Solution to Phillies bullpen problem begins with the starters
by Scott Butler 5/14/17

Pete Mackanin Pitching Change

A Phillies pitcher failed to reach the sixth inning again last night. Where have I heard that before?

Nick Pivetta was cruising along last night until he met the fifth inning. 92 pitches later, the 4-run lead was gone and so was Pivetta. For the 18th time in 33 games, a Phillies starter failed to reach the fifth inning.

The reason the Phillies bullpen has struggled so much this season is not because of undefined roles, as both Joaquin Benoit and Pete Mackanin have both suggested. It is also not because of an overwhelming lack of talent.

The reason the Phillies bullpen is hemorrhaging runs lately is because the starters aren't pitching deep enough in ballgames.

And that is Pete Mackanin's fault. In the 32 starts besides Buchholz's last one when he left with an injury, Phillies starters pitched 5 or less innings 16 times compared to 14 starts of 6 innings or more. Only seven times has a Phillies starter pitched seven innings. And perhaps the most significant number:

Innings don't tell the whole tale, but when combined with the number of pitches, it offers a revealing story.

Out of those same 32 starts, Phillies starters have thrown 100 or more pitches in 6 of them. That equates to 19% of starts, meaning each time through the rotation, only one pitcher throws 100 pitches or more on average.

11 times this season (again, excluding the one Buchholz start), a Phillies starter hurled 90 pitches or less. Two of those came from Jeremy Hellickson in his first two starts. While they were his first two of the season, this was a particularly long Spring Training and he was dealing at the time he was pulled. Hellickson allowed 1 run in 10 total innings in those starts, yet only tossed 67 pitches and 70 pitches, respectively.

The highest pitch count of the season came two games ago when Zach Eflin threw 106 pitches.

No Phillies pitcher has reached 110 pitches all season.

For some perspective, realize that in 2011, Roy Halladay threw 100 or more pitches 26 times and 110 or more pitches 21 times. That same season, Cliff Lee threw 100 or more pitches 22 times and 110 or more pitches 16 times.

If you aren't convinced that Mackanin is pulling his pitchers too quickly, you aren't the only one. Gelb decided to ruin my piece in his recent article. Here's what Matt Gelb wrote prior to last night's ballgame:

No number better illustrates the current game than this: The Phillies had just six starters throw 100 pitches or more in their first 32 games. Zach Eflin, who underwent two knee surgeries last fall and started the season in the minors, has accumulated the two highest totals: 106 and 103 pitches. Vince Velasquez hit exactly 100 in two starts. Jerad Eickhoff and Nick Pivetta each threw 101 in a start.

Teams are generally more cautious with their starters in April. The Phillies have a younger rotation than in years past. They'd rather have a pitcher make 30 starts than throw high-stress pitches in an early-season game.

And that's not just a Phillies' strategy. The major-league average for pitches per start, entering Friday's action, was 92. The Phillies had averaged 91. There were seven teams with fewer 100-plus pitch starts than the Phillies.

The caution extends to the minors, where a starter has thrown 100 or more pitches seven times this season. The pitchers who did it: Ben Lively (101), Ricardo Pinto (100), Drew Anderson (103), Jose Taveras (103), Seranthony Dominguez (100, 100), and Nick Fanti (113).

So, about that blaming Pete thing...

Perhaps this is just what you get in the modern game. But perhaps not. Sticking with the 2011 team for comparison, here are the pitches per game rates for the top 5 starters in 2011:

Halladay: 108.3
Lee: 106.3
Hamels: 99.7
Oswalt: 93.9
Worley: 97.0


And here are the 2017 rates:

Eickhoff: 92.4
Hellickson: 87.4
Velasquez: 95.5
Eflin: 96.4
Nola: 91.7
Pivetta: 94.7

Total: 92.2

Nearly 10 pitches per start is significant. We can easily write off most of that difference due to the reasons Matt Gelb referenced: it is early in the season; the Phillies have a young pitching staff; and Velasquez, Eflin, and Nola each have injury concerns (in Velasquez's case, he was also on an innings limit last season).

We can try to eliminate some of those write-offs, so let's remove the first two starts for each starter. That erases Buchholz completely, and since Pivetta's season began in the minors, his numbers remained unchanged.

Here are the rates after removing the first two starts:


That gives the 2017 Phillies an average of 95.6 pitches per start, compared to 101.8 for the 2011 crew. That brings it back to more of an even level.

While I still feel Mackanin babies his starters too much, it is clear that this is just as much a product of the way the modern game is played. Regardless of where you want to place the blame (if that is even a proper word to use here), relievers today are being asked to pitch far more than in the past, which leads to tired bullpen arms, undefined roles, and pitchers complaining.

Here's a solution. Let your starters pitch deeper in ballgames and those bullpen problems will start to magically disappear.

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