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Can the Phillies Overcome Their Historically Terrible Bullpen?

A great bullpen isn’t a necessity for playoff success, but it certainly helps. What helps more? Not having one of the worst pens in MLB history. 

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After bullpens dominated the postseason for much of the 2010s, and after 25 years and counting of Mariano Rivera hero worship, it’s as clear as ever that a great bullpen is a force multiplier in the MLB playoffs. When every inning is a high-leverage inning, an army of reliable, high-powered arms can paper over any number of cracks. Curious which teams will advance to the playoffs and prosper once there? Look for the teams that can hold on to a lead.

But by no means is a great bullpen necessary for postseason success. The 2017 Astros won a title (yes, it happened whether you like it or not) with manager A.J. Hinch scrambling for any excuse not to use his top relief pitchers. I’ve been recycling the same “the Nats look good, but their bullpen looks sketchy” column every four months since mid-2014, and Washington won a World Series last year despite its pen posting a cumulative 5.68 regular-season ERA, the worst in MLB history by a playoff team.

Enter the 2020 Phillies. The fact that they are still in playoff contention has a lot to do with this year’s expanded playoff format, as Philadelphia currently sits in the no. 10 position in the National League. But in the crowded NL playoff setup, the Phillies are only a game and a half behind no. 6 Miami for what would have been the last playoff spot in a normal season; this is by no means a bad team.

It just has one bad component. And here, the word “bad” is something of an understatement. This year’s Phillies, playoff contenders with less than a week to go in the season, have a collective bullpen ERA of 7.11. That’s not only the worst in baseball, that’s the second-worst bullpen ERA in MLB history, behind only the 1930 Phillies, who posted an ERA of 8.01.

The 1930 Phillies have a pretty reasonable excuse for why their ERA was so high: That team played in one of the most hitter-friendly environments in baseball history. By 1930, the live ball era was in full swing, but pitchers wouldn’t learn how to strike batters out until after World War II. The result was a leaguewide offensive surge that turned every Tom, Dick, and Harry (and this being the 1930s, all the players were named Tom, Dick, or Harry) into a .300/.400/.500 hitter. Those Phillies also played in the Baker Bowl, a stadium that was squeezed into a lot that was maybe three quarters the size one would need for an actual MLB stadium. In short, right field was just 280 feet from home plate. And unlike New York’s Polo Grounds, which had similarly risible foul line dimensions but a cavernous center field, the Baker Bowl was only 408 feet to dead center. That year the Phillies famously hit .315/.367/.458 as a team, but that line was only good for an OPS+ of 93 in an environment that made the Steroid Era look like baseball played underwater with a shot put. Philadelphia finished 52-102.

The 2020 Phillies, meanwhile, have no such excuses. They play in a fairly neutral stadium in a fairly neutral run-scoring era, and while their underlying numbers aren’t quite as bad as the ERA (how could they be?), this bullpen is dead last in MLB in WPA at minus-6.07. That’s a win and a half worse than the 29th-place Pirates and further below break-even than the first-place A’s are above it.

The Phillies’ bullpen sOPS+ (opponent OPS, compared to other bullpens) is 159, by far the worst in baseball. If they make the playoffs, that mark would shatter the record for worst bullpen sOPS+ by a playoff team, currently held by the 1986 Red Sox. (Did the 1986 Red Sox have any famous bullpen meltdowns?)

And this isn’t a situation like the one Washington faced last year, in which the team was able to overcome a lack of relief depth by shortening the bench in the playoffs; Philadelphia’s bullpen has been rotten through and through. In 54 games, 23 players have made at least one relief appearance for the Phillies. Of those, only three have an ERA below 4.00. One is Blake Parker, a solid middle reliever who’s toting around an ERA of 2.81. Another is Neil Walker, an infielder who pitched a scoreless inning of mop-up relief. The third is José Álvarez.

Álvarez has been a reliable middle reliever since his first big league season in 2015, precisely the kind of steady hand a team like the Phillies would cherish. But on August 20, Álvarez took a 105 mph line drive squarely in the crotch, in an event so on the proverbial nose it barely even counts as a metaphor. Álvarez landed first on the ground, and then on the IL, and hasn’t pitched since. Also on the IL are David Robertson and Seranthony Domínguez, the two best relief pitchers the Phillies have under contract, who currently have zero working pitching-arm UCLs between them.

Robertson and Domínguez were supposed to be the core of a late-inning relief unit, alongside Héctor Neris, who’d led the Phillies in saves in two of the previous three seasons. But not even Neris has been entirely trustworthy this year; he has a 1.50 ERA in his last 13 appearances, but in mid-August he blew three straight save opportunities, prompting GM Matt Klentak to trade for Red Sox closer Brandon Workman. In 2019, Workman won 10 games out of the bullpen and saved a further 16, with an impressive K/9 ratio of 13.1 and an ERA of 1.88. Last year, he walked a positively disturbing 15.7 percent of the batters he faced, but he got away with it by holding opponents to a .121 batting average.

Since joining the Phillies, Workman has continued to dole out more walks than a Passion Pit tribute band, while also allowing opponents to hit .373/.456/.644 off him. That’s led to some predictable results: two blown saves, a WPA of minus-1.05 in just 13 appearances, and the return of the closer role to Neris.

As much as the Phillies failed to find their bullpen savior in a trade, internal options have not been much better. Their top two big-league-ready pitching prospects, Spencer Howard and Adonis Medina, are holding down rotation spots and unavailable for relief duty. (Or Howard was, until he also landed on the IL.) They’ve also dipped into the Alternate Site for help from the upper minors, to little avail. Connor Brogdon (5.40 ERA), Ramón Rosso (6.52 ERA), and promising Red Bull crusher JoJo Romero (who’s cool as hell and I hope he plays 15 years in the majors, but still has a 5.59 ERA) have failed to emerge as the second coming of the 2002 Angels.

A bullpen unit with an ERA over 7.00—having suffered not only the Phillies’ injuries but bouts of ineffectiveness by Workman, Neris, and the ordinarily reliable Tommy Hunter—practically cries out for a literal interpretation of the theoretical replacement-level player. That player, an integral part of popular player value analysis, is a construct, but players like him do exist—or at least players who serve a similar purpose. Each summer, as injuries pile up and saves are blown, non-rostered relief pitchers are claimed on waivers or signed off the street, or acquired in trades for players to be named later. The Phillies have recruited heavily from this reserve army this season. Klentak brought in Deolis Guerra and Reggie McClain as preseason waiver claims, then added David Hale, David Phelps, and Heath Hembree (who tagged along from Boston in the Workman trade) for odds and ends at the deadline. Nothing has worked. This bullpen was so bad it seemed like any group of guys off the street couldn’t possibly be worse. So Klentak tried that, and proved that notion incorrect.

This situation has pulled the wheels off the cart for an otherwise very good team. For all of the bullpen’s shenanigans, a rotation headed by Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, and Zach Eflin can hold its own against any in the National League in a short series, and if at least one of Howard or Jake Arrieta returns in time for the playoffs, this rotation could be downright scary in later rounds as well. The Phillies’ lineup, which uniformly forgot how to hit in 2019, has returned to form this year, boosted by the emergence of NL Rookie of the Year candidate Alec Bohm.

But it’s not just that this bullpen seems unable to hold a lead, with its 11 blown saves and .323/.405/.509 opponent slash lines in save situations. The bullpen is costing the Phillies the opportunity to come back from games they trail at the start when the hill to climb only grows with each passing inning. Of the 13 pitchers who have appeared in high-leverage situations for the Phillies this year, nine have an ERA over 10.00 in those conditions, and another, Hale, faced only one batter and gave up a hit. That takes a toll, as the Phillies have not only lost 29 games, but have lost an inordinate number of those in excruciating fashion. Eventually you start to expect something to go wrong, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s a puzzling, stunning problem to have, and one that’s too late for Klentak to fix. And despite putting together two-thirds of a really good team, the Phillies’ GM is one unsigned J.T. Realmuto extension from becoming public enemy no. 1 on the Philadelphia sports scene. That’s almost impossible to do in a season in which the Eagles suck and any leftover vitriol would ordinarily be directed to the Sixers’ rudderless front office. But down at Citizens Bank Park, unprecedented disasters are becoming more and more familiar every day.

All stats current through Monday’s games.