I know it seems ungrateful to gripe about reliever usage in the wake of a comeback win against a division rival, so I’m trying not to do that here. Instead, this is more about a head-scratching moment in the ninth inning last night, the latest episode of bizarre…no, I’m sorry, patently suboptimal yet completely orthodox usage of Jonathan Papelbon by Phillies manager Charlie Manuel.
To recap: the Phillies won a game last night in which more than half the runs were scored in the ninth inning. The Phillies, who traded blows with New York all night, scratched out a run in the top of the 8th, held that lead through Jose Contreras in the bottom of that frame, and then hammered three Mets relievers into tiny pieces to the tune of six runs in the ninth.
Now, the Phillies had Jonathan Papelbon up in the bullpen at the start of the inning, because in all likelihood, the Phillies were not going to score and they’d head into the bottom of the inning up one run. For all the griping we do here about the save rule, up one run in the ninth inning is precisely the kind of situation in which you’d want to use your best reliever. But after Jimmy Rollins‘ home run stretched the lead to four runs, using Papelbon became less of a necessity. Even with a four-run lead, though, I probably would have used Papelbon anyway had the Phillies gone down quickly, just because he was already warm. I forget exactly when Papelbon sat and Valdes started warming up, but I think it was sometime after Rollins’ home run. Correct me if I’m wrong.
But then the Mets started booting the ball around the infield and the Phillies tacked on three more runs. At this point, Uncle Cholly called for Valdes because you don’t need your relief ace to pitch when you’re up seven runs. Valdes struggled mightily, just as we’d expect from someone who looks like Danys Baez and is named after Raul Ibanez and Wilson Valdez.
Thus, we found ourselves with a runner on second, two out, and the Phillies up five runs, and the lilting strains of Every Time I Die’s “Ebolarama” start piping over the television as Papelbon was recalled from the bullpen. To get one out in a five-run game. I know the Mets had scored two runs in a hurry and someone who couldn’t do math might describe the bottom of the ninth inning as a “threatening rally,” but come on. Here’s the win probability chart from last night’s game:
The nice thing about such charts is that they allow you to see if the game hangs in the balance in so many terms. Valdes’ three-run (Papelbon let his inherited runner score), 2/3 IP performance actually resulted in a WPA for Valdes of -.001. When he entered the game, the Phillies had a 99.7 percent chance of winning. When he left, that had dropped to 99.5. Manuel used Papelbon over Valdes (or any other pitcher) to get one out before surrendering four runs, plus Andres Torres on second. I think that I would place an even-money bet on almost literally any pitcher at any level of professional baseball to record one out before allowing four runs against the Mets. Papelbon’s WPA, by the way? .002. Glad the Phillies panicked over a rounding error enough to use their best reliever to fix it.
I know it seems like Papelbon nipped a rally in the bud, but he didn’t need to. And while he only threw eight pitches, he spent a lot of time warming up, which causes fatigue on its own. So because he had to warm up twice, we might as well count this as if he’d had to register a three-out save. Again, not necessarily the end of the world, but another instance of Jonathan Papelbon playing when he should have sat or sitting where he should have played.
Oh, and in other bullpen weirdness, Seattle’s Hisashi Iwakuma was credited with a save for successfully protecting a 12-run lead last night. Here’s the graph.
Good job, Statistic That Determines All Reliever Usage in MLB.