The Phillies’ Bullpen Is Unfixable Without A Philosophical Shift
The Phillies’ bullpen blew yet another lead on Friday night in the series opener against the Washington Nationals. Cliff Lee tossed seven effective innings and left in line for the win with a 3-2 lead. But that impending sense of doom hung over all of us as the top of the eighth inning began and it was up to the bullpen to get six outs without allowing a run.
Entering the night, the bullpen’s collective 4.84 ERA was the fourth-worst in baseball and the worst in the DH-less National League. In the seventh to ninth innings, the bullpen has allowed an opposing slash line of .252/.326/.460, turning the average hitter essentially into a slightly better Adam Dunn circa 2013 (.219/.320/.442). I can think of plenty of hitters I’d rather face in a one-run game than Dunn, I don’t know about you.
Turns out the one-run lead didn’t hold up. The combination of Mike Adams and Jake Diekman couldn’t hold the one-run lead, giving up a three-spot to put the Phillies in a precarious situation late in the ballgame. The Nationals’ bullpen was able to hold the lead and the Phillies went home disappointed.
It’s a very frustrating way to lose a baseball game, especially when it happens over and over again. What’s worse is that the Phillies can’t do anything about it except sit and watch. Sure, they can grab a veteran reliever, but he won’t teach Antonio Bastardo to throw strikes, Mario Hollands to miss bats, or B.J. Rosenberg to do both.
The Phillies’ bullpen is bad because the relievers are pitching poorly. There’s no bad luck at play. Their 21.6 percent strikeout rate ranks 21st out of 30 bullpens. Their 9.1 percent walk rate is a bit below the league average, but their 38.1 percent fly ball rate ranks seventh and their 14.6 percent home run rate on those fly balls is the second-highest behind only the Astros. To summarize what this data tells us: the relievers are allowing an above-average amount of balls in play, a majority of which are fly balls, and a high percentage of them are clearing the outfield fence for home runs. Their walk rate is roughly average and not nearly good enough to overcome other deficiencies.
This is Bastardo’s sixth season in the big leagues, his fourth as a full-time member of the bullpen, and he has shown zero improvement in his walk rate. His strikeout rate has done nothing but fall since 2012. Rosenberg has plateaued as a replacement-level reliever. Phillippe Aumont hasn’t been able to consistently hit the strike zone since joining the team four years ago.
The Phillies’ young corps of bullpen arms — including Mike Stutes, Justin De Fratus, Scott Mathieson, and others — was supposed to become the strength of the team. So many young, live arms full of talent. All of them have either plateaued or flamed out. I have been preaching patience with this group for years. At some point, the unrealized potential becomes the fault not of the players themselves, but of the Phillies organization’s ability to develop and nurture talent. Clearly, something systemic is wrong. Talk all you want about the future stardom of Ken Giles, who has all of 13 innings above A-ball, but the Phillies should have been able to develop at least one serviceable reliever since Ryan Madson left after the 2011 season. It’s statistically improbable that so many projectable relievers passed through the system only to smolder unceremoniously.
But it’s not only the young arms; the Phillies have made some bargain bin grabs and have little to show in that department as well. Meanwhile, the Athletics cobbled together a bullpen made up of unknown pitchers last season, taught them the importance of throwing strikes (see: Jesse Chavez, Pat Neshek), and reaped immediate rewards. The Braves do this every year. So do the Cardinals, and they haven’t had Dave Duncan on the payroll since 2011. When the same teams are finding consistent success in the same avenues in which the Phillies are finding consistent failure, there’s a systemic problem. It’s made only more obvious with the realization that the Phillies willingly signed Mike Adams to a two-year, $12 million contract when he was coming off of shoulder surgery, and when they willingly gave Jonathan Papelbon record money for a relief pitcher, with a four-year, $50 million contract that included a fifth-year vesting option..
The Phillies front office will sit and watch this bullpen for another two to three months, hoping that something can change. Hoping that somebody can do what five years of coaching could not already do for Bastardo, and Rosenberg, and Aumont, and others. It will likely fail, and it will only reinforce to them that the best bullpen is a bought and paid for bullpen full of veterans. In reality, the best bullpens are comprised of pitchers who have been guided by a patient, adaptive, and modernized system that recognizes the importance of missing bats, limiting walks, and avoiding the home run. The Athletics, Braves, and Cardinals aren’t using dark magic. Their methods are freely available to any interested party. All it takes is a willingness to adapt and use every bit of available information.