I’m going to start by saying this: the Phillies’ bullpen is not as bad as you might think.
Sure, they have had some spectacular failures so far, along with some near misses in games they pulled out, but statistically, they are pretty much an average bullpen. They do a lot of things that are good (stranding inherited runners, not walking guys) and aren’t that bad in the things you think they might be bad in (giving up home runs, striking people out). The guy who has become the primary face of that unit is Seranthony Dominguez.
Since being promoted from Lehigh Valley, Dominguez has been a revelation. Through Wednesday’s game, he has a 1.42 ERA in 19 innings, striking out 22 batters and only walking one. He has yet to give up a home run and has allowed only seven hits overall. His high 90’s fastball and devastating slider combination have left hitters flummoxed. He’s been a tonic for manager Gabe Kapler as he has looked for someone to get key outs in the late innings that they had been seemingly struggling to get.
Lately, though, Dominguez has been showing a few cracks in the armor. He’s given up three runs in his last three appearances (4 1⁄3 innings) after not giving anything up in his initial twelve games. His command of his stuff has been a bit spottier than before, with the pinpoint accuracy hasn’t been as sharp. The fear is that he is beginning to wear down a bit under the pressure of having to be the ace of this relief corps. For example, on Tuesday night against the Rockies, it was obvious that Kapler wanted to avoid using Dominguez, allowing him two days of rest. Thanks to Luis Garcia’s ineffectiveness, Dominguez was forced to get the final three outs with the bases loaded, something he did with aplomb yet again.
The leverage index for that appearance was a whopping 5.64 (one being about average stress). In fact, Dominguez leads the team in aLI with 1.81. That 1.81 number would actually be in the top 20 in all of baseball if Dominguez had enough innings to qualify. It’s painfully obvious to most fans that when it comes to getting the big out in a game, he is the one Kapler and fans are pining for the most.
The situation that the Phillies faced in the ninth on Tuesday is exactly the type of situation Dominguez is needed for, but shouldn’t have to face all the time. With Pat Neshek being injured the entire season and Tommy Hunter being hurt to start the year, the ineffectiveness of the triumvirate of Garcia, Adam Morgan and Hector Neris has been amplified. They haven’t been able to get outs as they have been in the past, causing Kapler to lean more on the one guy who can seemingly get outs when they are most needed. Victor Arano has been a revelation as well, but got hurt and got a little wild. Edubray Ramos has been very good as well. Their under-usage has been a little baffling, but the curious usage of the bullpen arms is something for another time.
Getting back to Dominguez, he is entering uncharted territory. In the minors, he was, until this past season, developed as a starter with a few relief appearances sprinkled in. He has never been asked to pitch in these high leverage situations before. He has never been asked to pitch in back to back games. He has never been asked to get loose as quickly as he is asked to now. To avoid some kind of calamity with this young right hander, the team is going to need either someone to step up and pitch to their ability or they’re going to have to bring someone in from the outside. The acquisition of someone from the outside would require the surrendering of assets this team might be comfortable giving up just yet, but it must be considered. Should the strategy be built around the protection of one arm? No, but with Dominguez being so good and the rest of the bullpen being somewhat untrustworthy, it makes that strategy make more sense. Whatever angle the Phillies attack it from, it needs to happen soon. Otherwise, the risk of burning out Dominguez becomes greater and greater and put this already sketchy unit further in a hole.