The Phillies Bullpen: It Stinks

To paraphrase The Critic, the Phillies’ bullpen stinks. The hodgepodge of arms, thankfully sans Chad Durbin, has yielded baseball’s worst bullpen ERA at 4.67. Its collective xFIP isn’t much better at 4.34, good for second-worst in baseball behind the lowly Houston Astros. It was bad before Jonathan Papelbon — the only consistently-reliable arm in the stable — blew three four saves in four opportunities in the span of a week, and now it just feels awful. On Saturday, the Phillies turned a 7-1 lead into a 7-7 tie only to walk off on Kevin Frandsen‘s home run. Relief, in this case, is a misnomer.

The Phillies’ bullpen has allowed the third-highest batting average on balls in play among all 30 Major League teams at .313 (the Red Sox lead at .315), which may lead one to assume they have simply been unlucky. However, they fall short in all three of the important defense-independent categories as well. They have the sixth-lowest strikeout rate at 20 percent. They have allowed the tenth-highest rate of walks at 9.4 percent. And they have allowed the ninth-most aggregate home runs at 27.

Fans have been following the bullpen’s failure in halting inherited runners all year. Phillies relievers have allowed 41 percent of inherited runners to score, by far the most, beating out the second-place Dodgers and Twins at 37 percent. The MLB average is 30 percent. In other words, for every ten inherited runners Phillies relievers have been given, they have allowed one extra to score compared to the league average. That is due, in various quantities, to all four of the above symptoms.

On an individual level, Antonio Bastardo did not bounce back from a disappointing 2012. In 2011, we saw flashes of a dominant reliever, but his ability to generate swings and misses has been severely compromised and his high walk rate doesn’t allow him any wiggle room with the increased rate of contact. Likewise with Jeremy Horst, who turned out to be one of the Phillies’ best relievers last year. Michael Stutes, who was finally healthy until recently, has generated fewer swings and misses than John Lannan, which is very difficult to do.

Though it is easy to write off the struggles as young players flailing around in the deep end of the swimming pool, the veterans have been just as unreliable. Mike Adams is on the disabled list  for a second time and has been a shadow of his former self all year. Chad Durbin was a disaster from the very start. And although Papelbon has been solid for the most part, his strikeout rate currently sits at a career low as is his average fastball velocity. Papelbon and Adams are making a combined $18 million this season.

Unfortunately, there is no panacea. The Phillies should consider trading Papelbon and Adams should the opportunity present itself between now and the trade deadline, or during the off-season. Throwing more money, particularly if it comes with a multi-year free agent contract, at veteran arms will create little if any change. Bullpens are notoriously volatile. The Phillies experienced the positive end of the volatility spectrum in 2008, when castaways such as Durbin, Scott Eyre, J.C. Romero, Clay Condrey, and Rudy Seanez (all cheap, risk-free, mind you) clicked their ruby heels in unison en route to a championship. On the other hand, they experienced the negative end of the volatility spectrum this year, when not a single shot in the dark manages to come anywhere near a target.

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25 comments

  1. joecatz

    June 24, 2013 09:10 AM

    here’s where they rank in relation to the rest:

    IP: 28 out of 30
    K/9: 17 out of 30 (7.97)
    BB/9: 23 out of 30 (3.76) yet 29th is 3.96 so its not far off
    HR/9: 3rd worst of 30 (1.22)
    BABIP: 3rd at .313.
    GB% 22 out of 30
    HR/FB% 10th worst at 11.4%

    they have the worst ERA, second worst FIP and second worst xFIP in the majors.

    and with the HR rates being what they are, as sick as it sounds, the xFIP BIll quotes above gives some serious benefit of the doubt that the HR rates will normalize to league average (which, for RP pitchers, isn’t necessarily something that happens on an annual basis, based on the constant movement between the bullpen arms)

    It’s not pretty. Not pretty at all, and honestly, not something that likely is going to get any better, any time soon. Mainly because the only way your going to really see any improvement is if they pitch less BP innings, and that means starters going deeper and our SP for all its faults, has actually gone deeper than all but two other teams in the majors this season.

  2. Richard

    June 24, 2013 09:15 AM

    I’d like to suggest, too, that Durbin aside, the bullpen was not something people anticipated being a problem, and it was reasonably well constructed.

    Given the nature of roles, and how one pitcher failing means another comes in, often with runners on base – I tend to think that Bastardo’s and Adams’ problems are the biggest, have a cascading effect on the rest of the pen, result in lesser arms seeing more time, etc.

  3. joecatz

    June 24, 2013 09:19 AM

    anotherr big problem with the way this bullpen is constructed has to do with the makeup of FB% pitchers. this is a bullpen that has the third worst FB% in baseball at 39.5%

    in relation, the GB% is at 42%, 22nd worst in the game.

    thats good for the 25th worst GB/FB% in baseball.

    When you are asking that kind of bullpen to come in with runners on base and less than two outs, nothing good can come of it.

    Whats interesting is that the current arms in the Pen (Aumont, Diekman, DeFratus) all post very low FB rates and high GB rates.

    and Savery has been underused, but is the same type of pitcher.

    what might end up being telling here is that this team may, by default, have actually just created the best bullpen makeup they could ask for, in rlation to workload.

  4. Richard

    June 24, 2013 09:22 AM

    I don’t know what you mean in your last sentence, Joe. Can you elaborate, or clarify?

    And being FB versus GB wouldn’t matter as much if they were more reliably getting Ks, but none of these guys are, these season, after having been so good in that dept. last season.

  5. Richard

    June 24, 2013 09:25 AM

    Ah, I just saw your tweets… you’re saying that the currently assembled gang has better GB tendencies than the other guys who were up.

  6. Joecatz

    June 24, 2013 11:19 AM

    Yes. My theory here is that if you have a bullpen of guys who aren’t striking people out then you want high GB guys next.

    Aumont might walk in a run with the bases loaded, but he’s not likely to give up a double or a HR. he’s still more likely to induce a GIDP
    Or a swinging K there.

  7. Bill Baer

    June 24, 2013 11:23 AM

    Among qualified relievers this season, there’s a negative correlation (-.377) between ground ball rate and strikeout rate. There’s a positive correlation (.35) between fly ball rate and strikeout rate.

    If you can find a reliever who can both miss bats with great frequency and generate ground balls when he’s not missing bats, you’ve found yourself a quality reliever.

  8. Scott G

    June 24, 2013 11:41 AM

    Does anyone know where I can see Daniel Murphy’s single that scored Wright from first on Saturday? I turned the game off going into the top of the 9th because I thought, “if they’re going to blow this game, I don’t want to watch.”

  9. joecatz

    June 24, 2013 01:08 PM

    If you can find a reliever who can both miss bats with great frequency and generate ground balls when he’s not missing bats, you’ve found yourself a quality reliever.

    Thats basically Aumont, sans the ridiculous walk rates.

    i think my point Bill is that for the Phillies, theres also been a pretty negative correlation between K rates and Fb rates, too, no?

    meaning that if they’re not striking guys out, then I’d prefer ground balls.

  10. patthebat

    June 24, 2013 05:30 PM

    Bill,

    Do you think the Phils having a nightmarish bullpen two years in a row is just a run of bad luck, bad talent evaluation, or bad player development? As I recall, most intelligent baseball analysts during the last off-season thought the Phils should basically stick with the same bullpen they had in 2012, and the luck would be likely to even out with volatile pitchers. Other than Adams and Durbin, they’ve done just that and it’s blown up in their faces…

  11. Bill Baer

    June 25, 2013 02:01 AM

    I wouldn’t say last year’s bullpen was bad. The ERA was among the bottom-third, but by defense-independent measures (like xFIP) they were closer to the top-third.

    I do think the Phillies organization struggles with talent evaluation, at least as far as I’m able to observe it impartially at the Major League level. The veteran bullpen signings (Danys Baez, Chad Qualls, Chad Durbin, Mike Adams) really haven’t worked out.

  12. #PhilliesTalk

    June 25, 2013 02:15 PM

    ETHAN MARTIN

    It was obvious to me after watching Martin in spring training – on TV – that he was an answer this year in the Phillies bullpen. Yet here we are at the end of June with this mess and a blog post about the bullpen and his name is not mentioned by anyone but me.

    I have not seen anyone mention Ethan Martin as an answer in the bullpen except me. I’m going to be right about this so how can this be?

    Martin is the Phillies 8th inning guy. What is the hold up with making this happen?

  13. Phillie697

    June 25, 2013 02:22 PM

    @PhilliesTalk,

    Probably because some of us, most of us actually, still hold out hope that he’ll be a usable ML starter in the future, and he’s not done learning that craft in the minors yet, as aptly shown by his not-so-impressive AAA numbers this year.

    You don’t mortgage the future to rescue a team that is going nowhere in 2013.

  14. joecatz

    June 25, 2013 04:35 PM

    Philliestalk,

    Martin can easily move to the bullpen and be pretty dominant, but to do that now would be to give up on the hope he can turn into a high end starter way sooner than you want to.

  15. joecatz

    June 25, 2013 04:48 PM

    bill,

    “I do think the Phillies organization struggles with talent evaluation, at least as far as I’m able to observe it impartially at the Major League level. The veteran bullpen signings (Danys Baez, Chad Qualls, Chad Durbin, Mike Adams) really haven’t worked out.”

    But isn’t this kind of the case with about 75% of the bullpen signings for those types of guys? Relievers by nature are just so damn volatile that it stands to reason that when you go after a 30-34 year old guy who came off a decent year, or een an off year, but had good stuff in the past, etc.. that there are few ways to really determine what your getting, no?

    Granted, Qualls actually exceeded his zips last year, and Durbin was coming off a career type year in Atlanta, but for every Durbin, Qualls, or Baez, isn’t there a MArk Melancon, who bounces from three organizations with high BB rates (and a trip to AAA in 2012) that just figures it out at the right time?

    Look at Brett Cecil too. 6.5 -7.5 K/9 guy 3.0 to 3.5 BB/9 guy who this season is putting up 10 K/9 and dropped his BB/9 to 2.3 nothing in his peripherals show that should be happening unless you believe he suddenly turned back into the kid in a- ball in 2007.

    Which, is really back to your point, which is never, ever, put good money into the bullpen, especially for a veteran guy. cause its a crapshoot.

  16. Joecatz

    June 25, 2013 06:44 PM

    Kevin Gregg is another headshaker. Nothing in his career would support what he’s doing this year, yet al the advanced metrics show he’s actually for real right now.

  17. #PhilliesTalk

    June 25, 2013 11:44 PM

    “Probably because some of us, most of us actually, still hold out hope that he’ll be a usable ML starter in the future,”

    So the Phillies have relocated to the suburbs of Pittsburgh and are looking to fill out the roster as cheaply as possible?

    I was not aware of this new reality. I thought the Phillies were in the fourth largest media market in the country and had Yankees/Dodgers dollars to play with. I guess their being relocated to Pittsburgh explains why Michael Martinez has been able to accumulate 360 plate appearances in a Phillies uniform.

    Justin De Fratus is garbage. He has no out pitch. He is only fit to perform the 2013 Chad Durbin’s role.

  18. Phillie697

    June 26, 2013 12:18 AM

    @PhilliesTalk,

    Even the ultra-rich Yankees held onto prospect Manny Banuelos for dear life, and nobody can’t accuse them of not being able to sign players to fill needs. It’s just the reality of the business; money alone can’t buy you a winning team, and you still have to find value elsewhere.

    Converting a prospect who may one day become a ML starter into a reliever whose value is inherently limited by that position (don’t pitch enough innings) is turning possible value into garbage. Not a smart way to run a team.

  19. hk

    June 26, 2013 05:31 AM

    PhilliesTalk,

    Free agency isn’t what it used to be. More and more mid-market teams are locking up their best young players with long-term deals that take them into their early 30’s leaving fewer and fewer quality options in free agency. Look at the list of potential free agent SP’s this coming off-season and you’ll see oft-injured Matt Garza at the top, followed by 39 year old Hiroki Kiroda and 37 year old AJ Burnett. Right now, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and Justin Masterson all project to be free agents before the 2015 season, but it is highly likely that two of them, if not all three, will sign extensions before they reach free agency. This dearth of free agent starting pitching on the horixon is one of the reasons that I was hoping the Phils would sign Anibal Sanchez last off-season. It is also one of the reasons that there are many people who feel that the Phils should not trade Cliff Lee…because they don’t think they’ll be able to acquire another pitcher with close to Lee’s ability. Therefore, if you think Martin has a chance to eventually become a decent (or better) MLB starting pitcher who can throw 200 innings per season, it would be foolish to groom him as a reliever. For the most part, relievers are failed starters, not the other way around.

  20. amarosucks

    June 27, 2013 12:09 PM

    Has to be some correlation with the high BABIP and the atrocious team defense that amaro put together. god I hate him

  21. Lee S. Boyer

    June 27, 2013 09:58 PM

    It was his only appearance on the Phils’ seven-game road trip and he’s pitched just twice in May. In April, Durbin had a 7.00 ERA and allowed nine of 12 inherited runners to score.

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