After Wednesday night's exhilarating 1st inning, the consensus among numerous Phillies fans is the bullpen is horrible. They just let up 11 runs to the freaking Pirates, surely they are among the worst in baseball, right?
Well, that depends on your criteria for "worst in baseball."
But first, because I want to illustrate that I am not arguing against a straw man, here is a sampling of real tweets from real people who watched Wednesday night's game.
David Flores (@DaSmokyFoodDude) June 28, 2012
Pirates fans, the phillies bullpen is awful. We let u have this one.— Ryan Ross (@RyanRoss24) June 28, 2012
The @phillies bullpen is the most sorry group of men ever assembled— Barry Schaffer(@OldManSchaffer) June 28, 2012
that game was UGLY. #phillies this bullpen SUCKS.— s k (@anarchistrev) June 28, 2012
You get the point. This is just a small sampling of the tweets from people who seemed to make wide-spread generalizations with little to no thought or research. In fact, with the simple, non-biased Twitter search of "Phillies bullpen," you are hard-pressed to find one tweet in support of or defending the bullpen.
As is frequently the case, when a whole lot of random people on Twitter agree about something without any in-depth, thorough analysis, there is more to the issue than what meets the eye.
The Phillies bullpen has an ERA of 4.46, good for 12th best in the NL and just barely outside the bottom 5 in all baseball. People will see this, match it up with their observation that the bullpen stinks, and make a general conclusion about it without further research. But, it is important to remember that ERA is simply a descriptor of past results and holds little predictive value. If we want to see just how good or bad the Phillies bullpen is, we are better off looking at stats that actually analyze the performance of the pitcher, and in turn, serve as a predictor for ERA.
2012 Phillies bullpen xFIP: 3.84, good for 8th best in the NL, or hovering around league average.
2012 Phillies bullpen SIERA: 3.25, good for 5th best in the NL, or above league average.
The .59 point discrepancy is baffling and something I am at a loss to explain, but the important point to get out of this is how both are significantly lower than ERA and seem to indicate that the bullpen pitching you have watched with fright night in and night out has actually been at least league average.
So, what explains the difference between predicted results and actual results?
The answer, of course, is luck.
While much of the general population will scoff at the notion of luck, in baseball, especially among pitchers, it is quantifiable.
Here is how the Phillies bullpen ranks in many stats deemed to be centered around chance.
BABIP: An annoyingly high .307.
HR/FB%: An annoyingly high 12.0%.
LOB%: An annoyingly low 69.6%.
The Phillies rank among the unluckiest in baseball in all three stats.
Seeing as it is a real possibility someone misconstrues my argument, I feel the need to clarify that none of this is to say the Phillies should not be looking to improve the bullpen. It should go without say that if the Phillies can get their hands on a good relief pitcher for cheap, it is an acquisition worth making. But, if they can't, assuming no further injury, the Phillies bullpen as it is now is not something to be feared and it certainly is not the worst in baseball. It's not a pitching problem, it's a luck problem, not unlike the big luck problem currently being felt by starting pitcher Cliff Lee.
Just because I am writing this post does not mean the Phillies bullpen's luck will instantly turn around tomorrow. Bad luck can persist throughout an entire season, and statistics for relief pitchers are known to be volatile. However, it is important that we separate process from results. Just because your eyes may tell you the Phillies have a terrible bullpen, that does not necessarily mean it is true. And unless your definition of "one of the worst in baseball" includes the phrase "league average or slightly better," the perception that the Phillies have one of the worst bullpens in baseball is not a reality.
(All stats courtesy of FanGraphs)