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Rheal Redux: Revisiting the Reality of Reliever Roles

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Rheal Cormier was a Phillie for almost six years.  (Wow!  Who knew?!)  When a player spends that amount of time in one place, a fan who follows the team closely is bound to have lots of memories of the guy.

The memory I'll associate the most with Rheal Cormier is how his career with the Phillies highlighted this management team's absurd fixation with reliever roles.  Let me explain.

But first, two other memories:

My most positive memory of Rheal is his 2003 season.  He had a horrible spring training and started the season giving up 5 runs in 2 innings.  I was in favor of cutting him right then and there.  But, he turned around to post a great 1.70 ERA for the year (1.20 without that first game).  I was pleasantly surprised by that year, as I am with his performance so far this year.

A very unfortunate memory I have of Rheal is from his horrendous 2002 season.  That year he had a 5.25 ERA and pitched even worse (or so it seemed).  I was at a game late in the season and had the pleasure of sitting very close to the field behind home plate.  That's where the players' families usually sat.  I noticed two young kids decked out in Phillies garb with Cormier jerseys.  Who in their right mind had Cormier jerseys?  Well, according to the usher, they were Rheal's kids.  Of course, later in the game he was brought in and proceeded to pitch terribly.  The fans did what fans do and booed him relentlessly.  I felt terrible seeing his kids there listening to the venom from the fans, but guilty knowing that if I hadn't seen them, I would have joined in the effort.

But onto the analytical point here.  Rheal was the victim of terrible managerial treatment in his time here.  That terrible treatment stemmed from the unflappable belief in reliever roles, results be damned.  The Phillies are as guilty as anyone for holding onto this belief, and it showed with Rheal's career here.

It started in 2003 when Rheal had his incredible 1.70 ERA year.  That year, Jose Mesa was the Phils' closer.  At least, he and his 6.52 ERA were trying futilely to impersonate a closer.  It was obvious early on in the season that Mesa was horrible, just as it was obvious soon after the start of the season that Cormier was on fire.  The Phils, though, with Bowa at the helm, stuck with Mesa as the closer through a good portion of the year and kept Cormier in his role as set-up man.  If they had removed Mesa from his role and put Cormier in instead, or even put Cormier into more high-leverage situations, the season could have turned out differently.

Last year, the Phils had the opposite problem.  Cormier's 2003 had cemented his role as reliable set-up guy, so he was used that way in 2004 and 2005.  Again, results be damned.  In 2004, he was fine, but last year he had one of those terrible years relievers seem to have occasionally.  His ERA was 5.89, but he was used in key situations over and over.  This time it was Charlie Manuel who had his roles set in stone, but the results were the same -- using a guy in his role to the detriment of the team.  With only one game separating the Phils and the post-season, Cormier's use in high leverage situations absolutely did affect the season.

Finally, Cormier's use this year is proving once again that reliever roles are set in stone.  He is in the midst of another stellar season, bettering his 2003 ERA with a 1.59 so far.  However, the set-up guy in the Phils' bullpen is Arthur Rhodes.  Rhodes, of course, has a 5.85 ERA and a 1.89 WHIP.  He has been erratic in the eighth, to the say the least.  Sticking to the pre-assigned roles, Manuel didn't adjust the bullpen when it was obvious Rheal was pitching well, instead delegating him to spot assignments and wasting his excellent year.

By all accounts, Rheal Cormier is a very nice guy.  As a Phillie, though, I won't miss him, because almost every time he came into a ballgame during his Phillies career it reminded me just how stubborn this team's management is with respect to reliever roles.