When the Phillies signed Chad Qualls late in the game for $1.5 million, I assumed they were bringing him in as a guy who could come in and face a righty or two or three at a time, only getting a full inning in low-leverage situations. That might have been the plan, but that would have worked only with a bullpen that had Antonio Bastardo, Jose Contreras, Mike Stutes and perhaps a young player like Justin DeFratus or Jake Diekman all vying to pitch in high-leverage situations. Stutes and DeFratus are both on the DL, Contreras still has not found his groove after a year-long layoff, and Bastardo clearly eroded some of the Phillies confidence in him during spring training. Which left Qualls as Charlie Manuel and Rich Dubee's choice as set-up man.
You can argue that Diekman should have been with the team from the get-go, particularly when you consider the glaring lack of strikeout arms in front of Jonathan Papelbon. Off the top of my head, I can count at least four previous situations that were similar to the one that Diekman blazed his way out of yesterday, situations that ultimately cost the Phillies a win. Four outs against a pitiful lineup is no grounds for penciling in hypothetical victories. Maybe the dominance Diekman displayed at Triple-A instilled in him a confidence and rhythm that he would not have possessed had he started the season in the majors. I would have called him up instead of Brian Sanches a couple of weeks ago, but it is impossible to say that was the correct move. The Phillies did what they did, and now they have what they have, and if Diekman can find away to become this year's Antonio Bastardo, then nobody is going to be sweating the month-and-a-half he spent in the minors.
Qualls got off to a good start, but his recent performance, combined with his track record over the past few seasons, might soon land him in a world whose past inhabitants have included David Herndon and Danys Baez.
Speaking of Baez, Qualls' numbers through 16 games are not much different from the ones Baez posted in his first 16 appearances as a Phillie in 2010.
Earned Run Average is a difficult way to measure a relief pitcher's performance, particularly this early into a season, when one bad outing can skew the numbers. Instead, I like to focus on the numbers that quantify the essence of a reliever's job: record big outs, avoid big hits.
The way I see it, the most important categories for a reliever are strikeouts, walks and extra base hits. Strikeouts, because he needs to be able to pitch out of jams, as we saw with Diekman yesterday. And that often requires a pitcher who can record an out in a situation where a ball in play can score a run or a move a runner into scoring position. Extra base hits, because in late-and-close situations you can't afford to yield multiple bases to a single batter. Outs, because that is what gets a team closer to a victory, and runners who reached base (ROB), because that is what gets a team closer to defeat.
In the table below, the rates are calculated on a per-out basis, because it seems intuitive to me. Every time a pitcher faces a batter, he either records an out or allows a baserunner. The more base runners he allows per out he records, and the more bases those runners accumulate, the greater the chances of blowing a tie or a lead (or increasing a deficit).
Quick rundown: G = Games, BF = Batters Faced, Inn. = Innings, Outs = Outs, BRA = Baserunners Allowed, TBA = Total Bases Allowed [1Bs+BBs+HBPs+(2Bs x 2)+(3Bs x 3)+(HRs x 4)
Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of Qualls' performance has been his showing against right-handed hitters, a demographic that he held to a .218/.255/.282 line in 2011.
Qualls' numbers against lefties this season are similar to what they were in 2010 and 2011. Of the 30 lefties he has faced, 12 have reached base, four have hit extra base hits, two have hit home runs, and four have struck out. That translates to a .346 batting average, .414 on base percentage, .654 slugging percentage and 1.068 OPS. In 2011, his line was .320/.381/.500, in 2010, .392/.448/.583.
We've written a lot this season about the struggles of the Phillies bullpen, and deservedly so. But this is not the first time that the Phillies have faced serious questions about their relievers in the first couple months of the season. Rare is a year like 2008, when Ryan Madson, Brad Lidge, J.C. Romero and Chad Durbin last the entire season as the four obvious go-to options. Things looked bleak in 2009, when Brad Lidge was struggling and J.C. Romero was suspended, but then Chan Ho Park moved from the rotation to the bullpen and things stabilized. Same goes for last season, when Antonio Bastardo and Mike Stutes were forced into action. In a certain light, you can look at the struggles of a player like Chad Qualls as a blessing in disguise. If he had not blown a save yesterday, Jake Diekman might still be waiting to make his major league debut. Not that Diekman has proven anything yet. But he passed his first test, and it was a doozy of a pop quiz. A win in April and May is worth the same as a win in August and September, but I'm a firm believer that the first two months of the season are as much about process as they are about results. In addition to trying to win games, a manager needs to figure out what weapons he has at his disposal, how those weapons are best deployed, and whether significant changes need to be made in order to field a stable unit for the majority of the season.
From this point forward, though, you have to think that Charlie Manuel and Rich Dubee will treat Diekman as one of their top options in the seventh and eighth innings of tight games. Neither man will ever apologize for giving the guys with the veteran experience the first crack at establishing themselves. And while that may cost the Phillies some early-season victories, we can't ignore the fact that the strategy has worked for five straight years. It is easy to channel all of your dissatisfaction into the day-to-day managerial decisions that blow up. But one of Manuel/Dubee's greatest strengths are their feel for the rhythm and trajectory of a 162-game season. Throughout the first four months of last season, Manuel repeatedly talked about his amazement at the Braves' usage of young relievers Craig Kimbrell and Jonny Venters. At least once a week the Atlanta bullpen would come up in a conversation with reporters and Manuel would talk about how he keeps waiting for the workload to catch up to them. At one point in August or early-September, he shook his head and said, "Maybe it won't."
Well, it did, and the Braves choked away a healthy Wild Card lead thanks in part to the struggles of their young bullpen down the stretch. Last year, Stutes and Bastardo both struggled down the stretch after their first full season of pitching out of the bullpen. Keep all of that in mind when you consider Manuel/Dubee's careful usage of Bastardo this spring, as well as the decision to keep Diekman in the minors for as long as possible.
All that being said, we seem to have reached a point where the only option is to lean on the young arms with the best stuff, which means Bastardo and Diekman.
In Bastardo's last eight outings, he has retired 21 of the 26 batters he has faced, allowing one single, three walks and one Reached on Error while striking out seven in 7 2/3 innings. He has recorded five holds, one victory and no blown saves. More important than the results are the process: hitters once again look like they are confused by what Bastardo is dealing them. They are swinging at that high fastball that he used so effectively last season. He has been locating his slider. He has not allowed a ball out of the infield in his last three appearances. He has struck out five of the last six batters he has faced, all of them swinging. The lone exception was a pop out to short stop.
Whether Bastardo's recent success is the result of a new-found groove or of facing the Padres and Astros remains to be seen. Even in retiring 21 of 26 batters, he has thrown just 59 percent of his pitches for strikes. He was effective last season because he pounded the zone and got ahead of hitters. His strike percentage in 2011 was 65. In April, Bastardo did not appear to have a ton of confidence in his fastball, relying more on his slider than we've seen before. But he has looked a lot more confident lately. Besides, as we mentioned before, the Phillies don't really have much of a choice.