04 November 2003

Billy, Can't Be a Hero

I had theorized, back in February, that the Phillies had what they needed to get to the post season for the first time in a decade. This was presented, however, with the caveat that if they did not make it, don't blame me, as View From the 700 Level indicated, but rather blame their bullpen. I said that the Phillies would probably be in the top 5 in the NL in runs scored, and they fell right in at #5, with 791 runs, more than everybody but Houston, St. Louis, Colorado and Atlanta. And Colorado almost doesn't count.

I suggested that their top four starters were all better than average, ~200 inning workhorses, and they were, though none of them were as good as I'd hoped. I also suggested that Brandon Duckworth could break out, though when I said that, I meant as a pitcher, in Philadelphia, during the season. Instead, it turns out, Duck-Man broke out from Philadelphia, after the season, in a trade to Houston. But I'll get back to that.

And I suggested that the Phils' bullpen could fall apart, with Joe Table losing his job to somebody in April. Boy was I wrong on THAT one! It took until August! And then again in September.

So anyway, knowing that the Phils in fact did not make the postseason, and knowing that thier bullpen was widely villified as the reason for this faltering, I looked up the numbers, and found something quite curious:

The Phillies' bullpen had the 5th best ERA in the NL (3.72), better than Atlanta's, and a winning record (23-20), despite blowing 23 saves in 51 chances. So I broke it down:

Regulars 306 17 9 5 11 52 333.1 292 110 21 122 225 6.08 1.24 2.97
Closers 89 5 11 27 6 4 83.2 95 59 7 50 64 6.88 1.73 6.35
Others 42 1 0 1 1 0 57.2 57 30 10 23 44 6.87 1.39 4.68

Interestingly, the Mesa/Williams two-headed monster only blew six saves all year. Six.
Tim Worrell blew seven all by his lonesome, and people think he's pretty good.

The greater portion of those 18 screw-ups belongs to the five guys who pitched most of the middle relief innings, and did so generally pretty well. Terry Adams, Carlos Silva, Rheal Cormier, Dan Plesac and Turk Wendell had a combined 2.97 ERA, which is very good, though some of them may have been a bit over their heads last season, especially Cormier, Plesac and Adams. Of course, Cormier and Plesac have the same thing going for them that Jesse Orosco does: They're not dead yet.

The few remaining relief innings (only ~57) were average. Nothing wrong with that.

But Mesa and Williams didn't just blow saves, didn't just lose games. These guys failed in spectacular fashion, giving up 9th inning homers, walking in the winning run, many of them right in the midst of the wild-card race, which, as it turns out, is a no-no. So the memories of their blow-ups is etched in the minds of Phillies fans everywhere, while Worrell's, for instance, are forgotten, because the Giants won 100 games and their division easily.

Whether or not those guys are all back, the point is that Billy Wagner, as great as he is, cannot be expected to save the franchise and propel them into the 2004 postseason all by himself. He's not going to compensate for 12 blown saves in middle relief, and he's not going to make up for a mediocre bench (7th in the NL in OPS). He's not going to get Pat Burrell to hit better than .209, etc.

All other things being equal, Wagner maybe makes this an 88- or 90-win team, which might just be enough for the Wild-Card. But as we all know, all other things are never equal. Burrell might not bounce back. Jim Thome might get old. Marlon Byrd might hit a sophomore slump. Mike Lieberthal probably won't hit .313 again. Placido Polanco probably will go back to hitting like, well, Placido Polanco. None of these things can be accurately predicted, and any of them might deprive B-Wag of the opportunities to save the games (franchise) that would make his $9 million salary money-well-spent.

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