How to fix the Phillies bullpen

Even All-Star closer Jonathan Papelbon has had a few frustrating moments. RON CORTES / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Even All-Star closer Jonathan Papelbon has had a few frustrating moments. RON CORTES / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Posted: July 29, 2012

CSI: Citizens Bank Park is on the case.

All the best forensic techniques have been utilized to determine why, with two months remaining in the regular season, a Phillies team coming off five straight division titles needs a minor miracle to avoid having the rest of its schedule consist of dog days followed by E-A-G-L-E-S!, playing out the string and wait until next year.

Some of the clues are obvious. Ryan Howard and Chase Utley were on the disabled list for most of the first half of the season. Any team that goes without its 3-4 hitters for that long will feel the pinch. Righthander Roy Halladay, who won the Cy Young Award in 2010 and was runner-up last season, wasn't quite right, even before spending two months on the disabled list with a shoulder strain.

And there's a ripple effect. If an airplane loses an engine, the others have to work that much harder to stay aloft. In baseball, though, when players try to do too much to make up for missing pieces, they usually produce less.

The real smoking gun, however, can be found in these stats: Of the Phillies' first 54 losses, 20 came when they were tied or leading after six innings. Fifteen came when they were tied or leading after seven.

That's an unmistakable sign of a team with severe bullpen problems. If the Phillies had just held on to win half those games, the outlook would be completely different heading into the homestretch, despite everything else that's gone kaplooey.

That's one of the most maddening parts of trying to assemble a major-league roster. Relievers are notoriously inconsistent, up one year and down the next. There has to be something that can be done to take the guesswork out of that vital part of the game.

Which is why Leo Mazzone is on the line. He has an idea. In fact, he has a lot of them.

"Here's another thing, very interesting?…?Or how about this?…?Now, here's something else?…?See if this makes sense ...

A call had been placed to Mazzone to get one or two short quotes for a story on the development of pitchers in general, how to best determine whether a guy is more suited to starting or relief. Thirty-five rapid fire minutes later, the former Braves and Orioles pitching coach concluded a dissertation that was sometimes hilarious, occasionally profane, and always insightful. He may have run out of breath. He certainly hadn't run out of theories.

Now, opinions are like noses. Everybody has one. What makes Mazzone worth listening to is his resume.

He became pitching coach of the Braves in 1990. The following season, Atlanta won the first of 14 straight division titles, and he was the pitching coach for all of them. After the 2005 season, he went to Baltimore to join his close friend Sam Perlozzo — now the Phillies first-base coach — who had become the Orioles manager.

Along the way, with Atlanta's unprecedented success and many of the games aired nationally on superstation WTBS, Mazzone became a celebrity in his own right. The cameras caught him rocking back and forth on the bench. He had the benefit of working with many talented arms: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz. But there were also pitchers who had their best seasons under his tutelage: Denny Neagle. Kerry Ligtenberg. John Burkett. Russ Ortiz. Jaret Wright. Jorge Sosa. Horacio Ramirez. Damian Moss.

These days, he spends time doing Braves pregame and a sports talk radio show in Atlanta called The Rude Awakening. Which leaves plenty of time to expound on his favorite subject: Pitching.

Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers has always been known for putting together strong bullpens. He compares it to going out to a fancy restaurant for an expensive dinner.

“You could have great company, great ambience, have a tremendous meal, but if you have to wait 45 minutes to get your check, you walk away ticked off," he likes to say. "And it's no different with baseball. You could have a well-pitched game, the fans are excited, they're into it, you're on your way to a victory. But if you're not able to close it out the last couple innings, you walk away with a bad taste in your mouth. There are a lot of similarities."

Towers isn't alone in that belief, of course. Every team understands how crucial a strong bullpen can be to winning. The problem is that it's devilishly difficult to predict how relievers will perform in any given year. They're up and down more than the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Example: There were 13 relief pitchers invited to the 2011 All-Star Game at Chase Field in Arizona. Only three — Cleveland's Chris Perez, Pittsburgh's Joel Hanrahan and Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel — made it to Kansas City for this year's game.

Example: Phillies closer Brad Lidge was perfect in 2008, 48 saves in 48 opportunities. The following season his earned run average jumped from 1.95 to 7.21.

"If I knew why that was, I could make a lot of money," says Joe Kerrigan, the former Phillies pitching coach and occasional Comcast pitching analyst. "You just don't know. Sometimes guys get pushed. They're in 75, 80 games and their arm doesn't quite recover and you see it right away the next spring training. The ball just doesn't come out the same.

“(Putting together a bullpen) is the toughest job the general manager has. That's why a lot of them try to get guys coming down from off years. They're so good-year-bad-year-good-year-bad-year. And when you have guys, like a Ryan Madson type, who are consistent, that's why those guys make $4 million, $5 million, $6 million in a setup role."

Economics also play a role. The best position players, premium starting pitchers and closers get top dollar. So general managers sometimes end up using middle and setup relief as an area where they can save a few bucks.

Lidge's hiccup in '09 aside, the Phils had remarkably consistent relief work while winning five straight National League East titles, two pennants and a world championship. Even last season, despite a string of injuries, the relievers had a combined ERA of 3.43. Much of that could be attributed to the fact that two unproven youngsters, lefthander Antonio Bastardo and right-hander Michael Stutes, stepped up and had terrific seasons.

When the team congregated in Clearwater this spring, there was reason to believe the pen would be fine. Bastardo and Stutes were back. So was David Herndon. Jose Contreras, returning from elbow surgery, was expected to be available early in the season. Swing man Kyle Kendrick was coming off a season in which he had a 3.41 ERA in 19 relief appearances. And promising rookie Justin DeFratus waited in the wings.

Then there were the free agent signings. Chad Qualls for depth. And, the crowning touch, closer Jonathan Papelbon. Most of the worry was focused on an offense that would be without Ryan Howard and Chase Utley.

But then the regular season started. At the All-Star break, the pen's ERA was 4.76, worst in baseball.

Bastardo struggled last September, which at the time was largely written off to a heavy workload. The hope was that he'd bounce back this season. He's had his moments, but hasn't come close to recapturing the magic of 2011. Kendrick's first half bullpen ERA was 6.23 in seven outings.

Stutes made six appearances before going on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation that eventually led to arthroscopic surgery. Herndon appeared in five games before experiencing elbow problems that led to season-ending Tommy John surgery. Contreras did come back — then tore a ligament and a tendon in his elbow. DeFratus hadn't pitched all season because of a strained right elbow he suffered in spring training until he was activated and optioned to Triple-A Lehigh Valley on July 18. Qualls had a 4.60 ERA when he was designated for assignment, eventually going to the Yankees for cash considerations.

All that, of course, impacted the way Charlie Manuel utilized both his starters and his relievers. A perfect example of this domino effect occurred on June 16 at Rogers Centre in Toronto.?Cliff Lee, then still looking for his first win of the season, had a 5-2 lead going into the bottom of the eighth even though he hadn't been particularly sharp. He'd allowed 10 hits at that point. With a shutdown bullpen, the manager most likely would have given Lee a hearty slap on the back, taken the ball and settled back to watch his relievers get the last six outs.

Except that the Phillies don't have a shutdown bullpen. Lee went back out to start the eighth. He walked Jose Bautista then gave up singles to Edwin Encarnacion and Kelly Johnson. Left with no choice, Manuel brought in Qualls. The Blue Jays tied the score and won in extra innings.

Now, identifying a problem and doing something about it are two entirely different propositions. Everybody talks about the weather, right?

Enter Mazzone, whose comments — we should note by way of disclaimer — were directed at pitching in general, not specifically to the Phillies situation.

And with that out of the way, we're off ...

Idea No. 1: Making so many pitching changes late in the game is silly and unnecessary.

"I can tell you right now, the reason there are so many bullpen problems in baseball is that they use so damn many of them [relievers] each year," Mazzone says. "Because you're using four or five guys a game. The way relief pitchers are being used, the way starters are being used and the way pitch counts and innings limits are being used, it ain't working.

“It's because you use so many of them now. You use four or five a night. They're getting more abused than starters because they're taking the starter out. You sit there and wonder, why is the starter leaving down 3-2 in the fifth? Or why is the starter up 4-1 in the seventh and you're taking him out? Why does the starter have a shutout after six and you're taking him out? Why are we getting to, let's see, the matchup, the matchup, the setup and the closer?

“Here's what you do. You want to eliminate lefty-lefty and righty-righty all the time coming out of the bullpen? Then teach relievers a good changeup. If a lefty or a righty has a good changeup, that negates lefty-lefty and righty-righty.

“How about Mike Remlinger for an example? … Lefthanded pitcher, pitched the eighth inning all the time [in Atlanta] getting ready for whoever was closing at the time. Remlinger pitched the eighth inning and we couldn't wait for him to face righthanded pinch hitters. Because of the changeup.

“Rudy Seanez was hard, hard, hard, hard, hard. What did he develop? A changeup. How ‘bout when they pinch-hit lefthanded hitters in the eighth inning? How ‘bout Rudy? We didn't care. And those are just two examples of when relief pitchers have changeups, you don't have to use as many of them. Instead of just going by the book."

The numbers back Mazzone's memory. In 1998, Seanez's first year with the Braves, lefthanded hitters batted .286 against the righthander. The following season he reduced that to .239. In his three full seasons in Atlanta, 190 of the 438 batters he faced were lefties.

And in 2001 and 2002 Remlinger actually had more success against righthanded hitters (.194 and .184, respectively) than against lefthanders (. 322 and .235).

Idea No. 2: Don't coddle pitchers once they get to the big leagues.

"Now there are some injuries that are going to happen regardless. But how about this? We had program for our relief pitchers," he explained. "If they didn't warm up or get in the game for two days, I'd bring them over and have them throw before the game, just like you do the starters.

“People would say, ‘Mazzone, how can you do that, he might get in tonight.' No, no, no. You take him down and you explain to him, ‘We're going to prepare for tonight. So give me five to 10 minutes of your time, show me how you feel about your pitches, show me what you're thinking, any ideas you want to exchange with me.' Because guess what? Now if you have 12 pitchers on your staff, the No. 12 guy is getting the same amount of attention as the No. 1 guy. Plus you have your relievers on a program just like your starters. So therefore don't come tell me [I shouldn't do that], because most of the time you go around baseball and you see the pitching coach leaning on a fungo in the outfield. What the hell do they need a fungo for anyway?

“Be down in the bullpen and working with the guys and encouraging them to throw. Don't be afraid. In other words, when we had our program, I never feared for a sore arm. I had great confidence we weren't going to get one if we did things right. And here's the other thing. How you convince your pitchers about your program and your philosophies is this: Why would I tell you guys, the pitchers, to go down and do something and jeopardize your longevity. Because, guess what? If you want to get selfish about it, my longevity depends on yours. See? So you always encourage guys to learn how to pitch without maxing out the effort.

“What do they do now? They shag balls. They shag balls in the outfield because a statistical thing says you shouldn't throw this or you can't do that. In the minor leagues, oh my gosh, he went five quality innings. Oh, that's great. That's wonderful."

This may become a trend. When Nolan Ryan became president of the Rangers, one of the first things he stressed was trying to get his starters to pitch deeper into games. Texas has been to the World Series each of the last two years.

Idea No. 3: Monitor the side sessions closely.

"I don't think there's any pitcher in the world who doesn't like to go down to the bullpen and work. But I don't think there are many pitching coaches who can go down there and control the effort that's needed in order to keep a guy healthy and build him up for his next start," Mazzone says.

"Every pitcher that I came in contact with loved to throw. A couple times between starts if you wanted to. And it was fine. … Guys couldn't wait to get down there and throw a little bit. And I would regulate the effort. Because if I saw somebody trying to gun it, I'd say, ‘Hey, time out. If you want to gun it, we're done.'

“I would try to tell that to other pitching coaches and they'd say, ‘Well, they throw too hard down there.' No, that's your job! I had a [minor league] pitching coach once and we were having meetings. [Braves manager] Bobby Cox said we were going to turn an offensive-oriented organization into a pitching one. Who's going to take care of the pitchers? Right away, I jump into the mix.

“Well, there were four other pitching coaches there and one, I don't want to name names, said, ‘The way Leo's going to have these guys throw, you won't have nothing left in August because they'll be done.' I said, ‘Really? What do you do then in between starts that I should do?' He said, ‘Well, I have them throw flat-footed. Flat ground work.' I said, ‘Well, why don't you explain the difference to me between flat ground work and getting on a mound and throwing downhill to a catcher squatting down behind home plate?'

“He said, ‘They'll have a tendency to throw too hard.' I said, ‘That's what the [bleep] they pay you for — to regulate the effort.'"

Idea No. 4: Don't coddle pitchers while they're in the minor leagues, either.

"Here's the other thing. In the big leagues, you're going to be required to do more work in more stressful situations, whether you're a starter or a reliever. So therefore, take the kid gloves off in the minor leagues," he argues.

"I don't mean that you abuse anybody. But I don't believe you can develop anybody by pitching them one inning every other day in the minor leagues. And also in the minor leagues, if you bring a guy in out of the bullpen back-to-back, that's a no-no now. It's mapped out for the relievers now, when you can use them and when you can't. Well, when you get to the big leagues, how are you going to map that out? You may have to use them every day for awhile and then not pitch them for a week," he says.

"How about this one? See if this makes sense. You sign a pitcher out of high school. And let me tell you something, I had the privilege of being able to develop some great arms … Nobody ever told me what to do with a pitcher. [Former Braves farm director] Hank Aaron was the greatest boss in the world. It was up to me. That's why they hired me. I didn't need somebody from the front office dictating to me how we were going to develop pitching. Bottom line. I didn't need statistical analysis to tell me that, either.

“There is a place in the game for those things. But not the main thing. Anyway, so you sign this pitcher out of high school. He's got a real good fastball. He's got a good slider. Or maybe he's got a good fastball and a good split … So he gets to the minor leagues and the first thing an organization may do is tell this 18-year-old, ‘I know you've got a good split. I know you've got a good slider. But we don't want you throwing that right now because, you know, we want to wait for your arm to mature.'

“A guy signs and he gets a nice bonus. Well, he can't pitch that way. You just gave him a nice bonus to pitch that way!

“So now this young pitcher is going to go into the competition facing the best competition he's ever faced. Now he finds himself in a little bit of trouble because, No. 1, they've taken a bullet away from him. So now, he's got one or two pitches to work with maybe instead of three … They took something away because they're waiting for his arm to develop.

“And now what's he gonna do because he doesn't have that other bullet? He's gonna overthrow the other pitches he has because he doesn't have that other bullet. That's how you hurt your arm! Arm injuries occur because of overexertion and overextension. Arm injuries do not occur from a particular pitch. They occur from how you throw a baseball, period, and the amount of effort put forth in these pitches."

Idea No. 5: Develop a good program and stick with it.

"Our throwing programs didn't change in between starts during the season, whether it was April or whether it was October in the World Series. Nothing changed. You stayed consistent in everything you did. Nothing changed if you went two innings and got knocked out early or if you went nine innings and completed the game. Nothing changed in between as far as the amount of effort," he says.

"From the beginning of the season, whether it was the minor leagues or the big leagues — and I was in the game for 42 years and helping the arms was one of the things I was most proud of — I didn't care if it was A ball or the World Series. That was my goal, to develop pitchers. And there's one way to do that. They had to go to the post when it was their turn.

“And I did it by allowing them to go down to the bullpen and allow them to work on their craft with me regulating the effort. Not numbers. Effort. A little fastball command, a little change of speeds. Spin the breaking ball. Bring all your pitches along at the same time. Basically being a pitcher.

“The point is, whatever we were doing in April, we were doing the same things in September and October. Oh, we can't throw as much in the second half because you know you're getting some inning in. Well, why would you shut them down? Why would you back that off? I don't know."

This may seem counterintuitive but, hey, it worked pretty well for Mazzone.

It would be convenient to label this all as an old school approach. Mazzone dislikes the term.

"I don't want anybody telling me about this old school bull s***," he says. "This is not old school. This is baseball. I don't try to explain to people anymore. I know what works and what doesn't."

He learned from the great Johnny Sain. He learned from Bobby Cox. He wasn't afraid to stray from modern baseball orthodoxy. He had success.

And before he hung up, he shared a final idea.

"There are some coaches who have to put stamps on people. Johnny Sain told me one time: ‘You can hurt more people by overcoaching and overanalyzation than you can by them having the natural ability to throw a baseball and teaching them how to do it under a controlled effort.' Well, guess what? That ain't changed," he says.

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