Jonathan Papelbon has been sharp in his debut season with the Phillies thus far. He has allowed just four runs in his first 15 innings of work (2.40 ERA) and continues to blow away hitters, notching 18 strikeouts already. He was unavailable Monday afternoon, though — after throwing the past three nights consecutively, including with a four-run lead in Sunday’s game (+0.01 WPA), Papelbon was unavailable. It was Chad Qualls‘s ninth inning, then, when the Phillies took a 3-1 lead into the ninth against the Astros.
Qualls wouldn’t finish the ninth, as the Astros tied the game behind four hits and nearly took the lead, stranding runners on second and third thanks to Jake Diekman‘s first career strikeout. Hunter Pence picked up Qualls with a walk-off home run in the 10th inning, but with Papelbon making $50 million over the next four years, it’s easy to question Charlie Manuel when he sits in the bullpen as a journeyman reliever blows a save. Is what we saw Monday a theme for the season?
Of the five Phillies relievers to pitch at least eight innings this year (Papelbon, Qualls, Jose Contreras, Joe Savery and Antonio Bastardo), Papelbon ranks in the middle of the pack in terms of gmLI, or the leverage index at the time the reliever was called upon. Bastardo, who has been as good (if not better) than Papelbon so far, with a 1.20 ERA and 2.69 FIP, leads at 1.76 — a very closer-esque number. Qualls comes in at second at 1.35 and then we see Papelbon at 1.19.
The easy response here is that the Phillies aren’t squeezing as much out of Papelbon as they could. Papelbon has seen action eight times with a LI below 1.0 as opposed to seven times over it. At least these other times weren’t the back end of consecutive outings — Papelbon had at least one day of rest and up to as many as three in each instance besides Sunday night’s.
The problem is the Phillies just haven’t had that many tough situations to put him in. He’s only been forced to save one one-run game all season — opening day against the Pirates. The Phillies have shown a major propensity for scoring late in games — 59 of 138 (43%) total runs came in innings seven, eight or nine entering Monday’s game. Thus in some cases where it looked like Papelbon could be left with a stressful ninth inning, he’s been given a two, three, or (as happened Sunday) four run lead instead, if not passed over completely as a result.
Could the Phillies find more spots to use Papelbon? Probably. Although many managers avoid using their closers in extra inning road games, Manuel is notorious for it. The Phillies have lost four extra-inning road games this season, and Papelbon hasn’t been called upon in either of them. But the problem of Papelbon’s lack of appearances in tight ninth innings should be solved by time, as the Phillies will eventually give him a one-run lead or two to work with, and he’ll get a chance to prove his worth then.
When Charlie Manuel had Jonathan Papelbon get warming on Sunday, it appeared the Phillies would be facing the exact situation that burned Chad Qualls Monday afternoon. Could Manuel have held Papelbon back after Philadelphia plated two in the eighth? It’s possible, but maybe Papelbon would have needed to rest Monday as a result of the warmup alone. The problem for the Phillies on Monday wasn’t that they misused Jonathan Papelbon so badly that he was unavailable, it was that Chad Qualls was the next choice in the Phillies’ bullpen. Even beyond Qualls, the Phillies’ bullpen simply hasn’t offered many options this season: only Papelbon, Bastardo and Qualls owned ERAs or FIPs below 3.00 entering the game, and Qualls’s 2.84 ERA was disguising a 5.02 FIP.
Games like these will inexorably lead to questions about the true value of expensive closers like Jonathan Papelbon. But maybe the point that should be raised is this: a good bullpen consists of more than one relief ace. The issue with Charlie Manuel’s bullpen Monday afternoon wasn’t its management, it was a lack of talent beyond its big-money star.