine. Teams in the exact same position — up by five runs with three outs to go — won 98.5 percent of the time. With the Phillies’ bullpen having pitched well through 65 games, it felt like the Phillies had a 100 percent chance to win.

The Twins rallied. Delmon Young singled and Jim Thome homered, bringing the score up to 9-6 and the Phillies’ chances down to 96.4 percent. That’s fine; the cat’s still in the bag. Contreras would walk Nick Punto before Brad Lidge would be called upon for three outs, a task he had handled rather well in 2010 after a nightmarish ’09. With Punto on third base and one out, Denard Span hit a line drive back through the middle. 9-7, 91 percent. That’s fine. Lidge rebounded and struck out Orlando Hudson. 96 percent. As Conan O’Brien would say, “Keep cool my babies.”

Last year’s American League Most Valuable Player award winner Joe Mauer represented the last of the Twins’ hopes to win the game. 96 times out of 100, teams down by two runs with two outs and a runner on second lost the game. And the Twins got their winning lottery ticket in the form of a Joe Mauer two-out ninth inning game-tying home run.

That’s fine. The Phillies get another at-bat and the top of the order is batting. Surely, they could scratch and claw for one more run after scoring nine. After Shane Victorino struck out, Placido Polanco and Chase Utley laced back-to-back singles. Prior to the Phillies’ offensive surge, singles accounted for over 70 percent of Ryan Howard‘s hits. If ever there was a time for a single, it was then. But Howard, having hit three home runs in his last two games, tried to plate three runs instead of one and struck out. Jayson Werth would follow suit, watching strike three dive across the plate for the final out. That’s fine. Hold ‘em scoreless and win it in the 11th inning.

Charlie Manuel called upon Chad Durbin to pitch the tenth inning. That’s fine. Durbin has pitched well this year, rediscovering his control from 2008 that eluded him last year. He had a 3.06 ERA entering the game. After Contreras, he was the Phillies’ most reliable relief pitcher. Durbin’s first challenger was Drew Butera, a rookie with a .375 OPS in 42 plate appearances. In the Minor Leagues, he had a career .613 OPS and 21 home runs in 1,630 plate appearances. In a game full of statistical improbabilities, you can guess what happened. Butera hit a home run to put the Twins ahead 10-9. Durbin would continue to make Phillies fans squirm in their seats as he allowed two hits after getting two outs.

The score would have been 11-9 if not for an exquisite display of defense from Utley. With runners on first and second and two outs, Denard Span hit a grounder up the middle, seemingly destined for center field. Reminiscent of Game 5 of the 2008 World Series, Utley corralled the ball and threw home as Nick Punto (playing the part of Jason Bartlett) was tagged out. If the Phillies ended up winning, Durbin was treating Utley to a lavish steak dinner.

Leading off the bottom of the tenth for the Phillies was fan favorite Greg Dobbs. In what can only be described as a “professional at-bat”, Dobbs swung at the first pitch from Twins closer Jon Rauch, popping it up towards the visitors’ dugout. Mauer reached out and snagged it. One pitch, one out. Great plate discipline, Dobbs. Brian Schneider rolled over on a Rauch change-up, grounding out to first baseman Justin Morneau for the second out. At that point — down by one run, two outs, no one on base — teams lose 95 percent of the time. Ross Gload, however, played the role of hero and tied the game up with a line drive home run down the right field line. 10-all; the Phillies were back in this.

If asked to scan a list of the Phillies’ bullpen arms and rank them according to skill level, Danys Baez will always come out last. There is absolutely nothing to like about him unless you are easily excited by flat 94 MPH fastballs. His strikeout rate is just barely higher than Jamie Moyer‘s and his walk rate is nearly as high as his strikeout rate. And yet, there he was in the tenth inning beholden to prevent runs from scoring. Notice that is “runs” pluralized. While allowing one run is bad enough, the Phillies are capable of catching up as they did in the tenth inning. Baez, with a team-leading six “meltdowns” entering the game, would allow three runs.

Baez struck out Hudson to start the inning, but showed trepidation with Mauer before walking him. With a runner on first base (first base!), Justin Morneau was intentionally walked to bring up Jon Rauch. Rauch was not going to be pinch-hit for because the Twins were out of bench players. So with runners on first and second and one out, Rauch did what any pitcher is asked to do: he successfully bunted the runners over. With runners on second and third and two outs, the next two hitters due up were Delmon Young and Matt Tolbert. Young came into the game with an .838 OPS that included a near-.500 SLG and .302 batting average. Tolbert came into the game with a  .586 OPS and a .214 batting average, neither number too far away from his career average.

The smart baseball mind notices that, with first base open, Young — the clearly superior hitter — can be intentionally walked not only to bring up Tolbert, but to create a force play at every base. According to the run expectancy matrix from Baseball Prospectus, runners on second and third with two outs yields 0.59 runs on average while the bases loaded with two outs yields 0.85. That is not too high a jump considering that for the runner on first — Young, not a fleet runner — to score, Tolbert would have to get an extra-base hit. With a career .334 SLG, only 21 of his career 87 hits (24 percent) went for extra bases.

Instead, Manuel chose to let Baez pitch to Young. The Phillies paid for it as Young laced a grounder through the hole between third base and shortstop, snagged by Wilson Valdez but far too late for any out to be recorded. If the bases had been loaded and the ball was hit in the same spot, Valdez could have gone to second for an easy force out. Instead, the Twins took the 11-10 lead and Tolbert came to the plate and put the game away, driving two runs with a weakly-hit line drive to left field. The probability of winning went back below five percent. The Phillies were unable to rally once again, losing in embarrassing fashion. Once up 9-4 with three outs to go, they had lost 13-10.

Four Phillies relievers earned “meltdowns” (WPA of -.06 or lower):

Going into this afternoon’s game, the most meltdowns in one game by the Phillies’ bullpen was two, occurring three times: April 15 (Ryan Madson and Baez), April 20 (Madson and Contreras), and April 25 (David Herndon and Baez). And of the 1,009 Major League Baseball games played this year going into games on June 19, in only three of them (0.3 percent) did four relievers earn meltdowns:

If Phillies fans wanted to pull a Ray Finkle, they wouldn’t know which reliever’s name to scribble on the wall.