Generally, in the course of a 9-inning baseball game, the starting attempts to throw as many productive and efficient innings as possible.
Barring any external events such as injuries or delays, when the marginal benefits of removing the starter outweigh the marginal costs, a manager should step in and call for some relief. Enter the relief core, or as the baseball world has come to call it, the bullpen. While teams use only one starting pitcher per game, any number of relievers can enter and exit depending on the circumstances.
Given the various number of circumstances and variables that can come up in any given game, teams build relief cores with different types of pitcher, in order to always have the right pitcher for the proper conditions. Teams stock their pens with lefties, righties, LOOGYs (left-handed one out guy), ROOGYs (left-handed one out guy), sidearmers, ground ball specialists, flamethrowers, and more. Still, no matter what group of individuals a team compiles to make up its relief core, the most important aspect is to have pitcher who can pitch no matter the conditions, low, medium, and high leverage situations.
When a starting pitcher performs well, the job of the bullpen is to continue that continue that dominance. In games in which the starter has a subpar outing or worse, the bullpen must stop the bleeding, giving the teams offense a chance to recoup some runs. Still, we can all agree that in games separated by the fewest runs, the bullpen’s job becomes more crucial.
A reliever who pitches when his team is ahead or behind by 8 runs can give up more runs because those extra runs will most likely not influence the eventual outcome, win or loss. These types of situations are dubbed low leverage because of the minute impact they have on the final result of the game. The more crucial circumstances, those dubbed medium or high leverage, have great importance, and it is at those times that a team’s bullpen must thrive.
One interesting fact concerning high leverage situations is that the inning of the game actually matters less than most people think. For example, the 9th inning does not always constitute high leverage; often the most important situations in a game take place earlier. Up by 3 runs in the 9th inning with the opposing team’s 7-8-9 hitters due to bat has much less leverage than a team that is winning by 1 run in the 7th inning with 2 runners on base and the opposing 2-3-4 hitters due up.
Given the Phillies dynamic starting pitching staff, and weak to average offensive capabilities, the bullpen’s ability to pitch in medium and high leverage situations proves crucial. In 2011, the first season in which Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Cliff Lee pitched together for the Phillies, and a season in which the Phillies offense mustered a pedestrian team wOBA of .315, the bullpen shown through, putting up the best wOBA against in high leverage situations in all of MLB. More importantly, the team faced a number of these types of innings, 174.0 to be exact, which ranked 10th in the Majors. Coincidentally the Phillies won 103 games in 2011, more than any other team in the league.
While the 2011 and 2013 Phillies share only some attributes, thus far the 2013 version has not produced a product worthy of 100 wins let alone 85. I’ve written about the Phillies offensive deficiencies, those that could turn around and those that seem likely to stay. Still based on the types of hitters and their production thus far, it would seem that, even with some foreseeable improvements, the Phillies offense won’t produce a final team wOBA greater than .315.
The starting pitching hasn’t been amazing, but that aspect still remains the Phillies best weapon. Phillies starters have the 17th best ERA in the league at 4.04, the 14th best FIP at 3.83, and the 6th best WHIP in the league at 1.17. Using some more predictive metrics like xFIP (3.67), SIERA (3.84), and kwERA (3.94), we see that the staff should improve, from a statistical perspective, and given Roy Halladay’s obvious improvements on the hill from start to start, it would seem likely the starters numbers should rank higher relative to the league in the coming months.
So, if the offense remains closer to the bottom than the top of the league, and the starting rotation holding its own, the Phillies will need their bullpen to be as good as it was in 2011 for this team to compete for a playoff spot. So, let’s take a look at the 2013 bullpen to this point. The Phillies pen has a league worst wOBA against in high leverage situations at .423 with the 2nd fewest number of high leverage innings at 16.2, and a league best wOBA against in medium leverage situations at .270 with an average number of innings pitched at that leverage at 92.1 thus far.
The very small sample size here derives from the deplorable state of their offense, and the average production thus far from the starting rotation. That small sample means there isn’t a lot we can gain from this information, it isn’t all for naught. Of the 25 times Phillies relievers have entered the game in a high leverage situation, Mike Adams leads with 7 such situations, with Antonio Bastardo 2nd at 5 appearances, followed by Jonathan Papelbon and Phillipe Aumont at 4 a piece. I would rank these 4 pitchers as the Phillies better relievers so having these guys throw in the more crucial situations makes more sense, still if Jonathan Papelbon is your best pitcher he’s got to have the most appearances entering the game in a HL (high leverage) situation.
Phillies relievers rank 9th worst in MLB in wOBA against in situations with runners in scoring position, posting an unacceptable 11.5 BB% and a barely passable 19.0 K% in the same circumstances. This coming from a bullpen that just last year was 3rd in MLB in K% with runners in scoring position at 21.5%. More importantly, the Phillies retained high K% relievers like Bastardo and Papelbon, while adding high K% relievers like Aumont and Mike Adams (career 25.1 K%).
This bullpen should be striking opposing hitters out with incredible proficiency, even if they might also let up their fair share of walks. Instead, especially when it counts the most, the bullpen has failed to get strikeouts, continues to relinquish high numbers of walks, and sports the 10th worst overall batting average on balls in play of any bullpen in MLB. Moreover, in high leverage situations, that BABIP is a league worst .397. Remember that is a small sample size, and given the amount of luck inherent in BABIP, that number should drop some, but the job of the bullpen should be to keep the ball out of play.
So, now you and I have a better understanding of the Phillies 2013 bullpen at this point in the season. Like the starting staff, the bullpen should improve a bit due to regression towards the mean, but if the Phillies are to compete for a playoff spot, the bullpen needs to be better in every aspect of the game, especially the most crucial situations. In the end, the true key to the Phillies success is the offense because a team that cannot score runs won’t win games. Still, the 2011 Phillies showed that great starting pitching and some great relief work could eclipse paltry hitting, so why can’t the same be true for the 2013 Phillies?