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If the Phillies’ 2020 bullpen had just been bad, the team would have made the playoffs last year; maybe even won the NL East.
The butterfly effect would have — among other results — likely kept Dave Dombrowski as a front man trying to bring Major League Baseball to Nashville.
Instead, the 2020 Phillies’ bullpen was not bad. It was historically horrendous. In the shortened 2020 season, Philadelphia relievers amassed the second-worst ERA (7.06) and second-worst OPS against (.946) in history. The bullpen threw the fewest innings in the majors, yet allowed 42 homers, which was more than 11 rotations, including that of the Phillies (38).
“One home run does not leave the building and things could have been a lot different,” Phillies GM Sam Fuld said.
Instead, the Phillies (29-31) finished one game out of the wild card, marking a 10th straight year that the organization failed to make it above .500 or to the postseason. Matt Klentak was dismissed as GM. There was a belief by other teams that Phillie ownership, after dawdling to make an outside hire, felt meaningful action was needed following Steve Cohen’s well-received introductory press conference as Mets owner. Suddenly, Dombrowski was hired to run baseball operations. Then Dombrowski elevated Fuld from the team’s information coordinator to GM.
Together, they set out to remake the pen. When the Phillies and Mets begin their four-game series with a doubleheader Tuesday after Monday’s postponement, Philadelphia will be first in the NL East. No reason stands out more for a 6-3 start than that remade bullpen. The group is 5-1 with a 3.73 ERA and a .615 OPS against.
It was just nine games, but what cannot be missed is that the Phils have added heat to their pen — namely with Jose Alvarado and Sam Coonrod. The relievers’ average velocity is collectively up two miles an hour from 2020, and the team went from being ranked 23rd in that area to fifth. Not surprisingly, the bullpen strikeout rate was up from 22.9 percent to 26.5.
Besides Alvarado and Coonrod, the Phillies imported two former closers in Archie Bradley (now on the IL with an oblique injury) and Brandon Kintzler.
“I believe in regression to the mean, so even if we ran out the same bullpen from last year, this year, it would be a lot better,” Fuld said in a phone interview. “But we do feel we added valuable arms to help us.”
Opponents are hitting just .188 against the Phillie pen. Again, it is just nine games. But it is nine games exclusively against the Braves and Mets, who were expected to have two of the league’s best offenses and also be the class of the NL East. The four games at Citi Field will give the 2021 Phillies 13 games against the Met and Braves; a chance for an early statement that they will be factors this year.
“Nobody here is going to hang our hat on the first nine games of a season,” Fuld said. “But it is encouraging to see us compete versus two really good clubs the way we have. … We may be surprising people externally, but within our walls, we feel this is what is expected because we saw it all spring training.”
Nine games, besides being a small sample, also have not challenged the Phillie depth. When it comes to a best 10 or 15 on a roster, Philadelphia stands with the Mets and Braves and Nationals. Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler and Zach Eflin are a strong rotation threesome. Dombrowski has a way at his various stops of motivating ownership spending and, after what appeared, at minimum, to be hesitancy earlier in the offseason, the Phillies re-signed the majors’ best catcher, J.T. Realmuto (will the Mets and Yankees regret not capitalizing there?). Realmuto joins NL Rookie of the Year runner-up Alec Bohm, Bryce Harper, Rhys Hoskins and Didi Gregorius in a fine lineup.
But Nos. 4-5 starters Chase Anderson and Matt Moore are big questions. The Phillies have a lot of uncertainty in center field. Will that pen hold up, especially once taxed with innings and when reinforcements are needed? Dombrowski’s history when running contenders in Miami, Detroit and Boston is to be aggressive. Does he have a contender?
“We have more question marks 15-to-45 [on the roster] than 1-to-15,” said Fuld, who was watching the club’s depth at the alternate site in Allentown, Pa., during the interview. “We will definitely wait and see what we get out of our depth.”
The bullpen, at least early, is deeper and better than last year. After being so bad in 2020, that offers a quick sense of relief for the Phillies in 2021.
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