One 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.
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?