Vetting the Phillies’ Analysis of Antonio Bastardo
Todd Zolecki recently posted some very interesting quotes from Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee pertaining to lefty reliever Antonio Bastardo. Bastardo worked almost exclusively as the set-up guy ahead of closer Jonathan Papelbon, but struggled at times, finishing the season with a 4.33 ERA. It was a disappointment to many as he had finished the 2011 season with a 2.64 ERA and looked like he would become one of baseball’s more dominant relievers.
Dubee, though, isn’t worried.
“There was something,” Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee said. “Not delivery-wise as much as it was using both sides of the plate. He was dominant right-handed in, fastball and slider behind it. He did not pitch away very much to right-handed hitters. He started using both sides of the plate more.”
This heat map shows the frequency of fastballs Bastardo threw to right-handed hitters in 2012. Contrary to what Dubee said, Bastardo did throw to the outer part of the strike zone with some regularity.
Bastardo’s sliders to right-handers:
Dubee noted that Bastardo “started using both sides of the plate more”, but that isn’t the case either. The following .gif shows, on a week-by-week basis, the frequency of Bastardo’s fastballs to right-handed hitters.
During June and July, Bastardo appeared to pitch inside much more frequently. During August and September, he pitched outside almost exclusively. There is no period after the start of June where you could say that Bastardo made a concerted effort to use both sides of the plate. Bastardo’s results and performance by month:
Note the absurdly small sample sizes, of course. Overall, Bastardo has traditionally induced whiffs on his fastball against right-handers by throwing up and away.
* This heat map should say 2012, not 2013. Apologies for the confusion.
Perhaps the key isn’t using both sides of the plate; perhaps simply returning to his bread-and-butter, so to speak, was what allowed Bastardo to return to his successful ways late in the season. From a game theory standpoint, Bastardo shouldn’t only pepper right-handers up and away, but Dubee does seem to force an unnecessary equivalence pitching inside against pitching outside. Additionally, Dubee focuses on Bastardo facing lefties even though he has shown the ability to completely dominate opposite-handed hitters.
“When was he up and down?” Dubee asked. “Was he up and down against the left-handers he faced? They sat down mostly. They sat down. He was up and down against the meat of a right-handed-hitting lineup. You call that up and down? You run any lefty against that over and over again, you’re going to get burned. I don’t care who he is. Look at [Matt] Thornton, look at Jonny Venters. Those guys had to go through the meats of right-handed hitting lineups, they struggled. They struggled. Antonio got placed in some tough spots.
Dubee is correct here. Bastardo allowed a .254 wOBA to left-handed hitters and .317 to right-handed hitters. But this is just a year after those splits were .254 and .232, respectively. Why the change? Bastardo’s performance — looking at what he did without considering the outcome of balls put in play — actually improved: his strikeout rate went from 27 percent in 2011 to 36 percent last year, while his walk rate increased an insignificant amount. The big change came in Bastardo’s batted ball splits:
Bastardo’s line drive and ground ball rates spiked, while fly balls — including those hit to infielders, his forte — declined significantly. How did his batting average on balls in play fare?
Way more hits on line drives and grounders, and no change on fly balls. It should be noted once again we are dealing with very small sample sizes. Additionally, it hasn’t been demonstrated that pitchers have any meaningful control over their line drive rates on a year-to-year basis, particularly because the classification of a line drive is a very subjective practice. Nevertheless, the general inversion of his fly and ground ball rates raise an eyebrow. There are two major factors that very likely impacted Bastardo’s results: bad luck and bad defense. Again, the sample sizes are too small for us to conclude anything with any degree of certainty.
In investigating Bastardo’s woes, we come upon a form of the chicken-and-egg riddle: were Bastardo’s struggles a result of factors out of his control, or did his mid-season tinkering (perhaps misidentifying his woes as wholly self-inflicted) push him further down the rabbit hole?
One last quote from Dubee:
“Antonio’s fine. He’s fine. Like I said the other day: Put him out there. Put him on the wire and see if 29 teams don’t come calling. You don’t think they do?”
Couldn’t agree more. This is a list of relievers (min. 50 IP) who posted a K/9 above 14 last season:
Bastardo has one of baseball’s most coveted abilities: the ability to miss Major League-quality bats on a consistent basis. The Phillies are right not to lose confidence in their lefty after one fluky bad season. I worry, though, that their words don’t match their actions. Rather than standing pat with Bastardo, general manager Ruben Amaro acquired two veteran relievers in Mike Adams and Chad Durbin who portend to take away a large portion of the high-leverage innings that Bastardo would have otherwise had. If the Phillies truly had such confidence in Bastardo, they would have had no need to bring on veterans with the ability to handle high-leverage situations.
As I wrote at ESPN’s Sweet Spot blog recently, most of baseball’s most reliable bullpens last season included a corps of younger arms. Teams that appreciated the value provided by youth — lower cost, lower injury risk — reaped the rewards while many teams that stocked up on veteran arms were crippled by predictable injuries and payroll inflexibility. If more teams understood the vagaries of Major League bullpens caused by small samples, they wouldn’t overreact to extremely good or extremely bad results. In a perfect world, they wouldn’t look at results at all; just the performance. Bastardo’s results will likely be found somewhere between his 2011 and ’12 postings. Indeed, ZiPS projects a 3.22 ERA. It remains to be seen if the Phillies will call on Bastardo enough and in enough important situations for that improvement to become noticeable.