Lately, there's been some weird talk about the Philadelphia Phillies. With the trade deadline approaching, the Phillies have been said to be considering selling off some pieces if they fall further out of the race. The Phillies have more or less been out of the race. Wednesday morning, they woke up 13 games out of first in the NL East, and nine and a half games out of a wild card slot. To put that in perspective, no team in the American League woke up Wednesday that far out of a playoff spot. Not the Twins, not the Mariners, not anyone. The math was not in the Phillies' favor, not that math plays favorites.
But, all right, while the Phillies were just 41-51, they had previously been 37-51. And they've been getting healthier, with Roy Halladay returning Tuesday. Given what the Phillies have done in seasons past, they could be given just a little benefit of the doubt. Clearly, the Phillies would need to win, and keep winning, if they wanted to be a factor at all.
So Wednesday's game against the Dodgers was a big one for Philadelphia if you believe in the idea of a team with the Phillies' record playing big games. The Phillies were gunning for their fifth consecutive win, and in the top of the 10th inning, they took a 3-1 lead. They handed that over to Jonathan Papelbon, and he blew it. Two innings later, the Phillies lost 5-3. If you believe this was a big game, then you believe the loss was devastating.
A team loses for a number of reasons -- it's very seldom because of one player in particular -- but whenever a closer blows a save, he ends up with the lion's share of the blame. Hand a lead to a closer and you sort of assume the victory. If the victory doesn't come, you think it's all the closer's fault. In one inning of work, Papelbon allowed four hits and two runs, and that sort of thing is supposedly unacceptable for a guy signed to a $50 million contract.
I thought it'd be worth taking a closer look at the sequence of events while Papelbon was on the mound. Yes, Papelbon was charged with hits, runs, and a blown save. How ugly was it? How ugly wasn't it?
The inning began with a Luis Cruz line-drive double just fair to left. Papelbon threw a 2-and-1 splitter on the inside edge, but it looked to get more elevation than Papelbon intended. Cruz turned on it. That was an inauspicious beginning, although Papelbon subsequently struck out A.J. Ellis. With a two-run lead, Papelbon could afford to allow one big hit. He couldn't allow two or three.
After Ellis came Bobby Abreu. Abreu fell behind 0-and-2, took a couple close balls, and then singled Cruz home. Here is that single:
Fastball where Papelbon wanted it. Abreu hit the ball poorly. He placed it perfectly, and the Dodgers were within a run.
The next batter was Tony Gwynn Jr., and he singled to put runners on the corners. Here is that single:
There's a funny thing that happens when you see batting average plotted against batted-ball speed. At the highest batted-ball speeds, you get the highest batting averages, because those are line drives and home runs. As the speeds get slower and slower, you get lower and lower batting averages, until you see a spike at very low speeds. These are the weak infield singles. Gwynn hit the ball just about as weakly as a ball can be hit, and because he's a quick runner, that put him on base.
The tying run, at this point, was 90 feet away with one out in the inning. Papelbon matched up against Mark Ellis and struck him out on three pitches. That brought Matt Kemp to the plate for one whale of a showdown. Papelbon threw Kemp a first-pitch fastball, and Kemp swung at it and put it in play. Kemp singled to score Abreu. Here is that single:
Replays showed that Kemp was safe, by perhaps the literal slimmest of margins. The score then was 3-3, and Papelbon got Andre Ethier to fly out to send the game to the 11th. In the 10th, the Phillies scored two, but also allowed two, so nothing was gained and nothing was lost. Much distance was traveled, around in a circle.
There are three ways that we can analyze a pitcher's performance. The worst way is by analyzing his box-score results. There's a whole lot of luck that goes into producing results, especially over small samples, or if you don't like the word "luck", there are things that are out of the pitcher's control. The best way is by analyzing the pitcher's actual pitches, but this is incredibly difficult. There are game-theory issues; we don't know what the hitter was looking for, we don't know exactly what the pitcher was trying to do, and it's just hard to evaluate the quality of individual pitches. In between, we can look at pitch-by-pitch results, and batted balls. This isn't perfect, but it's a better way than the laziest way.
In Papelbon's blown save, he allowed a line-drive double. You don't ever want to allow those. He also struck out a pair of batters, and the singles came on a pop-up and two weak groundballs. One somewhat weak, one extraordinarily weak. Papelbon was tagged with a blown save, but I wouldn't go so far as to say that he earned it.
So what? I don't know. Papelbon got a little unlucky, meaning the Phillies got a little unlucky, and they wound up losing a winnable game. The Phillies aren't in a position where they can just give away winnable games without worrying too much about them. This was a rough way to watch the Dodgers tie the score, because the three singles should've been just about harmless, but the Phillies put themselves in a spot where they needed to get more of the breaks. A blown save like this is always difficult to watch; it's the most difficult for the desperate.
This was Papelbon's third blown save in his last seven opportunities. Something tells me this was the least deserved. I'm not going to try to defend his contract, because the Phillies paid entirely too much money, but this blown save shouldn't be included as part of the argument against it. This was a blown save that leaves you thinking "yeah, it probably just isn't the Phillies' year."