May 9, 2012
Prospectus Hit and Run
The Phallin' Phillies
They may have entered the year as favorites to win their sixth straight NL East flag, but with every passing day, the Phillies look increasingly like a team whose time has passed. Over the weekend they dropped two out of three to the division-leading (!) Nationals and fell into the NL East cellar. On Monday, they suffered a shocking 5-2 loss to the Mets when Jonathan Papelbon surrendered a three-run pinch-homer to Jordany Valdespin, a pinch-hitter collecting his first major-league hit. On Tuesday, they blew a three-run lead against the Mets thanks to sloppy defense and ultimately fell 7-4. The skid dropped their record to 14-17, matching their worst start of the past six years, which came via their division-winning 2007 team. Their offense is wheezing, and while their star-studded rotation may be in reasonable shape, their manager is suffering from rigor mortis when it comes to handling his bullpen.
That last problem has contributed directly to at least five of their losses this season, all won by the opposition in walk-off fashion against relievers other than closer Jonathan Papelbon, who didn't pitch in any of those games. Never mind that the team's marquee off-season acquisition signed the most lucrative long-term contract ever for a reliever at four years, $50 million. According to the orthodoxy of manager Charlie Manuel and, by extension, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., some situations—namely, tie games on the road—apparently call for losing with someone besides your best and most expensive relief pitcher on the hill, because save situations are save situations, non-save situations are non-save situations, and never the twain shall meet.
Two of those situations occurred in the past week. On May 2, in a wild and woolly slugfest against the Braves in Atlanta, the Phillies blew leads of 6-0 and 12-8, the latter via a five-run eighth inning that saw Manuel call upon Jose Contreras, in his fifth game since coming off the disabled list for flexor tendon surgery, and Michael Schwimer, a rookie making his fifth appearance of the season and 16th of his career. The Braves batted around, and Schwimer, who entered the game with the bases loaded, allowed all three inherited runners to score via a walk, a single, and a sacrifice fly while Manuel sat on his hands, unwilling to call upon his closer. After the Phils clawed back a run in the top of the ninth to tie the game at 13-13, Manuel again bypassed Papelbon, this time in favor of journeyman Brian Sanches, who had been called up from Triple-A the day before. Sanches loaded the bases in the ninth but escaped, then pitched a spotless 10th before yielding a first-pitch single to Dan Uggla to lead off the 11th, followed by a homer to Chipper Jones on his 41st pitch of the night. By his own admission, Sanches was fatigued by the time that inning rolled around, but he was Cholly's man.
In isolation, Papelbon's absence wasn't entirely unreasonable, in that he had pitched the previous two nights and three out of four, though the most recent effort had required just 10 pitches. But Manuel made it clear that fatigue wasn't the issue; the importance was in not deviating from the script. From the Montgomery Times-Herald:
Manuel was asked afterward if he could have called on Papelbon at some point in the [eighth] inning.
Never mind that since becoming a closer in 2006, Papelbon has converted 31 saves of four outs or more, second in the majors only to Mariano Rivera at 36, and four saves of five outs or more, tied for 13th during that timespan. A script is a script, and not even a manager with opposable thumbs can deviate from that, right?
On May 3, Joe Blanton picked up the Phillies bullpen by spinning a three-hit shutout of Atlanta, so nobody could argue that Papelbon wasn't rested for the team's May 4 game against the Nationals in Washington. The Phillies carried a 3-2 lead into the eighth inning, when Chad Qualls yielded a run via a single, a bunt, an intentional walk, and a double. He limited the damage further thanks to a force out at home plate, but again the game was tied going into the bottom of the ninth. Faced with a choice of using a well-rested Papelbon in a nonsave situation to face Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, and Chad Tracy (one of these things is not like the others) Manuel again adhered to the script. He called upon Schwimer, who pitched a spotless ninth, then overcame a leadoff single in the 10th to escape unscathed.
After retiring the first two hitters of the 11th, Schwimer had thrown 38 pitches. He gave up a single to Steve Lombardozzi to bring up Harper again; the rookie worked a six-pitch walk. Now at 47 pitches, Schwimer was allowed to face Werth again while Manuel ordered pizzas for the gang in the dugout. Werth worked a five-pitch walk to load the bases and run Schwimer's pitch count to 52; Manuel remained in place, sitting for a portrait by the zombie Rembrandt. On his 58th pitch, Schwimer gave up a single to Wilson Ramos, costing the Phillies the ballgame and knocking them into the division cellar.
Papelbon didn't pitch in either of the Phillies' next two games against the Nats, a 7-1 loss on May 5 and a 9-3 win on May 6, though he was spotted doing his preliminary stretches in the bullpen when his team carried a 3-1 lead into the ninth before breaking things open. Thus he had five full days of rest under his belt when he entered a 2-2 game in the top of the ninth inning on May 7 against the Mets. See, even with it not being a save situation, the Phillies were at home, which explains why Papelbon… wait, it doesn't explain anything, does it?
By now, you've heard the standard rant about the inflexibility of managers when it comes to their closers, preserving their availability for situations in which they're lined up to collect the statistical cookie known as the save rather than deploying them in the highest-leverage situations. So I won't belabor the point further except to say that fans of the Mets and schadenfreude went away happy. Papelbon sandwiched a one-out walk of Ike Davis around a pair of strikeouts—the first of which, to Daniel Murphy, cost nine pitches—then yielded a double to light-hitting backup catcher Mike Nickeas, and the homer to Valdespin. The Phillies went down in order in the bottom of the inning. At least that was a failure of execution, the opposition beating the bullpen's top gun, rather than of process or imagination.
The bullpen isn't even the team's biggest problem these days. That distinction belongs to a lineup that came into Tuesday scoring just 3.73 runs per game, 11th in the league, 0.35 runs below the NL average (all stats through Monday). The team's .252 batting average ranked eighth, but their .299 on-base percentage was 14th, their .363 slugging percentage just 13th. Without Ryan Howard or Chase Utley—neither of whom has played a single game due to injury, including spring training—the lineup is both powerless and impatient; their .111 isolated power ranked 15th, one point ahead of the Padres and 28 points below the NL average, while their 5.9 percent walk rate is the league's worst, 2.5 percentage points below average. Even with the league's third-lowest strikeout rate at 18.1 percent, their 3.09 strikeout-to-walk ratio is 15th.
Howard has missed his time due to a rupture Achilles tendon in his left foot, an injury whose recovery has been complicated by an infected stitch that required a follow-up procedure on February 29. His fill-ins at first base haven't been the problem; collectively, they're hitting .300/.364/.465 in that role. Ty Wigginton has taken 13 of 31 starts, but thanks to in-game moves, has a team-high 21 appearances there; he has also made another seven starts at third base to spell Placido Polanco and is hitting .288/.356/.400 for a .285 True Average. Laynce Nix has taken 10 starts at first—more than doubling the amount of time he accrued there during his first nine big-league seasons—and another four in left field, and he has wielded a potent bat in limited duty (.311/.380/.578 for a .320 TAv in 50 PA). Less successful was the Jim Thome experiment; playing the field for the first time since 2007 (save for a one-inning cameo last year) and taking an 0-fer his eight pinch-hitting chances, he was off to just a 2-for-18 start before going on the disabled list with a lower back strain, a problem that's likely to limit whatever future he has in the field, Manuel's wishcasting aside.
Even more disappointing has been the performance of John Mayberry Jr., who enjoyed a surprising breakout as a 27-year-old rookie last year; he's hitting just .206/.215/.254, for a .180 TAv, with a 21/1 K/BB ratio and only three RBI in 65 PA. Between left field and first base, he appeared likely to play on a full-time basis, but after starting seven of the team's first eight games (two at first base), he started just five of the past 23 while allowing Manuel to act out an Earl Weaver fetish by inserting him into the game as a pinch-hitter and then sending him to left field 10 times. Hey, at least Cholly's keeping occupied somehow.
Utley has been sidelined due to patellar chondromalacia in his left knee; meanwhile, his fill-ins at second base have been less successful, hitting a collective .227/.241/.345. As I pointed out last Friday, Freddy Galvis, a 22-year-old rookie with no big-league experience coming into the year, has battled for the title of the worst-hitting regular in the majors, "batting" .189/.215/.289 for a .168 TAv. Pete Orr is 8-for-28 in limited duty, but with a .220 career TAv, hardly the answer for a fill-in; Mike Fontenot, who's currently serving time in Triple-A after being released by the Giants, has a career .258 TAv and would be a better option.
Meanwhile, the infield's two other mainstays are underperforming, as are two of their outfield regulars:
Rollins is already making the three-year, $33 million deal he signed last December look like a bad idea. Meanwhile, the mild underperformances of Victorino and Pence have been offset by—sacre bleu!—regular left fielder Juan Pierre, who has been slappy but effective thanks to a 7/3 K/BB ratio and a .347 BABIP, all of which are unsustainable based upon his track record. Pierre has taken 19 of the first 31 starts in left, mainly at the expense of Mayberry, who not only profiles as the better hitter but potentially the lineup's youngest besides Galvis, who shouldn't even be here. Indeed, the lineup's average age weighted by plate appearances is a league-high 31.3, and again, that's without a single appearance from the 32-year-old Howard or the 33-year-old Utley.
The Phillies' offensive decline isn't simply a product of this season; the once-mighty lineup, which ranked among the league's potent for most of the Manuel era (which began in 2005) has been trending downward relative to the league for a few years, one that owes something to an aging and increasingly expensive core:
Fortunately, the team's starting pitching has been effective and efficient enough to keep the team in games despite the meager support. Even with Cliff Lee sidelined since April 19 due to an oblique strain, the unit's 2.98 ERA through Monday ranked fourth in the league, their 73 percent quality start rate third, their 6.6 innings per start and 4.23 K/BB ratio both first.
Cole Hamels has been the unit's best pitcher, with a 2.45 ERA, 9.8 strikeouts, and just 1.3 walks per nine; the latter two marks rank fourth in the league, while his 7.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio is tops. Hamels stirred up a hornet's nest by intentionally drilling Bryce Harper on Sunday night and then admitted to it; for his trouble, he was given a virtually consequence-free five-game suspension, one accommodated by Lee’s scheduled return on Wednesday. He was typically strong in his three starts before getting hurt, with a 1.96 ERA and an 18/2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 23 innings.
Roy Halladay has been more enigmatic, with a performance that would pass muster for any other pitcher but that raises eyebrows for the 35-year-old righty, in that his ERA and peripherals haven't been up to his high standards. His 3.28 ERA—fluffed up by being charged with eight runs in that May 2 game—ranks as his highest since 2007, while his 6.6 strikeouts per nine is his lowest mark since that year. Meanwhile, his 2.0 walks per nine is his highest since 2004, and he has already thrown as many starts with three or more walks in this season as in all of 2011 (two). Halladay's velocity on his fastball is down 1.7 mph relative to last year according to the data at Brooks Baseball, while that of his cutter is down 2.1 mph. Pitching coach Rich Dubee says he's not getting his typical movement on his pitches, either, though he's grasping for answers as much as the next man.
Fortunately, Blanton and Vance Worley have both been effective, posting ERAs below 3.00 and a combined eight quality starts out of 11. The former, who was limited to 41
The bullpen has been a messier proposition, with league-worsts in both ERA (4.86) and strikeout rate (6.9 per nine) through Monday; they were also 11th in unintentional walk rate (4.0 per nine). Contreras' slow recovery from elbow surgery has prevented him from assuming a high-leverage role, leaving Qualls as the top righty set-up man; his 3.48 ERA belies awful peripherals that combine for a 5.81 FIP. Lefty Antonio Bastardo has been shunted back into a LOOGY role; after mowing down righties (.143/.236/.270) even better than lefties (.145/.253/.304) last year while facing them 65 percent of the time, his workload against opposite-handers is down to 48 percent. David Herndon, who graduated to a medium-leverage role last year, has been mostly confined to low-leverage duty despite an 8/1 K/BB ratio in 7
Of course they do in Papelbon, who until Monday night had allowed just one run in his first 11 appearances, and who is still 9-for-9 in saves. Once upon a time, back in 2005, Manuel let Billy Wagner rack up six long saves, but it hasn't been his way to do so with his successors; he never did with Brad Lidge, and the only pitchers to have more than one save of four outs or more on his watch in Philly are Ryan Madson (four, all of them during his tenure as set-up man; i.e., prior to 2011), Brett Myers, and Tom Gordon (two apiece).
Even if Manuel isn't willing to push Papelbon for the occasional long save, he would be well-served by moving beyond the manual to deploy his closer more creatively—not only in tie games on the road, but down one run at home in the ninth inning. On Tuesday night, after Blanton, Qualls, Bastardo, and the defense turned a 4-1 lead into a 5-4 deficit, Manuel instead called upon Schwimer, a pitcher who had yielded a .280/.375/.440 line to the 90 hitters he had faced in his young career. Schwimer walked Mike Baxter, yielded a single to Andres Torres, and then a sacrifice fly to Kirk Niewenhuis, doubling the lead; the Mets would add another run after lefty Joe Savery yielded a single to Lucas Duda. Another night, another bullpen failure, as much of imagination as of execution. One wonders if that will be the Phillies' epitaph this year.