It’s Spring Training, that magical time of year when Baseball goes from rear view mirror image to front and center. Teams swarm to Florida and Arizona to recoup from the long winter.
Pitchers perform hours of pitchers’ fielding practice, hitters take hours of batting practice, and everyone, including the great Mariano Rivera shag fly balls during batting practice. Spring Training also denotes a time when young players, many destined to return to the minors, work their butts off in an attempt to make the big league club, or at the very least make the 40-man roster. Coaches, front office personnel, scouts, and even fellow players watch youngsters with raw tools work hard in the weight room, run extra laps, and listen to every instructor, former franchise legends among them, in the hopes that each bit of extra preparation will lead them to the Majors.
Sometimes, like in the case of Oakland A’s top prospect Addison Russell, the big league club just wants to look at a talented youngster, Russell is 18 years old, with no intention of bringing him up to the big leagues in September, let alone in April. On the other hand, most teams don’t come to Spring Training with every spot secured on their 25-man roster. Some teams have multiple players competing for a specific position, whether it be backup catcher, utility infielder, starting third baseman, or the 5th spot in the rotation. Eventually, a group of prospective players receives the news that they won’t be making the club and have been sent back down to their respective minor league club. Next, a few more will leave, until finally, the team finalizes their 25 and 40-man rosters. More often than not, one or two of those unfilled positions in late February/early March come from the bullpen. Most bullpen pitchers were starters at one time, but due to a number of various issues including health, control, velocity, durability, etc… end up in the bullpen.
Despite the fact that the Phillies look to employ platoons at at least one if not two outfield positions, the team has solidified its starting lineup, bench, and starting rotation. Even the bullpen seems fairly secure with the acquisitions of Mike Adams and Chad Durbin. Both veteran righties should bridge the gap from starter to closer Jonathan Papelbon along with lefty set-up man Antonio Bastardo. So, the Phillies have 4 spots in the pen locked up, but what about the other 3? According to Jason Martinez’s website www.mlbdepthcharts.com, the Phillies bullpen will look like this:
While Martinez believes this to be the current Phillies bullpen as of the start of Spring Training, it is subject to change, and moreover should look different when the Phillies open their 2013 season April 1st against the Atlanta Braves. Over the last few decades, a Major League bullpen has become a game of operation, stick the right parts in the right places and no one gets shocked. The closer is the best pitcher, the guy who locks down the game in the so-called “crucial” ninth inning. The set up guys, usually possible closers in their own right, pitch the 7th and 8th innings to bridge the gap from either the starter of a middle reliever to the closer in the 9th. In the last 10 years or so more specialization has popped up with lefty-specialists, left-handed pitchers who may be abysmal if asked to throw a pitch to a right-handed batter, but throw such funky breaking balls from different angles that they become Steve Carletonesque against left-handed hitters. Some bullpen pitchers are ground ball specialists, pitchers who throw sinkers, splitters, and breaking balls that cause opposing hitters to top the ball and bounce into crucial double plays, while other bullpen pitchers specialize in strikeouts, throwing almost exclusively a blazing fastball with which most hitters cannot catch up.
Last season, the entire Phillies bullpen did an incredible job in the strikeout department, ranking first in Major League Baseball in K/9 (10.05), tied for 1st in swing percentage (11.8%), and third to last in contact percentage (74.6%). All of these stats point to a relief core filled with strike throwing, swing-and-miss inducing pitchers who may not have the best control, but get outs without allowing the ball to be put in play. Its a good thing the Phillies 2012 bullpen kept hitter from putting the ball in play as they only ranked in the middle of the road in BABIP, some of which is due to randomness, but some is also due to ineffective “in the strike zone” pitches. Unfortunately for the Phillies bullpen, the group ranked 5th in the Majors in BB/9, behind only the Mets, Brewers, Cubs, and Dodgers, of which 2/4 finished with worse records than the Phillies. In addition, the Phillies had the second worst ground ball percentage (40.5%) in the Majors last season, portraying a group that relied heavily, too heavily on strikeouts.
The 2012 bullpen did well enough throughout the season to buttress a talented starting staff, to the point that the Phillies overall pitching fWAR from last season was 8th in the Majors at 19.3 wins. That is pretty good given that the team endured a long stint on the DL from Roy Halladay, injuries to Vance Worely, and numerous young and inexperienced bullpen pitchers like Phillipe Aumont, Justin DeFratus, Jeremy Horst, Jake Diekman, and Michael Schwimer. So what do we have to look forward to in 2013, will we seem more of the same, or will some of these youngsters progress and step up to fill the roles the Phillies need them for?
With three “open” spots in the bullpen, I fully expect Aumont or DeFratus to take one of them. Aumont was the main piece the Phillies received from the Mariners when the team traded Cliff Lee to the northwest in 2010. The Canadian behemoth has a power fastball that sits in the mid 90′s, a funky delivery that he sometimes has trouble repeating, and a hard breaking slider. He has a great combination of stuff for a late innings pitcher, but needs to refine his control. Frankly, if he can prove that he’s capable of going more than 3 innings without surrendering a walk, I would pencil him into one of the open spots in the bullpen right now. DeFratus is talented, has good stuff, and more control than Aumont, but has had some injury troubles, so his main goal will be to pitch as he usually does, but do so while staying healthy.
What about the specialization I alluded to in the latter part of this piece? The Phillies are without a lefty specialist, a pitcher who will dominate the likes of Jason Heyward, Bryce Harper, Joey Votto, and Adrian Gonzalez even if he can’t get out John Buck. No one has yet to claim that role, since Antonio Bastardo is more of a late inning strikeout type pitcher. The possibilities include Jeremy Horst, Jake Diekman, Raul Valdes, and Joe Savery. All 4 pitchers are southpaws, and each brings something different to the table. Since each of these pitchers will most likely be called upon to get out a left-handed hitter or two and then take a seat on the bench, let’s see how each pitcher has faired against left-handed hitters.
Last season, Jake Diekman, who throws from an angle somewhere i between three quarters and sidearm, faired much better against lefties than righties:
|Jake Diekman (2012)|
|vs. LH||vs. RH|
Diekman throws hard, with an average fastball velocity of 94.9 mph, but he has control issues, especially against right-handed hitters, but more importantly against lefties, the one type of hitter he would be called on to get out. Looking at Diekman’s pitch f/x data, his whiff percentage (swinging strikes per swing) is all over the place. He was able to get lefties to swing through his pitches mostly when they didn’t find the strike zone, meaning that he needs to work on his control, and that his stuff is electric causing hitters to swing at pitches that aren’t strikes. So, he has some good qualities, but in order for Diekman to nab a spot in the Phillies 2013 bullpen he will have to refine his pitches, work on throwing strikes with both fastball and breaking ball, strikes that don’t involve the opposing hitter swinging.
Jeremy Horst, a lefty who throws pretty much over the top, think Cliff Lee style, throws fastball, slider, and changeup, a solid combination for any reliever. Unlike Diekman, Horst isn’t blowing anyone away with speed, his fastball velocity averages out at 90.3 mph, but he gets away with it by having an 8 mph difference between his fastball and breaking ball. When facing left-handed hitters Horst uses his fastball and slider almost interchangeably to get ahead, keeping the same ratio (almost 50:50), when successfully getting ahead of the hitter. Like many pitchers, Horst relies on his fastball when behind in the count, throwing it 63% of the time when the count is in the favor of the left-handed hitter. Based on his whiff rates, Horst uses his slider, which has solid break, to induce swings, especially on those pitchers that look like a strike, but then break out of the zone. Against lefties, Horst locates his fastball well, throwing it much more often than his other pitches for called strikes, which can be very useful against lefties with power who have trouble with fastballs up and in. Horst seems like a more reliable choice than Diekman, especially against lefties, but his numbers aren’t stellar and he has little upside, as opposed to Diekman whose ceiling is much higher.
Joe Savery and Raul Valdes are a slightly different story. Savery was a first-round pick that has bounced back and forth from pitching to hitting as he shows the ability to hit as well as pitch. Unfortunately for Savery, he hasn’t developed into the player the Phillies hoped for, and so making the 2013 bullpen may be one of his last chances to get a spot on the Phillies 25-man roster. Savery could earn a spot as a lefty specialist, or as a long reliever. Many fans remember Savery coming into 2012 games as a mop up reliever, who didn’t perform well even in that role. Savery, has never faired well against right-handed hitters, putting up a career .379 wOBA against, and a paltry 6.02 FIP vs. righties, while performing better but still below par against lefties (3.09 FIP). If he comes to Spring Training with the purpose of securing a spot as a lefty specialist, showing that he can strikeout lefties without walking them, he might have a chance at a spot. Valdes would be my current choice to make the Phillies bullpen as a lefty specialist. He had fantastic numbers last season against lefties, albeit with a small sample size. He put up a 12.21 K/9 and a 0.64 BB/9 rate against lefties last season, deriving his success from a quick snappy delivery and a fall-off-the-table slider. Valdes’ fastball barely even reaches 90 mph on average, but his slider/changeup combination has sharp bite that can baffle lefties.
Each southpaw the Phillies have to choose from has positives and negatives. The 2 major aspects of this decision come down to the Phillies’ philosophy towards the 2013 season and how these pitchers perform in Spring Training. If the Phillies see 2013 as a “win now” season, than Valdes or Horst seem like the better options, but if giving youngsters a shot is the more popular approach (which it hasn’t been), than Diekman or Savery may find themselves in the 2013 bullpen. In the end, here is what I think the Phillies bullpen should look like vs. what I think it will look like:
|My Bullpen||More Likely Outcome|
|CL||RHP||Jonathan Papelbon||CL||RHP||Jonathan Papelbon|
|SU||RHP||Mike Adams||SU||RHP||Mike Adams|
|SU||LHP||Antonio Bastardo||SU||LHP||Antonio Bastardo|
|MID||RHP||Phillipe Aumont||MID||RHP||Mike Stutes|
|MID||RHP||Justin DeFratus||MID||LHP||Jeremy Horst|
|MID||LHP||Raul Valdes||MID||RHP||Chad Durbin|
|LR||RHP||Chad Durbin||LR||LHP||Raul Valdes|
When decisions like these have to be made, everyone has an opinion, but as fans we have to put some faith in the coaches and talent evaluators, that they know what they’re doing. The Phillies don’t have that many holes in their roster heading into 2013, but the bullpen has a few, and it will be fascinating to see who gets the call and who is left off of the 2013 opening day roster.