Not Again!

Tie game on the road, use any reliever but the guy earning $50 million, the most ever for a relief pitcher. That’s been the M.O. of Phillies manager Charlie Manuel all season and the wayward strategy bit his team again yesterday when the Phillies lost 6-4 to the Baltimore Orioles. Vance Worley went six innings, followed by Jake Diekman and Antonio Bastardo with one inning each. With the game tied 4-4 going into the bottom of the ninth, Manuel turned to struggling right-hander Chad Qualls for two innings, followed by last night’s call-up B.J. Rosenberg, making his Major League debut. The game ended in Rosenberg’s second inning of work when Adam Jones hit a walk-off two-run home run. Three of the five at-bats involving Rosenberg had a leverage index above the 2.00 threshold.

It marked at least the sixth time this season that Manuel has opted not to use Papelbon in a tie game on the road and the Phillies went on to lose. The list:

  • April 7: Starter Joe Blanton took the mound in the tenth. Why was Blanton in the bullpen? The odd early-season scheduling allowed the Phillies to skip Blanton’s spot in the rotation without disrupting the other starters’ rest. Blanton allowed a lead-off double to Rod Barajas. Michael McKenry pinch-ran for Barajas and was successfully moved over to second base on a sacrifice bunt. With two outs, the winning run scored on an Alex Presley infield single. Pirates 2, Phillies 1.
  • April 8: Manuel chose to go with David Herndon in the bottom of the ninth here. Another lead-off double and another sacrifice bunt set the Pirates up with the winning run on third base and one out. After Jose Tabata struck out and it looked like Herndon could see his way out of the jam, Andrew McCutchen “singled” to center to drive in the winning run. Pirates 5, Phillies 4.
  • April 18: Cliff Lee pitched ten scoreless innings, but the Phillies couldn’t muster any offense against Matt Cain, who went nine scoreless. Manuel sent Antonio Bastardo out for the eleventh inning, a questionable move since he wasn’t nearly as sharp then as he is now. With one out, Brandon Belt singled, then advanced to second when Ty Wigginton misplayed a ground ball to third base. Melky Cabrera, who is having a fantastic season, laced a single to right-center to score Belt for the walk-off win. Giants 1, Phillies 0.
  • May 2: Slugfest of the year. Ahead 12-8 going into the bottom of the eighth, Jose Contreras and Michael Schwimer combined to allow five runs. The Phillies, fortunately, were able to tie the game in the top of the ninth just in time to allow Papelbon to stop the bleeding. Excuse me, I misread that. Manuel sent Brian Sanches out for the ninth inning. And the tenth. And the eleventh, when he finally cracked. Dan Uggla led off the inning with a single, then scored on a Chipper Jones walk-off two-run home run. Braves 15, Phillies 13.
  • May 4: Going into the bottom of the eighth inning, the Phillies were ahead 3-2. Manuel sent Chad Qualls to the mound which, in and of itself was not a bad call. However, Papelbon should have been warming up in the event Qualls got in a pickle, which he did. Chad Trady singled to lead off the inning, then moved to second on a sacrifice bunt. Rick Ankiel was intentionally walked to set up the double play and bring up Jesus Flores. Flores doubled to left, scoring Tracy and sending Ankiel to third base. Qualls intentionally walked Xavier Nady to set up another double play. Qualls escaped the threat with two consecutive ground ball outs, 6-2 and 4-3. Like Sanches against the Braves, Michael Schwimer took the mound for three innings: the ninth, tenth, and eleventh. After getting two quick outs in the eleventh, Schwimer cracked, allowing a single and walking two to load the bases for Wilson Ramos. Ramos singled to center to win the game. Nationals 4, Phillies 3.
  • June 9: Tied at 4-4, Chad Qualls came out for both the ninth and tenth innings and doesn’t have any trouble. B.J. Rosenberg, called up the night before, made his Major League debut in the eleventh, retiring the Orioles in order. In the twelfth, Rosenberg led off the inning with a walk to Chris Davis, followed by an Adam Jones walk-off two-run home run. Orioles 6, Phillies 4.
  • June 10: Tied at 4-4, Manuel called on Michael Schwimer for the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings. Joe Savery came out for the tenth. After getting one out, Ty Wigginton booted yet another ground ball, allowing Adam Jones to reach base. Matt Wieters doubled to right field to bring Jones around to score the winning run. Orioles 5, Phillies 4.

In all of the above six games, there were clear and obvious opportunities to use Papelbon that simply went unnoticed. Papelbon, recently signed to a four-year, $50 million contract and easily the Phillies’ best reliever, sat in the bullpen without so much as getting up to stretch because the Phillies’ manager is too entrenched in baseball orthodoxy to put his team in a better position to go home with a victory.

The Phillies are 29-32, seven games out of first place. You can’t assume that the Phillies would have won all six simply by using Papelbon, but even if they win only four of them — which is quite reasonable — they are instead 33-28 in third place in the NL East and only three games out (two if the Nationals game is one of the victories). While the Phillies’ bullpen has been awful (fourth-worst ERA in baseball, 4.32), the relievers individually can be leveraged according to their strengths and weaknesses. For instance, Qualls has been atrocious against left-handers (.180 wOBA platoon split; .120 last year and .121 in 2010), but his usage has not changed to suit this flaw: 47 percent of Qualls’ batters faced have been lefties.

Likewise, none of the relievers have Papelbon’s elite skill set that makes him so valuable in high-leverage situations: the ability to consistently miss bats, limit walks, and induce weak fly balls in the infield. Manuel is actively harming the Phillies by not having Papelbon so much as throw a baseball out in the bullpen in high-leverage situations. There have been many factors involved in the Phillies’ disappointing 2012: injuries, poor roster construction, and general under-performance. Right up there with them, however, has been Manuel’s misuse of the bullpen.

EDIT: Updated with today’s game.