I haven’t been on the Internet too much over the last few days — who’dathunkit — but I managed to catch some “should of kept” [sic] sentiment regarding Pittsburgh Pirates closer Jason Grilli after he nailed down his second consecutive save against the Phillies. Grilli spent the 2011 season with the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, with whom he posted a 1.93 ERA in 32.2 innings. He opted out of his contract on July 20 and signed with the Pirates, willing to give him a shot at the Major League level — a commitment the Phillies weren’t willing to take.
In retrospect, it is very easy to look distastefully at a 2011 Phillies bullpen that included Danys Baez (6.25 ERA) and Michael Schwimer (5.02 ERA), among others, but that bullpen was quite good. Their collective 3.45 ERA ranked seventh in the National League, but was just a few shades from being next to fifth-place Milwaukee (3.32). Four Phillies relievers tossed 50 or more innings, and here is how they fared:
- Ryan Madson: 60.2 IP, 2.37 ERA
- Antonio Bastardo: 58.0 IP, 2.64 ERA
- David Herndon: 57.0 IP, 3.32 ERA
- Michael Stutes: 62.0 IP, 3.63 ERA
When people speak of what could have been with Grilli, they think of his pitching prowess being utilized in high-leverage situations, but given how good the ‘pen was, Grilli would have been used as a mop-up (low-leverage) guy no matter how good he was. The Phillies simply were not in a position to offer him meaningful playing time at the Major League level, and certainly not in the type of leverage situations that he would have liked, which is why he jumped over to the Pirates.
Moreover, Grilli could just as easily have failed if the Phillies did offer him a spot in the bullpen. His 32 percent strikeout rate in 32.2 innings at the Triple-A level is not terribly predictive of what he would do at the Major League level. In hindsight, it is easy to say “See, 32 percent K-rate in the Minors; 26-37 percent K-rate at the Major League level after he earned a shot. How’d the Phillies miss that?” That same year, Phillippe Aumont struck out 35.5 percent of batters faced, but no one is petitioning for his promotion to the back of the bullpen. Schwimer had a similar strikeout-to-walk ratio and strikeout rate (3.91; 31 percent) and bombed when he was promoted.
The truth is, veterans with Grilli’s track record are complete gambles. Sometimes you hit, sometimes you don’t. When you’re at the Blackjack table, you don’t tap the table and bust, then lament your decision despite playing standard. It would have been nice to have Grilli’s arm contributing in the back of the ‘pen at a cheap price, particularly if it would have negated the possibility of Mike Adams‘ two-year deal or even Jonathan Papelbon‘s four-year deal, but the what-if scenario is one that doesn’t match up with the history.