Joe Savery's 2011 season in the Philadelphia Phillies organization was sort of like an introduction to a probability course in education. Somewhere, behind the scenes and unannounced to the rest of the public, a bunch of Phillies' front office executives tore up tiny bits of paper and wrote on them a set of positions: starting pitcher, first baseman, designated hitter, left-handed reliever.
Periodically over the season, an executive would reach into a 10-gallon hat, juggling the tiny, folded pieces of paper around and holding his eyes tightly shut as to keep his selection a secret until the last possible second, pull a scrap out of the hat to reveal a new position. His new pick? Designated hitter. Another executive would quickly dial up a number on his phone, and without hearing the other end, would say, "Tell Joe Savery he's a designated hitter now."
Of course, that is a complete dramatization of how the Phillies' front office has handled Savery, the 19th overall pick of the 2007 draft out of Rice University. It's hard to look at his track record and think that the thought process was much different, however. Himself included, it seems like no one had any idea what position Savery would be playing in the future. They had tried everything.
Drafted as a first baseman out of college, the Phillies had interesting plans for their first-round selection right off the bat—they made him a starting pitcher. Reports on Savery coming out of college said that he could hit. He had gap-to-gap power and an affinity for getting on base, but the most promising aspect of his game was that rifle he called a left arm.
Savery had also pitched with Rice University, and the Phillies liked him enough to take a chance on him with their 19th pick. After all, polished college lefties are hard to come by in the draft, and at the time, the team was looking to build pitching depth in the system.
Thus, the Joe Savery experiment was born.
He signed quickly after being drafted and was sent to the Williamsport Crosscutters, the Phillies' then-Low-A affiliate, where he started seven games and pitched very well, logging 26.1 innings and allowing just eight earned runs. Despite a high walk rate, the Phils promoted him to the Clearwater Threshers to begin the 2008 season, and the pitching struggles began.
After recovering from arm troubles at Rice University in time for the draft, health was the least of Savery's issues. As a starting pitcher in the Phillies organization, he would start at least 19 games for various levels of the organization over the next three seasons. The problem with the injury was that his velocity had decreased, and his arm angle, release point and mechanics were all out of whack.
He just couldn't throw strikes.
Over that same span of three seasons from 2008-10, Savery never posted a BB/9 rate below 3.6, and his worst season came with the AAA Lehigh Valley IronPigs in 2009, when his BB/9 rate ballooned to 5.6. He was forced to throw much more hittable strikes, just trying to get ahead in the count, and his H/9 marks took off like a space shuttle launching out of Cape Canaveral.
To a lot of scouts, Savery was done. The live arm that had caught the Phillies' eye in 2007 was no longer live. It was barely hanging on, and nothing else made him stand out as a pitcher. He wasn't crafty. He didn't have overwhelming "stuff." What was left? Savery was set to join the unnamed masses of promising college talents that flame out before reaching the major leagues.
But the Phillies wouldn't have any of that talk.
Maybe Savery himself had forgotten, but he was much more than a pitcher. He could hit, and the Phillies were more than willing to see if they could recoup any of the lost talent that his pitching arm provided in a thunderous bat. To begin the 2011 season, Savery was sent back to High-A Clearwater, rejoining the Threshers as a slugging first baseman.
Let the feel-good story begin. Savery took off out of the gates, showing promising flashes of that gap-to-gap power that made him a legitimate threat for the University of Rice Owls. Through 54 games for the Threshers, Savery posted an OPS of .778, including nine doubles and two home runs. The Phillies were enamored with his production, and quickly rushed him to the next level, promoting him to the AA Reading Phillies.
The results were like night and day. Savery had been feasting on the pitching in Clearwater, but was being eaten alive by the more established prospects at AA. His batting average fell to the Mendoza Line, and his OPS struggled to stay above .600. It didn't take the Phillies' front office long to realize that the experiment had failed.
From talented college prospect to near ambiguity, had Savery finally exhausted all of his avenues?
Well, there was one scrap of paper left to pull, and the Phillies sent their former first-round pick to the bullpen. There, at various levels of the organization, Savery and pitching coaches tinkered with his mechanics. His arm felt more lively. His fastball made the catcher's mitt pop, and a new release point made his slider a much sharper breaking ball—a legitimate out-pitch.
After showing that he could make this new role work for the Reading Phillies, Savery was yet again promoted to the IronPigs, and the feel-good story had finally come full circle. In 18 games out of the IronPigs bullpen, he allowed just 23 hits, striking out 26 while walking just six batters. Both the Phillies and Savery had finally found his niche—left-handed reliever.
Interested to see what they had in their latest bullpen prospect, the Phillies promoted Savery to the show as rosters expanded in September, and he has not disappointed, retiring all but one batter he's been asked to face.
Which leads me to a new point—the Phillies need Joe Savery when the postseason begins.
With the Phils leaning towards carrying 11 pitchers into the first round of the playoffs, there is a final bullpen spot to be had. Along with the four starters, the Phillies figure to carry relievers Vance Worley, Kyle Kendrick, Mike Stutes, Brad Lidge, Antonio Bastardo and Ryan Madson into the NLDS. That's six relievers for a possible seven spots.
Joe Blanton figures to be the favorite to land the final spot, with offseason plans having already been made for the Phillies' core of young relievers not making the postseason roster, but a firestorm of reasons pleading Savery's case has emerged.
Let's face it—with two starters already in the bullpen (Worley and Kendrick) and four starters that average about seven innings per start (or more), there aren't many innings to be had for guys like Blanton and Herndon—innings eaters without many innings to feast on.
The Phillies will bring just one left-handed reliever, Bastardo, to the postseason and he has struggled mightily over the last month, allowing nine earned runs in just 6.1 innings. There is a general concern that he has been tipping his pitches, a dreadful worry for a guy who throws just two pitches, and Bastardo himself has mentioned that control of his slider has been fleeting. Can he be trusted to face a big left-handed bat like Prince Fielder?
That should, at least, open the door for Savery, who has been very good against left-handed batters over his brief tenure as a reliever. With three relievers capable of handling multiple innings and Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson glued into the eighth- and ninth-inning roles, respectively, the need is much greater for a situational left-handed reliever like Savery than a recovering, league-average (if that) starting pitcher like Blanton.
A chance in the postseason for a guy like Savery would certainly put the finishing touches on what has been, thus far, a storybook transition from position player, to starting pitcher, back to position player, to designated hitter and finally, to reliever.
A darn good one at that.