Phillies Should Utilize A Thrift Store Bullpen

The bullpen has seemingly always been a problem for the Phillies. Whether it was the 1980 bullpen that barely made it to the finish line, the 1993 ‘pen, that imploded, or the revolving door bullpen the Phillies implemented between 1995 and present, there has never been that one constant. Sure, Billy Wagner was good for the two years that he was here, Brad Lidge had that perfect season, and Ryan Madson came out of nowhere to become one of the most dominant relievers in baseball, but the latter two are gone after this season having only been key cogs in the Phillies’ bullpen dating back to 2007 (’08 for Lidge).

With the off-season comes a plethora of unsolicited advice from fans and media types alike. The focus has mostly been on the shortstop position, and rightly so, but the Phillies have a bullpen in flux that cannot be ignored. The Phillies went into the season with the back of the bullpen including Madson and Lidge, as well as Jose Contreras, J.C. Romero, and Danys Baez. Prior to September call-ups, that changed to Madson, Antonio Bastardo, Michael Stutes, and Lidge; Contreras threw only 14 innings over the course of the season while Romero and Baez were both booted from the roster.

For the most part, the evolution of the bullpen was completely unexpected. No one saw Bastardo being as dominant as he was, nor did anyone expect Stutes to pitch in so many high-leverage situations. That is par for the course for most teams when it comes to the bullpen: they are all just rolling dice. After the 2011 regular season, less than half of the teams in the National League stayed within 0.20 of their bullpen ERA the previous season. Equally as many teams (seven) shifted by a half run of ERA or more.

Team 2011 ERA 2010 ERA DIFF
ARI 3.71 5.74 -2.03
CHC 3.51 4.72 -1.21
MIL 3.32 4.48 -1.16
PIT 3.76 4.57 -0.81
FLA 3.44 4.01 -0.57
PHI 3.45 4.02 -0.57
CIN 3.55 3.97 -0.42
LAD 3.92 4.07 -0.15
WSN 3.20 3.35 -0.15
ATL 3.03 3.11 -0.08
COL 3.91 3.99 -0.08
HOU 4.49 4.49 0.00
STL 3.73 3.73 0.00
SFG 3.04 2.99 0.05
SDP 3.05 2.81 0.24
NYM 4.33 3.59 0.74

Relievers are notoriously hard to predict, particularly because the sample sizes are too small. Madson finished the year with 60.2 innings pitched. Roy Halladay, on the other hand, surpassed that total after his eighth start on May 10. Needless to say, Halladay’s first eight starts of the season hold very little predictive value. It feels like relievers’ stats should stabilize quicker, but they don’t; they are just as prone to the randomness of the universe as any other player.

Unless the price is right and you are dealing with Mariano Rivera-types who are eerily consistent from year to year (Madson would fall into this category), it seems the best strategy is to spend as little money as possible on the bullpen and hope for the best by utilizing pitchers with good defense-independent skills. Of the 58 relievers that threw 50+ innings and posted an ERA lower than 3.00 during the 2011 regular season, only eight of them (14%) had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.0 or lower. Five of those eight had a ground ball rate at 50 percent or higher (six if the threshold is lowered to 49 percent).

The Phillies have five arms that could be key contributors to the bullpen that are not yet arbitration eligible: Bastardo, Stutes, David Herndon, Michael Schwimer, and Justin De Fratus. Meanwhile, Jose Contreras will still be around in the final year of his two-year contract, earning $2.5 million. With the five youngsters at a cheap price (let’s say $450,000 apiece) and Contreras, the Phillies could run with a bullpen costing them around $5 million. As a result, the Phillies would have much more freedom to address their other needs.

The Phillies should say no to Heath Bell, to Jonathan Papelbon, to Jose Valverde and any other expensive relievers out there. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like GM Ruben Amaro is going to, per Bob Brookover:

Amaro said that even if the Phillies do not re-sign Madson, they plan on going outside the organization for an experienced closer. Whether it’s Madson or somebody else with experience at the role, it’s likely to cost at least $10 million [...]

The contract, to whomever it may be, has the potential to be just as hamstringing as the Raul Ibanez contract. If the Phillies play it smart, they’ll walk past the department stores and shop at Goodwill. Then they may give themselves enough room to adequately plug the shortstop hole, sign Cole Hamels to a contract extension, address third base and left field, and find a new bench corps.