April 13, 2005

Good old-fashioned bullpen remedy

In defense of traditional bullpen roles, the BPF argues there's no pill to fix an aching bullpen, but good-old fashioned routine doesn't hurt.

I didn't get to see the game last night because I was constructing my brother-in-law's resume. If anyone needs the services of an RII-certified airline mechanic trained in jet propulsion, I have your guy.

Around 8:45, I flipped to the Phils games for a minute and saw Miguel Cabrera's home run off Terry Adams. Later, I saw a bit of Sporting News' Ken Rosenthal on Comcast talking about how relief pitching is the hardest thing to get started early in the season, using the Phils pen and others as a springboard.

Bullpen, it seems, is on everyone's mind, and nobody has an answer for it.

I've considered which combination of pitchers will work best for the Phils, especially with Gavin Floyd in the mix, and haven’t come up with an answer I've totally liked.

But as far as I can tell, there are two things wrong with the Phils bullpen that should be addressed quickly: First, there's no routine, and second, there are a couple bad apples in there.

The only aspect that figures to be a sure thing when talking about bullpen is players say they perform better when they know what their roles are. The puzzle gets easier when you have some studs: Brad Lidge, Eric Gagne, guys like that. But in general, the pieces rarely fit perfectly, and will never be solved mathematically. No position on the field is based more on gut instinct than relief pitching.

In the limited chances you can exploit it, following routine seems to work. The closest that's happened for the Phils this season was Monday's game: Madson comes in to relieve Myers, Cormier relieves Madson in the eighth in a left-left situation, Worrell relieves Cormier in right-right situation, Wagner closes the ninth, and no runs crossed the plate. This is the formula the Phils would prefer to follow every game.

Around the league, routine seems to be keeping careers alive, like Jose Mesa in Pittsburgh, who's entered three games this season, all in the ninth inning, and earned his third save in as many chances yesterday.

In 70 games last season, he pitched 69.1 innings, earned 43 saves with a 3.25 ERA. That's a good line, but it's not the best on the team.

Mesa is notorious for getting pissed when he's brought in during non-save situations. Why? One, because he likes racking up saves, and second, because he knows he's out of his element. No expert predicted Mesa would still be an effective pitcher two years removed from Philadelphia, but in terms of doing the job the Pirates signed him to do, he's done it. Meanwhile, Mike Gonzalez, who's a better pitcher than Mesa, pitches the tougher spots in the seventh and eighth innings.

Though he's going to surrender some runs, Mesa doesn't hurt the team as much if he enters the game with a clean slate in the ninth. That's his spot; that's his routine.

With the Phils, there's no flow right now. The breakdown started with Tim Worrell and the effects have creeped downward. That's why Charlie Manuel will make every effort to reestablish Worrell for the eighth inning because he's a key player in the comfort zone.

The Phils are not alone. Around the league, bullpens have been battered early on, and one of the most common discussions around baseball is the relief ace, as coined by Bill James. Rosenthal spoke about it last night.

To me, relief ace makes sense, and it's working for Keith Foulke in Boston, but I'm skeptical whether something like that would work for the Phillies. The relief game is far too spontaneous in the National League where pitchers must hit. It's harder to map out a space for a relief ace, or follow a perfect coordinate, or discount things like match-ups or confidence.

On the flipside, the coordinates shouldn't be written in pen, either. When the Phillies lost Friday’s game to St. Louis, Wagner should have been brought in the eighth inning, two outs, with the bases loaded because his fastball and slider are the best weapons to get hitters out.

So what's to learn? Managing a bullpen is hard work? That's part of it. I don't think there’s a right or wrong way to do it, but routine tends to bring out the best in pitchers, as revealed by players themselves.

Back to the Phillies, there might be a few quick answers.

I'm sure there are better Triple-A or indie league players than Terry Adams, who, to be blunt, looks fat and out of shape to me, and Pedro Liriano is a Triple-A pitcher and should be sent down.

For now, the Phillies can only hope time irons out the wrinkles and allows their veteran pitchers to get settled into comfortable spots. I would also urge the Phillies to keep an open mind. Don’t get attached to guys like Adams and Liriano.

Their former employers didn't.


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