Playing the Eighth-Inning Blame Game (Part 1)

Has any statistic about the 2012 season been run out more often than "the leads lost in the eighth inning" by a Phillies bullpen widely panned as dysfunctional? Here is Matt Gelb. "The Phillies craved stability in the eighth inning. They lost 12 games, the most in the majors, when holding a lead entering the eighth inning." And John Stolnis. "Last year, the Phillies lost 12 games in which they carried a lead into the eighth inning." And . . . you get the idea. Variations on a theme, largely in defense of the need for acquiring a blue-chip set-up guy. First, let's set the record straight. Unless I've missed something, the Phillies didn't lose 12 leads carried into the eighth inning last year. They lost 11 leads and 1 tie carried into the eighth inning. OK, that's a quibble, but if the stat is a little off, maybe what's been made of the stat is a little off too. So if you have the stomach (and the patience) for it, Part 1 of this two-part series will run briefly through the first six of those eighth innings with an eye to what went wrong, what options were available that might have produced a different outcome, and where the blame for the bad outcomes rightly belongs. There are nuances -- probably important nuances -- that I can't reproduce without actually watching tape. How hard exactly was that ball hit? Did that runner steal on the pitcher or the catcher? You mean that umpire missed two called third strikes? Let me also warn the faint of heart in advance that the Phillies did not win a single one of those games. Ack.

After both run throughs, I'll yank at some of the black threads in this bloody garment to see what unravels. But if you'd like to while away the hours before opening day by looking backward, play The Blame Game along with me. Apportion the blame as you see it. Grading the roster itself -- or the GM responsible for it -- is, sadly, not an option. Rule of the game.

1. April 8, 2012. 4-3 Phils entering the bottom of the 8th; Pirates tie and eventually win 5-4.

The Eighth. Kendrick (R) starts the inning following a clean inning by Stutes in the seventh. McCutcheon (R) singles, Walker (R) flies out. Bastardo comes on to face Navarro (R), pinch-hitting for the pitcher; McCutcheon steals 2nd, then Navarro walks. Barmes (R) strikes out, Hague (R), pinch hitting for Alavarez (L) singles, scoring McCutcheon. McKenry (R) strikes out to end the inning. Score tied 4-4.

The Options. This is the inning that belonged largely to Jose Contreras in 2011. But Contreras has not yet been activated. A right hander is clearly called for, but Stutes has already pitched. David Herndon (R), who is available but will soon go to the DL, gets dissed, and Savery (L) is available as a loogie if needed. That leaves Chad Qualls and Kyle Kendrick. Both pitched an inning the previous day, Kendrick the 7th and Qualls the 8th. This time, for some reason, Manuel picks Kendrick, his "long man," over Qualls, who has not yet revealed himself to be an abomination, but who, along with Bastardo, has been envisioned as the replacement "veteran eighth-inning guy." Kendrick was very good in spring training -- but so was Qualls. Bastardo is later brought in despite the certainty that there will be a right-handed pinch hitter for Meek, who pitched the 8th. He strikes out two of the four men he faces, all of whom are right handed, but one of whom, Hague, was due to be the left-hander Alvarez. McCutcheon could have stolen on anyone, and Navarro's walk proves meaningless (but irritating) as a result of the steal.

The Blame.

  • Kendrick (35%). For giving up a hit to start the inning to a RHB.
  • Bastardo (40%). For giving up the score-tying single to a LHB.
  • Manuel (25%). For arbitrarily anointing Kendrick for a role that has never suited him well and for then bailing on him in favor of a lefty that will likely face at least three, possibly four RHBs.

2. May 2, 2012. Phillies lead 13-8 entering the bottom of the 8th; Five runs score and the Braves eventually win 15-13 in extras.

The Eighth. Jose Contreras (R) comes on and gives up a single to Uggla (R) to start the inning. Chipper (SH) gets on on a failed forceout attempt. Diaz (R), batting for the pitcher, strikes out, but Pastornicky (R) doubles, scoring Uggla. Heyward walks, loading the bases. Michael Schwimer (R) comes on, walks Bourn (SH), scoring a run. Prado (R) singles in two runs, then Bourn scores on a sac fly by Freeman (L). McCann (L) flies out to end the inning.

The Options. With three RHB and one switch-hitter due up, Contreras, who is well-rested, starts the inning. But for the failed forceout attempt, he could have had two outs with a man on second. Was an out at first base available? I don't know. Anyway, Pastornicky's double scores a run. Heyward bats left, but Bourn following him is a switch-hitter and Prado after him bats right. Bastardo and Savery have both already been used. Savery came on in the 5th and pitched .2 innings to bail out an ineffective Halladay; Bastardo pitched the following inning. Contreras, therefore, stays in to face lefty Heyward. Schwimer, another RHP, comes on to face switch-hitting Bourn and right hander Prado presumably because Manuel has lost faith in Contreras. He gets neither out, then stays in to pitch to two LHB. Although both men make outs, a fly ball badly needs to be avoided with Bourn on third, but isn't.

The Blame

  • Contreras (35%) For having put on 3 of the 5 men he faced.
  • Schwimer (35%) For walking the first man he faced, putting 2 of 4 men on, and not keeping the ball in the infield with the tying run on third.
  • Manuel (20-30%) For having used up his other left hander, Bastardo, in the 6th instead of leaving Savery in.
  • Bad Luck (0-10%). Assuming an out was available at first base (see %), not trying for the forceout added an out and subtracted a baserunner.

3. May 4, 2012. Phillies lead 3-2, entering the bottom of the 8th; Nats tie and win 4-3 in extras.

The Eighth. This is Chad Qualls' inning. Tracy (L) leads off with a single. Espinsosa (SH) is a better hitter right (.281) than left (.233), but that's irrelevant because he sacrifices Tracy to second. Ankiel (L) is intentionally walked, partly because he bats left, partly to set up the double play or forceout, but still, he is the go-ahead run in a one-run game. Flores (R) refuses to cooperate and doubles in Tracy. Banjo-hitting Nady (R), batting for the pitcher, is intentionally walked to load the bases, but Qualls escapes the inning by getting Desmond (R) on a forceout at home and Lombardozzi (R) on a groundout.

The Options. Why does Charlie Manuel begin the possibly penultimate inning with a right hander despite two of the first three batters he is due to face batting left? Well he hasn't much choice. His LHPs have already been used, Bastardo in the seventh, Savery (who pitched well in the loss two days before) for .1 inning in the sixth. Fortunately, Adam LaRoche is injured and his replacement, Chad Tracy, has been scuffling. Unfortunately, his season (.262 against RHP) is about to take off. Intentional walks are bad strategy more often than not and two are nausea-inducing, but Ankiel is hitting better than Flores, who also bats right. Ankiel never does score, but Flores beats the percentages and ties the game, which is ultimately lost by Michael Schwimer when Charlie Manuel famously declines to use his closer in a tie game on the road.

The Blame.

  • Qualls (75-100%). For allowing a hit to the first batter of the inning and then giving up a tying double to a light-hitting RHB with a .561 OPS.
  • Manuel (0-25%). Although once again Manuel has left himself no southpaws for late-game match-ups, this is the bottom half of the line-up, not the top. Grade probably depends on how committed you are to pitching match-ups.

4. June 5, 2012. Phillies lead 1-0, entering the top of the 8th; Dodgers score twice and win 2-1.

The Eighth. This is an all-too-familiar Cliff Lee outing. Throwing a shutout but leading by only one run, Lee hiccups. Treanor (R) doubles to start the inning, but is erased at third on a fielder's-choice groundout by Gwynn (L), who is now on first. Abreu (L), hitting for the pitcher, singles, but Gwynn is out at third. Basebaal is smiling on Cliff Lee. Then Gordon (L) singles, and Herrera (SH) follows with a double, scoring Abreu and Gordon. Dodgers lead. Qualls finally comes on to retire Rivera (R) on a groundout.

The Options. Seldom has the dichotomy between Charlie's Gut (or perhaps Gutlessness)and the lessons of actual experience been more stark. Lee entered the eighth inning pitching a shutout, but over the 100-pitch mark. It was inevitable and probably defensible that he face the right-handed hitting Treanor, even though he is hitting a respectable .278 and carrying a very respectable .904 OPS. When two consecutive left handers get hits, history says this is the familiar "Cliff Lee Inning" when a fine performance quickly unravels. Remarkably, defensive plays bail him out and no runs score, although a runner is still in scoring position. Will Lee, now approaching 120 pitches, remain in the game? Herrera, a .300+ hitter, bats from both sides, so it doesn't matter greatly whether he faces a left- or right-handed reliever, although he hits left handers somewhat better. Papelbon could be tapped for a four-out save. Bastardo pitched 1.2 impressive innings in the previous game. Raul Valdes pitched 1.2 scoreless innings on June 2 and will pitch 2 additional scoreless on the 6th and 7th. The rest of the pen has shown its true colors by now, although, ironically, Qualls will get the final out of the inning. Lee stays in and Herrera makes him pay.

The Blame

  • Lee (50%). Lee is a warrior and would have insisted on staying in, but he got lucky twice before the luck ran out.
  • Qualls (0%). Qualls did his job.
  • Manuel (50%). Sympathy to Manuel for a lousy bullpen and limited choices, but Lee cannot pitch to Herrera.

5. June 16, 2012. Phillies lead 5-2 going into the bottom of the 8th; Toronto scores 3 and wins in the 10th 6-5

The Eighth. Cliff Lee again leading, this time 5-2 going into the bottom eighth inning having thrown about 85 pitches. He walks Bautista (R), Ecarnacion singles, and Bautista and Encarnacion both score on a Rollins' throwing error. Johnson (L) follows with another single. Chad Qualls comes on to pitch to the right hander Escobar (R) and induces a popup, but Cooper (L), pinch-hitting for Gomes, singles Johnson to third. He scores on Arencibia's (R) groundout, after which Qualls retires Davis (R) and Lawrie (R).

The Options. Apart from that queasy feeling, there is no reason for Lee not to be starting the eighth inning. His pitch count is low and he's coasting along. A walk and three singles to start the inning, however, leave the distinct aroma of the "Cliff Lee Inning" in the air. Manuel makes a move, and a R L R R R sequence of upcoming batters says bring in a RHP. Qualls' ERA has blossomed to nearly 5, but he pitched an impressive inning two games previous to this one with three K's. He gets three outs while giving up only one single. Unfortunately, there are no strikeouts this time.

The Blame.

  • Lee (55%). The majority of this one has to be on Lee. A walk and two singles to start an inning don't constitute a collapse, but he has to do better.
  • Qualls (10%). Qualls does a pretty good job of getting through a no-out situation with only one single given up
  • Manuel (0%). This time Manuel recognizes a "Cliff Lee Inning," despite Lee's pitch count, but in the absence of a solid right-hand option has little choice but to go to Qualls.
  • Bad Luck (35%). Rollins' error may ultimately have cost the game, depending on whether runners get first-to-third on subsequent singles and whether the flyout for the second out could have scored that runner from third.

6. June 24, 2012. Phillies lead 1-0 entering the 8th; Rays score 3 runs and eventually win 3-1.

The Eighth. Cole Hamels has pitched 7 shutout innings, but has thrown 111 pitches. Antonio Bastardo (L) comes on to start the inning and immediately walks Johnson (SH). Conrad (SH), batting for the pitcher, flies out, then Upton (R) walks, and Pena (L) the homers. (Got that ugliness out of the way quick.) Qualls (R) comes on to face Keppinger (R), who lines out. Matsui (L) walks, but a pinch runner is thrown out trying to steal.

The Options. This is the first game of a double-header. Valdes pitched two innings the day before. Diekman is erratic and will pitch in game two. So among left handers, Bastardo is the logical choice. Bastardo has two switch-hitters to face to start the inning. Johnson, the first, is a respectable hitter against right handers, but doesn't hit lefties at all. Conrad hits left handers better than right, but doesn't hit anyone very well. Bastardo should be set up for success, but immediately walks Johnson. With leftie Pena following Upton, does it really make sense to bring in a RHP to face Upton? Because Johnson can steal a base, Bastardo, who has chronic "man-on-first heebie-jeebies," is perhaps overly preoccupied while also pitching cautiously to the dangerous and right-handed Upton. As a result, there are now two very good base runners to command attention, and Bastardo has had it with walks. He tries to get ahead of a batter with a favorable L/R match-up for a change, and Pena pulls his first pitch well out of the park. Game over. Qualls comes on to retire the right hander Keppinger. His walk to Matsui proves irrelevant.

The Blame

  • Bastardo (100%). As good an example as you'll find of a guy just not getting his job done.
  • Qualls (0%). Qualls does what he was brought into do.
  • Manuel (0%). There are no moves Manuel could reasonably have made to affect the situation.

* * * * * *

June is past. In July, the face of the Phillies' bullpen will have begun to look very different. Chad Qualls will be gone. Raul Valdez will be on the DL; he will return in August for about 3 1/2 weeks before returning to it for the remainder of the season. Jake Diekman will be gone, but will return again in early August. Jeremy Horst has joined the club, and at the end of July Josh Lindblom will, as well. A month later the Lehigh Valley express will kick into high gear with Phillippe Aumont (Aug 20) arriving first, followed by Tyler Cloyd (Aug 29), Justin De Fratus and (back again) Jake Diekman (Sep 1), and finally B.J. Rosenberg (Aug 3) to replace the departed Joe Blanton in a continuation of his one-week cup of coffee with the team back in June.

Here's how the relevant parties performed in the first six of the disastrous eighth innings.

The Pen. Chad Qualls has been the whipping boy for many of the Phillie's bullpen woes during the first half of the 2012 season, but bore only modest responsibility for the six occasions on which eighth-inning leads were squandered. According to Fangraphs, his performance on the entire year in high-leverage situations wasn't materially different from that in low-leverage, and the SLG against him (.419) was considerably better than in both low- and medium-leverage situations. If you thought he was bad with the Phillies (first-half ERA 4.41), be glad he wasn't around for the entire year (second-half ERA 7.13). One of those games is squarely on him. Antonio Bastardo's muddy footprints are on several of those games. Bastardo had a difficult first half. Although hitters averaged only .218 against him, his ERA (5.34), FIP (4.63) and xFIP (4.26) were considerably less than stellar. The rest of the blame is pretty well spread around, with nobody performing really well. It's fair to ask oneself, though, which of those guys except for Bastardo performed well below the level of what any of us actually expected?

Manuel. Maybe "Manuel" should be "Manubee" since none of us knows to what extent Charlie's pitching decisions are affected by Dubes, but in at least three, possibly four, of the six games under consideration, managerial decisions probably played some role, large or small, in the bad outcomes. Several things stand out. One is that Manual craved but could not find an "eighth inning guy." Despite the iffiness of Contreras reprising his 2011 role even before the season began, he wanted Big Truck or somebody to fill that role. Only Contreras couldn't, Bastardo didn't, and Qualls shouldn't. What you have is what you have, and Manuel didn't have enough, but rather than ride eighth-inning match-ups into the ninth, Manuel several times expended his left-hand options earlier in the game. He doesn't characteristically ignore match-ups, but they don't occupy the place in his strategic thinking that they do for some other managers. The extent to which Bastardo should have been used more as a loogie is up for argument. His 2011 against RHB was outstanding, better, actually than against LHB. Bastardo's 2012 season was less successful, though his performance careered wildly from month to month, and April was one of the bad ones (.429/.500/.571). So Manuel can perhaps be forgiven for being slow to adjust and then simply perplexed. On another note entirely, Manuel's tendency to ride his "aces" as close to complete games as he can get them is well-known. The hand of Dubee may be especially heavy there. Given the bullpen Manubee had to work with, you have to again feel some sympathy for them, and no doubt there are attractions to taking the old-school line on the coddling of starters and the arbitrariness of the 100-pitch mark. But Charlie's indulgence of Lee had a big hand in one of the six eighth-inning implosions.

Amaro. I know, grading the front office was supposed to be off-limits, but this is less about grading than it is about being honest about the conditions that Manuel and the pen had to contend with. The state of the Phillies' bullpen going into the 2012 season was only one of the places where Ruben's self-indulgent splurge on Jonathan Papelbon (and Hunter Pence the year before) was felt. The bullpen roster to start the season read Antonio Bastardo, Michael Stutes, Chad Qualls, Joe Savery, Kyle Kendrick, and David Herndon. Bastardo's finish to 2011 was regarded as an aberration that would disappear in 2012. Early in spring training his velocity remained down, and he complained of a "tired forearm." Stutes' strong early showing the previous season had evaporated as the season progressed, and he would get shelled regularly in spring training games. Qualls was a bargain-basement acquisition coming off a mediocre 2011 and an awful 2010. Savery was a completely untested organizational piece whose chief attraction was that no lefties at the lower levels looked ready for the show either. Nothing in Kendrick's resume suggested that he was a candidate for high-leverage late innings. Herndon's injury was a piece of bad luck, although he wasn't valued as highly by the organization as he probably deserved to be. He had a very respectable second half in 2011, but struggled with command issues in Sep/Oct. If anything was expected of him, it didn't materialize in the five uneven appearances prior to a season-ending trip to the DL. Jose Contreras was a forty-something coming off serious elbow problems and anything but a lock to resume his 2011 role. This bull-pen needed more bull-ets going into the 2012 season and didn't get them because there was no money left to do it.

So yes, the bullpen underperformed in high-leverage eighth innings during the first half of the season, but if you remember these games only as bullpen failure, you are letting management, front office, Cliff Lee, and Lady Luck off more easily than they deserve.

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