Written by: John Storey
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2020 was a rough year for Phillies fans. The second season of lackluster results in the Bryce Harper era. But in 2020, things were a bit easier to diagnose. Rather than spontaneously combusting midway through the season, as they seemingly had in the previous two, the Phillies had a clear need: their bullpen.
Ranking 30th in ERA, WHIP, and both hits and home runs per nine, this was one of baseball’s least reliable pens. Few fans won’t remember the week of total darkness just before the August trade deadline when the Phillies bullpen imploded game after game. It wasn’t a full week, it only felt like it. Between Wednesday (August 19th) and Saturday (August 22nd), the Phillies dropped five consecutive games, including a doubleheader. The bullpen was explicitly responsible for losing four of those games, including two walk-offs.
No doubt, some defensive mishaps stratified things. Nearly a third of the runs surrendered (34) in those five games were unearned (10). However, the majority (6) of those came in the fourth, Friday, game. In the fifth inning against the Atlanta Braves, already down by three runs, the Phillies’ bullpen found a way to allow seven runs in a single frame, dissolving any chance at a comeback. Adam Duvall was the first baserunner to reach on an error. He then scored an unearned run on a Johan Camargo double. A sacrifice fly allowed Austin Riley to score before Dansby Swanson reached on an error while Johan Camargo tagged home. A Travis d’Arnaud single plated Swanson unearned before Marcel Ozuna hit a home run cashing three more unearned runs.
Case in point, it doesn’t take much evidence to demonstrate the Phillies’ ugly bullpen numbers weren’t unconditionally terrible. Their peripherals indicated there was some baseline value. The Phillies bullpen xFIP was more reasonable at 4.61, ranking 18th while their SIERA suggested a value of 4.26, good for 17th. Their strikeout rate, 22.9%, also distanced them from baseball’s worst, placing them 23rd.
Moreover, the difference between their expected wOBA (.035) and slugging percentage (.057) in the sixth inning or later was the greatest in baseball last year. Their batting average differential (0.24) and BABIP (.350) were the second-highest in baseball, trailing only Boston in both cases.
The Phillies saw rough seasons from Connor Brogdon, Brandon Workman, and Adam Morgan. And there’s really no way to excuse that. The most obvious bright light in the bullpen was Blake Parker. Despite walking a staggering 5.06 batters per nine innings, he was effective. The eight-year veteran overcame his control issues to strike out over 36% of batters, a large part of what led to a tidy 3.38 FIP and even better 2.81 ERA. His split-finger did the majority of the heavy lifting. Batters hit Parker’s four-seam fastball (which he threw as often as his split-finger) particularly hard after he struggled to keep it off the heart of the plate.
Tommy Hunter was similarly effective, just not to the same degree. He bounced back from a 2019 season lost to a forearm strain by striking out a comfortable 9.57 per nine and walked 2.19. The results were fine, a 4.01 ERA, and 3.31 FIP (114 ERA+). However, he’s thrown up a lot of unfavorable flags, notably his relatively flat sinker, poor spin, and questionable command.
Finally, the primary sources of misconception: JoJo Romero and Hector Neris. Drafted by the Phillies in 2016, he’s since found his way onto multiple Phillies’ top prospects lists. 2020 was Romero’s first big league season. It looked ugly – but it wasn’t. A 7.59 ERA and 1.41 WHIP aren’t exactly encouraging, however, Romero was much better than that. Romero’s results are likely, in part, a by-product of the shortened season. He simply didn’t have an opportunity to regress to the mean. Opponents tagged him for a .375 BABIP while he stranded just 44.9% of base runners. JoJo’s opponents’ OPS with runners on was 41% higher than the league’s while it was 6% lower without runners on.
Moreover, there’s peripheral evidence of his actual performance. His K/BB ratio was 5.00, while his FIP was a strong 3.66, slightly higher than expected while maintaining a strong groundball rate (50%).
Hector Neris, who served as the team’s closer for half the season, wasn’t his usual self. After 6 productive seasons in Philadelphia, 2020 was a slight step backward for Neris and in a way very comparable to Romero. His ERA was higher than pedestrian (4.57) alongside a lofty 1.71 WHIP. But again, he continued to strike out twice as many as he walked, even if he was striking out fewer per walk than he historically has, and his opponents’ BABIP was .381. Neris’ ceiling is lower than it should be – his expected FIP (4.10) and SIERA (4.26) aren’t as optimistic as Romero’s, but that’s largely a derivative of the decline in strikeout-walk ratio, something that may be remediable. If he’s able to move closer to the strikeout and walk rates he’s produced in the past, his FIP (2.50) might more accurately reflect his productivity.
So, it wasn’t all absolutely terrible – there were a lot of positive takeaways. However, that’s not to suggest that their bullpen was practical. The Phillies are a team trying to compete, even if they now have to put up with the now lucrative Mets and Atlanta’s threatening roster. And the bullpen they limped through 2020 with will not cut it. After the type of investment, they made two offseasons ago, they owe it to their fans and roster to finish the job.
First, let’s clarify where the bullpen stands and what’s changed from 2020. Neris and Romero, the two most projectable Phillies relievers from the 2020 staff are returning. Connor Brogdon is also returning and despite a rocky 2020, he’s young and projectable. Brandon Workman is currently a free agent and Adam Morgan has moved onto the Cubs. Assuming Workman doesn’t return, flushing those two arms already helps to improve the Phillies’ outlook. And that may be mutually beneficial. After their seasons, they are most likely to find success alongside a change of scenery.
Tommy Hunter and Blake Parker are both free agents. They’re older (34 and 35, respectively) and they likely fit better with a different organization. Perhaps one willing to retool and refine them. Given their strong 2020 campaigns, even with the troublesome indicators that exist, they’re ideal candidates for a sub .500 team to acquire and flip at the trade deadline.
The Phillies are off to a good start. Following the arrival of veteran executive Dave Dombrowski, they’ve added two high ceiling arms to their existing core (Neris, Romero, Brogdon): Jose Alvarado and Archie Bradley.
Both carry strong resumes without the lofty price tag that other relievers do; something that’s going to have to be a theme for the Phillies going forward. Sam Coonrod is another addition who fits this theme. Dombrowski openly admitted that Philadelphia won’t be viewed as a highly competitive team, however, the organization still intends to secure a postseason berth, a statement that contrasts with Dombrowski’s traditional style.
Archie Bradley has never quite achieved an elite level of production. But he came close in 2020. And that’s what makes him a great fit for the Phillies. He’s a consistent and quietly effective arm. After splitting the season between Arizona and Cincinnati his combined 2020 season produced a sub 3 ERA with an agreeable FIP and a WHIP just over 1. More importantly, he’s done an excellent job at sustaining that production throughout his career.
Bradley has been a picture of consistency since finding a home in the bullpen in 2017, his third major league season. Since then, pitching all but 1.1 of his 234.2 innings once out of relief, he’s amassed a 2.95 ERA, collecting 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings, a 3.19 FIP and most impressively a 152 ERA+. Having come about as close to being elite without actually occupying that space, the Phillies were able to add a productive arm to the back of their bullpen for a somewhat economical $6 million.
Jose Alvarado doesn’t have the same track record as Bradley, however, he’s probably shown more upside. After four seasons with the Rays, Alvarado established himself as an arm capable of great things. Particularly in his 2018 season, which saw him achieve a 172 ERA+ with an elite 11.3 K/9. He also dominated the StatCast leaderboards, with upper percentile fastball velocity and shiny expected averages. When hitters did overcome his lofty whiff rate, he reduced the barrel rate of just 4.6%.
Most recently in 2020, he worked under a reduced workload after dealing with shoulder issues. The results were ugly, his second consecutive unproductive season. Now, through two seasons of injuries on his throwing arm, Alvarado is exactly the type of gamble the Phillies are going to have to (and appear to be looking to) capitalize on. Alvarado, with little opportunity cost, could have a huge payoff if he’s able to recapture some of what he was able to accomplish in 2018.
J.T. Realmuto‘s return is going to play a significant role in limiting runs. As one of, if not the best farmer in baseball, he makes the whole pitching staff better. Simply put, price per pound is a lot higher behind the plate. Bradley and Alvarado prove that Philadelphia is willing to get creative to add talent. That’s to say that they don’t need additional payroll to improve their bullpen and there’s no reason that the retention of Realmuto should prevent them from exploring further upgrades.
We’ve seen bullpens duct-taped together before. It takes some careful curation throughout the off-season. But the Phillies are poised to do that. Despite not being linked to the market’s top free-agent relievers, the likes of Brad Hand and Liam Hendricks, acquisitions like Archie Bradley and Jose Alvarado show that this team is making very intentional, meaningful additions.
Additions that may not be flashy but should offer some hope for Phillies fans. It’s not hard to imagine this bullpen competitively finding their way through 2021. The Phillies’ approach is quickly gaining popularity across Major League Baseball. And why not? With such an influx of both arms and information, there’s always jackpot opportunities for teams willing to do the legwork to identify high ceilinged, cost-effective additions. The Toronto Blue Jays have modeled this approach, and continue to do so, recently signing Kirby Yates.
Over the past half-decade, Toronto sourced several arms, the likes of Daniel Hudson, Tom Hatch, Seunghwan Oh, A.J. Cole, David Phelps, Rafael Dolis, and Joe Biagini by diverse means, the Rule 5 draft and Japan included. Eventually, given a steady workload and some consultation with one of baseball’s most underrated pitching coaches, Pete Walker, each contributed to the Jays, either directly or through the return they produced in trade.
The Phillies aren’t that far from being competitive. They’ve got a lot of valuable players who are capable of some very good things. Winning the National League East may be an unrealistic goal given the fierce competition, however, they’re continuing down a path that could position them well for a wild card spot. Especially if Major League Baseball elects to expand the playoff picture in 2021.
Targeting players who can help shore up their weakest link, the Phillies are working to get better. Not every team can say that. So, here’s something, given the proper substitution, 30 teams and their fan bases can say: With a bullpen necessitating turnover and finite resources, Phillies fans (and Dave Dombrowski) may have to get comfortable with a different type of aggressiveness, signing more, smaller checks rather than fewer large ones. But, this off-season especially, there’s an excellent opportunity to dangle those dollars in front of some aging yet subtly effective pitchers. Brad Boxberger, David Phelps, and Chasen Shreve, to identify a few remaining free agents. There’s plenty of opportunities yet for more meaningful addition. And plenty of opportunities yet for Philadelphia to host an ambitious baseball team in 2021.
All data sourced from fangraphs.com, baseball-reference.com and baseballsavant.mlb.com.
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