CLEARWATER, Fla. - The list of differences between a 102-win team and an 81-win team began with the health of Ryan Howard and Roy Halladay. But you can argue that the difference between the Antonio Bastardo who took the mound in 2011 vs. the one who took the mound in 2012 played almost as big a role in the Phillies' fall from grace last season. And while the health of their aging veterans certainly will prove to be a major theme during the 2013 season, the performance of their 27-year-old reliever also seems likely to play a critical role in their attempt to return to the top of the National League East.
It is easy to forget the extent of Bastardo's dominance during the first 5 months of the 2011 season, partly because of his struggles in September of that season, and partly because he spent the first half of 2012 reprising them. But for the bulk of the year, the Phillies could make the case that they had the best setup man in the league. By the end of play on Sept. 2, 2011, Bastardo had held opposing hitters to a .110 average, .197 on-base percentage and .214 slugging percentage while posting a 1.35 ERA. He had struck out 66, walked 19 and allowed just four home runs in 53 1/3 innings, the majority of them in tight, end-of-game situations. Despite a rough final month, Bastardo finished the season having been charged with a game-tying or go-ahead run in just three of his 64 appearances (41 of which came in situations in which the game was tied or the Phillies led by fewer than four runs).
It did not seem a coincidence that the Phillies lost only five games in which they held a lead going into the eighth inning in 2011. Nor did it seem one when they lost 12 such games last season, a campaign in which Bastardo experienced a dramatic rise in his ERA (from 2.64 to 4.33), his walk rate (4.0 BB/9 in 2011, 4.5 in 2012) and home-run rate (from 0.9 HR/9 to 1.2 HR/9). One year after allowing a game-tying or go-ahead run in just three of his 64 appearances, Bastardo did so in eight of 65 appearances.
When considering all of the above, it seems fair to wonder just what the Phillies can expect out of their mercurial lefthander this season. Bastardo's fastball appeared to lack its usual explosiveness (according to FanGraphs.com, the average velocity of the pitch has dropped from 93.5 to 92.5 to 91.8 over the last two seasons). He also struggled with his command. His strike percentage dropped from 65 to 62 and he tallied 61 0-2 counts in 224 plate appearances after racking up 84 in 225 in 2011.
Pitching coach Rich Dubee has been a vocal supporter of Bastardo early this spring, arguing that media members have exaggerated the severity of his up-and-down season. "When was he up and down?" Dubee asked. "Was he up and down against the lefthanders he faced? They sat down mostly. They sat down."
Really, Dubee's argument is that Bastardo has been a victim of expectations as much as poor performance. For most of 2011, he looked capable of pitching as a true setup man, having held righthanded hitters to a .213/.307/.352 line, along with a .186/.280/.341 mark against lefties. Yet a closer look at his season revealed some hints that he would regress in 2012. There was an extreme fly-ball tendency (his ground-ball rate of 0.34 was one of the lowest in the league) and a walk rate of 11.6 percent of plate appearances. Both of those numbers were similar in 2012, as was the frequency with which he allowed hits for extra bases. Meanwhile, his already gaudy strikeout percentage increased from about 31 percent of all plate appearances to about 36 percent. All of that suggests that Bastardo was similar to the pitcher he was in 2011, except with shakier command and worse luck. Which, according to Dubee, is a pitcher who is still far more effective against lefties.
"He was up and down against the meat of a righthanded-hitting lineup like we talked about," he said. "You run any lefty against that over and over again, you're going to get burned. I don't care who he is."
Dubee pointed out that Braves lefty Jonny Venters endured similar struggles last year. As 2012 progressed, the Phillies changed the way they used Bastardo. Before the All-Star break, he faced righties in 60 percent of foes' plate appearances. After, when he had a 3.09 ERA and held batters to a .188/.263/.318 line, it was 55 percent.
The Phillies think they can be more selective with Bastardo this season now that they have added righty Mike Adams to handle the eighth inning. "If we've got Adams down there, we might not want [Bastardo] pitching to a bunch of righthanded batters in the latter part of the game," manager Charlie Manuel said. "But that don't mean we think he can't get righties out, either."
Dubee said the post-All-Star-break Bastardo did a better job of pitching on both the inside and outside parts of the plate, particularly against righties. This year, the Phillies will hope to have that Bastardo for an entire season. And in 2011, that pitcher was a difference-maker.