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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.