Anatomy of a 3-9 Stretch: Reliever Russian Roulette

Ryan Franklin: lethal weapon

Since peaking on May 14 with a 22-15 record, the Phillies have gone 3-9 to slip into third place, five games behind the division-leading Mets. Of those losses, six have been of the one-run variety and another was tied after 7 innings. After winning 7 of their first 11 one-run contests this year, the club is now 7-10 in those games.

The debate over whether record in one-run games "means anything" has become a perennial among statheads, perhaps second only to the endless argument over clutch hitting. Bill James studied this question about four years back, and concluded that "winning a lot of one-run games has a persistence of zero (meaning that it appears to be luck) but... losing a lot of one-run games is not necessarily completely meaningless. It's mostly just bad luck, but it doesn't appear to me that it entirely disappears in the following season."

Charlie Manuel, that's your cue. Five times over the last two weeks, Manuel has made bullpen decisions that, one, the average attentive fan probably knew were foolish at the time; and two, did directly lead to the loss of the game. Follow, if you dare, down the dark path of Phillies Reliever Russian Roulette.

  • May 16: Brewers 3, Phillies 2. Cory Lidle started this one for the Phils and pitched well: 6 innings, 2 runs, 83 pitches. When the Phillies tied the game in the top of the 7th, Lidle's spot came due with two out and the go-ahead run on second base. Manuel pinch-hit, an understandable choice (though he did so with Abraham Nunez, which isn't; Nunez is 1 for 20, with a .195 OPS, in the pinch this season). The runner was stranded, and it was bullpen time. Manuel first went to Ryan Madson, lifted from the rotation just days earlier. Madson retired the Brewers in order on 7 pitches, and the game stayed tied into the 8th.

    Though the pitcher's spot was still six hitters away, Manuel decided it was time to spin the wheel, and Ryan Franklin's name came up. In his first inning of work, Franklin surrendered two hits and an IBB but escaped when the potential go-ahead run was thrown out at home. Despite having lifted Madson, Franklin's struggles in the 8th, and the availability of closer Tom Gordon, Manuel sent Franklin back out for the 9th: double, intentional walk, and Franklin makes an error and the winning run scores.

  • May 17: Brewers 8, Phillies 7. A sub-plot in three of these games is that the Phils starter was Gavin Floyd, the talented but woefully inconsistent curveball specialist whose season ERA now sits at 6.62. Floyd's inability to go deep into games is part of why Manuel has had so many opportunities to mis-manage his bullpen. In this one, he was cruising until the 6th inning, pitching with a 4-1 lead, and then all hell broke loose: Milwaukee scored five in the frame to chase Floyd, and added another in the 7th off Geoff Geary. Aaron Fultz pitched a scoreless 8th, but was pinch-hit for in the 9th with the team trailing by three runs--again, an understandable move. It didn't work, as PH Chris Roberson (0-2 PH, 1-13 overall, now back at AAA) flew out, but the Phils scored three off Brewers closer Derrick Turnbow to tie the game.

    Unfortunately, Manuel then went to Arthur Rhodes, another lefty, rather than using his closer Tom Gordon to try to keep the game where it was. A simple question: When one run can beat you, why not use the best pitcher you have to stop that one run from scoring? Rhodes walked the leadoff hitter, and four batters later Geoff Jenkins singled him in for the win.

  • May 18: Brewers 5, Phillies 4. Reliever roulette was not the issue here, just inattentive situational managing. Rookie phenom Cole Hamels, making his second big-league start, had held the Brewers to one run through six innings. With one out, though, Hamels issued a single, a two-run homer, and another walk. His day was done, and Manuel summoned Ryan Madson. Madson fanned Ricky Weeks, but allowed a single to Jeff Cirillo, bringing Geoff Jenkins up with the tying and lead runs on and two out.

    Jenkins, a left-handed hitter, has proven himself vulnerable to lefty pitching: his splits this year are .309/.356/.517/.873 against RHP, compared to .149/.273/.234/.507 against southpaws. (Over the previous three seasons, his OPS vs. lefties was .730, compared to .916 against righties.) The Phillies have three left-handed relievers: Fultz, Rhodes, and Rheal Cormier. It's the seventh inning and a game situation. Yet Manuel leaves Madson in... and he surrenders a decisive two-run double, sending the Phils to a third straight one-run loss at Miller Park.

  • May 23: Mets 9, Phillies 8 (16). This game, the longest in MLB this season, presented such an egregious example of bullpen mismanagement that Joe Sheehan wrote about it in Baseball Prospectus. Joe's point, however, was that Manuel was foolish not to use Tom Gordon at any point in the marathon. True enough, but the mistakes went beyond that one issue.

    Manuel's first error was sticking with Floyd for too long. Pitching with a 6-2 lead in the 5th, Floyd allowed a run and loaded the bases, but escaped further trouble with a huge strikeout of David Wright, who had homered earlier. At 95 pitches, with the bullpen fairly well rested following an off-day, that should have been it for Floyd--but Manuel sent him out to start the 6th, and the young right-hander allowed back-to-back doubles (abetted by a weak defensive effort on the second from right fielder Bobby Abreu) to cut the lead to 6-4. Fultz and Geary came on in relief; the second run scored, but the inning ended with the Phils still ahead 6-5. The team added two runs in the 7th, and Arthur Rhodes came on in the bottom of the inning to mow down Carlos Beltran (strikeout), Carlos Delgado (groundout) and Wright (flyout) on a total of 7 pitches. His spot in the order had just batted to end the Phillies 7th.

    But the gambling urge must have struck Manuel again, and some unfathomable reason, with a lefty (Cliff Floyd) leading off, Manuel went back to Ryan "Boom-Boom" Franklin, he of the 35 home runs allowed while pitching in the Seattle Grand Canyon last year. Franklin retired the first two hitters, but he and Ryan Howard botched what should have been the third out on an Endy Chavez (ugh) infield grounder... and the rest you remember, or perhaps have blocked out. A bit more than two hours later, the Phillies lost the game and a chance to move within two of first place.

  • May 27: Brewers 9, Phillies 6 Stop me if you've heard this before: the Brewers, an early hole, a bad start from Gavin Floyd, a gutsy comeback and a late-inning bullpen collapse. As they did all weekend, the Phils rallied back from an early hole against Milwaukee to tie the game at 6 on Ryan Howard's 16th home run of the season in the 7th. Aaron Fultz had pitched the top of the inning; all he did was strike out the side in order. But Manuel chose to spin the wheel again, and for the second time in four days, it landed on Ryan Franklin. And for the second time in four days, Franklin recorded the first two outs, then decided to explore the souvenir distribution side of major league pitching: Cirillo single, Weeks homer, Hall homer, and the Phils found themselves back at .500 for the first time in three weeks, five games behind the Mets.  

Manuel's bullpen mistakes weren't the only reasons the Phils lost these games. As pacino points out, the bench has been lousy--and it was much worse with Aaron Rowand on the DL and Shane Victorino in the lineup. Gavin Floyd's inability to pitch deep into games, or to pitch particularly well through the first five or so innings, has hurt badly. Ryan Howard and Bobby Abreu have committed some very costly defensive mistakes.

But the pattern of bullpen meltdowns and late-inning losses speaks to the manager's ability to determine what he has and how best to use them. With a strong closer and several decent lefty options, Manuel needs to break out of his preconceived notions of reliever usage: he needs to ride the hot arm for more than a single inning, more aggressively exploit platoon advantages, and not be afraid to throw his closer into a tie game on the road. In a close race against flawed opponents, little things make the difference--as the Phils' 2005 playoff near-miss should have made crystal clear.

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