The Overlooked Bullpen

Rob Bradford of WEEI posted his Major League bullpen power rankings this morning. Naturally, the first thing I did was a Ctrl + F for “Phillies”. Much to my surprise, they were in the top one-third, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Lost in the talk about the Phillies’ four aces and how many innings they ought to accrue, the bullpen is actually quite formidable.

Faithful readers of the blog know how highly I think of Ryan Madson, but even outside of him, there are quality pitchers capable of getting outs reliably. But let’s start with Madson and get him out of the way.

Madson is awesome. It aggravated me to no end to see him shunned for an apparent inability to close games despite never really getting a fair shot. He was not given the benefit of the doubt when a small sample size can produce a wide variety of results irrespective of skill. During the 2010 season, he posted a 10.9 K/9 and a 2.2 BB/9. His 4.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio was ninth-best in the Majors among relief pitchers, sandwiched by Luke Gregerson and Billy Wagner, two very highly-regarded bullpen arms. And among relievers with at least 50 innings in Phillies franchise history, Madson joined Doug Jones as the only ones to post a 4.9 or better strikeout-to-walk ratio. His 2.49 SIERA was 12th-best in baseball. His change-up is arguably the best in the Majors — even better than Cole Hamels‘. If there’s a Phillies reliever you don’t want to face, it’s Madson.

How about Brad Lidge? He is cast aside as a reliever at the end of his career with not much left to offer. As I mentioned yesterday, the Phillies need to decide on what to do with the closer situation, and it likely won’t include Lidge going forward. Still, he is a well above-average reliever. His 3.55 SIERA was right there with highly-respected closer Andrew Bailey and a tenth of a run behind Mariano Rivera.

Lidge’s 2010 season turned around after Ryan Zimmerman of the Washington Nationals hit a walk-off home run on July 31. To that point, Lidge had a 5.57 ERA with a BB/9 of an even 6.0. After the game, Zimmerman hinted that Lidge was tipping his pitches. From August 1 through the rest of the season, Lidge corrected his flaws and posted a 0.73 ERA with a 3.6 BB/9. Baseball is a game of constant adjustments. Lidge appeared to make the correct adjustments in the final two months last year, and he can only learn from that and benefit going forward. He is not by any means a washed up reliever; in fact, he is still among the most feared in baseball.

Jose Contreras finished 2010 with a 3.19 SIERA, certainly a great accomplishment as it was his first full season as a reliever. He averaged just over a strikeout per inning and was stingy with the free passes as his 2.5 BB/9 indicated. He even induced a good amount of ground balls (45 percent) to help limit the damage. Because he is not in a glorified position with its own title, such as “set-up” or “closer”, Contreras is assumed to be just another reliever, but he is good enough to close on quite a few teams. He may have worn down towards the end of the season as his second-half ERA was more than a full run higher than his first-half ERA, but now that he is going into his second full season as a reliever, he can make the proper adjustments in terms of preparation and conditioning.

J.C. Romero is responsible for the poorly-groomed fingernails of many a Philadelphian, but I insist it’s not his fault. As mentioned various times here on the blog, Romero should be used strictly against left-handed hitters. His xFIP against lefties is a paltry 3.61, but against right-handers, it rises to an unacceptable 5.34. Charlie Manuel has limited Romero’s use to lefties more and more, but never entirely. It would behoove Ruben Amaro to demand that Romero never be used against a right-handed hitter in a meaningful situation. When used properly, Romero is a remarkably effective lefty.

Antonio Bastardo will likely be the team’s second lefty out of the bullpen. He seems to have been given this reputation as a good-but-not-quite-good-enough reliever, but in limited action, he posted a 2.90 SIERA. He can attribute that to an incredible 12.5 K/9 (in about 19 innings), which is not a fluke. Over his Minor League career, he posted a 10.3 K/9. Bastardo’s goal should be to limit his walks, but he is right now an MLB-capable reliever. Consider that his 4.3 BB/9 last year is comparable to Lidge’s 4.1 career average. Those walk rates are not good by any means, but you accept it with the amount of swings-and-misses they induce.

The bullpen will round out with a slop-throwing long reliever (probably Kyle Kendrick) and perhaps a young arm. Scott Mathieson is one such candidate whom I feel hasn’t been given a fair shot at keeping a job as a Major League reliever. He had all of one and two-thirds innings in 2010 including one appearance in mid-June in which he struggled and was immediately jettisoned to Triple-A Lehigh Valley. The kid, fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, has done just about everything he can possibly do in the Minors — he’s thrown 566 innings in the Minors with a 9.0 K/9, 2.9 BB/9 and 3.82 ERA — so it’s time to use him or lose him.

Another name to keep in mind is Justin De Fratus (he’s on Twitter!). The 23-year-old has been nothing short of impressive in his brief professional career. Last year, between Single-A Clearwater and Double-A Reading, he posted a 1.94 ERA with a 9.8 K/9 and 2.2 BB/9. ESPN’s Jason Grey is very high on De Fratus as well:

De Fratus absolutely looks like a big league bullpen arm, with a 92-95 mph fastball that touched 96 mph once when I saw him, and good tilt on an 83-85 mph slider that can get strikeouts. A strong pitcher with a good frame who uses his lower half well, De Fratus does a good job finishing his pitches. De Fratus isn’t far from a call-up and looks like he could fill a seventh- or eighth-inning role at the big league level, and from there anything can happen. Then again, he’s also in an organization that left Scott Mathieson behind to dominate Triple-A hitters all year.

The Phillies are expected to have a formidable offense and baseball’s best starting rotation, but don’t forget about the bullpen. Their role may have been condensed, but they still have a say on exactly how successful the Phillies will be in the regular season and how far they will advance in the playoffs.