The bullpen was a sore spot for the Phillies in 2013. For that matter, it was a sore spot in 2012 but the Fightin’s went from bad to worse last season. The good news is there is plenty of room to improve.
First, let’s look at the numbers.
The Phillies were one of 5 teams with a negative WAR from their bullpen with a mark of -.01, tied with the Mets. Only the Padres (-.02), Cubs (.-02), and Astros (-5.4) had a lower WAR from the pen. It gets worse when you look at FIP, or Fielding Independent Pitching and xFIP, or Expected Fielding Independent Pitching. The Phillies were ahead of only the woeful Cubs and Astros in both categories.
Opposing hitters managed an OPS of .741 against the pen, tied with the Colorado Rockies for second to last in baseball, ahead of only the lowly Astros. To put that in perspective, the entire Phillies offense OPS’d only .690, which was 24th out of 30 teams. Again, for perspective: only 6 teams OPS’d .741 or higher; five of those teams were in the AL with a Designated Hitter and the other was the Rockies, who play at Coors field, the number one park for runs scored. Three of these teams went to the playoffs. So the Phillies bullpen allowed their opponents to beat up on them like a high-powered, playoff caliber, DH boosted offense. Not good!
Finally, it gets even worse when looking at BB/9, or walks per nine innings: the Fightin’s finished dead last in baseball with a 4.30 mark. Walks will kill you and they certainly did kill the Phillies bullpen last season.
Even so, I am optimistic that the Phillies will turn the pen around.
Why? Let me count the ways.
First and foremost, the players themselves will be better. Antonio Bastardo has put his 50 game PED suspension behind him and will look to return to top form for a full season. Who knows if his labrum will hold up, it’s been a bit of a ticking time bomb but as long as he’s out there he’s been excellent.
Some of the younger players blossomed and will play a larger role this season, for example Jacob Diekman, B.J. Rosenberg, Ethan Martin and Justin De Fratus. There’s some new blood, too, with Brad Lincoln and Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez in the mix.
Michael Stutes appears ready to go and may be ready to be the bulldog he was as a rookie in 2011 before his laparoscopic shoulder surgery. Mike Adams may or may not contribute this season but if he returns to anything like his old self he will be a huge boost.
Also, The defense will improve with players in their natural positions. Ben Revere will be better than Cesar Hernandez or John Mayberry, Jr. in CF, Marlon Byrd will be better than Delmon Young in RF and Galvis will not be needed as much in the OF as the IF where his glove work really shines. Cody Asche will be better than Michael Young was at 3B as well.
Another huge factor in the Phillies favor will be having Ryne Sandberg at the helm for a full season. Like everyone else, I grew to love Charlie Manuel but he was never a guru with his use of the bullpen. Charlie expected his guys to own an inning. He had his closer, an 8th inning guy, a 7th inning guy and usually if he put you in the game, he expected you to finish the inning. Not always, but in general. And for better or for worse, he stuck with them, though they didn’t exactly reward his loyalty. We all remember how long he relied on Brad Lidge as his closer despite Lidge’s monumental struggles. Charlie’s patience in sticking with the girl he brought to the dance is legendary and commendable but only to a point.
Sandberg, on the other hand, will have a much quicker hook and is likely to use more pitchers per game than Charlie did. This should improve things by keeping the match-ups more favorable and by having all the guys on their toes and feeling involved. Sandberg has patience, too, but not to a fault. From all I’ve gathered, Ryno takes a special interest in the bullpen; I consider it one of his biggest strengths as a manager and I’m excited to see how his use of the pen unfolds this season.
Another reason the pen is likely to improve is because the rotation is in better shape than it was last season. As long as the Big Three of Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and A.J. Burnett are healthy, they could reduce the load on the bullpen and the numbers should improve as a result. From 2010 to 2012, Phillies starters managed to lead the league in innings pitched. In 2013, they dropped all the way down to 17th in baseball.
We can’t draw too many conclusions from these numbers, as the pen wasn’t good in 2012 even with a reduced workload, but from an injury and freshness standpoint, it can’t hurt to have your starters going deeper into games unless they are getting hammered. We’ve all seen those games where some luckless starter takes one for the team to keep the pen fresh for the next game; we’ve also seen closers sometimes come into a blowout just to keep fresh, but in general, the less you work your bullpen, the better it will be.
In 2010 and again in 2011 the Phillies had 21 team shutouts, both times leading all of baseball. In 2012 that total dropped to 11 and in 2013 it fell all the way down to 3, dead last in the game. Meanwhile Bartolo Colon had 3 shutouts all by himself for the A’s last season, which tied with Justin Masterson of the Tribe to lead MLB. Again, the shutouts are an effect rather than a cause, but it does point to the difficulties they had in the pen because most team shutouts require relief work.
Finally, in 2013 BABIP against the pen was .309, 4th worst mark in the league. It could be in line for a bit of a regression: in 2012 it was only .291, closer to the middle of the pack. This is where a better defense will help.
Here are my projections for the pen:
So much has been written about Papelbon but the bottom line is this: if he’s healthy, he’s our closer. He’ll be better than league average at worst, and a top closer at best.
Bastardo didn’t endear himself to fans and teammates with his suspension but when he’s pitching, he’s been excellent. Diekman will complement him as the other lefty in the pen. Already new pitching coach Bob McClure is gushing over him.
Making the Cut
Justin De Fratus
B.J. Rosenberg / Ethan Martin
Hopefully Stutes is able to take hold of a job this spring. As long as he’s healthy, I think he’ll be fine. Brad Lincoln hops it up there in the mid 90s and two years ago was an elite reliever in Pittsburgh so I think he’ll make the squad.
Justin De Fratus is on the bubble, particularly if he cannot improve his command. But when you look at his track record in the minors you get the sense he will succeed. His first half last season was much worse than his second half — he had 13 BB in 19.2 innings in the first half and just 12 BB in 27 innings in the second half. I think he’ll be a fixture in the pen going forward.
With Cole Hamels slated to miss his first couple of starts and Jonathan Pettibone shelved with soreness, either B.J. Rosenberg or Ethan Martin will be stretched out to fill in. Whichever one starts, the other will stay in the pen. B.J. Rosenberg, like DeFratus, got better as the season wore on. I think he’s the better choice to start since Martin didn’t exactly flourish in the role in his brief audition last season. Both of them have power arms. When Cole returns, the Phillies will have to send one of these guys down, most likely Rosenberg to keep him stretched out as a 6th starter.
Outside Looking In
Mike Adams is still recovering and won’t be healthy in time for the season. MAG needs to build up arm strength and confidence, which he’ll do in Lehigh Valley. Horst had a decent 2012 but a rotten 2013; his services as a lefty won’t be required as long as Bastardo and Diekman are on board.
Kevin Munson, a rule 5 pickup, probably won’t stand out enough to keep his spot. Competition is tight and I just don’t see him sticking, but then again, he could become the Michael Martinez of the bullpen: the rule 5 guy who just won’t go away. Or, he could really surprise. Who knows? He’s a wild card.
The rest of the invitees aren’t likely to make the cut.
I may be the only one who thinks so but I believe the Phillies bullpen will be a strength and not a weakness in 2014.