Control problems hurting Phillies' middle relievers

Control problems hurting Phillies' middle relievers

May 10, 2013, 1:15 pm
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Somehow, the Phillies’ bullpen finished Thursday’s game without allowing a run. Phillippe Aumont and Jeremy Horst put three of the first five men they faced on base, threw 23 balls and just 19 strikes, and had four men in scoring position over two innings, but avoided actual damage.

It was a tight-rope act that allowed the Phils to enter the ninth inning down by just one run, and it was the second straight game Horst pitched out of a jam, but it’s hard to imagine either man was genuinely pleased with how he pitched. Aumont continues to frustrate by not throwing strikes when strikes are needed. It’s not a result of nibbling, either. Aumont's curveball has so much movement that he often can’t keep it in the strike zone, and he doesn’t get ahead of hitters enough to induce them to chase it.

After Aumont put men on first and second with two outs in the seventh, Horst came on. He promptly walked his first batter on four pitches, just as he did Wednesday. He then started the next batter 2-0, just as he did Wednesday. Luckily for Horst, Martin Prado inexplicably swung at a pitch over his head and a foot outside on a 3-1 count. It would have forced in a run but the usually heady Prado couldn’t resist.

Strike-throwing has been a major issue for this bullpen through 36 games. With 91 strikeouts and 43 walks, Phillies relievers have the third-worst K/BB ratio in the National League. Only the Dodgers and Cubs have been worse.

This season, 63 percent of all pitches thrown by all teams have been strikes. The Phillies’ middle relievers – we’re talking everyone except Jonathan Papelbon and Mike Adams – are at 60 percent. May not sound like a big deal, but it is. It’s a difference of 30 pitches in the strike zone as opposed to outside it.

Aumont is only 24 years old, but it’s difficult to picture him being trusted in a setup or closing role unless he can prove that he can throw strikes consistently. He has problems repeating his delivery and keeping his arm angle from lowering as innings progress. This season he’s thrown 101 balls on 229 pitches. Thirty-six relievers have thrown more balls than Aumont, but 35 of them have thrown at least 15 more pitches than him.

Middle relief has been an issue since the season began, as Raul Valdes, Chad Durbin and Horst haven’t been able to recapture their 2012 form. None of those three has a “plus” fastball – the kind you’d find in practically every bullpen in either league. Aumont does, and that’s why he gets a little more wiggle room and has maintained a low ERA despite terrible control this season. Even with the hard-throwing Antonio Bastardo, Aumont and Papelbon, the Phillies' pen ranks 29th in the majors in fastball velocity, at 90.0 mph.

The Phils have some guys on the farm who throw heat (Jake Diekman comes to mind, though he's also struggled with control at Triple A), but for now they’re trusting the veteran guys on the roster to make things right. Aside from getting lucky over the middle, finesse pitchers like Valdes, Durbin and Horst all need pinpoint control to be effective.

Which is why this issue of strike-throwing is such a big deal within the context of this bullpen.