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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Focus On The Bullpen 

At the start of the season few people would have expected that the Phillies bullpen would be one of the team’s strengths. No Billy Wagner, no chance. Surprisingly, Tom Gordon, the team’s much maligned closer, turned out to be one of the three Phillies to represent the NL in the All-Star Game. The bullpen turned out to be one of the team’s strongest attributes. Today I am going to take a quick look at the ‘pen.

First off, here is how the Phillies starters did thus far this season …

ERA: 5.22 (14th)
OBP allowed: .345 (13th)
SLG allowed: .485 (16th)
K/9: 7.02 (2nd)
WHIP: 1.46 (13th)
K/BB: 2.29 (4th)
K: 640 (3rd)
BB: 280 (12th)

Confused about what I’m talking about? Here are the stats I refer to defined:
WHIP – Walks plus hits by innings pitched: (BB + H) / IP = WHIP
ERA – Earned Run Average: (Earned Runs * 9) / IP = ERA
FIP – Fielding Independent Pitching: (13*HR+3*BB-2*K / IP) + League Factor Evaluates a pitching by how he would have done with an average defense behind him by keeping track of things that a pitcher can control (walks, strikeouts, home runs allowed) as opposed to things he cannot (hits allowed, runs allowed).
DER – Defense Efficiency Ratio: (Batters Faced – (Hits + Walks + Hit By Pitch + Strikeouts)) / (Batters Faced – (Home Runs, Walks + Hit By Pitch + Strikeouts)) How often fielders convert balls put into play into outs.
G/F – Groundball-to-Flyball ratio.
Hr/9 – Home Runs allowed per nine innings: (HR * 9) / IP
K/9 – Strikeouts per nine innings: (K * 9) / IP
BB/9 – Walks per nine innings: (BB * 9) / IP

I really don’t think there is a polite way to say it. They suck. Aside from their capacity to strike people out (thank you, Cole Hamels), they have done a pitiful job at nearly everything. The Phillies poor defense plays a factor here, but some things like their 280 walks, “good” for twelfth in the N.L., is purely of their doing, as is partly their slugging percentage allowed, which is dead-last in the N.L. It doesn’t get much worse than that.

Now compare the bullpen …

Bullpen: (NL Rank)
OBP: .335 (7th)
SLG: .417 (10th)
Saves Converted: 65% (5th)
K/9: 6.75 (13th)
WHIP: 1.38 (6th)
K/BB: 2.02 (7th)
K: 368 (8th)
BB: 182 (7th)

Notice a massive contrast in styles here. The power pitchers rearing back and hurling their 90mph fastballs in the rotation compared with the more finesse-oriented relief guys. The bullpen got a lot fewer strikeouts on average, but surrendered fewer walks, gave up fewer big hits and allowed fewer base-runners. As a consequence the Phillies have a much more effective bullpen than most teams. Here is the bullpen ERAs for all of the MLB teams:

Bullpen ERA:
1. New York: 3.09
2. San Diego: 3.37
3. Philadelphia: 3.81
4. Chicago: 3.95
5. Pittsburgh: 3.95
6. Los Angeles: 3.98
7. Houston: 4.01
8. St. Louis: 4.04
9. Colorado: 4.27
10. Arizona: 4.43
11. San Francisco: 4.43
12. Atlanta: 4.55
13. Cincinnati: 4.55
14. Washington: 4.56
15. Milwaukee: 4.70
16. Florida: 4.76

That is pretty good and bodes well for the playoff push over the next week and a half. Here now some of the individual players still pitching have done this season …

Tom Gordon. Many, including myself, scoffed at the start of the season when the Phillies signed Gordon to be their closer. He is 38 and coming off a long career where he had most recently been the Yankees set-up guy. Gordon did a nice job this season, especially prior to the All-Star Break. Check it out:

Saves/Opp: 29/33 (88%)
ERA: 3.27
FIP: 3.34
HR/9: 1.20
BB/9: 3.10
K/9: 10.83

That said, I’m not sure that the Tom Gordon Experiment is going to work after this season. Why? Well, after the All-Star Break Gordon was injured and threw just four and two-thirds of an inning in August and three in September. Since the break, he hasn’t pitched well:

Pre-All Star: 2.17
Post-All Star: 6.00

In fact, Gordon has badly struggled since the end of the All-Star Break:

Pre-All Star: 0.96 HR/9 2.65 BB/9 11.09
Post-All Star: 1.80 HR/9 4.20 BB/9 10.20

He’s dramatically increased the number of walks and home runs allowed. It suggests to me that the original critics of the Tom Gordon Experiment might be correct after all, and that it just took some time for Gordon’s good fortune to run out.

Another disturbing trend I noticed in Gordon’s performance this season is the variance between his performance at home and on the road:

Home / Away
ERA: 4.67 / 1.78
HR/9: 1.67 / 0.71
BB/9: 3.67 / 2.49
K/9: 12.00 / 9.59
Innings: 27 / 25.1

Say what you want about Billy Wagner, but he was pretty consistent when he was a Phillie. Tom Gordon’s performance really suffers when you look at the difference between his abilities on the road and at home. Monday I said that the Phillies needed to invest serious money in a third baseman to replace Abraham Nunez. Well, the Phillies need to look on the market for a closer as well, because Tom Gordon is not going to be able to close games for the Phillies in 2007.

Ryan Madson. Ryan began the season in the starting rotation and at various points the Phillies tried to make Ryan into a starter. It was not to be. Ryan was, at times, shelled badly by the opposition and returned to the bullpen, only to be pressed into service again later in the season, only to be shelled again and banished to the ‘pen presumptively forever.

For many, the promise Ryan showed in his rookie season when he posted a 2.34 ERA and surrendered just six home runs and nineteen walks in seventy-seven innings of work … Ryan’s rookie stats looked even better when you realized that three of the six home runs allowed were in the disastrous two-thirds of an inning he pitched when he got his sole start prior to 2006 against the White Sox in Chicago. He pitched so well as a part of the Phillies bullpen that he posted nine win shares that season as a setup man. That is far more than I would have expected.

Here are Ryan’s stats as a reliever:

(as reliever)
Saves/Opp: 2/4 (50%)
ERA: 4.54
HR/9: 1.01
BB/9: 2.78
K/9: 8.33

I think it is worth comparing to how he did in 2004 and 2005:

2004 / 2005
ERA: 2.34 / 4.14
HR/9: 0.70 / 1.14
BB/9: 2.22 / 2.59
K/9: 6.42 / 8.17

I think his 2006 numbers are right on line with his 2005 numbers, so this is the sort of pitcher that the Phillies are likely to see in the future. I’m actually quite bullish on Ryan 2007 prospects for a few reasons. One, Ryan is pitching better than his ERA looks because he’s been on the raw end of bad defense from the Phillies. The Phillies have a .645 DER behind Ryan in ‘06, as compared to the .701 they posted in ’05. You can’t really blame Ryan for the drop-off either because he’s allowed fewer line-drives this season than last: 22.2% vs. 25.3%. Ryan’s FIP factors – the home runs, the walks and the strikeouts – are lower in 2006 than in 2005 as a reliever. I think that if the Phillies are looking to replace Tom Gordon as their closer in 2007, which they should, they shouldn’t have to look very far. I think Ryan will do the job.

Geoff Geary. Geary and Fultz have become the Phillies principal set-up men. Geary actually leads all Phillies relievers in innings with eighty-two and a third. I think that Geary has done a pretty nice job setting up Tom Gordon this season. Check it out:

Saves/Opp: 1/2 (50%)
ERA: 2.95
FIP: 3.39
HR/9: 0.55
BB/9: 2.08
K/9: 5.68

Geary isn’t much of a strikeout artist, but I like what he does. He’s a groundball pitcher. He has a 1.55 groundball / flyball ratio, which is pretty good.

Aaron Fultz. Fultz hasn’t done as well as Geary in his role as one of the Phillies set-up guys. Check it out:

Saves/Opp: 0/2 (0%)
ERA: 4.86
FIP: 3.63
HR/9: 0.95
BB/9: 3.65
K/9: 7.97

The problem I have with Fultz is that he has a groundball/flyball ratio of 0.95, i.e., he gives up more flyballs than he gets groundballs out of the batters. This is a lethal problem for a player to have when he pitches as Citizens. I expected, therefore, to see him struggle at home, but was surprised to see the exact opposite was true:

Home: 3.98
Away: 6.46

I don’t really understand why Fultz has such a high road ERA, especially considering the fact that he has surrendered six of his seven home runs at home. I’m a little baffled by Fultz’s performance, other than to suggest that fielding might be a factor here: the Phillies have a lousy .663 DER backing Fultz up. Maybe they are fielding badly on the road? I don’t know, that is pure speculation on my part.

Fabio Castro. Castro is a young player the Phillies acquired from the Texas Rangers back on June 30. Just 21, he’s done a decent job this season for the Phillies:

Saves/Opp: 0/1 (0%)
ERA: 0.86
FIP: 3.52
HR/9: 0.43
BB/9: 2.14
K/9: 4.71

Castro’s numbers are good, but a little misleading. Castro has been the beneficiary of some terrific defense from the Phillies this season. The team has a .893 DER behind him. I didn’t know that a team could play that well behind a pitcher, let alone the Phillies this season. Another thing I worry about: Castro has a 0.79 G/F ratio. Yes, Castro has pitched well, but we’ll have to see what he does with this good start of his.

Rick White. White, who was acquired from the Reds off waivers turned out to be one of the Phillies best moves this season. Here is the reason why I like having Rick White on this team:

G/F ratio (relievers):
White: 3.22
Gordon: 1.59
Geary: 1.55
Madson: 1.22
Fultz: 0.95
Rhodes: 0.89
Castro: 0.79

Ta-da … Anyone who can get three out of four balls put into play to be hit on the ground is doing a great job. Here are White’s regular stats …

Saves/Opp: 0/0 (0%)
ERA: 4.55
FIP: 4.24
HR/9: 0.61
BB/9: 3.64
K/9: 5.16

Not great, but not bad either.

To me the bottom-line is this: the Phillies bullpen has performed well this season, but it has some holes. I think Tom Gordon’s success was largely a first-half thing and that he won’t pitch nearly as well down the stretch as the Phillies would like. I think there is a talented collection of guys there, but the Phillies biggest and most potent weapon in the ‘pen is Ryan Madson. Madson is the key to the bullpen and seeing where the Phillies go this post-season.

Wildcard Watch! … Nice victory from the Phillies over the Cubs, 4-1, last night. Naturally two people I ripped on Monday and Tuesday came up big for the Phillies: David Dellucci went 1-for-3 with a run scored and an RBI, and Abraham Nunez went 1-for-2 with two walks and two RBIs. Coupled with a Dodgers loss, the Phillies move within a game of the wildcard. That’s some good news. Really good. I’d feel more comfortable with the playoff picture if the Marlins, Giants and Reds fell out of it and made this into a two-team race. As it stands now the Marlins don’t have much of a shot, but never say never, especially since they play six of their last twelve games against the Phillies.

1. San Diego: 79-72
2. Philadelphia: 78-73 (1.0)
3. San Francisco: 74-76 (4.5)
4. Florida: 74-77 (5.0)
5. Cincinnati: 74-77 (5.0)

Stay tuned!!!

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