Middle Relief Remains An Issue for the Phillies

Tasked with keeping Wednesday night’s game close, the Phillies bullpen turned a 6-3 deficit into a 10-3 deficit which eventually turned into a 14-5 loss. It’s a story you’ve heard plenty of times already. Mario Hollands allowed an RBI single; Jeff Manship served up a grand slam to Marcell Ozuna; Luis Garcia, who hadn’t pitched since May 8, allowed three hits and walked four in an absurdly ugly inning of relief to put the game entirely out of reach.

Here are the updated gory stats for the bullpen:

  • ERA: 4.86 (4th-highest in baseball)
  • Strikeout rate: 22.3% (16th-lowest)
  • Walk rate: 10.5% (11th-highest)
  • BABIP: .289 (18th-highest)
  • Ground ball rate: 40.3% (25th-highest)
  • Fly ball rate: 40.1% (3rd-highest)
  • HR/FB rate: 12.8% (2nd-highest)

The problem doesn’t come from the back of the bullpen. Jonathan Papelbon may not be striking batters out like he used to, but he only recently had his string of 15 consecutive scoreless innings snapped. Jake Diekman hasn’t allowed a run in May, compiling 14 strikeouts and four walks in 10 2/3 innings in the month. Even Mike Adams hasn’t been bad, despite allowing unearned runs in each of his last two appearances — he has struck out 13 and walked three in 12 innings since coming off of the disabled list.

It’s middle relief that has been completely and utterly unreliable. Let’s set Papelbon, Diekman, and Adams aside and see what the stats look like:

Antonio Bastardo 4.58 20 19.7 86 13 10 10 2 12 1 2 1 0 25
Mario Hollands 4.11 17 15.3 63 12 7 7 2 5 0 0 2 0 11
Jeff Manship 7.50 13 12.0 61 15 10 10 1 10 3 0 0 0 7
B.J. Rosenberg 7.11 8 6.3 33 13 6 5 3 3 0 0 0 0 4
Justin De Fratus 7.20 4 5.0 21 5 4 4 2 1 0 0 0 0 2
Luis Garcia 15.75 3 4.0 25 7 9 7 2 5 0 0 1 0 5
Shawn Camp 5.40 3 3.3 15 7 2 2 1 0 0 0 0 0 1
Brad Lincoln 11.57 2 2.3 13 5 3 3 1 0 0 1 0 0 2
Roberto Hernandez 0.00 3 2.0 9 2 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 3
Total 6.17 73 70.0 326 79 51 48 14 37 4 3 4 0 60

For those keeping score at home, that’s an aggregate 18.4 percent strikeout rate and 11.3 percent walk rate. The National League average for relievers is 22.8 percent for strikeouts and 9.9 percent for walks. Phillies middle relief is also responsible for 14 of the 18 home runs allowed by the bullpen.

Middle relievers, by definition, are not the arms you want in high-leverage situations and are therefore your worst relievers, but the Phillies’ crew is something else altogether. If the starting pitcher is unable to go seven innings, manager Ryne Sandberg is forced to dip into middle relief and it has developed into disaster more often than not. Here’s a list of the exploits of middle relief:

  • April 1 @ Rangers: Diekman allows the tying run in the seventh on an Adrian Beltre double. Mario Hollands walks two in the ninth inning and lets the Rangers walk-off on Beltre’s RBI single.
  • April 8 vs. Brewers: The Phillies were within striking distance, trailing 6-4 after six innings. B.J. Rosenberg allows a run in the seventh on Ben Revere‘s error. Brad Lincoln allows three runs on a home run to Ryan Braun in the eighth to put the game out of reach in a 10-4 loss.
  • April 9 vs. Brewers: The game was tied up at four apiece going into the eighth, but Antonio Bastardo allowed three runs on a walk, a stolen base, a hit batter, and two extra-base hits. Justin De Fratus allowed two more runs in the top of the ninth on a Mark Reynolds home run.
  • April 10 vs. Brewers: The Phillies trailed 3-2 after six innings. Jeff Manship started the seventh and allowed a run on two singles to three batters. Diekman relieved him but allowed an RBI single and a sacrifice fly (both runs charged to Manship) before ending the inning with the Phillies behind 6-2.
  • April 14 vs. Braves: The Phillies trailed 2-1 after seven innings. Rosenberg allowed back-to-back-to-back solo home runs to Evan Gattis, Dan Uggla, and Andrelton Simmons to make it 5-1. The Phillies stormed back and took a 6-5 lead in the bottom of the eighth. Diekman was asked to close out the game to give Papelbon some rest, but served up a grand slam to Uggla in what ended up as a 9-6 loss.
  • April 18 @ Rockies: Jonathan Pettibone gave up eight runs over four innings and the Phillies never realistically had a shot. But the bullpen made sure the team’s chances were as low as possible. Hollands allowed an RBI single in the sixth, Manship an RBI single in the seventh, and Rosenberg a two-run double in the eighth. The Phillies lost 12-1.
  • April 23 @ Dodgers: Trailing 2-1 after six innings, Manship allowed a double to pitcher Zack Greinke, and followed up with a triple to Yasiel Puig in the seventh. In the eighth, Hollands led off with a solo home run to Hanley Ramirez, and Shawn Camp allowed an RBI single to make it 5-2.
  • April 25 @ Diamondbacks: Trailing by one run at 4-3 entering the bottom of the eighth, Diekman gave the D-Backs an insurance run on a solo home run to A.J. Pollock. The Phillies scored once in the bottom of the ninth but ended up losing 5-4.
  • May 2 vs. Nationals: The Phillies led 3-2 going into the top of the eighth. Adams and Diekman teamed up to allow three runs on five hits and the Phillies lost 5-3.
  • May 6 vs. Blue Jays: Tied 5-5 going into the top of the tenth, Bastardo allowed back-to-back singles, then threw a wild pitch with one out to put the winning run at third base. A sacrifice fly by Juan Francisco put the Jays up 6-5 and they went on to win by that score.
  • May 7 @ Blue Jays: Phillies trail 1-0 going into the seventh. Cliff Lee tires and serves up two two-run home runs to make it 5-0. Rather than keep the game reasonably close, Hollands and Camp team up to allow five additional runs. The Jays won 10-0.
  • May 8 @ Blue Jays: A.J. Burnett allows seven runs in six innings. The Phillies scored once in the top of the seventh to make it 7-3. In the bottom half of the inning, Garcia allows a two-run home run to Edwin Encarnacion and a solo homer to Francisco to make it 10-3. Garcia allowed two more runs in the eighth, giving the Jays a 12-3 lead, and they would go on to win 12-6.
  • May 11 @ Mets: Phillies lead 4-1 going into the bottom of the ninth. Papelbon was given the day off. Antonio Bastardo starts the inning, allowing a double, followed by a two-run home run to Daniel Murphy to make it 4-3. He allowed a one-out double before being relieved by Roberto Hernandez. Hernandez allowed a single, pushing the tying run to third base. Juan Lagares pushed the run home on a ground out to shortstop. In the bottom of the 11th with the score knotted at 4-4, Manship loaded the bases with one out, then served a walk-off RBI single to Ruben Tejada.
  • May 21 @ Marlins: Read above

And that’s only the losses. Just to illustrate how much of a problem middle relief has been: Let’s say the bullpen is only 75% as terrible in those 14 games and the Phillies win four games and lose four fewer. They would be 24-19 instead of 20-23, and they would be virtually tied with the Atlanta Braves for first place in the NL East. That’s with their hot-and-cold offense, with below-average defense, with poor base running, and with spotty starting pitching.

It isn’t as if the bullpen has been unlucky, either. Their BABIP is middle of the back, but they’re walking too many batters, not getting enough swings and misses, allowing a startling amount of fly balls, and a relatively high percentage of those fly balls are leaving the yard. This is skill-based failure.

The problem isn’t relegated to a few select contributors — there are nine pitchers listed in the table above. Shuffle one or two or even three of them out if you’d like, but the problem is bigger than that. Because they have had issues properly developing pitchers lately, the Phillies are doomed to a season of terrible middle relief. They have to hope, on a daily basis, that their starters can get through seven innings before handing the ball off to some combination of Diekman, Adams, and Papelbon. They have a saying about that.

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