The Two Faces of Antonio Bastardo

Antonio Bastardo is not the only member of the 2012 Phillies performing beneath the expectations set by better play in 2011. To varying extents, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and the departed Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino have done the very same. It’s all disappointing. You get it by now; none of this is news.

What seems particularly striking, though, is the fascinating change in performance of one Antonio Bastardo. The 2011 season was a breakout for the then-25-year-old southpaw, who made relief pitching look childish for the better half of the season until, presumably, tiring down the stretch. In fact, from early June through mid-July, Bastardo didn’t even permit a hit for 13 consecutive outings, striking out 11 against two walks in the 12 encompassed innings. He’s had no such good fortune thus far.

Not being entirely sure about what details/minutiae might have changed between seasons, I took to poking around the data. Here are a few things I found:

Thanks to the ever-helpful BrooksBaseball, it seems that Bastardo has altered his approach to right-handed batters, while leaving his tactics against the platoon advantage relatively unchanged.

Consider the tables above (disregarding the pitches classified as “cutter” and “change”). The most marked differences between the bottom halves of the two tables come in the “First Pitch” and “Pitcher Ahead” rows, where it’s obvious things have changed. Bastardo seems to be leaning more heavily on his fastball when ahead in counts, but trying to deceive RHB with first-pitch sliders when starting off an AB.

Bastardo’s fastball velocity is down almost a full mile per hour on average, again according to Brooks, going from 93.2 MPH in ’11 to 92.45 through Tuesday this year. That may be playing a part. Of course, it doesn’t help when those fastballs in pitchers’ counts are, well, not ideally placed…

That’s a big, red splotch at the belt and over the heart of the plate. Compare that with the much, much better 2011 and…

…you can see the difference. That, in tandem with an almost scary-high walk rate, combine to make a rather concerning command issue. That sort of thing comes with the territory with a lot of live arms anymore, and it’s passable when the walk rate hovers below 4.5 per nine innings; not at the 5.2 per nine clip at which Bastardo is currently operating.

What makes all of this a bit less concerning and more curiosity-inducing than anything – to me – is the punch-out rate. Bastardo has continued to mow batters down with the Ks: 54 in 38 IP through Tuesday, good for what would be a career-best 12.8 K/9. A big part of that is, understandably, the slider. In two-strike counts this season, Bastardo’s slider is holding hitters to an astonishing .051/.140/.128 slash line against, producing 29 of his 54 strikeouts and a 51 percent whiff rate. In non-two-strike counts, things haven’t gone so well, but it could be due to some bad breaks. Hitters are tuning up the slider when it’s not being used as an out pitch, hitting .476/.500/.714 against the spinner on a .450 BABIP.

So it’s a little bit of everything conspiring against Bastardo so far this season. He’s hit some bad spots, had his typically less-than-stellar command take an additional hit and had a couple bad breaks, but also has the pure stuff to rack up impressive strikeout numbers in the process. There’s some encouragement to be taken from this, but Antonio Bastardo as he is at this moment is not the same pitcher as he was last year, suffice to say. He continues to linger a bit more than an arm’s length away from becoming a reliable bullpen piece that the Phillies so desperately need.

Graph of the Intermittent Time Period

It should come as no surprise that the Phillies are vastly ahead of every other team in baseball in offensive production from the catcher position. Before finding himself on the disabled list, Carlos Ruiz was posting MVP-caliber numbers, including a 154 OPS+. As soon as Ruiz went down, though, another incredibly productive catcher popped up for the Phillies in Erik Kratz, who has a 183 OPS+ in 26 games. 14 of his 19 hits have gone for extra bases. The lone wolf is Brian Schneider and his 76 OPS+.

Just how much production have the Phillies received from their catchers compared to the rest of Major League Baseball? Before we look at a pretty bar graph, let’s look at the ranks:

Rate Stats

  • Batting average: .311 (1st)
  • On-base percentage: .377 (1st)
  • Slugging percentage: .546 (1st)
  • On-base plus slugging (OPS): .924 (1st)
  • Weighted on-base average (wOBA): .391 (1st)

Counting Stats

  • Doubles: 40 (1st)
  • Home runs: 20 (7th; 3rd in NL)
  • Extra-base hits: 60 (1st)
  • Runs batted in: 75 (4th)
  • Strikeouts (fewest): 67 (4th)

This chart shows each team’s weighted runs above average (wRAA) from their catchers.

Team wRAA
PHI 32.0
SFG 25.5
MIL 22.0
STL 16.3
ARI 13.7
LAD 3.6
ATL 0.7
COL -3.4
PIT -6.7
CIN -7.0
HOU -8.7
WSN -17.4
MIA -19.6
CHC -20.1
NYM -22.5
SDP -23.4

The difference between the Phillies and Padres, just in terms of offensive production from their catchers, is about 55 runs, or roughly five and a half wins. Both Ruiz and Kratz’s seasons to date are total aberrations and we are very unlikely to ever see them approach this level of offense again, so it’s a good time to sit back and appreciate just how good they both have been in 2012.

Some Thoughts on Tuesday’s Game

The Phillies dropped the second game of their four-game set with the Cincinnati Reds, losing 5-4 in a see-saw game. Cliff Lee started and, as has been the case throughout 2012, did not get the victory, remaining at 2-7 on the season. Jonathan Papelbon got the loss, allowing a lead-off solo home run to Zack Cozart in the ninth inning to break the 4-4 tie. It was one of the more interesting games, especially since the Phillies have been presumed dead for a couple months at this point, and I had a few thoughts on the game as it progressed.

Ryan Howard and Right Field

Last week, I pointed out that Ryan Howard wasn’t pulling the ball as much as he used to, which may have been a symptom of simple rust or an inability to put pressure on his back foot, the one he rehabbed so laboriously before returning in July. Howard has made progress pulling the ball as his hit chart since August 16 indicates:

Entering last night’s game, in which he was 1-for-3 with an RBI single, Howard had 10 hits in his previous 23 plate appearances, including three doubles and a home run, each of them to center field or towards right field. His triple-slash line since the 16th reads .455/.478/.727, which is quite a nice sight for the left-hander.

Cliff Lee, Not A Winner

Lee yet again pitched well enough to win, holding the Reds scoreless through six innings last night. The Phillies, however, spotted him just one run. Charlie Manuel sent Lee back out to the mound for the seventh, having thrown only 85 pitches. However, it was his third trip through the Reds’ batting order, and almost all pitchers have worse results the more a lineup sees him in the same game. Over his career, opposing batters have posted a .680 OPS against Lee the first time they see him in a game, .691 the second time, .719 for the third, and .766 for the fourth.

Scott Rolen led off the seventh with a double to left-center, followed by a Todd Frazier walk — the first Lee had allowed all game. Ryan Hanigan singled up the middle, scoring Rolen to tie the game 1-1 and prompting pitching coach Rich Dubee to head to the mound. While this was happening, B.J. Rosenberg was warming up in the bullpen. Since the Phillies are 10 games out of the second Wild Card and behind six other teams, they should be playing for next year, and as such should have brought in Rosenberg or even Phillippe Aumont just to give them some work in a high-pressure situation (the leverage index on Hanigan’s single was 3.94). Lee stayed in the game, striking out opposing pitcher Homer Bailey — why did Reds manager Dusty Baker not pinch-hit for him? — before allowing two more runs on a Zack Cozart sacrifice fly and a Drew Stubbs single to left field.

Lee’s final line read 6.2 IP, 9 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 9 K and he was potentially on the line for a loss. A confluence of bad luck (the Reds had some lucky hits throughout the game), no run support, and some questionable decision-making put him in that position, and this has been the case for many of his starts throughout 2012.

Kevin Frandsen and the 2013 Opening at Third Base

Frandsen had himself a nice game. He made two spectacular diving plays at third base and went 3-for-4, including a game-tying RBI triple with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning. With Polanco having hit so poorly and missing so much time due to injury this season, this has prompted the idea that Frandsen is somehow the Phillies’ answer at third base next season. Frandsen, however, has a career .650 OPS (72 OPS+) in 644 PA spread out over six seasons. Despite the diving plays, Frandsen has never been known for his defense at the hot corner, spending an overwhelming majority of his time in the Minor Leagues at second base and shortstop.

The Phillies’ third base situation is certainly an interesting one, but one thing is certain: Frandsen is not the answer. Polanco hasn’t hit much at all this season (71 OPS+) but he is realistically equivalent to Frandsen in that regard and plays Gold Glove-caliber defense. The question, of course, focuses on his ability to stay on the field. Polanco’s option for 2013 is relatively cheap ($5.5 million) and he can return the value on the merits of his defense alone, but the Phillies will need to have a Plan B in that case. They can pick up Ty Wigginton‘s $4 million option as well (ick!), sign one of the even uglier cheap options in free agency, or trade for a modest utility infielder. It will certainly be interesting to see how the Phillies approach this conundrum in the off-season.

Late-Game Strategy

The Phillies entered the bottom of the ninth down 5-4 and staring down the barrel of the arm of one of baseball’s most dominant relievers in left-hander Aroldis Chapman. You may recall Chapman once threw catcher Carlos Ruiz a 103.5 MPH fastball last year. Ruiz doubled, setting a record for the fastest pitch that went for a hit. The Cuban throws some serious heat, and it’s reflected in his stats. He is currently one of two relievers in baseball history to post a K/9 above 14 and a BB/9 under 2.5 with at least 50 innings pitched. His strikeout rate entering the night was at 48 percent, narrowly ahead of Craig Kimbrel, and way ahead of every other reliever in the game. Oh, and his ERA was at 1.35 with a 0.85 SIERA.

By some miracle, Placido Polanco was able to make contact with a Chapman fastball and placed it perfectly in the hole between the third baseman and shortstop, giving the Phillies a lead-off base runner. Against a reliever who doesn’t miss bats so prodigiously, a follow-up bunt may in some capacity be defensible. But not against Chapman. Nevertheless, Jimmy Rollins followed up by laying down a sacrifice bunt, but Chapman fielded the bunt and threw a bullet to second base, forcing Polanco out at second. Using the win expectancy tables from The Book, the home team’s win expectancy drops from 35.3% to 29.6% even with a successful bunt. Never mind that the left-handed and powerless Juan Pierre was due up. The Phillies have decided to bunt in some unfortunate situations before, but this was among the worst, ignoring the fact that the game was meaningless in the grand scheme of things.

Game graph courtesy FanGraphs.