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The Achilles heel of the 2012 Phillies — sorry, Ryan Howard — has far and away been the bullpen. For most of the year, they have squandered leads large and small, sinking the Phillies to the bottom of the NL East. In May, the bullpen’s worst month, they posted a 5.23 ERA. Even after a few months of very slow progress, the Phillies still rank 12th in the National League in bullpen ERA at 4.42.
GM Ruben Amaro filled out his bullpen by signing Jonathan Papelbon to a four-year, $50 million contract and otherwise relying on cheap veterans and young pre-arbitration arms. Unfortunately, a few of the younger guys went down quickly, including Michael Stutes, David Herndon, and Justin De Fratus. Veteran Jose Contreras went down early as well, and the Chad Qualls signing did not pan out. Antonio Bastardo had some growing pains, punishing the Phillies for thinking he could handle the eighth inning with aplomb. Elsewhere, Michael Schwimer, Jake Diekman, B.J. Rosenberg, and July acquisition Josh Lindblom had their own struggles contributing in relief.
The past month, however, has seen a lot of progress among almost everybody. Their aggregate 3.79 ERA is a significant improvement for them, but more importantly, they had a 2.95 SIERA, third-best in the National League during the month. SIERA is an ERA retrodictor that looks at the factors a pitcher most controls — strikeouts, walks, ground and fly ball rates (all independent of defense) — to tell you what a pitcher’s underlying talent really is, on the same scale of ERA. So the bullpen’s 2.95 SIERA, compared to their 3.79 ERA, tells you that they were a lot better than their results indicated last month.
As a whole, the Phillies’ bullpen led the way in strikeout rate at 30 percent. The closest team to them was the San Diego Padres at 25.8 percent. Strikeouts are great and incredibly important to a pitcher’s success, but they had two issues that led to their demise: walks and home runs. The Phillies led the NL in walk rate at 10.6 and had the third-highest home run rate, averaging 1.1 per nine innings. However, the blame can be pinned almost entirely on Lindblom and Rosenberg. Lindblom allowed 11 walks and three home runs in 12.2 innings, while Rosenberg walked three and allowed two home runs in 8.1 innings. Combined, the two accounted for 44 percent of the walks and 56 percent of the home runs the bullpen allowed in August.
Individually, six relievers posted a SIERA below 3.75:
- Antonio Bastardo: 1.55 (5.14 ERA) in 7 innings
- Raul Valdez: 1.84 (0.93 ERA) in 9.2 innings
- Jonathan Papelbon: 2.17 (2.84 ERA) in 14.1 innings
- Michael Schwimer: 2.58 (7.04 ERA) in 7.2 innings
- B.J. Rosenberg: 3.36 (4.52 ERA) in 8.1 innings
- Jeremy Horst: 3.61 (3.90 ERA) in 11 innings
That’s without mentioning Phillippe Aumont, who joined the Phillies in late August. Four relievers — Valdes, Papelbon, Bastardo, Schwimer — had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of four or greater. Although Bastardo’s walk rate was high at 10 percent, he struck out one batter for nearly every two he faced. Comparatively, Aroldis Chapman‘s strikeout rate on the season is 47 percent. In other words, for the last month, Bastardo has been getting strikeouts at a rate comparable to the most dominant reliever in baseball this season.
September hasn’t started out as positively for the Phillies, especially with Sunday’s devastating loss. Still, the overall defense-independent stats on the season paint a very optimistic picture for the bullpen going forward. On the season, their 3.31 SIERA ranks seventh in all of baseball and fourth in the NL. A 2013 bullpen that includes Papelbon, Bastardo, Aumont, and a few more of the plethora of young arms the Phillies have at their disposal should make for some reliable late innings, a shocking concept after the relentless failures we have seen throughout this season. Whether through a direct decision or through circumstance, the Phillies have crafted for themselves a formidable bullpen that will have staying power for years to come.