The Phillies bullpen was a major point of contention this season as it rated as one of the very worst in the sport.
However, ‘bullpen’ is not a static term, as relievers come and go. The relief corps at the end of a season could look vastly different than it did during the first couple of months. The Phillies fit this description and, for that reason, it isn’t entirely fair to judge the bullpen as one consistent unit throughout the whole season. Bright spots like Justin De Fratus and Phillippe Aumont weren’t the problem and the post-Qualls bullpen showed promise and potential heading into next season.
De Fratus and Aumont aren’t worthy of their own in-depth reviews because we simply don’t know all that much about them. They combined for about 25 major league innings this season and it seems pointless to grade them on such a small sample. Instead of recapping their highs and lows and regurgitating data obtained in minute samples, this space is of better use in discussing their future roles, the evaluation of relievers, and the cost-benefit mechanism when building a bullpen.
De Fratus spent most of the season on the disabled list with a right elbow strain. He injured his elbow working out in the offseason, returned on April 22, and was subsequently shut down until July 10. Upon returning for good he continued to show why the Phillies think so highly of him. De Fratus threw 25.2 innings, across three levels, with a 2.10 ERA and 26 strikeouts against three walks. He kept the ball on the ground as well, which translated over to the majors, where his 52% groundball rate was promising.
He isn’t the type of guy that will ‘wow’ the audience, but he gets the job done, and that’s important for a 25-year old reliever already on the 40-man roster. He wasn’t lights out in his big league audition this summer, but he certainly showed signs of being successful at this level, and did so whilst still recovering from a season-long injury.
Aumont, on the other hand, has that ‘wow’ factor. I can recall a number of instances this summer when my waning interest in the game was restored due to his entering the game. Always a high-strikeout, high-walk pitcher, arguably the biggest part of the return on Cliff Lee gave Phillies fans hope that he could hold down that eighth-inning, bridge-to-Papelbon role next year. The road was somewhat bumpy, as his wildness was on display, but he showed an ability to get major leaguers out in an effective manner.
Again, this is crucial for a young, cost-controlled reliever. The more money that isn’t spent on 50-60 IP pitchers, the more money that can get allocated to far more important positions on the diamond.
Aumont had a fairly high walk rate in his 14.2 innings of work, but it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. In fact, the surprising part is that it wasn’t even higher. When a pitcher walks 14-15% of the opposition in Double-A and Triple-A, that rate generally doesn’t decrease upon facing tougher competition in the majors. And while Aumont’s sample is far too small to hold any predictive value, his walk rate wasn’t astronomically high relative to expectations.
He looked good out there. Aumont was poised and didn’t appear rattled by the magnitude of certain situations. While that’s an immeasurable qualitative value, it is certainly important when discussing a setup or closer role. Further, it’s one of the only things we have to go on in evaluating him from the current year. While walks and strikeouts become predictive quicker than most other statistics, both Aumont and De Fratus weren’t near the threshold of batters faced or innings pitched at which we could be comfortable that things will stay the same or improve.
When dealing with young relievers who don’t have much of a major league resume, personal scouting inclinations are typically just as valuable as strikeout and walk rate. I am certainly not a scout, but I have watched enough baseball to know that both of these pitchers have the potential to become key cogs in a cost-effective bullpen.
As my offseason plan illustrated, the bullpen is an area in which I don’t want to spend much money. I would be happy with a one-year deal to a reliever to setup for Papelbon, but I would rather roll the dice with this group of youngsters — Bastardo, Horst, De Fratus, Aumont and Schwimer. The Phillies have far more important needs than relief pitcher.
That might sound counter intuitive given the struggles of the Phillies bullpen, but remember, the August and September bullpen wasn’t the April bullpen. In April, it had the 3rd-highest SIERA, the lowest strikeout rate and one of the worst strand rates. In August, the Phillies bullpen had the 3rd-best SIERA and by far the highest strikeout rate. The same was true of September, when the Phils 2.93 bullpen SIERA was the 3rd-best, and its 30% strikeout rate was by far the best in the league.
Overall, the Phillies bullpen was problematic this season, but the group that threw in August and September, which included these two young arms, was quite potent. De Fratus and Aumont both get ‘incomplete’ grades this year, with an asterisk leading to a conditional evaluation that they looked pretty good and have plenty of potential.