Jesse Biddle lasted just 41 pitches in his last outing, allowing three first inning runs, and it started a rash of speculation about whether the top prospect in the Phillies organization may be injured. Turns out, it was just a bad day. Nothing more, nothing less. Biddle had been feeling a little under the weather a couple days before the outing, but didn't offer that up as an excuse for his struggles.
So why was he pulled after just 41 pitches?
The explanation actually started a few days before Biddle took the mound, with the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. Lehigh Valley was on the road in Louisville when another solid pitching prospect, Ethan Martin, took the mound. Martin was shelled for three earned runs in the first inning and threw 37 pitches. When he got into the dugout after finally getting the final out of the inning, manager Dave Brundage told him he was done and he was going to pull him. Brunadge's reason was a loose Phillies policy that instructs minor league managers to use their discretion on whether to have a pitcher continue if they have a tough inning with a lot of pitches, especially in the first inning of a game.
As it turned out, Martin filibustered and argued his case to stay in the game and Brundage acquiesced. The main argument was that he discovered what he was doing and wanted to go back out there to fix the problem. The result was that Martin threw four more innings, using just 59 pitches to get through those four shutout innings and left the game in position to pick up a win with the IronPigs leading 5-3 after five innings. Louisville battled back to win the game 9-5, but all of that damage happened well after Martin exited the game.
"A lot of times, you're going to pull a pitcher after an inning like that at this level," explained Brundage. "Sometimes, it's just better to shut down a kid and let him get a fresh start next time rather than have him try to force things and wind up taking a worse beating or, even worse, changing something that he's doing and suffering an injury. He [Martin] was pretty convincing and he changed my mind; next time that might not be the case."
Dusty Wathan didn't even let Biddle get to the end of the inning and pulled him after 2/3 of an inning, using basically the same philosophy that Brundage used with Martin.
So, which manager applied the Phillies policy the way it's supposed to be used?
"We don't have a hard and fast number [of pitches in an inning]," said Phillies director of minor league operations Joe Jordan. "It doesn't happen very often, but if one of our prospects goes out and has an inning that really taxes them - and again, there's no hard and fast number - it's at the manager's and pitching coach's discretion. Plus, Jesse had been under the weather a little bit, so that was another factor. It was just a case where we thought 'we're just going to punt this one and give him a do-over next time', that's really all it was."
As the top prospect in the organization, the Phillies are going to be careful with Biddle whether it's in one game or over a longer haul. With both John Lannan and Roy Halladay going down with early season injuries, there has been speculation that Biddle would at least move to Triple-A Lehigh Valley or possibly even wind up in the Phillies rotation. That speculation can stop immediately, according to Jordan.
"That's faulty reasoning [to push Biddle because of injuries] really. Plus, we're in a position where we don't really need to do that. We have other options and we have other guys that we can turn to. I think the worst thing that you can do with a guy that we like as much as Jesse is to be impulsive and let some trying times force you to do what you just don't believe is the right thing to do."
The Phillies recently signed veteran pitcher Greg Smith to a minor league contract and assigned him to Double-A Reading, where he made an impressive debut on Monday night. Smith allowed just one hit - a solo home run - and two walks over five innings, but took the loss in a 4-3 decision against Portland. It's likely that Smith or other pitchers who the Phillies may sign, will be used to plug any holes at Lehigh Valley rather than pushing Biddle or other young prospects coming through the Phillies organization.