The Chupacabra

Paul and I argue about a lot of things, and one of those things is Bill Simmons. ESPN’s Sports Guy is one of my favorite sportswriters because 1) I think he has a remarkable talent for prose and 2) he approaches his columns from the perspective of his readers. It might seem like a writer writing for his readers is something that we should take for granted, but read Rick Reilly or Peter King and you’ll see they’re not really writing for the fans, their constituents, the ones who ultimately pay their salaries–they write to impress other sportswriters and, worst of all, some (Reilly and King are the exemplars of this) write to impress the players and coaches and sports insiders that they cover, as if to prove that they, somehow “get it.” It makes me sick.

That’s why the sports columnists and writers I like best never interview anyone–Simmons, Gregg Easterbrook, John Hollinger, Bill James,  etc.–but instead make it their business to know more than anyone else. They watch more games live, read more source material, learn more stats than the people who say “you need to be in the locker room” to know.

This almost turned into a 10,000-word treatist on how modern sportswriters suck, but I think I’ll spare you.

Anyway, one of the things Simmons says is that there’s nothing more terrifying in sports than having a baseball team with a bad bullpen. I disagree. After watching four years of South Carolina football, I can say that being down a score late in the game with a good defense and an offense that can’t move the ball is worse, though the bullpen is close.

What with the recent travails of Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson, I think it’s appropriate to comment on this. Here’s what I think about the bullpen. In every game, any given team’s bullpen scares the bejeezus out of one team’s fans. It lurks like the Chupacabra in the darkness, waiting to strike. For teams like the 1996 Yankees (Wetteland and Rivera) and last year’s Phillies, the Chupacabra (derived from the words for “goat sucker,” a particularly apt bit of etymology for relief pitchers) is coming to devour the opposing team. I always thought that the advantage of only giving one’s opponent 6 or 7 innings in which to score could not be overstated, particularly if David Cone or Cole Hamels was pitching those 6 or 7 innings.

Then there’s the flip side. Let me name some names for you: Mitch Williams, Heathcliff Slocumb, Michael Mimbs, Ricky Bottalico (by the way, does his sudden appearance as a Phillies studio analyst bother anyone but me?) and Toby Borland. Those have been certain of the Phillies relievers over the past 15 years, an era defined by bullpen collapses. And even with the departure of Happy Jack Taschner, Brad Lidge’s ERA is still, well, you know.

And with last night’s unfortunate 9th inning, the doubts about Lidge only get greater. I still think he’s the best option as the Phillies’ closer, and I still think we were spoiled after last year’s 48-for-48 performance, but this is not the avenging angel who strode in from the bullpen in 2008 like Harvey Keitel and company at the beginning of Reservoir Dogs.

The Phillies, according to the stupidest infographic I’ve ever seen (which ran on the front page of today’s Inquirer sports page), are on pace for 86 wins. I think the bullpen is at least partially responsible for that. I think the Phillies can survive Ibanez cooling off (which he inevitably will) and Hamels not being quite as good as last year and even not trading for another bat or a Drysdale to Hamels’ Koufax. But what they can’t survive, statistically or psychologically, is an unreliable bullpen.

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