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.
Quick Poll: The Phillies bullpen ERA ranks where in baseball?
— Matt Winkelman (@Matt_Winkelman) May 8, 2017
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.
|The Up and Downs|
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.
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.