Phillies Bullpen Much Improved Lately
On Monday against the Atlanta Braves, Jonathan Papelbon blew his second save and reliever Justin De Fratus was inches away from allowing the game-winning run in the tenth inning. It’s a story we’ve seen countless times throughout the 2014 season, but it did not repeat itself — JDF was able to get an infield pop-up and a strikeout to wriggle out of the damage. The Phillies would go on to score five in the 13th inning and win by a 6-1 margin.
In that 13-inning affair, five Phillies relievers combined for six scoreless innings. It continued a trend of excellent Phillies relief pitching, at least since the month of June began. Entering Wednesday afternoon’s series finale at Turner Field, the bullpen had combined for a 2.79 ERA in 42 innings this month, the eighth-best mark among all 30 bullpens. It’s a sea change from the first two months. While there is a ton of variance in 10- and 20-inning samples for relievers, no one could argue that they were pitching anything but terribly as a unit.
Papelbon has been a rock for the Phillies despite concerns about his plunging velocity entering the season. Even with Monday’s blown save — which was more about bad luck than poor pitching — Papelbon owns a 1.59 ERA and a 25/9 K/BB ratio in 28 1/3 innings, and has converted 16 of 18 save chances. The underlying statistics, including a career-low strikeout rate and a four-year-high walk rate, still say Papelbon is smoke-and-mirrors, but for the moment he has turned himself into a potential trade chip for the Phillies.
Since rejoining the club on May 26, De Fratus has looked like a new pitcher altogether. He has not allowed a run in 12 innings, cobbling together a 13/2 K/BB ratio and only one of the seven hits he has allowed has gone for extra bases. In this chart from Brooks Baseball, it appears the Phillies had De Fratus alter his release point in the six weeks he spent at Triple-A in between stints in the big leagues:
Before allowing a two-out single to Chris Johnson in the bottom of the 13th inning, Antonio Bastardo had retired 24 consecutive batters. The streak started with the final batter he faced against the Mets on May 31 — Curtis Granderson, who flied out to center field in the top of the 14th inning. Bastardo had a very tough start to the season and has always been something of a whipping boy among Phillies fans, but the left-hander is sitting on a 2.94 ERA with a 39/20 K/BB ratio in 33 2/3 innings.
Jake Diekman has an ugly 8.44 June ERA, but three of the five runs he has allowed scored on a three-run home run allowed by Phillippe Aumont on June 2 against the Mets. In the month, Diekman has struck out nine and walked two in 5 1/3 innings. Despite the mediocre overall numbers, one would be smart to bet on regression for the lefty, as Diekman has a .338 BABIP, a 15 percent HR/FB rate, and is averaging over three and a half strikeouts for every one walk. Those are numbers that usually add up to a dominant reliever.
Even Mario Hollands has emerged as a solid contributor. The lefty overall has a 2.55 ERA in 24 2/3 innings, including a pristine 0.00 ERA in 4 2/3 June innings. And that’s not to mention adding Ken Giles to the mix.
Will the improvement stick, though? The bullpen’s problem over the first two months was that they weren’t missing enough bats and they were issuing too many free passes. In 42 innings as a unit this month, they have struck out 31 percent of batters, the best rate among all major league bullpens in June. They have walked below seven percent of batters, just a tenth of a percentage point behind the Texas Rangers for the lowest rate among all 30 bullpens in June. Thus, their 4.55 K/BB ratio is easily the best. Only the Phillies and the Tampa Bay Rays have a K/BB ratio of 4.00 or better this month. To the right is a visual look at how the Phillies have progressed.
We look at strikeouts and walks because pitchers have a great deal of control over each. While a favorable selection of opponents in a small sample can influence the numbers, they are much less prone to bouts of good and bad fortune the way a pitcher can with his hit rate.
So, is the Phillies’ bullpen improved? It’s hard to say with only two and a half weeks’ worth of data, but the early results show that they have definitely made some big strides in the right direction. If they can keep it up over the final three and a half months, they’ll be tough for opposing hitters and an asset to the Phillies.
Addendum: This article was compiled during Wednesday afternoon’s game between the Braves and Phillies, and as such does not include the results of that game. It was another banner day for the ‘pen. Antonio Bastardo struck out two in a perfect seventh inning. Ken Giles struck out the first two batters he faced in the eighth, then worked around a walk and a fielding error to close out the frame. In the ninth, Giles worked a 1-2-3 inning with a strikeout. The bullpen line score on the day: 3 IP, 1 H, 1 BB, 5 K.