Sometimes Bad Things Happen to Good People
Monday night’s game against the Atlanta Braves was ugly for myriad reasons; the bullpen responsible for nearly all of them. To recap, it was a fairly close game after seven innings. Starter Roberto Hernandez yielded only two runs to the Braves, on a two-run home run by Evan Gattis. Mario Hollands pitched a scoreless seventh inning. The Phillies managed just one run off of Braves starter Ervin Santana, which came on a second-inning solo home run by Ryan Howard. Once it got to the eighth inning, things got out of hand.
Reliever B.J. Rosenberg took the mound and the Braves brought the lumber. Evan Gattis, Dan Uggla, and Andrelton Simmons hit back-to-back-to-back solo home runs in rapid-fire succession, putting the game seemingly out of reach at 5-1. Luis Garcia relieved Rosenberg and was able to escape the eighth with no further damage. Entering the bottom of the eighth, the Phillies’ win probability sat at a meager four percent.
Just as the Braves’ bats woke up, so too did the Phillies’. Luis Avilan relieved Anthony Varvaro and was immediately put to the test by the top of the Phillies’ lineup. Tony Gwynn, Jr. walked, and Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley both singled to load the bases. Ryan Howard struck out (hey, it was against a lefty!), but Marlon Byrd picked him up with a two-run single to right field. Domonic Brown put the cherry on top of the inning with a go-ahead three-run home run to make it 6-5 in favor of the Phillies. Their win probability stood at 84 percent at the conclusion of the bottom of the eighth.
Closer Jonathan Papelbon had pitched in three consecutive games, so manager Ryne Sandberg opted to have the normally-reliable Jake Diekman close out the ninth, but it was not to be. Diekman could not hit the strike zone whatsoever. The lefty walked B.J. Upton to lead off the top of the ninth, then fell behind Freddie Freeman before he tapped a grounder to Utley at second base, who flipped to second base to get the lead runner, but he was a hair too late. Diekman walked Justin Upton to load the bases. With his back against the wall, Diekman fired some 97-98 MPH fastballs by Evan Gattis and retired him on strikes for the first out, revealing light at the end of the tunnel. But it was not to be, as Uggla joined Gattis in the two-homer party, crushing a grand slam to left field to give the Braves a 9-6 lead. At the conclusion of the top of the ninth, the Phillies were back down to four percent win probability. This time it stuck. David Carpenter closed out the bottom of the ninth with Craig Kimbrel resting with a sore shoulder.
Now that the recap is over and we have context, time to get into the meat of the matter:
Sometimes bad things happen to good people. The Phillies’ bullpen has not had a good, or even adequate, start to the season and last night’s performance didn’t help. They entered the game with a 4.35 ERA collectively and exited at 5.53. Among all 30 Major League bullpens, they have the 23rd-best strikeout rate at 20 percent and tie for the 13th-worst walk rate, just below 11 percent. They have allowed the second-most home runs with seven, just behind the Angels’ eight. Hitters have been smoking line drives on a regular basis, as the Phillies have allowed them at the tenth-highest rate at 22 percent. And despite that, the Phillies’ bullpen has actually been somewhat lucky with a .252 BABIP — we would expect it to be well north of .300.
By just watching Phillies relievers pitch, you’d get the sense they haven’t been pitching well. That is supported by the stats, both descriptive and predictive.
You know what’s coming next: a spiel about small sample sizes. I don’t need to tell you that a Phillies reliever has yet to cross the eight-inning threshold, which is the equivalent of one good start or two mediocre starts, and that you’d never rush to judgement about a starter after one or two starts. I don’t need to tell you that there’s 149 games left and that the bullpen we see now may not be the bullpen we see later.
What I will say is this: sometimes bad things happen to good people. Few have any confidence left in Papelbon. If fans were given the choice between Papelbon and Diekman prior to the ninth inning last night, Diekman would have won in a landslide. The choice to use Diekman against a slew of right-handed hitters was, perhaps, a bit questionable — I don’t have a huge issue with it given the context of Papelbon’s workload — but the Phillies had already burned B.J. Rosenberg and Luis Garcia. The only other right-hander left in the bullpen was Jeff Manship. It was Diekman’s game and, unfortunately, the 28 pitches he threw were not of the usual quality. It happens. And the Braves deserve credit for being patient and forcing him to have to make pitches in tight spots.
Monday night’s loss is a tough pill to swallow, especially considering how far they had to come back only to fall right back down again. The only way to learn is by making mistakes. Brad Lidge, after all, turned in his perfect season not too far removed from serving up that gut-punching home run to Albert Pujols in the NLCS.