Here are the stats for the arms in the Phillies bullpen. Wow. Just...wow.
Here are the stats for all MLB bullpens. Let's just walk away from fWAR and look at comprehensible things. Lots of good innings could confuse the issue (and increase fWAR). Instead, I am going to look at things that are generally important for relief pitchers, like not walking people, striking them out, getting ground balls, and not giving up home runs.
- The Phillies are walking 3.87 batters per nine innings, which is the second worst in the National League, behind only the Marlins.
- The 41.7% groundball percentage is third-lowest in the NL.
- The Phillies' relievers give up 1.22 home runs per 9 innings, which is the highest in the NL.
- The strikeout rate (K/9) is 9th in the NL at 7.97, which is at least mediocre.
- The strand rate is 72.3%, which is the 4th-worst in the NL. This is correlated to the inability to induce ground balls and strike out batters, so it is a description of an effect, not a cause, but still.
Does this sound familiar? A Phillies reliever enters a game where the starter is in trouble. He gives up a home run, clearing the bases, and puts the game out of reach. Or he can't strike out a batter in a critical spot, and walks him instead, fanning the flames higher. Or, he can't get a ground ball out for a double play or simply to keep a runner from advancing. Sometimes, ALL of these things occur in a delightfully satanic witches brew called the 700 Level of Hell.
The numbers at the outset tell us that it should be familiar to us. Watching the games tells us this, too.
Can the Phillies do anything about it? No. Not this year, and they shouldn't try to fix it this year. Sorry. But maybe someday they can.
What are the options this year?:
- Trade for bullpen relief.
- Promote someone from the minors.
- Play the cards they have this year and don't make things worse in the future by trying to find a short-term fix.
Trading for bullpen help right now is like putting a few life jackets on the Titanic. A couple of league-average middle relievers would help the Phillies salvage some games this year, but they have other fish to fry. Amaro agrees. When there are lots of needs, the pen will have to wait. Making sure the Phillies have someone ready at third base, short, and second at the end of this year or prior to next year is more important than the bullpen. Ditto for right field, and perhaps center, though since today is an even-numbered day, I like Ben Revere. [Written June 26, 2013.]
Promoting someone from the minors, hoping someone will step up and fill the breach this year is pretty much what they have been doing, and that has a low cost to them. There are some live arms, and some of them will pan out. A really bad idea would be to take a legitimate starting pitcher prospect and convert him into a reliever to help out this year.
They are essentially left with a combination of options 2 and 3 then, and they will muddle through the year.
What should the Phillies be looking for in a middle reliever and a closer? What is the profile of a good relief pitcher? It helps to look at some characteristics of good ones to develop rules. This will look and feel a bunch like an explanation of what makes pitchers effective generally, so if it reminds you of a "What is FIP?" article, well, it kind of is.
From 2010 through 2013, for qualified relievers (innings pitched), you get this list at Fangraphs for fWAR. Craig Kimbrel is at the top. In the top ten are players like Jonathan Papelbon, Aroldis Chapman, Mariano Rivera, and Sergio Romo. There are also players like Matt Belisle and Sean Marshall. This represents the cream of the crop, and that is not really what we are looking for here, but it is useful to look at them collectively to see what characteristics they share.
What does a really good reliever do? He strikes dudes out. When there are runners on second and third and your team has a one run lead, a really great outcome is a strikeout. A pop up is nice, but batted balls involve lots of luck. Just punching out the batter is far less risky.
On the "best of" list linked above, you see that the lowest K/9 ratio on the first 2 pages (60 pitchers) of that list is the 5.97 per 9 innings number from Brad Zeigler. Zeigler is just ahead of Jim Johnson for the worst K/9 ratio, but Zeigler has a ground ball percentage of 68.0%, which is outrageously good. Johnson's GB% is excellent, too, at 59.1%. More on this later, but let's stick with the strike outs.
The MLB average for relievers is 8.33. See this link for league averages on all relief pitchers for 2013. The elite relievers, and even the really good ones (page 2), seem to have a K/9 that is over 9.0. So, Rule 1 is: K/9 ratio of 9.0 is a good rule of thumb. Not perfect, but it seems like a good baseline, and the world loves round numbers. If you are looking for an elite closer, you want a number that is in excess of 10.0 K/9, but I'm thinking more about middle relief right now, so:
RULE 1: STRIKE DUDES OUT - 9.0 K/9 ratio
Looking back at the "top fWAR" list on pages 1 and 2 (the top 60 relievers from 2010 - 2013), and we see only three pitchers on the first page who walk more than 4.0 batters per nine innings: Aroldis Chapman, Dave Robertson, and John Axford. Each also strikes out hitters at a rate in excess of 11.0 per nine innings, so they can get away with a walk here and there, especially if they need to do a "pitch around" walk for a strong hitter to get to a weaker one that can be whiffed. Page 2 ropes in some additional walkers, like Fernando Rodney, Rex Brothers, Brian Wilson, and Jonny Venters. It also includes Carlos Marmol, who was just DFAed by the Cubs, so there you go. Wilson, Rodney, and Venters get tons of groundballs, mitigating their walks. The others do well in strikeouts.
Still, the best relievers seem to keep the walks per nine innings below 3. Holding the BB/9 to 2.5 looks like it is even better. MLB average is 3.36. Since it is easy to identify Mariano Rivera when you see him, let's just look for Drew Storen good or Craig Breslow, and we'll cut off the "good reliever BB/9" at 3.00, giving us our next rule:
RULE 2: DON'T WALK DUDES - 3.0 BB/9 ratio
It is hard to hit home runs unless you hit the ball in the air. Grounders can generate double plays. If you are a middle reliever (not a closer who often comes in with a "clean" start to an inning), you are often called upon to strand runners who are already on base or to get them out by inducing a ground ball.
A "closer" may not need this skill as much. High K/9 pitchers also tend to be fly ball pitchers. Of all the pitchers who have K/9 ratios of 10.0 or higher, only Venters, Marshall, and Brian Wilson had a GB% in excess of 50%, so this is really exceptional for high K pitchers.
As mentioned above, you can still be a good reliever without whiffing lots of batters, a la Jim Johnson and Brad Zeigler. Other wizards include Rodney, Eric O'Flaherty, Jonny Venters, Bobby Parnell, and Sean Marshall. The MLB average for percentage of ground balls is 43.7% for relievers in 2013.
RULE 3: If you are a middle reliever, HAVE A GB% OF 45% OR HIGHER. FOR CONVENTIONALLY-USED CLOSERS, THIS CAN BE WAIVED.
Here is the list of Phillies relievers. See how many satisfy each of the three rules listed above. Hint: none of them do.
Mike Adams has a goodish profile with 8.28 K/9, and a GB% of nearly 55%, but he walked nearly 4 batters per nine innings, and he is hurt now and out of the picture. "Good idea, but hurt" is how I characterize this. Whether his salary was a wise expenditure is another issue. He is a good bullpen part when he is not injured.
Papelbon is striking out 7.89 batters per nine innings, and at about 36%, he is a fly ball pitcher. His walk rate is great, though, at 1.52 per nine innings. He works pretty well in his role, too. It is hard to criticize the plan to get outs in 2013 in the 8th and 9th innings, even if you can criticize the expense.
From there, things go downhill fast.
Michael Stutes can't strike anyone out, walks too many hitters, and gives up too many fly balls: K/9: 4.60, BB/9: 4.02, GB%: 42.0%. That is likely a result of his injury, but even if you look at his last healthy year (2011), you see an adequate, but not good, K/9 rate of 8.42, a too-high BB/9 of 4.06, and a GB% of 32.9%. That is not a combination that is going to consistently produce good outcomes for the Phillies. It is on the bad side of fringy, and that is when he is healthy.
Antonio Bastardo is a fly ball pitcher who walks too many hitters, and his K rate is not high enough to offset his weaknesses: K/9: 8.89, BB/9: 4.78, and GB%: 33.3%. Bastardo does have a significantly higher infield fly ball rate (15% versus 10% for the league) and this is the same no matter the handedness of the batter. Versus lefties, he strikes out more batters and improves his GB% to 34.8% versus 23.2% against righties. Bastardo's K/9 rate is down significantly this year, though, which is a concern. Compare this year's 8.89 to last year's 14.02. Small sample size? Pitch f/x shows similar velocity, so maybe the K's will come. He is useful, but far more useful against lefties and his profile (low GB%) makes him a reasonable candidate for clean inning work in the 8th or 9th against lefties, particularly if he can bounce his K rate back up.
Raul Valdes is fairly decent (hold your scorn), but needs to generate more ground balls: K/9: 9.45, BB/9: 3.15, and GB%: 37.3. Valdes was victimized by a high BABIP and a disproportionately high rate of his fly balls resulted in home runs. With a normalized home run rate, he is a functional and serviceable reliever. He should come back from Lehigh Valley and give it another shot. His numbers last year were pretty good: 10.16 K/9, 1.45 BB/9, but the GB% was an awful 23.6%. In games where he comes in to a bigger park, he might be a fairly decent option. He might also be a decent option when a strikeout is needed, especially against lefties, against whom he has the following career numbers: 11.68 K/9, 1.64 BB/9, and 35.7% GB%. Against lefties, he is as good as Sergio Romo is against the league. That is useful. Even if he is only used in mop-up roles to re-establish a baseline of effectiveness, I think it is worth giving him a shot to show he still can get guys out.
Jake Diekman and Phillippe Aumont just walk too many people. Diekman is another lefty, which is not something the Phillies really need more of right now. Aumont might be useful if you need one strikeout, but he is Carlos Marmol, only worse. He might not be a baseball player.
Justin De Fratus is part of the future, at least against righties. Career stats. Splits. His samples are small now, but so far, he has a GB% of 46.9% versus northpaws with a 20.0% IFFB%. Also, 8.05 K/9 and 3.79 BB/9. His minor league numbers were better, and he is 25. I have faith in this one.
BJ Rosenberg interests me. He has mid-nineties heat, and he has been effective against righties in limited appearances in the majors. He walks far too many lefties to be trusted facing them yet. His numbers in the minors are tantalizing, though, with 2012 numbers for 54 innings in Lehigh Valley of: 10.50 K/9 and 2.67 BB/9. His numbers in the majors against RHB are: 7.41 K/9 and 2.12 BB/9, though the GB% is 37.5%. Against lefties, his K/9 is a very good 9.82, but he has a BB/9 of...9.82. Uh...not good. He is also going to be 28 this year, and I have to wonder if he isn't done blooming.
Here are the Lehigh Valley numbers. Justin Friend, JC Ramirez, and Joe Savery appear likely to get their shots. I have more faith in Ramirez than others, and his appearance June 23rd against the Mets was a hopeful sign, but I am painfully realistic about his chances. It will be a trial by fire.
Papelbon is Papelbon, but he may be gone in a few weeks. I kind of hope he is. My hope is that the players the Phillies have are used in roles that optimize their chances for success. Next year, the ranks of relievers may be swelling by the likes of Ethan Martin, if he can't control his stuff. Perhaps a relief profile would suit him more, but I would like to see the Phillies exhaust their existing options before leaping out onto the market to buy another broken middle reliever.
Chad Durbin should not have been as bad as he was, looking at his K/9 (9.0) and GB% (45.5%). He walked far too many hitters, though. Maybe his command was such that he could not attack hitters, and when he missed, he missed badly, an threw meatballs that resulted in dingerz. Could be. And maybe that explains Raul Valdes, too, honestly. Still, it is funny to see that the much-derided Durbin actually had some decent qualities. The funny thing is that he could well get picked up and be used better by another organization and be effective in the right circumstances. Oy vey, Charlie.
In any case, we are finding out this year (again) the Phillies are perfectly capable of coming up with homegrown crappy relievers, and there is no need to buy them at inflated prices. To the extent that they do keep trying to grow them, forcing them to cut down on walks to advance levels and encouraging development of pitches that keep the ball down should be organizational priorities, but you get what you get sometimes, especially when relievers are often failed starters.
If the Phillies go out onto the market to buy relievers, they should look closely at GB%. Adams was a good bet, but he was hurt, and that was a risk at the time of the acquisition. More pitchers with profiles like Adams would be useful, but it might not be a bad idea to try to round up someone like Zeigler, who is a ground ball machine. The Phillies have been able to create strikeout guys, but not groundballers. That is a void that, should they feel compelled to fill on the market this summer or in the off-season, they might consider filling from outside the organization.