The Bullpen Is All Right

Coming into the 2017 season, the Phillies bullpen was supposed to be much improved. It was going to be hard for the team to not improve naturally on a group that had finished the year 28th in the majors with a 5.05 ERA. In addition to cutting some poor performers, the Phillies added veterans in Pat Neshek and Joaquin Benoit to shore up the group. Of course the Phillies bullpen has been seen as the weakest part of the team, thanks to a rough stretch where they went 2-8 vs some of the best teams in the National League and managed to blow a lead in almost every game.

So I made a quick poll on Twitter to see where many of you thought the Phillies bullpen was right now.

33% of you were correct. As of this morning, the Phillies have a team reliever ERA of 4.07, which is 14th in the majors and 8th in the National League. No one thought the Phillies’ bullpen was going to be amazing, but kind of average is right about what was expected this year.

This is unsatisfying, because we know the bullpen has been blowing leads, so why not turn to the biggest problem spot on the team first, their unexplainable inability to pitch in the 9th inning. Right now, Phillies relievers have a 6.85 ERA in the 9th inning (22.1 innings), which is 26th in baseball. Opposing hitters are batting .283/.354/.600, and they have 9 home runs, which is the most by a decent margin. Part of this is an absurd 26.5% HR/FB rate, in addition to a fly ball rate that is second in the majors. The other part is the Phillies are not striking batters out in that small sample size. Jeanmar Gomez does not strike anyone out, and Hector Neris has seen his strikeout rate drop this year. We are still in small sample size territory with good relievers with track records of success (Benoit and Neris), so it is too early to say that this will continue to be a problem, just because it has been a problem in the past.

Moving on from the 9th inning. it is pretty easy to see where the problem is once you separate out the relievers by role.

Player IP ER HR BB K
Neris 16.2 7 4 3 16
Benoit 13.2 4 2 7 14
Neshek 11 0 0 3 8
Ramos 13.2 6 2 6 18
Rodriguez 16 8 3 8 11
Total 61 25 11 27 67
Player  IP  ER  HR  BB  K
Gomez 11.1 10 4 5 11
The Up and Downs
Player IP ER HR BB K
Morgan 6 7 6 2 8
Garcia 4.1 0 0 2 2
Leiter 6 2 0 5 2
Thompson 3 2 0 3 3
Total 19.1 11 6 12 15

Yes a 3.67 ERA is not ideal for the core of your bullpen, but it also is not terrible either. Neshek is likely to see some decline from his 0.00 ERA, but at the same time Neris’ 3.78 should drop a little bit, and Rodriguez and Ramos could see some improvement as well. Outside of some public blow ups in the 9th inning, this group has been relatively fine. Neris is not going to allow 3 home runs in a row, and Ramos is not going to allow a .378 BABIP all year.

I am going to skip over the next guy and go to the last group. Adam Morgan was a complete disaster in the majors, though it was not entirely his fault that he had to fall on his sword after Clay Buchholz died on the mound. However, he also has a 6.04 ERA in AAA so far with a miniscule strikeout rate, so he is far from a good pitcher. Garcia has had some fluky luck, Leiter has been replacement level fodder, and Thompson got pressed into duty because of the 40 man roster. Outside of using them in close losses, there is really not much reason to really complain about the 7th man in the bullpen.

However, the 6th man in the bullpen should draw plenty of ire. Gomez has appeared in 9 games this year. Of those games, only 1 was before the 8th (April 30 where he turned a 2-1 game into a 5-1 game), and only 1 was in game with a deficit greater than 3 (the Buchholz game). Outside of his two early save appearances, Gomez has not appeared in a game where the Phillies had a lead. Of his 9 appearances, only 3 times did he not allow a run. It is easy to say that the Phillies should just drop him (and I know I have called for that), but Gomez has been competent in the past, and the Phillies are not flush with bullpen arms. Right now it makes sense, in a give all fans a heart attack way, for the Phillies to use him in the lowest leverage situations they can to see if he can be usable.

I do want to address one criticism to this analysis so far, and that is that the Phillies rank dead last in bullpen fWAR (they are 16th in RA/9 WAR). Here are some ERA estimators for the Phillies key relievers.

Neris 3.78 5.02 2.02
Benoit 2.63 4.49 2.37
Neshek 0.00 2.46 5.72
Ramos 3.95 3.68 2.54
Rodriguez 4.50 5.85 3.63
Gomez 7.94 7.07 8.39
Morgan 10.50 14.43 11.55
Garcia 0.00 3.56 1.28
Leiter 3.00 4.93 1.90
Thompson 6.00 4.10 6.00

DRA which takes in the most contextual factors of the 3 metrics is the most optimistic of the three metrics on the Phillies key relievers. Which makes some sense,given that both Neris and Ramos have runs allowed by other relievers and Neris has a run aided by a defensive indifference. DRA also does not blindly accept the home run rates like FIP and does some amount of park factor adjustments.

In aggregate, the Phillies bullpen has been fine this year. It is not an elite unit, but there is plenty of evidence that the core of the bullpen is as good as we thought it was coming into the season. There is no reason to believe that Neris or Benoit can’t handle the 9th inning in a league average closer way, given what they have done in other roles this year. Once that role stabilizes, the rest of the pieces should fall into order, and hopefully that means a whole lot less of Jeanmar Gomez.

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  1. Mike Fassano

    May 09, 2017 02:39 PM

    Part of the problem with the bullpen is Pete. Gomez lost his closer job last September. In what seemed like the longest Spring training ever, there should have been a hearty competition for bullpen roles. Pete anointed Gomez the closer, but added that the leash would be short. That’s really showing confidence in a guy. Through Feb., March, April, and part of May the Phillies bullpen is still a jumble. This should have been resolved by opening day.
    Another part of the problem may be Rupp’s pitch calling and framing. I honestly don’t know if Knapp is better at this, but if he is I’d use him in the 9th inning. Hey, we pulled Greg Luzinski for a defensive replacement.

  2. NJ Mike

    May 09, 2017 10:11 PM

    This bullpen has been anything but fine in the early going.

    They have a few decent arms but their middle relievers stink and they have no competent LHP relievers.

    • Mike Fassano

      May 09, 2017 11:37 PM

      They didn’t look fine tonight.

      • TommyDigital

        May 10, 2017 07:59 AM

        Yeah that was horrific. I don’t know exactly what I expected from the phils this year but they’ve lost too many games they could have won this year. It’s frustrating watching them but I guess that we just have to trust the process

    • What a Relief

      May 10, 2017 01:05 PM

      Kind of shows the importance of scouting & actually watching the games, especially w/o a very large sample size. Who else but statheads would take solace in a 14th place ranking when it’s clear the pen isn’t even coming close to getting the job done. Naris, Benoit & Neshek are the only guys who are real major leaguers at present & into the foreseeable future. I’m not huge on Naris, either but have to respect his numbers somewhat. I’d sell short on him if I were Klentak.

      • NJ Mike

        May 10, 2017 03:46 PM

        Even statheads who would look at the collective performance out the bullpen would acknowledge it has struggled.

        The Phillies’ relievers have been really hurt by HRs but just using DRA of individual relievers does not tell you much either.

  3. davels

    May 10, 2017 02:19 PM

    The Phils have lost the most one run games in the MLB this year (9)… they have also played the 2nd most 1 run games (15… LAA has played 16).

    So, nearly _50%_ of our games have been decided by 1 run… which places the bullpen under a microscope. The rotation has been having issues getting deep into games, which just places more burden on the pen. They haven’t been great. They also haven’t been an unmitigated disaster (though it sure feels that way right now).

    • davels

      May 10, 2017 04:53 PM

      You know what… nevermind. I can’t defend them after today. They’re horrible! They’re crushing (whats left of) my soul. just… ugh. They gotta make some change… even if its only for the sake of change.

  4. Chase

    May 10, 2017 11:52 PM

    Benoit calling out the Phillies staff after his outing. Classy.

    “One day I’m seventh [inning], I’ve started in the sixth, I’ve been in the ninth, the eighth. Right now I’m all over the place. It’s a little bit consistency, and not just the pitching staff, but the people that run it, too.”

  5. Ed

    May 11, 2017 05:24 AM

    Well at times like this I couldn’t agree more with the idea that stats are as Mark Twain said a damn lie. That said, the starters have not been able to over 5-6 innings a night. One cannot reasonably expect the bullpen to sustain any sense of success given this glaring weakness. Hey, can Altherr pitch?

  6. JustBob

    May 11, 2017 12:43 PM

    Best call since ‘Dewey Defeats Truman!’

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