2017 Phillies Report Card: Bullpen Breakouts
I realize it has now been over a month since the last post here and posts were not frequent before that. I am still trying to figure out how to get everything done. With my prospect list finished I am going to doing a mad rush to finish out the report cards here before we launch into yet another baseball season. Thank you for bearing with us.
Early in the 2017 season the Phillies bullpen was much maligned. Pat Neshek was good, Neris was shaky, and Joaquin Benoit and Jeanmar Gomez were blowing games. By midseason, the Phillies had traded Neshek and Benoit, and released Gomez. And yet, in the second half the Phillies posted the 10th best bullpen ERA in baseball. This was while Jesen Therrien and Ricardo Pinto pitched nearly 40 innings of 9 ERA baseball. So how do you turn around a bullpen midseason without acquiring any players?
- April – July: 28 IP 6.43 ERA 12 BB 30 K
- August – September: 26.2 IP 1.69 ERA 6 BB 33 K
- April – June: 31 IP 5.52 ERA 22 BB 38K
- August – September: 26.2 IP 2.70 ERA 6 BB 37 K
- April – May: 15.2 IP 2.30 ERA 4 BB 7 K
- June – July: 55.2 IP 2.75 ERA 22 BB 53 K
Given the parameters like the months, the bad first half for the first two, and the turnover on the roster it is fairly easy to narrow down who these players are. For those that didn’t, it is Adam Morgan, Edubray Ramos, and Luis Garcia. None of these names are unfamiliar to Phillies fans. Morgan is a former top prospect remaking himself after an injury. Ramos looked dominant at times in 2016 and entered the year as a future bullpen stable. Garcia has been the subject of much derision over the years and was predicted by many, including myself, to be designated for assignment at the end of spring training. Which brings up the thing that ties all of these guys together, at some point in recent memory they were extreme disappointments.
Entering Spring Training, Luis Garcia had logged 127.1 innings for the Phillies in the majors across 4 seasons, was 30 years old, and had been bad enough in 2016 to be banished to AAA for most of the year. His arm strength was evident, with his fastball averaging over 96mph in 2016. He also had a career 5.7 BB/9 and 7.9 K/9 in the majors. It looked like the end of the line for Garcia entering the year. The Phillies sent him to AAA to open the 2017 season.
Adam Morgan was a Top 100 prospect in baseball following the 2012 season. He got hurt that next spring and then missed all of 2014 to injury. When he came back he was a soft tossing lefty starter. He was mediocre in that role for the Phillies in 2015 and even worse in 2016. The Phillies moved him to the bullpen in 2017, partially because they had no more lefties. After two April appearances the Phillies demoted Morgan to AAA.
Edubray Ramos entered the year with a decent but of hype. However, his bad start to the year saw the Phillies demoted him to AAA where he was better and then hurt.
They all turned it around in different, but sort of similar ways.
Luis Garcia spent the offseason and spring learning how to throw a splitter. His fastball has always had horrible whiff rates with great ground ball rates. He has had to rely on his slider exclusively for getting strikeouts, and the strikeouts haven’t been there without the walks. With the splitter, Garcia was able to balance the two out. His strikeout rate wasn’t amazing down the stretch, but Garcia posted a 64.8% ground ball rate in the second half. Garcia did put up some heavy L/R splits. Oh and he also at age 30 saw another mph growth in his fastball velocity.
Adam Morgan was not good after coming back from the minors. He walked too many batters, he didn’t strike anyone out, and then that all changed in August. Morgan’s fastball velocity had been up all year, but by August Morgan was averaging over 95 mph on his fastball. The only “problem” was he was throwing it less than ever. In August he leaned heavily on his slider, and in September he leaned on his changeup, both months throwing his fastball under 33% of the time. Morgan’s fastball has long been a poor pitch, it is straight, it is flat, and no matter how hard he threw it, batters hit it. His changeup has been better in 2017, but is have always been a solid pitch. His slider, which was his calling card as a prospect, has always been a plus pitch, and all year in the bullpen he was getting whiffs with it. As he threw it more, the number of whiffs stayed constant. As his fastball faded from being the primary weapon, 95 from the left side suddenly became a strikeout pitch as a change of pace. Morgan also started to throw a 2 seam fastball more, meaning not only was he getting more whiffs, he was getting ground balls too. Like Garcia, Morgan had severe platoon splits. At his most dominant (August and September) he struck out 21 of the 40 lefties he faced, while allowing them to hit .108/.175/.108 off of him. Righties didn’t tee off on him, but he only struck out 21 of the 61 with a .207/.246/.276 batting line.
Ramos took a page of sorts from Adam Morgan’s book. He was already cutting down on fastball usage before getting sent down, but when he came back up he took it to the extreme, throwing his slider 68% of the time in September. Much like Morgan, Ramos’ fastball has not been a great pitch, but his breaking ball has been. He had a 50% whiff percentage on it in August, and when that dropped to 36% in September his fastball picked up the pace as batters looked to get a piece of the breaking ball. In what is a trend here, left handed batters hit Ramos around even when he was dominant. He only struck out 5 of the 37 lefties he faced in the second half, and while only walking one, they hit .333/.351/.528 off of him. Meanwhile the 71 righties had a much different experience with 32 of them going down by strikeout, and the group of them hitting .167/.229/.200 off of Ramos.
The group are all flawed, they are after all relievers. But they are also all dominant in their own right, and it will be important for Kapler to keep them in those situations. All three can and have gone multiple innings, and all three look to be part of what could be a dominant Phillies bullpen.
Any time you can go from getting demoted to AAA to being some of the more dominant relievers in baseball, it has been a good year.