Heading into the 2018 season, there was a sense of optimism regarding the Phillies’ bullpen. Thanks to some questionable moves by Gabe Kapler and failure on the part of just about everyone involved, that optimism didn’t last past Opening Day.
Do you remember Opening Day? Aaron Nola was cruising along with a 5-0 lead in the sixth inning, and we seemed headed for a fun, angst-free win. Gabe Kapler had other ideas. He apparently decided before the season that if his starting pitchers encountered any difficulty during the dreaded third time through the order, he was going to pull them. In his eyes, one runner on with Freddie Freeman at the plate qualified as difficulty, so Kapler made the first call to the bullpen of the 2018 season.
And who was the first Phillies relief pitcher to enter a game in 2018? Sadly, we all know the answer to this trivia question: It was Hoby Milner, who promptly gave up a two-run home run. Unfortunately, the bullpen’s problems that day weren’t limited to Milner. Several other relievers teamed up to turn that 5-0 lead into a 8-5 walk off defeat.
Frequent calls to the bullpen and the subsequent failure of the summoned reliever was a recurring theme throughout the opening series. Kapler was bringing in relief pitchers with unprecedented ferocity. Seriously, he set a record for the most pitchers used in the first two games of a season. And it seemed like more often than not, the new pitcher did not perform well.
The nadir may have come in game three, when the Phillies brought in a reliever who hadn’t warmed up, and were later forced to use utility man Pedro Florimon to finish up the game.
What America needs is a Pedro Florimon pitch chart.— Jayson Stark (@jaysonst) April 1, 2018
Well, America, here it is pic.twitter.com/xBGyGuKg4Y
At this point, veteran reliever Pat Neshek had to sit down with Kapler and basically say, “Dude, please stop.” After that, things seemed to stabilize for a time. Kapler stopped managing the bullpen like a child on a sugar high, the relievers stopped pitching like they were actively trying to get the manager fired, and as far as I can tell, every reliever called into the game was given adequate time to warm up.
Unfortunately, there were other problems that never seemed to get better. For some reason, instead of starting an inning with a fresh pitcher, Kapler was fond of bringing a new pitcher in mid-inning (often as part of an unnecessary double switch). If this new reliever was able to record the third out of that inning, he would often be brought back out to start the next inning.
I don’t have the exact numbers in front of me, but it felt like the pitcher ran into trouble in that second inning about 75% of the time. This would necessitate another mid-inning pitching change, and the cycle would continue indefinitely.
I realize I’ve made it seem like the bullpen was a complete disaster all season, but that really wasn’t the case. The Phillies’ relievers ranked 11th in the majors in fWAR, their ERA was 18th, and their FIP was 13th. If not for several horrific gut punch late inning losses (and yes, that’s a big if), we’d probably be feeling a lot better about how the bullpen performed.
So who - aside from the manager - were the people responsible for those inconsistent, but ultimately average numbers? Here are the key players:
Neris served as the team’s closer in 2017, and entered the season with a streak of 12 consecutive saves. That streak was not broken on Opening Day, only because the game was already tied when he surrendered a walk off home run to Nick Markakis. That appearance was a harbinger of things to come, as Neris went on to blow several saves, and pitched so poorly that he was demoted to the minors.
He was eventually recalled, and surprisingly became one of the more reliable relief options down the stretch. He might yet prove to be a dependable arm as long as he’s not asked to pitch in the ninth inning.
Ramos was generally less bad than the rest of the Phillies relievers in 2018, and I swear that’s a compliment.
Remember when I mentioned that a reliever was brought in without adequately warming up? That was Milner. For some reason, Gabe Kapler was really eager to get the lefty into games. Perhaps trying to save Kapler from himself, Matt Klentak banished Milner from the team soon after that.
Hoby Milner rules everything around me, HMREAM get the money, Tampa Tampa Rays y’all https://t.co/kwxMqza7SN— Zoo With Roy (@zoowithroy) July 15, 2018
Arano started off the season well, and increasingly found himself called upon in key situations. Unfortunately, like many of his teammates, he faltered down the stretch. His opponent slash line for the month of August was .364/.370/.568.
Thanks to injury or ineffectiveness, there were stretches of the season when the team didn’t have a reliable left handed reliever on hand. Therefore, the burden of retiring lefty batters was often left to Hunter. Sometimes he was okay at this job. Other times, he looked terrified to be on the mound, and would promptly give up a home run to a guy you had never heard of before.
Hunter’s inconsistency didn’t win him much support among the Phillies faithful. What’s the opposite of “fan favorite?”
Tommy Hunter sucks and no one will convince me otherwise.— John Stolnis (@JohnStolnis) July 29, 2018
Man I’ve been trying to be cool about it for awhile but Tommy Hunter sucks so badly and he needs to go— Spooka Doncic (@kai_tremoglie) July 13, 2018
Neshek missed most of the first half of the season with a shoulder injury. He eventually returned and pitched well, although even he had his share of shaky moments during the team’s collapse. He says he loves being in Philly, yet he doesn’t seem to approve of the manager’s style or of the team’s frequent defensive shifts.
Neshek also had some non-Gerry Davis thoughts. “I get the ground ball, I think it might be a double play, there's nobody there. Shift. I didn't even know we had a shift.”— Scott Lauber (@ScottLauber) September 22, 2018
It looked like Morgan would be the primary late-inning lefty specialist in 2018. It didn’t work out that way. The low point came on June 6th in Wrigley Field. Morgan was asked to close out a game, and with two outs, the only thing standing between the Phillies and a rousing victory over the Cubs was the offensively-mediocre Jason Heyward. Here’s how that turned out:
After that game, appearances in close games or crucial situations were much less frequent.
Garcia has been on the roster seemingly forever, and he’s a very effective pitcher as long as you don’t ask him to get an important out in a key spot. If you’re dealing with a double-digit deficit though, he’s your go-to guy.
Despite not pitching above single A before the season, Dominguez was called up to the majors as a reliever in May, and unexpectedly became the GREATEST RELIEVER EVER. This was a common scene when Seranthony came to the mound:
Nasty slider from Seranthony Dominguez to lock down the save pic.twitter.com/ZrIoydBxJb— Ben Palmer (@benjpalmer) June 28, 2018
For a while, it looked like Seranthony was the cure to all our woes. If another reliever ever pitched into a jam, it didn’t matter. Seranthony would come in and strike everybody out. Did Kapler managed to burn through five relievers in seven innings? No worries - Seranthony would get the two-inning save.
Unfortunately (but not really unexpectedly), the good times couldn’t continue forever. Apparently, there are consequences to riding an inexperienced 23-year-old rookie pitcher that hard. He seemed to tire down the stretch, and even our precious gift from the relief gods faltered in key spots.
What does 2019 hold for the Phillies bullpen? With Gabe Kapler at the helm, it’s safe to say that the roster will regularly carry eight relievers, and depending on the schedule, that number may expand to nine at times. It’s also safe to say that these eight or nine men may be deployed at any time, in any situation.
It seems likely that Dominguez, Neris, Ramos, Hunter, Arano, and Neshek will all be back, and it wouldn’t be shocking if one of the starters (Vince Velasquez? Nick Pivetta?) is converted to a reliever. While the lack of a dependable lefthander still sticks out, on paper that seems like the core of a solid bullpen. Will they be effective (or perhaps more specifically, will they be deployed in an effective manner)? That remains to be seen.