WASHINGTON — In five of the Phillies' 14 losses, they have watched their opponent dance on the field in celebration. Friday night's 4-3 defeat to the Nationals was just the latest way the Phillies have walked off losers. And in all five games, the highest-paid reliever in baseball history has not thrown a pitch.
Jonathan Papelbon has pitched in 11 of the team's first 27 games. Nine times he has appeared in a save situation and converted them all. His only charged run was in a non-save situation.
But it's his lack of presence that is most noticeable. Those five losses were with (in order), Joe Blanton, David Herndon, Antonio Bastardo, Brian Sanches and Michael Schwimer on the mound.
Charlie Manuel and Rich Dubee have not defied conventional baseball strategy by holding Papelbon back until he can save a game. In fact, they have made decisions that the 29 other managers in baseball probably would duplicate. The Book says you don't pitch your closer in a tie game on the road, and rarely for more than three outs at any one time.
It does not make the logic any more sound, or the results less frustrating.
"I'm not supposed to use him," Manuel said after Friday's loss. "I don't get a chance to use him. We're not supposed to use him. We're not going to burn him out early in the season when we can’t get to him."
That has often been the message after those five games. In two of the first three games, Papelbon could have been deployed in a tie game or the eighth inning with a lead
"No. It's too early," Dubee said April 9. "You want to run them out there every 162 games?"
In Wednesday's wild 15-13 loss to Atlanta, Papelbon could have entered with a lead in the eighth or in the tie game later.
"We never do that," Manuel said that night. "It's just not the way it is. Papelbon is in the ninth inning for a save. When we ever have a lead, when we start the ninth inning, he's gonna save."
And over and over. It's been this way for some 30 years. If you were expecting it to change when the Phillies committed $50 million to Papelbon, then keep dreaming. And that's no indictment of Manuel or Dubee. They are following The Book.
In some ways, it was that thinking that made Ryan Madson so valuable. He was not bound by the "closer" restrictions until his final season with the Phillies. Before that, he was used in the eighth and seventh innings when the toughest situations arose.
So when does The Book require revisions? Tom Verducci, Sports Illustrated's venerable baseball writer, asked that question last month in a poignant story. His impetus was the amount of injured closers. He writes:
The role is devolving, not evolving. The past two seasons mark the first time since the save statistic became official in 1969 that nobody saved 25 games with 81 innings in back-to-back full seasons. Bailey, with the 2009 Athletics, is the only closer to do so in the past four years.
Managers are motivated by the save statistic, throwing three-out save chances to their closer like bones to a dog. The game universally has embraced this idea that a closer can't come in to a tie game on the road -- better to lose the game with a lesser pitcher than run your closer out there without a save in hand.
What makes this groupthink so crazy is that the system isn't working. Closers are breaking down or losing effectiveness faster than you can say Joel Zumaya. (Quick, look around baseball: show me the high velocity, high energy closer with the obligatory, goofy closer-hair starter kit who has a long career. The job has a bit of planned obsolescence to it.)
Papelbon could be the one to avoid that obsolescence. Or not. Through Papelbon's age 30 season (2011), he had saved 219 games. The great Mariano Rivera posted only 165 saves through his age 30 season (2000). But Papelbon threw 23 fewer innings than Rivera despite appearing in 64 more games. Both were converted starting pitchers.
If Papelbon records as many outs in 2012 as he did in 2011 (193), the Phillies will pay him $64,766 per out. It could be worth it if Papelbon is always the one pitching in a game's most crucial late-inning situations. But the book prevents that from happening.
Here is a grand experiment worth watching: In the wake of Rivera's catastrophic season-ending injury, the Yankees have two options to replace baseball's greatest closer.
There is David Robertson, who has struck out a ridiculous 121 batters in his last 78 2/3 innings dating back to last season. With runners on base, opponents hit .153 with a .487 OPS against him in 2011.
And then there is Rafael Soriano, who led the American League in saves in 2010. He has experience, is being paid like a closer, and is comfortable there.
Robertson could have the first crack. Or Joe Girardi could decide it's not worthwhile to anoint one closer. The Star-Ledger's Marc Carig has a suggestion: Leave Robertson where he is because he's shown an ability to record outs when they are needed the most in the seventh or eighth innings.
If Girardi thinks progressively, maybe it will establish a precedent. It certainly won't happen in the Phillies dugout, but if that means calling for Manuel's head, know that no modern manager will think differently.
For now, pray for a lead on the road or for better bullpen depth.
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