The Frightening Brilliance (or Uncanny Luck) of Charlie Manuel

Somewhat lost after Pat Burrell's 9th-inning heroics last night was the key run the Phillies scored in the 8th to cut the Rockies lead to 6-5. It was driven in by Greg Dobbs' pinch-single, which continued a remarkable April run by Phillies pinch-hitters this April.

Through 21 games, Phils' pinch-hitters have put up the following line: .316/.381/.579. They've blasted three home runs (Snelling, Dobbs, Feliz) and knocked in 8. Dobbs (4 for 9, HR, 5 RBI) is leading the charge, but eight Phillies have hits off the bench, including Cole Hamels and, alas, Jimmy Rollins. 

The Phils lead the league in pinch-hitting  by an absurd margin. The next-best team in terms of triple-slash numbers is the Braves, with a .219/.306/.406 mark through the early going. The rest of the NL has four pinch-homers to the Phils' 3. Dobbs has as many or more pinch-hits than five NL teams. 

In today's Inquirer, Phillies subs give Charlie Manuel--a bench guy himself in his playing days--credit for knowing which late-game buttons to push . But Manuel's late-game strategery--never previously considered one of his strong suits as a manager--has another dimension as well. 

The Phillies' bullpen leads the NL with a 2.76 ERA, 32 points better than the Marlins' next-best figure. 

I'll write that again, because I don't entirely believe it myself: the Phillies have the best bullpen ERA in the NL, at 2.76. 

Now, they haven't been perfect, as four losses clearly indicate. And they've walked 35. And I'm pretty sure the collective relief ERA won't stay below 3. But there's also reason to believe this early success represents something real, not just early-season illusion. Collectively, the Phils' relievers have pitched 65.1 IP, the third-fewest in the league. The starters--who, as a group, have been middle-of-the-pack--generally have gone deep enough into games not to overburden the bullpen. Chad Durbin (10 games, 14 IP) and J.C. Romero (10 games, 9.2 IP) have borne the heaviest workloads, but Durbin as a former starter and Romero as a situational guy are probably better prepared to handle that than anyone else in the 'pen. 

Manuel's deployment of these relievers has been superb. After Tom Gordon got crushed on Opening Day, Manuel didn't lose faith in him, and since that inauspicious season debut, Flash has been mostly excellent (2.45 ERA, 10 K/3 BB in 7.1 IP). Brad Lidge--whose injury the Phillies handled as well as they botched Rollins'--has started to show why he was considered the league's most dominant closer three years ago. New pickup Rudy Seanez has walked seven, but still has a spotless ERA. 

The line on Manuel--and certainly my take on him--has been that he's a good manager overall for his work in the clubhouse, but that he's far from a master strategist between the white lines. His use of the bench and bullpen through the early going in 2008, though, suggests that either he's been very lucky through the first 21 games, or that we've severely under-rated him.  

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