Suspect Number 2. (Photo by Jeff Golden/Getty Images)
Over the last 30 days of baseball, the Phillies have a bullpen that is last in the National League in bullpen ERA. No, really. Before you click through, take a mental guess at the ERA and, if you want, the xFIP. I'll put them behind the jump for you. Now, understand that this means that the ERA is worse than the Marlins and the Mets, which takes some doing. The Mets, in particular, are so bad that some are seriously thinking about recalling Manny Acosta from AAA. MANNY ACOSTA! It's that bad.
Why IS the Phillies bullpen so awful, though? Antonio Bastardo had an epic 2011. Jonathan Papelbon is an elite closer, right? Sure, there have been injuries, such as Jose Contreras, Michael Stutes (though we weren't really sure how good he was last year), and Chad Qualls didn't really work out well, but is there something that is causing the blowup? Jump...
Answers: ERA: 6.46 (worst in the NL); xFIP: 4:18 (5th worst in the NL). Both numbers are prior to the game on July 20, 2012.
From the Fangraphs.com NL team bullpen data set for the last 30 days, we see a number of things that are factors in the equation:
|Statistic||Phillies||NL Mean (est.)||Rank in NL of 16 teams|
|IP||61.1||66.5||6 (fewer = better?)|
The "Why" of the bullpen being terrible is pretty obvious: They are walking lots of batters, giving up home runs, and they are allowing lots of fly balls compared to ground balls. Maybe the BABIP or HR rates will normalize, bringing "relief" and there is hope in the K/9 rate, which is excellent, but the pen looks very Carlos Marmol-y right now with all the strikeouts, walks, and general ineffectiveness. Something has to change.
The peripherals are mostly pretty crappy, and the bullpen has been pretty crappy, who knew? That's a good autopsy, from the obvious perspective of something like "the victim's skull was crushed by a falling piano, causing death." The autopsy may be a necessary step, but it is not an investigation of who caused the death, and why?
That leaves us with the real question: "who pushed the piano?" Insert your "Clue" jokes quickly, before someone else does.
First, let's create our list of suspects. Here is a Fangraphs.com dataset for Phillies relievers over the last 30 days sorted by innings pitched. Editorially, if I could marry "Fangraphs.com" I might do it.
Of the 61.1 innings pitched, eight players have 3 or more innings pitched, and one of those is Chad Qualls, who is no longer with the team, and he has been DFAed from the data set though he was traded. I just wanted to write, "Chad Qualls has been DFAed." Each of the remaining seven players on the list has pitched between 5 and 11 innings, which is a miniscule sample size, and where funny things happen to statistics. Can anyone have a meaningful sense of whether a pitcher is "good" or "bad" over 5 - 10 innings of a career? No. Insert small sample size caveat here.
The sample DOES tell us who Charlie Manuel is using, and who the "Phillies bullpen" is right now, though:
Based on appearances and innings pitched, your 2012 Phillies stretch drive bullpen is Papelbon (closing), Bastardo (setting up), and Schwimer, Diekman, Valdes, and Horst picking up situational or mop-up work.
Of the group, Papelbon does not appear to have anything out of line other than his BABIP. He is doing fine, and will be fine. The BB/9, K/9, and HR/9 rates are all pretty much good to super. They are in line with his 2012 numbers so far, too. But we know that Papelbon is the real deal, and nobody really thinks he's broken.
Schwimer appears to be doing fine over the recent stretch, improving from earlier in 2012. In fact, he appears to nearly mirror the "average NL reliever" if you compare him to the median for the NL over the last 30 days. He is Everyman.
His numbers in the minors were in the ballpark of 11 K/9 and 3 BB/9, and you'd expect him to have fewer strikeouts and more walks in the majors, and he has, but if he settles in at a K/9 of 8.5 with a walk rate of 3.25 per 9 innings, he's going to be effective. He has a track record suggesting success can happen, and though he has had rough patches, perhaps he's getting comfortable now. His splits show trouble against right-handed hitters, oddly. I'd like to see his splits in the minors, but even for his MLB career (over all of 36 innings, SSS), you see it. Odd.
Horst is doing well, but after he did well at A+ and AA, nothing really suggests that he'd be lights out. Don't hold your breath. Or, conversely, maybe you should hold it when he pitches.
Diekman is doing what he did all through the minors, which is strike guys out and walk tons of guys. The song remains the same. His splits show him to be an equal opportunity walker, but he is clearly more effective against lefties.
Bastardo has dropped off a ton since last year, but why? Here are his career numbers. In 2011, he out-pitched his xFIP by nearly a run, and this year, he is under-pitching it by nearly the same amount. That swing has made him look worse than he is. What he appears to be is an xFIP pitcher of 3.5 - 4.0. Last year, his ERA was 2.65 because of an incredibly low BABIP (.179) and an unsustainable strand rate. His infield fly rate is no longer historically high, and his groundball rate is exceptionally unfavorable. You were warned about much of this.
While he continues to K a staggering 12.46 batters per nine innings, he is also walking a staggering 5.43 per nine. While he has been more effective during his career against lefties (as is conventional), he has struggled against them this season.
He is a fastball/slider pitcher per his PitchFx dataset. His fastball appears to have lost a little movement and a couple of ticks, and he is relying more on a slider that is moving a little more. Perhaps the answer to the increased wildness lies there -- the slider is harder to control for a strike, and he may be throwing it more often to compensate for a fastball that is flatter and slower.
After looking at the people who were in the area where the piano fell from, we are seeing Antonio Bastardo and Jake Diekman appear to be prime suspects. Fundamentally, they just have to stop walking people, or the Phillies have to find other players who will stop walking batters. In fairness to Diekman, if any of us said back in January that he'd be a major part of the bullpen, we'd have been laughed at. Still, if he wants to be a major league pitcher, he'd better stop walking batters. It's been a problem all his career, but I didn't care because it wasn't causing the Phillies problems at the end of games.
Bastardo will probably normalize and get better, since he is underperforming his peripherals, but don't expect "2011 better." Still, the decreased movement and velocity on his fastball is a cause for concern. The kid is 26 years old. Is something broken or breaking?
In the absence of an ability to trade for bullpen help, reinforcements will need to come from within. Perhaps it is time to give another Iron Pig a shot at Diekman's slot, with the message, "don't come back till you walk 4.0 batters per 9 or fewer." I can think of someone I would really like to see get a shot. If that injury is fixed, his progress through the minors suggests he's the real deal. There's not much to lose by going for it at this point. Let's see the kid already.
Here's the prescription I have:
At this stage, Papelbon is the anchor. If Bastardo can be used more against just lefties, he may be more effective, though the small sample splits from 2012 don't reflect that. His numbers have a shot at normalizing even if his usage pattern doesn't change. Continue to use Schwimer judiciously, and let Valdes pitch a little more. I'd play match-ups in the 8th rather than trying to use a per se "set up man." And if Justin De Fratus can help, I'd throw him into the mix instead of Diekman for the time being.