Thursday, June 19, 2008
Right now I am working on a book about the Wiz Kids, that lovable collection of young Phillies players who captured the 1950 pennant then settled into baseball obscurity after the team’s chronic refusal to sign African-American ballplayers caused the team to remain an also-ran. I ran a big series on the Wiz Kids back in ’06 and I immediately thought about relief pitcher extraordinaire Jim Konstanty, who won the 1950 N.L. MVP award on the strength of his amazing relief performances for the team that season.
For those not familiar with the tale of the Wiz Kids, Konstanty went 16-7 with a 2.66 ERA (that’s an ERA+ of 152) and 22 saves that season. Konstanty’s 22 saves were 14 more than the Pirates Bill Werle. Konstanty also pitched in 74 of the Phillies 152 games (that’s 48% of them) and finished 62 (41%). In an era where the starting pitcher went the distance in two of every five starts (there were 498 complete games in 1236 games that season), Konstanty was the major reason why the Phillies went 30-16 in one-run games and bested the Dodgers for the pennant, the sole pennant (or division title) the team won between ’15 and ’76.
I was thinking about Konstanty when I sat down and looked over the stats from the Phillies bullpen this season. I haven’t been watching Baseball Tonight of late, but I hope that the Baseball Tonight team has commented on the Phillies astonishing bullpen strength this season. People looking for a reason why the Phillies went 13-4 down the stretch last season and best the Mets for the 2007 N.L. East title can look at the bullpen. People looking for a reason why the Phillies are 42-31 and sit three games ahead of the Marlins (and six and a half ahead of the Braves and Mets) in the N.L. East race can look at the bullpen once more. People looking for a reason why the Phillies will win the N.L. East again in 2008 can look at the bullpen.
How good is the Phillies bullpen? Well, they have an ERA of 2.58, the best in the National League (that’s an ERA+ of 147), to go with 20 saves in 26 opportunities (fourth in the N.L., with a 77% save percentage, which is best in the N.L.) and a sterling 17-9 record. The Phillies relief corps has the lowest OPS in the N.L. at .633.
Want to compare that to last season? Last year the Phillies ‘pen had an ERA of 4.41 (that’s an ERA+ of 92) and an OPS of .764. The Phillies leaky bullpen blew one in every three save opportunities.
So how are they doing it? Interestingly, the Phillies bullpen ranks below the N.L. averages in strikeouts per nine innings (7.28 K/9 vs. 7.44 K/9) and in strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.84 vs. 1.94). Initially I was tempted to dismiss the bullpen’s success on the Phillies offense: the Phillies propensity towards late-game comebacks is a big reason why the Phillies bullpen ranks second in the N.L. in run support at 4.61 (just 0.05 under than the Cubs), but that doesn’t explain why the Phillies aren’t allowing many walks or home runs. Is it good pitching? Or is it good defense?
As Bill James noted in his final Baseball Abstract in 1988, much of what we think of as good pitching is, in reality, good defense. To be sure, the performance the Phillies relief corps is putting in right now is partly thanks to good defense. But most of it is because the Phillies pitchers aren’t giving guys anything to hit. Interesting thing I observed, when looking at the Phillies stats, is how the Phillies relief guys seemed to go deeper into the counts than the starters do. (I’m cautious reading too much into this because that might just be the nature of the beast: you’ve got to be careful when you inherit runners on base. More on this later.)
Of the twelve guys who have taken the mound for the Phillies in 2008, the five starters rank second (Kyle Kendrick), third (Jamie Moyer), fourth (Brett Myers), fifth (Cole Hamels) and seventh (Adam Eaton) in fewest pitches per plate appearance. Rudy Seanez ranks sixth, Chad Durbin ranks eighth, J.C. Romero ranks ninth, Ryan Madson ranks tenth, Tom Gordon ranks eleventh, and Brad Lidge ranks twelfth in pitches per plate appearance. Here are the numbers and their rank amongst the ninety relief pitchers who have tossed 20+ innings:
Lidge: 4.00 (21st)
Gordon: 3.95 (28th)
Madson: 3.94 (30th)
Romero: 3.94 (31st)
Durbin: 3.81 (56th)
Seanez: 3.79 (61st)
Confused about what I’m talking about? Here are the stats I refer to defined with respect to pitching stats:
Earned Run Average (ERA): Runs Allowed * 9 / Innings Pitched = What a pitcher would give up if they hurled a nine-inning game.
Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER): Balls Put Into Play that are converted into outs.
Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP): (((13 * HR) + (3 * BB) – (2 * K)) / IP) + League Factor. Basically a measure of how a pitcher would have done if he had an average defense behind him.
Home Runs per 9 Innings (HR/9): (HR * 9) / IP
Walks per 9 Innings (BB/9): (BB * 9) / IP
Strikeouts per 9 Innings (K/9): (K * 9) / IP
Looking at Romero, who threw a lot of pitches per batter when he joined the Phillies last season (4.2 P/PA), I was struck about Bill James efforts to classify pitchers by types and his assessment of the Nolan Ryan-type of pitcher: the guy who never gave you anything to hit and so had a lot of walks, a lot of strikeouts, never gave up home runs and threw a lot of pitches over the course of a start. The relief corps largely seems to follow this pattern: while the average N.L. bullpen gives up 0.91 home runs per nine innings, the Phillies gave up 11 in 209 innings – or 0.47 HR/9. While the average N.L. bullpen gives up 3.89 walks per nine innings, the Phillies gave up 92 walks in those 209 innings – or 3.96 BB/9. That careful nipping at the plate is the reason why the Phillies have had a lot of success coming from their ‘pen.
Lidge, who has converted all eighteen of his saves after blowing eight in twenty-seven tries last season, has been fantastic this season. In 29 innings of work Lidge has yet to surrender a home run and has fanned 37 hitters, or 11.48 K/9. His 0.93 ERA is absurdly low and compares well to his predecessor as the Astros and Phillies closer, Billy Wagner (2.17 ERA, five blown saves in twenty tries).
The biggest surprise, to me, has been Chad Durbin, the former Detroit Tiger who challenged Adam Eaton for the #5 slot in the rotation before moving to the bullpen and becoming the Phillies bullpen workhorse. Durbin has surrendered just one home run in the forty and two-thirds of an inning he has worked this season. He’s pitching nowhere near as well as his 1.55 ERA indicates (his Fielding Independent Pitching, or FIP, ERA is 3.20, which is actually second-best on the team after Lidge at 1.75), but he’s pitching very well. Despite pitching in a ballpark that makes pitchers very vulnerable to home runs, Durbin has found success with a modest 1.11 groundball-to-flyball ratio (G/F), especially compared with the more groundball-oriented pitchers on the staff like Seanez (2.64 G/F), Romero (2.10 G/F), Lidge (1.38 G/F), and Madson (1.29 G/F).
I’m sure that there are pundits and bloggers out there who dismiss the Phillies success and believe that it can’t last, but I’m reminded of how unlikely Konstanty’s success was in 1950. He had pitched just 128 innings in the majors before joining the Phillies in 1947 and had meager success. When the sportswriters compiled their list of MVP candidates in the preseason, it is safe to assume he appeared on nobody’s list, and yet there he was helping the under-manned Phillies steal the pennant with timely pitching. Konstanty was the consensus pick as the MVP by the sportswriters.
Nobody respects the Phillies ‘pen, especially when compared with the Braves or Mets, but Chad Durbin, Ryan Madson and J.C. Romero are going to be the ones popping the champagne come October, not Billy Wagner.
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