To be a Philly sports fan is to be a glutton for punishment.
Sure, there are occasional trips to the summit: a World Series title in 2008 here, a Super Bowl triumph in 2018 there. But more often than not, our teams seem to stick us somewhere along the base of the mountain, forced to watch as more competent organizations regularly make the climb each season.
We don’t watch quietly, of course. In this town, if you aren’t complaining, you aren’t breathing. We have grown so accustomed to shoddy play and inferior rosters that one might think we are more comfortable with failure. Are we truly more happy when we’re angry?
If so, we owe a tremendous debt to the Phillies bullpen. Despite the abbreviated 2020 campaign, the relief corps has remained undaunted in its quest for history. They limp into today’s doubleheader against the Toronto Blue Jays touting a collective ERA of 7.17, easily the worst bullpen staff in baseball. But why be the worst in a season when you have a shot to be the worst in history? Not since the presidential administration of Herbert Hoover has a collection of relievers performed so poorly. The record, of course, already belongs to Philadelphia:
The Phillies' bullpen has a 7.05 ERA, which would be the second-worst in baseball history to the 8.01 ERA by the 1930 Phillies. Seven of the 13 worst bullpen ERAs in history are by Philadelphia baseball teams, and it's poetic. https://t.co/Ffteo5GZsc
— Matt Gelb (@MattGelb) September 17, 2020
Back in the twilight of Gabe Kapler’s managerial tenure with the Phillies, I wrote the following in defense of the Phillies skipper:
So, the next time you feel the urge to scream at Kapler for his perceived incompetence, take a look at the personnel he has been asked to manage. What can he do differently? Would a replacement like Joe Girardi win more games when he doesn’t have the luxury of tapping Andrew Miller or Mariano Rivera to pitch in high leverage situations like he did in New York? Girardi can yell at Adam Morgan and Hector Neris all he wants. It won’t turn either into Miller or Rivera.
Looking back, it seems prescient. The Phillies organization indeed deposed Kapler and installed Girardi, and it hasn’t made a lick of difference. The team continues to circle the drain that is the .500 mark, and it’s the same story as last year: inconsistency, injuries, inferior replacements, and irrelevance.
The only task that the Phillies bullpen seems able to accomplish with any regularity is squandering a lead that the starters and the offense hand them. For Girardi, managing the end of games must feel like the opposite of Sophie’s Choice. Which unreliable arm do you call on for what should be the final three outs of the game?
Is it Hector Neris, who seems to have either his fastball or his splitter working, but rarely both at the same time? Neris may also have given us the quintessential moment of the 2020 season on Wednesday night when he dropped the baseball on the mound, leading to a balk call, and then promptly handed the Mets the lead. Neris has almost as many saves (4) as he has blown saves (3), and he has conceded 49 hits in 41 and 1/3 innings of work.
Behind Door Number Two is Brandon Workman, who came over to the Phillies this season in a trade with the Red Sox. In the deal, the Phillies also acquired Heath Hembree, who has found a way to give up 6 home runs in just under 8 innings of work. His 8.22 ERA is a standout among his peers in the ‘pen this year, which is quite the feat. But Workman was the main piece in the deal, and he was supposed to be a guy who could stanch the end-of-game bleeding. If the Phillies had gotten the Brandon Workman of 2019, he of the 1.88 ERA and 1.033 WHIP, they would likely not be hovering at the bottom of playoff contention with 11 games to go in the shortened season. But Workman has not been able to replicate the success he enjoyed in Boston, and his new club has suffered for it.
The Workman-Hembree tandem has proven to be the parting gift of Nick Pivetta, the sabermetrics darling and spin rate master who should serve as an enduring example to the analytics community that some aspects of a professional ballplayer’s career trajectory cannot be accurately measured or predicted. Pivetta, who was shipped to Boston in the deal, has become an enigma for the Red Sox organization to solve.
The Workman-Neris 9th inning dilemma for Girardi is reminiscent of Larry Bowa’s challenge during the tumultuous 2003 season, another year in which the Phillies were on the edge of playoff contention. In the final days of that campaign, Bowa’s back-end-of-the-bullpen options were Jose Mesa and Mike Williams, both of whom were about as dependable as the Neris-Workman combo seems today.
The Phillies fell short in 2003, and they almost assuredly will fail to make a serious run this year. The club continues to be hampered by an organizational inability to develop young pitchers who can carve out roles on a major league roster. Despite flashes of ability, Adam Morgan has failed to find a consistent footing. Neris continues to be a puzzle, and should never have been thrust into the closer role this season. It’s anyone’s guess when the talented Seranthony Dominguez may appear again in Phillies pinstripes.
It seems every pitching prospect who has debuted from the Phillies bullpen this season has scuffled. The latest victim was young lefty Garrett Cleavinger, who was called upon in the 9th inning after Workman self-immolated once again. Cleavinger quickly got ahead of Robinson Cano, working the count to 0-2. After firing a fastball that Cano foul-tipped and catcher Andrew Knapp could not secure, Cleavinger promptly served up a home run that mushroomed the deficit to 4 runs.
Welcome to The Show, kid.
The only drama that remains in this disaster of a season is whether this club can limp to the finish line at 30-30. Can they hold off the Mets in the process? Will Ricky Bottalico be able to retain his sanity as the drama unfolds? Same as it ever was.
Looking ahead, perhaps the end of this season will usher in the foundational changes that will be required in order for the Phillies to have a sincere chance to contend. The braintrust of Matt Klentak and Andy MacPhail must go. They should have been dismissed along with Gabe Kapler last year; perhaps those secret extensions both signed made the necessary decision financially prohibitive.
It’s not enough to clean out the front office. Hopefully, principal owner John Middleton has surveyed his competitors and discovered the areas in which the Phillies organization must improve. A nickel’s worth of free advice from the peanut gallery: maybe throw some of that “stupid money” at drafting and development. It’s the sort of investment that will strengthen the club and usher in the titles Middleton has been chasing.
Otherwise, the next general manager will be compelled to scour the bargain bin to plug holes in this deficient roster. And Philly fans will once again be left standing at the bottom of the mountain, impatiently waiting for another chance to climb to the top.