Without A True Closer, Should Phillies Break The Mold? – Phillies Nation
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Without A True Closer, Should Phillies Break The Mold?

Jonathan_Papelbon-1One of the handful games I attended at Citizens Bank Park over the past three years was on Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014. My aim for the sunny Sunday afternoon was to simply enjoy myself. Nothing else. The Phillies were 69-79. They had no postseason hopes. Just relax and have a fun time.

The Phillies actually scored first then built on their lead as the game progressed. David Buchanan pitched a relatively good game, and the bullpen held its ground late. Up 4-1 in the ninth, my wife and I sat back and enjoyed the sun. Jonathan Papelbon then entered the game, and though I wasn’t fond of his personality, I felt confident in his ability to finish the game with a save.

You may remember what happened next. Papelbon imploded, surrendering a game-tying single by Justin Bour, then throwing a go-ahead wild pitch to put the Marlins up 5-4. Papelbon would be removed from the game. He was booed. He allegedly grabbed his crotch toward irate fans. I was one of those fans, but out in the outfield, away from Papelbon’s view. I booed lustily. Another game ruined by a closer’s stupid pitching.

The Papelbon story ultimately tells of a pitcher who didn’t quite endear himself to Phillies fans. But his numbers? Outstanding. In his three-and-a-half seasons with the Phils, he recorded a 2.31 ERA with 252 strikeouts and just 52 walks (237 innings). He was efficient, successful in the ninth inning and as reliable as any mandated closer in baseball. Of all men tasked to fit into this very specialized job popularized in the 1990s, this man was maybe the best of all.

But now the Phillies don’t have that mandated closer. Papelbon is in Washington, which may provide more fireworks in 2016. What the Phillies now have is David Hernandez, who seems like a closer, but has actually saved only 19 games in his career. He also has thrown just 33 innings since 2013. That’s not the guy you want to confidently plug into the ninth inning of a one-run game, every time out.

The Phillies also have Jeanmar Gomez, who finished 21 games last year with the Phillies as a high-leverage reliever, but hasn’t been asked to pitch the ninth inning of a one-run game.

Okay. There’s also Luis Garcia. He finished 14 games last year. Maybe Dalier Hinojosa … four games finished. Maybe flame-throwing prospect Jimmy Cordero

The 2016 Phillies don’t really have a ready-made “closer.” But they don’t need one. They’ll likely go under .500 in 2016, so having a guy who can hold a lead for one inning isn’t a high priority (kind of why they traded Ken Giles this offseason).

So maybe the Phillies do something different for a change. Maybe they’re the team that fully denies the idea of employing a “closer” who’s meant to pitch one inning with the lead. Maybe they’ll put their best reliever into a tie game when the heart of an opposing order is coming to bat in the seventh inning. Or maybe Manager Pete Mackanin will shuffle his bullpen around regularly, sometimes giving younger talent like Hector Neris a high-leverage situation instead of simply opting for the veteran Hernandez.

The point is this: Since the Phillies aren’t staffing a bullpen that can be easily arranged under the expected structure (closer, setup man, lefty setup man, middle innings, etc.), and since we no longer have to begrudgingly watch Papelbon succeed despite knowing his next outburst is just a homestand away, why not try something completely different? Why not be the team that breaks the mold?

11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Ted Bell

    January 10, 2016 at 5:13 pm

    Ernesto Frieri will probably be in the mix as well. He’s only 30 and did have a 37 save season a few years back. They’ll eventually find a guy…it’s a relatively easy spot to fill.

  2. MyyyMannn

    January 10, 2016 at 6:47 pm

    Andrew Bailey
    Ernesto Frieri
    Edward Mujica

    We’ll be fine at closer

  3. Colin

    January 10, 2016 at 9:56 pm

    I was at crotch gate too! I couldn’t believe it. Didn’t boo, just stood in awe(not of his crotch). Makes me think if we had a good team around Pap he would have been beloved here.

  4. Jack Risewick

    January 10, 2016 at 10:09 pm

    As an 80 yr. old person who has been a Phillies and Eagles fan since 1946, I too would like to see some manager with the fortitude (balls & strikes) to introduce a new change to the game. I can remember when complete games were pitched and the real ball players hit left and right handed pitchers. As my dad once said, “the ball still has to be over the plate to be a strike regardless of whether it comes from a right hander or left hander. If memory serves me correctly, I think I remember a Phillies-Brooklyn Dodgers game where Don Newcomb pitched a double header

    • schmenkman

      January 11, 2016 at 12:23 pm

      I don’t believe it’s true that hitters do any worse today against same-sided pitchers than they used do.

      Just looking at hitting vs. the same side as compared to the opposite side in 10 year increments:

      Lefty hitters have always hit worse vs. lefty pitchers then vs. righties:

      1965: 12% worse, 1975: 14%, 1985: 12%, 1995: 10%, 2005: 9%, 2015: 13%

      And righty hitters have always hit worse vs. RHPs:

      1965: 7% worse, 1975: 4%, 1985: 5%, 1995: 8%, 2005: 8%, 2015: 5%

      The difference today may just be that more managers recognize those differences and use them to make lineup decisions.

  5. jeff orbach

    January 11, 2016 at 10:00 am

    I’m 56 and I remember that in the 70’s and early 80’s instead of a closer your best reliever was called a “Fireman”. Rolaids used to give out Fireman of the year awards. Pitchers like Kent Tekulve ,Tug Mc Graw and many others used to come in to crucial situations where you needed outs no matter what the innning. Bases loaded in the 7th 1 out in they would come to get the outs.

    They weren’t all fireballers either, in fact most of them employed a “trick” pitch of some kind, the objective was not always a K, but get an out usually looking for a grounder of some sort.

  6. George

    January 11, 2016 at 11:54 am

    I don’t foresee much of a change this season, although the bullpen will be shuffled almost constantly. It’s still going to be starter, middle relief, set-up, and closer, but the people filling those slots will probably be moved around until Mackanin finds certain players that seem to fit best in a particular slot. There will probably be a lot of traffic between Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia, too, because the starting staff aren’t exactly innings eaters and will most likely only average maybe 5+ innings per start. Those short starts will tend to overwork the ‘pen, and any of the guys who don’t make the team at first will probably join it later.

    Sad to say, but with a fairly anemic offense and mostly unproven starting pitching, the major role of the 2016 bullpen will probably be mop-up duty.

  7. Marcus77

    January 11, 2016 at 3:01 pm

    The rangers pretty much did that exact thing last year until Tolleson established himself.

  8. carmen v di julio

    January 11, 2016 at 3:17 pm

    I like your blog.

  9. Lefty

    January 12, 2016 at 4:16 pm

    Sure break the mold, why not? Just be careful not to expect too much out of it with this group of relievers. The Colorado Rockies tried an experiment with their starters a few years back using them more often for fewer innings each appearance. It failed pretty badly but not many of the pitchers they were trying it with were good, so the idea was considered a failure. Personally I think I’d rather see a team like the Royals with a good pen try it.

    • George

      January 13, 2016 at 10:28 am

      I think part of the reason the Rockies’ experiment failed was not because the pitchers were horrible, but that the idea was based on a questionable premise: that the average pitcher begins to falter the third time through the lineup. While that is true, it’s also been pretty well established that the first inning of many pitchers’ work is less than optimal. I also believe that a starter probably doesn’t cherish the idea of rarely being in position to gain a “win,” and that morale may have suffered.

      One can’t always rely on a starter to be good in relief, nor for a short reliever to be a long man, and I think these are all reasons why the experiment was doomed. KC’s bullpen, while very good, consists mostly of one-inning arms, is very specialized, and I doubt seriously if they’d perform all that much better than the garbage the Rockies had working in 3-5 inning stretches.

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