We’re proud to introduce Phillies Nation’s newest writer, Eric Seidman, a published author, an alumnus of Baseball Prospectus and a current staff writer at Fangraphs.com. He also happens to be Corey’s older brother.
Phillies relievers have blown 12 saves and 16 ties this season, and we’re just passing the all-star break. Last season, the relief corps blew eight saves in total and was a major reason the Phillies won 102 games. This year is a very different story, as the confluence of performance inconsistency, problems both talent- and injury-related, and Charlie Manuel’s frustrating usage patterns has led to one of the most ineffective units in the league from a run-prevention standpoint.
While ERA isn’t a tremendous evaluative tool, it certainly has its merits when it comes to evaluating relievers, and the Phillies’ 4.76 bullpen mark ranks behind all non-Met squads in the senior circuit. The Phillies shouldn’t have allocated any more resources to 50-IP pitchers this off-season, but the struggles of this bullpen is a major reason why the team has a division-worst 37-50 record.
However, there are two main reasons to believe that the relievers could actually provide some relief over the de facto second-half of the season:
1) Even with the “contributions” of several ineffective relievers, this bullpen ranks among the best in a few key areas.
2) Many of those aforementioned ineffective relievers are no longer in the Phillies’ bullpen.
This isn’t to say that the bullpen has been secretly effective, because it hasn’t. Though several advanced stats — including one I co-created called SIERA — peg the Phillies’ bullpen as pitching fairly effectively, I’m not going to sit here and pretend that their rate of stranding runners isn’t atrocious. I’m not going to condescendingly spit on the opinions of those who swear that relief pitching has been the problem this season and that mostly everyone, Jonathan Papelbon included, has under-performed. But I will ask for open minds, as the two reasons cited above should offer legitimate hope that improvements could be on the horizon.
The bullpen has a 23.2% strikeout rate, which ranks fifth in the league. Its 9% walk rate ranks fifth as well. Strikeout rate and walk rate are two statistics that stabilize very quickly, which means that even with a small sample of innings pitched from the group as a whole, we can have more confidence that these fairly impressive rates are “for real.” Since these are two of the three outcomes deemed independent of defense, they speak more to the true talent level of the pitcher. That the Phillies bullpen fares well in these areas is important, as they are likely to persist over the long haul. Home runs — the third defense-independent outcome — have been a problem all season, but we’ll circle back to those in a bit.
With nobody on base, the Phillies’ bullpen leads the league with a 23.6% strikeout rate and is mere percentage points away from the league lead with a 5.8% walk rate. Their batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is right around the league average in this split, and the same is true of other stats like WHIP and batting average against. They have the third-highest home run rate with nobody on, but haven’t been victimized too much since nobody is on base.
Without men on base, the Phillies’ bullpen has performed well this season, which leads to the next logical conclusion: they’ve been baaaaaaaad once runners do reach base.
The numbers here are ugly. The Phillies have the second-worst strand rate at 28%, the second-worst ERA at 8.40, and the fourth-highest BABIP at .313. Pitchers typically perform worse with men on base, but the Phillies’ bullpen has had close to extreme results in this area. And again, the home run rate is high, which amplifies the problem.
With nobody on base, home runs aren’t desirable, but they don’t hurt as much. But when less talented pitchers are making mistakes with men on base that lead to even more runners, and then struggle to keep the ball in the park, it’s a vicious circle bound to repeat until either luck or the front office intervenes. Getting back to the two key points, though, there is reason to believe that these home run woes won’t continue, because some of the biggest problem-pitchers are no longer in the bullpen.
Chad Qualls had an unsightly home run per flyball rate of 25%, and he’s now pitching for the Yankees. David Herndon had the same 25% HR/FB, and while that was only over 7.2 innings, he had elbow surgery and will miss the entire season. Brian Sanches had a 23.1% rate over 6.1 innings and he won’t stick in the ‘pen either. Joe Savery threw 23 innings with a 16.7% HR/FB and he was recently seen taking grounders at first base in the minors.
The current members of the bullpen have the following HR/FB rates: Bastardo (13.5%), Valdes (12%), Papelbon (11.8%), Schwimer (8.3%), Diekman and Horst (0%).
Weighted by innings pitched, those rates average out to 9.5%, which ranks much closer to the league average. Bastardo won’t continue to serve up dingers at that pace, just like Diekman and Horst are bound to give up a few here and there. That being said, the point remains that the bullpen as it currently stands is more talented than the one that started the season, and is therefore more likely to improve as the season progresses.
The inability to prevent runs has been the major issue for the Phillies this season, and the bullpen is a large part of that. But “the bullpen” isn’t a static term. It evolves as personnel changes, and is dictated by the usage patterns of the manager. The six relievers likely to continue pitching in relief as the season wears on make for a more effective unit, and history favors their collective improvement over the odds that they finish with extremes in BABIP, HR/FB, strand rate and other common luck-related metrics with men on base.
Like so many other things that happened in the first half of the Phillies’ season, bad talent and bad execution mixed with awful luck. You saw the result. Don’t expect to see a unit that bad in the second half.