Phillies Future Fires: Who Puts Them Out?

ethanwitte
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Back in the day, there used to be pitchers in the Philadelphia Phillies bullpen and those of other MLB teams who the managers would use as a “fireman”, someone who could put out fires created by a starting pitcher who had a rough day, or was getting into late trouble.

That fire could have come at the end, in the 9th inning. But it could also have come in the 4th inning. Usually when that “fireman” reliever came into the game, he stayed for multiple innings.

I’m not talking about an inning and two-thirds here. I’m talking about three, four, maybe even five innings. This pitcher was considered to be the relief ace of the staff, and was very much prized by the manager.

The Phillies had one of these firemen during the “Whiz Kids” improbable run to the World Series in the 1950 season.That year, righthander Jim Konstanty pitched 152 innings  spread across 74 appearances, and not one of them was a start.

In those 74 Phillies games, Konstanty produced a 151 ERA+, and proved to be so valuable that he was awarded the National League Most Valuable Player Award at a time in the game’s history when pitchers didn’t have a Cy Young Award to win. While he would never have another season like it, Konstanty proved just how valuable such a pitcher could be to his team.

More from That Balls Outta Here

Tony La Russa then came along, and his bullpen usage over more than three decades as manager of the White Sox, Athletics, and Cardinals changed the game, possibly forever.

Gone now are those olden days of multiple inning relievers. With the situational usage of relief pitchers nowadays, games sometimes seem to drag on forever. The tactics have proven to be highly effective, which likely means that such specialization will go on indefinitely into the future.

However, would considering a return to that usage of a fireman be something that could help the Phillies in the 2016 season and beyond?

Jul 16, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN;

Eflin (12) delivers a pitch against the Dominican Republic during the 2015 Pan Am Games at Ajax Pan Am Ballpark.

(Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

The club brought the first wave of its young, talented arms to the big league rotation this past season with the rookie debuts of Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff and Alec Asher. The next wave should feature the likes of Ben Lively, Jake Thompson and Zach Eflin. At least one, possibly all of them, could see action for the Phillies in the 2016 season.

Handling those talented arms will be manager Pete Mackanin, now with the “interim” tag removed from the front of his title. Phils’ fans have to hope that Mackanin will not adopt former skipper Ryne Sandberg‘s philosophy of riding his starter’s arms until they nearly fall off.

With the rise of pitcher injuries, the new stance on handling young arms in MLB by limiting innings has taken on greater importance. The Phillies will need to ensure that they don’t wear down some of their prized young pitchers.

While an arm like Nola will probably be able to throw next season without many limits, the other arms mentioned here will need to be monitored. The possibility of having a fireman on the roster would be more important to a rebuilding team filled with young arms such as the Phillies than to, say, the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have a veteran rotation that has exited the innings exposure/injury nexus.

One downside to a return to such a fireman strategy is that modern-day players are not used to it. While it has a long history in the game, for today’s pitchers the role would be strange and new.

Using the Play Index from Baseball Reference, the last player to throw more than 110 innings while starting fewer than five games turns out to have been Greg Cadaret with the 1991 Yankees.

Another interesting note when doing the research is that many of these pitchers were quite effective, with most having an ERA+ higher than 100. These pitchers may have been more effective because hitters weren’t getting multiple looks off them within a single game. If that’s the case, it helps support the idea that this strategy could be one that could help the Phillies in the coming season.

If the club were to consider adopting such a fireman strategy, a good candidate for the role could be Alec Asher. Although the 24-year old righty only had 29 innings of work at the big league level, Asher didn’t appear to have the stuff to be counted on as a permanent member of the starting rotation.

The first piece of evidence would be his 9.31 ERA, a number that would have been higher if it weren’t for a September 24th start against Miami in which he went 7 innings and only gave up 1 run.

Another piece of evidence was that during the first three innings on his starts, Asher’s ERA, while still high at a 7.21 mark, was better than during innings four through six, when it shot up to a 12.19 mark. After lineups saw him one time, they usually rocked him the next.

Would Asher fit well in the bullpen? A scouting report by Matt Winkelman at ‘Phillies Minor Thoughts’ says no, while another by Adam Morris at ‘Lone Star Ball’ says maybe, depending on how he develops.

The problem is that available reports look through a traditional bullpen lens. Here, he wouldn’t be given a traditional role in the modern bullpen sense. In the fireman role, Asher would be able to use his ability to mix in multiple pitches to effectively work through a lineup one full turn.

Some might mistakenly want to characterize this role as a “mop-up” man. But were Asher deployed in a fashion that piggy-backs another young starter, for instance on the promotion of Thompson, you could end up having the best of both worlds. This would be especially the case at the beginning of the season.

If Asher was the “fireman”, then the team could keep more talented arms like Thompson and Eflin on the Opening Day roster at the beginning of the year, knowing they would only have to pitch three to four innings each time out.

This would have a two-pronged effect. First, the team and it’s fans wouldn’t have to suffer through starts by the Sean O’Sullivan-type journeymen of the world anymore. Second, the innings loads on the young arms are being managed from the outset. As the season wears on, those arms can be stretched out a bit more. Asher might then have to pitch less, and his own innings are also kept in check.

Come 2017, when the team is more realistically going to be able to contend, the rotation could be full of arms with a longer leash, while also having the requisite “big league experience” coveted by contending teams. Asher might even have developed into a stronger option for the back-end of the rotation himself at that point.

Since 2016 looks like it could be another season of rebuilding, the Phillies have nothing to lose by experimenting with the use of the old fireman role. Would the young arms be more likely to succumb to injuries while throwing more minor league innings, or fewer big league innings?

The stress of those innings in Major League Baseball may be exponentially higher than those in the minors, but that is where a good manager needs to be on the watch for his young staff.

Such a new role would be something the team would need to prepare for when spring training opens in February down in Clearwater, if not sooner, but the payoff might be worth it. That would be especially so if it means fewer Jerome Williams starting assignments.

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