There's a stigma in baseball that closers need to only be used in save situations. They make the big money for being the best pitchers in the toughest situations, and that's precisely why the Phillies coughed up a bunch of money in the offseason to sign Jonathan Papelbon.
Thus far in 2012, Papelbon's been extremely effective, and certainly the best member of the terrible Phillies bullpen, but he's been underused by the coaching staff.
It's worth noting, I think, that Papelbon's signing -- the largest-ever signing for a reliever at $50 million over four years -- was roundly criticized in baseball circles.
That's worth noting because, as Trent Rosencrans of CBSSports.com noted recently, 2012's been a miserable year for closers: either they've been knocked out for the year (Joakim Soria, Brian Wilson, Mariano Rivera, and, hellloooooooo Ryan Madson), put on the shelf for a period of time (Drew Storen, Andrew Bailey, Kyle Farnsworth, Sergio Santos, Jim Johnson) or just not good at pitching (Heath Bell, Carlos Marmol, Jordan Walden).
Bell, who also signed a big contract this offseason, and Madson, who the Phillies let walk, are the most notable examples on that list, particularly since Paps has been impressively effective in 2012, with the exception of Papelbon giving up a three-run gopherball to pinch-hitter Jordany Valdespin.
Making Papelbon's success all the more frustrating is the way in which Charlie Manuel's uses him. Bill Baer put together a spectacular, graphic-filled post on the usage of Phillies relievers over at Crashburn Alley, with the help of leverage data from FanGraphs.com, and it really shows how poorly Paps has been utilized.
Papelbon has a 3.00 ERA on the year (129 ERA+) and he's struck out 13 batters in 12 innings, while walking just four batters in that time. These stats were much better prior, by the by, prior to Papelbon getting tagged for a loss in his first non-save, high-leverage situation of the year.
Look at Baer's graphs and you'll be terrified: when the going gets tough, Manuel acts like Hunter S. Thompson and gets his weird going, throwing guys like Chad Qualls, David Herndon, Antonio Bastardo, Michael Schwimer and Brian Sanches on the mound.
While it represents "baseball logic," it hardly represents actual logic -- refusing to use your best pitcher in the biggest situations simply because you want to have them available to pick up a save is a terrible use of resources. And it's a large reason why Dash wondered on Wednesday if change is needed for the Phillies, citing Manuel "kind of playing roulette" with his bullpen until it's save time and Papelbon can get on the mound.
Baer echoed similar a statement, citing Manuel's refusal to plug Paps into a road game with things tied up.
"Papelbon’s highest-leverage plate appearance (3.78 on April 12) is the 20th-highest among Phillies relievers," Baer wrote. "The 20 ahead of him have all come on the road, however, and due to Manuel’s insistence that closers cannot be used in tie games on the road, he has been left to rot in the bullpen while inferior relievers stood on the mound only for the Phillies to lose the game."
Papelbon crossed the 4.00 leverage mark recently, but that still doesn't let Manuel off the hook for not using him enough. And having Papelbon come into a non-save situation and get nailed with an L hardly works as an argument for why he shouldn't be on the field in those situations.
The Phillies paid a lot of money for Papelbon this offseason. He's been the best pitcher in the team's bullpen. And yet, he's being used at times that don't make sense from the standpoint of figuring out how to win games.
Point at injuries to offensive players all you want, but a lack of pop isn't the only reason why the Phillies are currently dead last in the National League East.