Jonathan Papelbon Isn’t to Blame for Sunday’s Loss

Sunday’s loss in the series finale against the Mets in Queens, New York was about as ugly as they come. The Phillies took a 4-1 lead into the ninth inning, asking their bullpen to get three outs without giving up three runs. They gave up three runs. And then, in the bottom of the 12th, they gave up one more as the Mets walked off winners, avoiding a series sweep.

In the aftermath, many wondered why closer Jonathan Papelbon wasn’t available to close out the game. While he had closed out each of the two previous games against the Mets, he threw only 21 total pitches and theoretically couldn’t have been gassed from that workload. And even as recently as April 11-13, Papelbon pitched three days in a row, all against the Marlins, notching both save chances.

It turns out Papelbon was just sore. What was sore? “Everything,” the closer said, via CSN Philly’s Jim Salisbury. “Back. Legs. You know, the daily grind of the season.”

Since then, many have criticized Papelbon’s willingness to pitch at less than 100 percent effectiveness, even though he did exactly that last season with hip soreness. Salisbury himself lays into Papelbon, comparing him to Chase Utley who is “sore every day”. Manager Ryne Sandberg, an old school kind of guy, said to Angelo Cataldi on 94WIP, “I don’t know, the pitchers just come up with some tenderness. This generation has a hard time of pitching or playing with some soreness. They’re unsure what the soreness is and yeah, I remember when a closer used to pitch two or three innings to get a save back in the day.”

Papelbon is the wrong person to blame here. Braves closer Craig Kimbrel dealt with a sore shoulder towards the end of April and early May and the Braves gave him a few days off. It wasn’t a big deal and nobody questioned his toughness because the Braves have a good enough bullpen to afford playing without Kimbrel for a small amount of time. And that was in the midst of a seven-game losing streak. Could you imagine if the Phillies didn’t just lose one game, but seven in a row partially because Papelbon wasn’t good to go? He’d have been run out of town.

The underlying issue is that the Phillies can’t trust anyone in their bullpen beyond Papelbon and even he has his own issues (declining velocity). Antonio Bastardo has had trouble hitting the strike zone. Mario Hollands has trouble missing bats. Mike Adams has only recently come back from shoulder surgery. Jake Diekman has given up a ton of hits. And those are the only other guys with any modicum of trust in a high-leverage situation. There’s still Jeff Manship, Luis Garcia, Shawn Camp, B.J. Rosenberg, and Brad Lincoln who you wouldn’t put within 50 feet of a high-leverage spot.

Inning PHI MLB Diff (G)
6 .765 .803 1
7 .750 .842 3
8 .750 .899 5
9 .800 .945 5

Since time immemorial, teams have won about 95 percent of games they have led going into the ninth inning. The Phillies have won only 80 percent
of the time. The table to the right shows what it looks like from the sixth through the ninth innings, along with the difference in games between the Phillies and the MLB average winning percentages.

Papelbon is the wrong target for anger over Sunday’s loss. By saying he should have pitched even though he was feeling sore, one argues he should have risked his health — and remember he’s been the only reliable reliever for the team — for the sake of one win. What if he overcompensated for his soreness and suffered a shoulder or elbow injury and he had to go on the disabled list for the rest of the season? Or, less dramatically, what if he landed on the DL for just a couple weeks? The Bastardo/Roberto Hernandez/Manship show we were privy to that afternoon would have been a bi- or tri-weekly occurrence.

The dependence on Papelbon is a direct result of the untrustworthiness of the rest of the bullpen. He is absolutely the wrong target for blame regarding Sunday’s loss to the Mets.

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