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.

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27 comments

  1. Mike Lacy

    May 03, 2014 07:55 AM

    I’ve been wondering for a while if the Phillies organization had some sort of weakness in terms of developing relievers. I thought part of the blame was with Manuel and Dubee and their inconsistent handling of guys. But it’s tough to blame them anymore.

    And I’d say that Bastardo is at least a “serviceable” reliever, and Diekman may fall into that category as well. But “good” relievers? That’s a different story.

    • mark66

      May 04, 2014 10:32 AM

      Stats don’t lie . The Phils pitching staff gives up way too many hits per innings pitched. They rank at the bottom end for strikeouts. And on the other end–offensively, they play in a hitters park but rank just about last in home runs. The reason for all this is because they make extremely poor front office decisions with respect to personnel. Changes are needed in the front office so better decisions can be made on the field. AJ Burnet and Utely are the only two players who are earning their salaries

      • hk

        May 04, 2014 12:25 PM

        Rollins and Ruiz have more than earned their salaries so far. Byrd, who is only making $8M per year, is also on pace to earn his.

  2. George Callanan

    May 03, 2014 08:25 AM

    As long as Sandberg keeps going to Diekman he is going to lose. He favors him because he was his manager at Lehigh Valley. Diekman needs to go back to the Lehigh Valley and find his game. But for now he does not have. Ryan wake up, he has cost us four wins!

  3. Rich Baxter

    May 03, 2014 09:26 AM

    An essentially minor league bullpen has cost the team plenty so far. We had hoped everything would be much better in the ‘pen this season, but it has not been.

    If the team has any chance at all this season to make the postseason, this has to be dealt with now. It’s not fair to see Jake Diekman as some kind of Ryan Madson like pitcher, JD is still young and developing his game.

    We’ll see what happens as time goes on with the team, but for now it’s leading to “L” after “L” in the wins/loss column.

    • awh™

      May 03, 2014 01:34 PM

      Diekman is 27. That’s not exactly “young”.

  4. MattWinks

    May 03, 2014 11:38 AM

    This is entirely unsubstantiated, but one area where the Phillies don’t bring guys up is the bullpen. It often feels like many of the young pitchers are spending their best years in AAA. Other teams are quick to bring guys up and give them innings, the Phillies have seemed late to get guys up and then inconsistent with their use. Relievers are volatile, you need to use them when they are ready.

    From a minor league perspective, the lack of starting pitching has seemed to make it more difficult for the Phillies to move guys to the pen and move them quickly. Someone like Perci Garner was hailed as a power reliever 4 years ago and the stuff has not worked in the rotation.

    But then again the lack of fastball command permeates all levels of the Phillies pitching development so there is definitely something not right there as well.

    • awh™

      May 03, 2014 01:29 PM

      Matt, the Cardinals have a different org philosophy:

      They break in their starter at the MLB level in the bullpen. Why won’t the Phillies try something like that – with someone like Biddle later in the season? But that would require “changing” and “adapting” as Bill puts it.

      I’m not holding my breath.

      • Matt

        May 03, 2014 02:44 PM

        I wouldn’t say that it is an org philosophy of the Cardinals, more so it is a product of depth. When Rosenthal and Martinez were major league ready, the rotation was full so they went to the pen to get value until there was a spot. At this point it is unlikely Rosenthal ever comes out. In the Phillies case, if Jesse Biddle is ready for the major leagues he is your 4th best starter. Putting that in the bullpen is a waste. It should bump Hernandez or Kendrick. Now September is a different story, if Biddle still needs more innings they could put him on the 40 man bring him up as a long man (since he needs to be on the 40 man anyway).

        The biggest difference between the Phillies and Cards, their pitching prospects are blocked, the Phillies one pitching prospect is not. If Biddle is up, he is starting, to do otherwise could jeopardize his development (he might not even be ready by Midseason)

      • awh™

        May 04, 2014 11:16 AM

        Matt, for some reason I couldn’t reply to your comment below so I’ll do it here.

        Sure, depth matters, but what the team is willing to do in “practice” matters as well. How often have the Phillies done what the Cardinals do even when they have had depth?

        They just don’t so it – it’s not their philosophy. They’d have let Rosenthal and Martinez start in AAA until there was an opening on the big club.

        And I disagree with your point about Biddle being the 4th best starter if he’s ready: You may turn out to be correct, but at this moment that is an unknown.

  5. awh™

    May 03, 2014 01:25 PM

    Halleluia, Bill! Welcome to the party.

    “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.”

    I have been posting to this effect over at TGP and BL for a while now. Something is amiss in their system – I don’t know what. They DID replace their minor league pitching coordinator, but not the coaches up and down.

    “All it takes is a willingness to adapt…”

    This is the Phillies. Good luck with that.

  6. Brian

    May 03, 2014 05:38 PM

    Speaking of Madson, he’s still a free agent. #JustSayin

  7. mark66

    May 04, 2014 12:29 AM

    Too much inconsistency. One day it’s the starter, next day not enough offense, next day the bullpen is off. They’re just not on the same page together and then do it 3-4 days in a row.

  8. mark66

    May 04, 2014 12:32 AM

    This shows that the front office has not done its JOB. Changes are needed in the front office.

    • Beez Nutz

      May 05, 2014 08:31 AM

      Dude you are the most broken of broken records… we get it already. Nobody is exactly HAPPY with the front office.

      • mark66

        May 05, 2014 11:39 AM

        I will continue to rave until changes are made

  9. George Callanan

    May 04, 2014 07:16 AM

    Phillies bullpen must be listening to us, much better performance in 7-2 win over Nationals. Cole Hamels continues to show signs of not being able to handle the pressure of a $144 million dollar contract. Sandburg’s move of putting him third in rotation makes sense . Now he can’t go because of the flu. I hope this is not another year were he wins 7 or less for the kind of money he is being paid. Hamels needs to forget what he is making and relax go out and have fun and earn what he is being paid.

      • tom b

        May 04, 2014 01:33 PM

        versus sending hernandez out there? yes

      • George Callanan

        May 05, 2014 07:05 AM

        You are right I do not want him to pitch if he is sick. Hernandez took his place and did well. What I am concerned about is in the last two seasons or Seven months of baseball Hamels has seven wins. He is slotted to pitch on Tuesday vs Toronto we need him to win. We can talk talent which he has, but when you make top 10 money in all of sports, the Phillies have 3 of the top 10 Howard and Lee too you have to produce. I need to be patient but let’s go Cole. I do not want to write a blog in the end of May and he only has one win. He will get 5 starts in May is three wins unreasonable?

      • Bill Baer

        May 05, 2014 07:16 AM

        George,

        Wins aren’t a great way to judge a pitcher’s value. There’s a lot completely out of a pitcher’s control that goes into getting a win or a loss. A pitcher who throws 7 innings of shutout ball can get a no-decision against a pitcher who allows 6 runs if his bullpen blows the lead. Or a pitcher can those those 7 innings of shutout ball and be matched by the opposing pitcher and both take the no-decision on account of silent offenses.

        A pitcher is best judged by his strikeout and walk rates, his ground ball rate, and his home run rate. For a quick glance, stats like FIP, xFIP, and SIERA tell you more about the pitcher’s individual talent than his ERA does as well.

        Cole could have 0 wins by the All-Star break and it could still be possible that he’s been pitching well.

    • awh™

      May 04, 2014 11:10 AM

      That’s a bit silly. Actually, that’s a LOT silly. If a guy is ill – and Hamels is ill enough to have been SENT HOME by the team so he doesn’t infect anyone else, – then he’s not going to be of much use to the team even if he does try to take the hill.

      Your comment wreaks of some kind of WIP type bias about Hamels – maybe that he’s not “gritty” enough for you.

      Well, as a shining example of “gritty”, I offer you the entire Arizona Diamondbacks team. They have been built in the image of their manager – that “gritty” Kirk Gibson guy – even to the point of trading away one of the better RF in baseball because he wasn’t a fit.

      What has all that gotten them? An 11 – 22 record of “grit” because their team is shit.

      I’ll take Hamels’ talent and competitiveness (make no mistake, he’s as competitive as they come) over grit any day of the season.

      Talent wins games and championships waaaaaay more often than does “grit”.

  10. BobSmith

    May 04, 2014 12:57 PM

    “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.”

    If it was nearly this easy, then the washout rate for pitchers who reach the MLB level would be a lot lower and using every bit of available information is a complete and utter waste of time when doing data analysis.

  11. Carmine James Spellane

    May 05, 2014 11:20 AM

    I agree with the premise of this article and have felt the same for some time now. I think the developmental system’s faults go beyond relief pitching. Why haven’t the Phillies been able to produce a major league ready outfielder?

  12. TomG

    May 05, 2014 01:09 PM

    They’ve had the same philosophy for the past 2+ years: I stink, therefore I am. Leading to bullpen performances that have been nasty and brutish, but rarely short.

    • George Callanan

      May 05, 2014 02:12 PM

      Bill, The Phillies management is paying big money to have Cole win period. If he has no wins by the all star break the Phillies are in trouble. The most important stat of all is wins.

      • MattWinks

        May 05, 2014 02:40 PM

        Team wins, not pitcher wins. Pitcher wins are irrelevant except when added together to get total team wins

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