Pen Mightier Than We Realized? Thoughts on Phillies 5, Cardinals 3

Mandatory Credit: Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

For the first two months of the season, we all hated this Phillies bullpen.

Admit it, you did too. Whether it was booing it’s representatives in person at Citizens Bank Park, or cursing at them at home on your television, or even going on your podcast and telling your partner that you’ve seen enough of Jeryus Familia and Jose Alvarado, as I have done.

And we did it with justification.

The Phillies fired Joe Girardi on June 2. The team was 22-29 and floundering. Girardi’s management of the bullpen was suspect at best, flat-out awful at times, and, aside from a couple handfuls of games when the offense was completely frustrating and non-existent, was the target of fan ire for a team that had greater expectations.

Enter Rob Thomson.

The new Phils manager has gone 19-8 in his first 27 games, which included a superb, come-from-behind 5-3 win over St. Louis Friday night. And while he’s had games where the offense carried his team or his starting pitchers have dominated, his bullpen has done a complete 180.

Since Thomson took over the bullpen has become more efficient, it has cut down on the number of hits it allows and the number of walks it surrenders, and in the last 10 games has been so good, that it’s been the best bullpen in baseball.

Small sample size, yes. Ten games does not a season make. Nor does one month. But for now, things are trending in the right direction.

“I think they are pitching to their level,” Thomson said. “It’s what we expected with some of these guys. When you are struggling, we put a couple guys into lower leverage situations to just try and breathe and relax and get their confidence back. We’re at the point now where you trust just about everybody.”

Well… not everybody… at least not yet. But, we’ll get to the individual numbers in a minute. First, let’s look at the collective.

Under Girardi the bullpen looked like this:

180IP 792PA 95R 83ER 166H 93BB 194K 1.44WHIP 8.3H/9; 4.7BB/9; 9.7K/9; 4.15ERA

Those numbers aren’t good. The Phillies bullpen ranked toward the bottom if the league as the calendar flipped to June. The walk rate was way too high. Allowing 13 baserunners every nine innings pitched was terrible. And in a season where offense is struggling and pitching dominance is at the fore, an ERA over four is unacceptable.

But things have course corrected under Thomson. Here are the same bullpen stats, albeit in 24 fewer games:

83IP 344PA 38R 33ER 64H 32BB 91K 1.16WHIP 6.9H/9; 3.5BB/9; 9.9K/9; 3.58ERA

These newest numbers are more akin to a solid bullpen. The walk rate is still a little high, but as you’ll see soon, it’s still coming down. The hit rate is very good. And the strikeout rate went up, but only a tick, which means this success has come from better location and control across the board.

But, I was wondering if it might be something a little more than that. Something a little more than mechanics, or delivery, or even “stuff.” So, I asked Thomson about this after the game Friday.

“How much of that is settling into specific roles,” I asked?

“I think that’s part of it,” Thomson said. “You have to make sure that you put them in the right pocket of the order so that they have a chance to have success. Yes, that’s all part of it, too. You have to make sure they get consistent work but not overworking them. There’s a lot to that.”

And what it’s turned into is the following pecking order:

  1. Seranthony Dominguez – Closer. Unless he’s needed for a high-leverage eighth inning.
  2. Brad Hand – Lefty setup guy, closer when Dominguez isn’t available or has a high-leverage eighth.
  3. Connor Brogdon – although he’s on COVID-IL at the moment, he was settling into the right -handed seventh inning role which he’s sharing with…
  4. Corey Knebel – who has been better of late coming out of the pen in this role than with the game on the line.
  5. Andrew Bellatti – Kind of that middle reliever who gets you out of sticky situations in games a little earlier than the back end of the bullpen.
  6.  Jose Alvarado – A situational reliever coming in when there’s either a tough lefty batter, or you are looking for a strikeout in a key spot.
  7. Nick Nelson – Multi-inning reliever, relied on to piggyback off a starter with a short outing.

From there, the other reliever or two in the pen (depending if they’re carrying eight or nine relievers) are situational low-leverage guys. Currently, it’s Familia, Mark Appel and Michael Kelly, although, once Brogdon comes back, Kelly probably goes back down.

It took Thomson a couple weeks to establish these roles, but ever since he did, the Phillies bullpen has been almost untouchable. Consider the last 10 games:

29.1IP 99PA 2R 2ER 7H 3BB 35K 0.34WHIP 2.2H/9; 0.1BB/9; 10.7K/9 0.61ERA

While this level of success is certainly unsustainable, it’s evidence that what Thomson is doing with the bullpen is working and that it might not be as bad a group as we all thought.

Against the Cardinals on Friday night, Bailey Falter started in place of the injured Zach Eflin. Falter went four innings allowing three runs. He was mostly solid in those four innings except allowing a pair of two-out, two-strike singles to Paul Goldschmidt, challenging the NL MVP frontrunner when he probably shouldn’t have. And then, following that up with two mistake pitches to Nolan Arenado, one that almost left the yard and landed as a triple. The other did leave the yard for a home run.

Not wanting to get behind further than 3-0, and not wanting Falter to have to face those two big bats again, Thomson called on Nelson in the fifth. It was the beginning of a five-inning parade of relievers (Nelson, Alvarado, Bellatti, Dominguez and Hand) that allowed no runs on two hits and two walks while striking out 10.

Here are just a few examples of some big pitches from the bullpen as the Phillies worked their way back into the game, eventually taking the lead and holding on for victory.

With the win, the Phillies moved to within 1.5 games of the Cardinals for the third and final Wild Card spot, and also closed to within 7.5 games of the NL East leading New York Mets. While the division is still a bit off in the distance, to be where they are in both races considering where this team sat a month ago when Girardi was fired is pretty impressive.

And they have the bullpen, and a manager who knows how best to use it, to thank for that — at least in part.

Other Notes from Friday

  • Darick Hall drove in the game-winning run with a solo homer. It was his third homer in two nights. Hall became just the second Phillie to ever have his first three major league hits be home runs. The other? Ed Sanicki in 1949. Sanicki never hit another one after that. We’re betting Hall doesn’t fall into that same bucket. I mean, just look at the power on this swing:

  • Not to be outdone, Rhys Hoskins gave the Phillies an insurance run with a solo homer in the seventh inning. This marked the third straight game Hoskins homered. Probably lost behind the monster month that Kyle Schwarber had in June and the injury to Bryce Harper, Hoskins has been on one of his hot streaks, but this one has been a bit more sustained. Since the managerial change, Hoskins is slashing .316/.431/1.094 with 8 homers and 16 RBI. But really, if you go back almost a month more, you’ll see improved performance. Since hitting his low-point of the season when he was batting .186 heading into Mother’s Day, Hoskins has slashed a very solid .286/.376/.937 with 14 homers and 32 RBI. Usually, Hoskins gets hot for a couple weeks, then cools off before ramping it up again, but this is a bit different, and maybe, just maybe…is sustainable.

  • I’ve been to hundreds of baseball games in my life. I may even be over 1,000 at this point. There are a few things I’d never seen in person: a perfect game, no-hitter, or a cycle. Well, technically, I’ve now seen the cycle, although I’m tempted to not count it. You see, Arenado hit for the cycle against the Phillies in this one. The triple, homer and double were all legit. The single? Well…

Ask anyone who has ever watched me keep score at baseball or softball and they’ll tell you I’m a tough scorer, but this is a no-brainer to me. It should be two errors on Matt Vierling. The first, booting the ball, allowing Arenado to get to first, and the second on the throw allowing him to get to second. I saw arguments that the ball was hit hard and that Vierling isn’t a natural third baseman, so maybe that’s why you give him the hit. I call B.S. on those arguments. The ball was hit hard, but mostly right at Vierling. Yeah it’s on his backhand side, but that is definitely a field-able ball. And the notion that he doesn’t usually play there? So what? It shouldn’t come into the official scorer’s mind. That’s who the team put out there, so you expect him to make the plays that anyone else should make. Instead, Arenado got the second cycle of his career and the 17th in Cardinals history. The record books just shed a tear.

  • Finally, I wanted to give props to Mickey Moniak. You have to think the guy is running out of chances, and here he was again Friday with runners on base and a chance to help the Phillies get back in the game. Whereas the expectation is for a strikeout, a rollover grounder to second or a weak fly ball to the outfield, Moniak hit a curve ball – yes, he can hit a breaking pitch – and hit it hard and over the outfield for an RBI double, his first extra-base hit this season.

The quote of the night goes to Thomson, who when asked about how good it was for Moniak to get that double he responded, “It was good to see all the blood come back into his face,” Thomson said. “He’s been trying to do too much, that’s all. He just needs to relax and have fun.”