Phillies Bullpen: What it's done, and what it's likely to do going forward

The Phillies bullpen in 2011 has been nothing less than spectacular. The Phillies have not lost a single game when leading after 8 innings, as the team has gotten a fantastic effort out of it's group of closers: Ryan Madson 11/11, Jose Contreras 5/5, and even Bastardo with one in his only opportunity. The bullpen has a combined ERA of 2.64, ranking 3rd best in the majors. All of this, even with guys like Jose Contreras and Brad Lidge out for significant portions of the season. Clearly, the success of the bullpen has been the most surprising piece of the season thus far.

However, with the positives, there are certain negatives. The combined FIP for the team is a thoroughly unspectacular 3.81, ranking 19th in the majors. Their combined xFIP is actually quite putrid, coming in at 4.14, 22nd in the majors. The pen has gotten luck in the form of a low BABIP, at .259, and an equally low HR/FB rate, at 6.5%. Their success has come mostly because of luck, rather than true skill.

Thankfully, the poor DIPS rates are unlikely to stay at that level, especially with Contreras back. David Herndon, who clocks in with a 5.04 xFIP and a 6.32 ERA, is no longer with the team and is unlikely to return until roster expansion in September. In addition, he had been pitching effectively as of late, most notably his 2.1 IP performance against the Reds. Herndon had pitched 15.2 innings, about a ninth of the total for the bullpen, and his absence will help lower the bullpen's cumulative DIPS statistics.

Another major offender has been J.C. Romero, who, despite his relatively decent 3.75 ERA, has pitched to the tune of a 5.41 xFIP. Romero, unfortunately, has been misused this season, as he is a LOOGY who has faced 35 RHB and only 21 LHB. And the numbers bear this out, as he has 5K's and 3 BB's against lefties, while he has 2K's and 5BB's (1 IBB) and a HBP against righties. In other words, he's been beyond awful against righties, and very good against lefties, as he always is. His xFIP is 2.94 against lefties this year, and against righties it is 6.81. It's simply criminal to use him against righties as Charlie has. If used effectively, rather than as a 7th inning option like he so far, Romero could be a quite effective bullpen piece. Another positive note about Romero can be found in this note from David Hale. Romero seems to have received some advice on his motion from Roy Oswalt, and hopefully that will help out some of his control issues. 

The final offender this season has Kyle Kendrick, long man extraordinaire. Kyle has been very lucky this year, with a 3.20 ERA and a 5.38 xFIP (These numbers include his two spot starts). Kendrick has never been one to get many strikeouts, and that trend has continued, with a mere 3.55 K/9 rate. Rare is the batter who swings and misses against Kendrick. There have been a few relief appearances were Kendrick has seemed relatively effective, and a lot of his poor season-wide numbers come from his disastrous appearance in Milwaukee, but there's little to like in what Kyle has done so far this season. The only real positive that can be taken from his numbers is that he likely won't be throwing quite as many innings as the season progresses. His 17.1 IP in relief has come mainly after poor games by the starters, such as Worley's game today, and short appearances by the starters other than the #5 starter have been rare past the first week of the season. The less Kendrick toes the mound, the better.

There have been a few fill-ins, with a certain Wilson Valdez being the most notable, though Scott Mathieson and Mike Zagurski have also seen a few innings. They've combined for 5.1 IP, and a solo HR allowed by Chunk was the only damage done against them. It's very unlikely we see any of these three pitch again, at least until September.

The final weak arm in the pen can be found attached to Danys Baez. Baez has had an interesting season, with a lot of downs and one incredible game, but overall he seems to love allowing contact, with a mere 4.07 K/9. Baez relies a lot on getting double plays to get out of the jams he always seems to find himself in, and luckily, he's managed to get 3 so far. He's also keeping the ball on the ground, with a 52.4% GB rate, which is absolutely necessary in order for him to remain effective. There's not much to love about what Baez is providing, but if he can approximately pitch near the level he did for 5 innings against the Reds, he'd be a decent option. Baez has thrown 24.1 IP, the most of anyone in the bullpen, and he would rank 2nd even without that appearance. That is somewhat surprising, but hopefully he keeps up his recent form, with his 7 consecutive scoreless innings being by far the largest streak of his Phillie career. 

It gets better. There are four pitchers remaining, and one on the DL, who constitute the front end of the bullpen going forward. First is the most surprising member of this group, Michael Stutes. Stutes has been fairly effectively this year, with high strikeout numbers (10.1 K/9) as his strength, but a high walk rate (5.1 BB/9) and a major failure to keep the ball on the ground (26.9% GB) as his faults. Stutes has done fairly well wherever he's pitched this season, serving as the 7th inning man in Contreras's absence, and occasionally pitching in very high leverage spots. His 3.73 xFIP, however, indicates that the Phillies are probably better off keeping him in lower leverage appearances, much to David Murphy's chagrin. His strand rate, at a sparkling 87.3%, is likely to fall, which explains the difference between his ERA (2.53), and his xFIP (3.73). Stutes has been a reliable arm for the Phillies so far, and likely will be for years to come, but he has to either develop better control or keep the ball down in order to truly make the step to a shutdown reliever. Going forward, Stutes will probably pitch in relief of short starts, or on days where Contreras or Bastardo are being given the day off, and he's certainly a decent enough option for that kind of role.

Next up is our second Cuban, Jose Contreras. Contreras has been very effective so far, with a perfect 0.00 ERA in 10 innings. He was assigned the role of closer at the beginning of the season, and was solid, though prone to "interesting" innings. Contreras has had many of the same elements that Stutes has shown thus far, with a high strikeout rate (9.9 K/9), a relatively high walk rate (3.6 BB/9), and not many groundballs (31.8 GB%). Thanks to a completely unsustainable .174 BABIP, his xFIP is quite good, at 3.05, but with regression sure to come, more balls are going to drop, and thus he'll face a higher number of batters, and more balls will be put into play. Thus, his xFIP is slightly overstating his true skill, as his strikeout rate, walk rate, and flyball/inning rate are going to increase. In addition, his HR/FB is equally due to regress, as it won't stay at 0% forever. However, even with that regression, Contreras's history as a reliever indicates that his GB% is likely to increase, as his 2009 and 2010 seasons were right around 45%. If he can match those levels and keep up this strikeout rate, he'll be very strong going forward. He's likely to pitch in the set-up role going forward, while getting save opportunities when Madson is resting. After Lidge returns, Contreras will probably slot in as the 7th inning man.

The other surprising arm in the pen with Stutes has been Antonio Bastardo. Bastardo has been a force this year, with a 1.42 ERA and a 2.97 xFIP. The Bastard knows how to strike batters out, with a very impressive 12.3 K/9 this year. This high strikeout rate negates most of the effect that his high walk rate, 4.3 BB/9, and his low groundball rate, 22.5%, provide. However, even his very high strikeout rate won't lead to a sub-2.00 ERA, and his ERA is due in part to some BABIP luck. Bastardo's BABIP allowed is a highly unsustainable .211, and with regression he'll give up quite a few more hits. That's a bit of a problem with Bastardo's high FB rate, as multi-run HRs are certainly a possiblity, but even with the regression, Bastardo will remain one of the best arms around. His role is somewhat unknown with Contreras back, as he may find himself serving as more of a LOOGY, but he should hopefully remain as an option for high leverage innings.

Finally, we get to Ryan Madson. Having found himself as the closer-by-multiple-injuries in a contract year, Madson is certainly doing his best to give Scott Boras some ammunition this winter. Madson has it all, with a high strikeout rate (9.4 K/9), a solid walk rate (3.1 BB/9, but half of them are IBB h/t yolacrary), and a great GB rate (55.2%). The only area for regression with Madson is with his HR/FB, where he, like Contreras, has not given up a HR this year. This trend will not continue, but even so, his 1.96 ERA will probably not increase by much, as he has an equally impressive 2.66 xFIP. Simply put, Madson is an absolute force, and he will remain the closer for the rest of the season.

The only man I have yet to mention is the only real unknown, Brad Lidge. His time frame for return is still unclear (with his first rehab appearance earlier this week), but it's most likely going to be around the ASB. Lidge has always been one to induce heart attacks, as he's prone to walking the lead-off man and many other batters with his 5.0 BB/9 rate the past two years. Thankfully, his slider is one of the best strikeout pitches of all time, as his career 12.0 K/9 rate can attest. Whether Lidge is effective this season is a complete mystery, but so long as his rehab goes well and his velocity has returned, he will be a fairly good option out of the pen. Charlie has said that he'll probably step into the set-up role when he returns.

Overall, the pen is unlikely to keep up it's sterling performance up to this point, but the 1-2-3 of Madson, Contreras, and Bastardo is among the best in the majors and is likely to remain so all year. When Lidge returns, the pen will get better, though Brad is probably no better than any of the three mentioned previously. In crucial situations, the ability to go to a multitude of arms, be it Stutes, Lidge, Madson, Contreras, or Bastardo will allow the bullpen to keep runs off the board all season long. And behind them, Kendrick, Baez, and Romero will hopefully not have to pitch many innings, and one of them will have to go down when Lidge returns. As compared to last year, where the team was forced to rely on Chad Durbin in the playoffs, this team will almost always be able to put an effective arm out there. The bullpen has will be, a major strength for this team going forward.

As a final note, I'll leave the SIERA numbers for Phillies relievers, and their ranking out of all ML pitchers with at least 10 innings this season, which is a total of 380 pitchers.

Bastardo: 2.54 (10th), Madson 3.04 (39th), Contreras 3.06 (40th), Stutes 3.38 (81st), Baez 4.86 (309th), Romero 5.45 (353rd), Kendrick 5.97 (372nd). Yikes.

For your amusement, I provide one more, but out of those with at least 1.0 IP. Wilson Valdez 11.29 (487/487).

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