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September 9, 2009

Prospectus Today

Getting Serious

by Joe Sheehan

(Yes, I teased an Adam Dunn piece in the comments yesterday. I'll get to that this week.)

It took 10.75 blown saves, but Charlie Manuel finally made his move last night, yanking Brad Lidge with one out in the ninth inning after the closer had allowed a single, a hit batsman, and a walk. This has been long overdue; Lidge is having an awful season, with a convenience store ERA, nearly two baserunners allowed per inning, and 11 long balls coughed up in 50 2/3 frames. His longest stretch of effectiveness is five outings back in June, and he's been brutal over the last couple of weeks.

If a player had performed at this level in any other role, he would have been replaced. Well, David Ortiz excepted. No pitcher with a 7.11 ERA keeps his job for five months, and no position player with a comparable performance, say a .170 batting average with no peripherals, would hold a lineup spot all year. The mythology of the closer role is so deeply ingrained within the game, though, that Manuel kept going to Lidge time and again, losing ballgames for his trouble. The fundamental disconnect-that pitching in the ninth inning with a small lead is a skill over and above pitching effectively-isn't Manuel's alone, and it's a virus within the game. That virus is why it took until last night for Manuel to finally blink.

Manuel didn't even get the change right. Oh, sure, he went to his second-best reliever in Ryan Madson, who escaped the ninth inning by getting a strikeout and a ground out, but Madson pitched to one batter too many. After disposing of Ryan Zimmerman with ease, Madson was allowed to face Adam Dunn, and while he did get the third out, Manuel took a massive risk in letting that matchup happen, given that he had two left-handers available in his bullpen. It was as if he'd decided that Ryan Madson wasn't the pitcher who he'd been taking out for tactical reasons all summer-on August 30, and August 16 and August 7, just to name three times in recent memory-but was instead the backup closer, and therefore imbued with special powers with a save in the balance.

Not getting Scott Eyre or even Jack Taschner into the game when Dunn came up was a tactical mistake. Dunn, for his career, picks up 100 points of OPS against righties, and it's 200 this season. Madson is a right-handed sidearmer who is much less effective against lefty batters, as his strikeout and walk splits show (his triple-slash line bounces around with his BABIP in the small sample sizes of single-season reliever platoon splits). You don't need to believe me; just believe Manuel, who has repeatedly managed Madson as if he wanted a southpaw, rather than his primary set-up man, getting a big lefty out. Had the bases been loaded in the eighth inning, with two outs and Dunn coming up, I have no doubt that Manuel would have loaded up Eyre. Not doing so in the ninth was silly, closercentric managing that could have cost the Phillies the game.

I simply do not understand this part of modern bullpen management. Managers retain 12, 13, and on occasion 14 pitchers, with seven-, eight-, and even nine-man bullpens, reducing their offensive decision-making to "please, let no one get hurt." They do this in no small part so that they can gain the platoon advantage in high-leverage situations. They wear a path to the mound from the 16th out through the 24th, making change after change based on handedness, then ignore it when trying to get the last three outs. The closer myth is so strong, so pervasive, that it gets managers to completely ignore the factors that drive all the decisions prior to the ninth. It's ludicrosity.

Actually, no… this latest development is. Manuel apparently intends to go right back to Brad Lidge the next time the Phillies need to protect a one-, two-, or three-run lead in the ninth. Brad Lidge has been one of the worst pitchers in baseball in 2009, and his performance is closing in on the discussion of "worst closer seasons of all time." If any team in the NL East had taken time from its busy schedule of being disappointing to win more games, Manuel wouldn't have had the luxury of taking this long to decide. Now, though, Lidge is trying to make the decision easy, and Manuel won't let him, stubbornly believing that Lidge will start getting those three outs again. He can keep making that choice all he wants for the next four weeks, but come the NL Division Series, he'll need a better plan. Using Brad Lidge, who at this point is a marginal choice for the post-season roster, is almost certain to lead to disaster.

It wasn't all bad news for the Phillies last night. They won, of course, and in doing so they got a performance from Pedro Martinez I didn't think he had in him. Facing by far the best offense he'd seen in his comeback, Martinez allowed three runs in 6 2/3 innings, making a whopping 119 pitches in doing so. I was as optimistic that Martinez could help a good team as anyone, and I never saw him getting past 100 pitches. It had been nearly four years, since September 16, 2005, since Martinez threw that many pitches in a game.

No amount of performance is going to slide Pedro ahead of the Phillies' top four starters in the postseason, but with each passing turn, he becomes a more viable option as a long man in the bullpen. He's a better choice for the roster than Lidge, just to name one guy. Martinez has 27 strikeouts against just four walks in six starts, two of which have been shortened by long rain delays. His BABIP (.286) and HR/FB (seven percent) are on the low side without being extraordinary. Lefties have had some fun, hitting all five of the homers Martinez has allowed, so that's a concern depending upon how the matchups fall in-game. You could make a case for Martinez being a great long man to back up any of the three lefty starters in the Phillies' rotation.

Good pitching is becoming a bit more important to the Phillies, whose vaunted offense has been misfiring for some time. The team OBP has slipped to .333, and while their power and fantastic basestealing gives them a .270 EqA (third in the NL), the ongoing effects of batting a guy with a .286 OBP leadoff seem to be taking their toll. The Phillies scored five runs last night… on five solo homers. This exceeded by two the number of solo homers that were the team's sole offense Saturday night against the Astros. Eric Seidman pointed out that the Phillies' last 13 homers have been solo shots, and while you can't control the timing of events, it's indicative in part of a lack of baserunners. Pedro Feliz started the year getting on base a lot, but he's down to .312. Ryan Howard and Raul lbañez are on about 35 percent of the time, which isn't anything special for middle-of-the-order corner guys playing in a hitters' park.

Despite still running the bases well, the Phillies have now become the MLB team most reliant on the long ball. BP's Dan Malkiel dug up the Guillen Numbers-so named because Ozzie's White Sox are a permanent fixture near the top of the rankings-for the 2009 season:

             R/HR%
Phillies     46.6%
Rangers      44.1%
White Sox    42.6%
Tigers       41.4%
Yankees      40.5%

It's not the worst list to be on if you hit a lot of homers, as these teams do, but it does indicate a certain amount of one-dimensionality to the offense. The White Sox won a World Series playing this way in 2005, of course, but they also had a terrible offense two years later with much the same percentage.

For the Phillies, they're not that one-dimensional. They hit doubles and draw walks in addition to stealing bases, but they've stopped hitting singles (.256 batting average), the walks drawn have slipped slightly to the middle of the pack, and Rollins' Taveraseque performance is making them a bit dysfunctional: the four guys slugging .500 don't hit with enough runners on base to make the opposition weep, and that's the difference between 2007 and 2008 to the good, and 2009 being a lot less so.

As with Lidge, Manuel is faced with a decision on changing the role of a player who is a big part of the reason why Manuel gets to do Sports Illustrated photo shoots and never has to buy his own drinks at the bar. Dropping Rollins to sixth or seventh and sliding everyone else up a notch will look radical, but it will give five good hitters extra at-bats at the expense of one who is, at least in 2009, not a good hitter. These guys aren't Strat-o-Matic cards, and by that I mean you don't get to play with last season's stats all year. Lidge has an ERA that makes me hungry, and Rollins has an OBP that cancels the effect. A six-game lead in the division isn't going to matter four weeks from now-Manuel has to start putting his post-season team on the field.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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