It’s been 10 years since Brad Lidge pitched a season we’ll all remember. Ten years since a fastball/12-6 slider combination went 41-for-41 in save opportunities in the regular season, an additional 7-for-7 in the playoffs, and helped bring a World Series title to Philadelphia.
All told, Lidge made 72 appearances during the 2008 regular season. Of those 72, 68 came in the ninth inning. He was the Phillies’ best reliever that year and, damn it, the best reliever is used in the ninth inning with a lead!
For a long time, bullpen structuring worked in a simple way: Look for your starter to go six or seven, have your second-bets reliever pitch the eighth, then your best in the ninth. Voila, game won! If anything went awry before the starter got deep into the game, the five relievers you didn’t trust with the game on the line were there to pick up the slack. Maybe you tossed in a lefty for that one tough left-handed out, but that was about as radical as things got.
Now, bullpen strategy is thought about differently. You can thank Andrew Miller for catalyzing this shift in thought process on a national scale, but it’s been in the works for a bit even before Miller started unleashing hell on hitters in the sixth, fifth, and even fourth innings of playoff games. Relief can happen anywhere, at any time, and the best relief arms on a staff are no longer confined to the ninth inning.
In the here and now, the Phillies are undergoing a bit of a revolution. Sure, they’re kind of a laggard as far as the whole “use your best reliever when the situation calls for it, not the inning number” thing is concerned, but part of that’s been due to a lack of an arm worthy of undertaking that revolution.
Although it’s early yet in his Major League (and relief, in general) career, Seranthony Domiguez is showing signs of being baseball’s next great super reliever. Seven of his first 15 appearances have been multi-inning, which isn’t highly noteworthy league-wide, but it is intriguing on a Phillies-specific level. Since 2000, the only Phillies relievers to have more outings with four-plus outs recorded in their first 15 career games are Ryan Madson and J.A. Happ. The three others who share Dominguez’s perch with seven such appearances are Carlos Silva, Ricardo Pinto, and Mark Leiter, Jr.
Notice a theme?
Every one of the pitchers in the last paragraph came up as a starting pitcher, or at least spent the bulk of their time in the minors as a starter.
- Madson: 123 starts in 135 career minor league games
- Happ: 152 starts in 159 games in the Phillies system from 2004-10
- Silva: 104 starts in 116 games in the Phillies system from 1996-2002
- Pinto: 90 starts in 108 games in the Phillies system from 2012-17
- Leiter, Jr.: 74 starts in 108 games in the Phillies system from 2013 to present day
Dominguez, too, prior to 2018, was also a starting pitcher. From 2012 to 2017, 54 of his 75 appearances came as a starter, but then came the flip of the switch.
The Phillies, jammed up with too many starting pitchers in the advanced levels of their system - yes, really - had a decision to make. Dominguez was ready to advance to Double-A Reading for the start of this season, but the rotation options there already included JoJo Romero, Ranger Suarez, Franklyn Kilome, plus a mix of spot contenders in Harold Arauz, Elniery Garcia and Jacob Waguespack. Dominguez had the stuff to hang with the competition, but because the organization had the sense his stuff would convert well to relief and probably felt it was his quickest path to the Majors, Seranthony was moved to the pen. The rest is history.
So now we have Dominguez on the active roster, not only as an effective reliever but basically THE reliever. Through some unfortunate combination of injury to Pat Neshek, ineffective spurts from just about every other reliever, and his own incredibly dominant start to his career, Dominguez has taken all of 15 games (and, really, this was decided even before then) to establish himself as Plan A when it comes to relief options for Gabe Kapler and the Phillies. It’s pretty amazing.
Here’s where things could really get fun.
Patterns of recent history point Dominguez toward being slotted into the ninth inning at some point, assigned the role of “closer” because it’s the untitled promotion relievers had been taught to pitch for. The financial formula boiled down to “Saves = Money,” and you can’t get saves outside the last inning of the game, so that’s where the career ladder led.
I’m not going to tell you that that’s all gone and changed now, because being a closer and getting saves absolutely still gets you paid. But as we’ve seen in recent years with free agent deals for the likes of Brett Cecil - four years, $30.5 million prior to 2017 with all of 11 career saves to his name - that’s not what it’s all about anymore. The game values relief in all innings, especially as starting pitchers pitch fewer and fewer innings.
This is where Seranthony could (and, hopefully, will) prove to be exceptionally valuable. As a former starter, he’s got multi-inning capability already built in. And as we’ve seen already, he can go for four, five, six outs while still throwing 99 on his 40th pitch of an outing (June 10 against Milwaukee). He’s got the strength to go hard, so long as he doesn’t go back-to-back after outings like that.
It all comes down to using the best reliever in the toughest spots.
It doesn’t always work out so perfectly. Dominguez may be unavailable on a day when Anthony Rendon, Bryce Harper, and Ryan Zimmerman are due up for the seventh inning in a one-run game. But if he’s available and that situation - or any other team’s 2-3-4 or 3-4-5 - presents itself, then he’s your huckleberry.
Most of this is a mindset adjustment. The three outs in the ninth inning have a prescribed intangible value that the save statistic hopes to capture. It succeeds in some ways, but doesn’t paint a full picture, and the game has evolved past it, exposing its flaws along the way (a save can be blown but not earned before the ninth; pitching the final three innings nets a save, no matter the score, but a save can also be earned with one pitch; facing the 7-8-9 spots in a batting order for a save is weighed the same as facing the 1-2-3 hitters, etc.).
Maybe you can’t close out a win in the seventh inning, but you can sure as hell blow it. It makes you wonder how the game at large would value and use relievers if the criteria around this one statistic were changed.
But the Phillies shouldn’t wait for that to happen.
And it doesn’t appear the team will wait for that criteria change to happen. Dominguez entered last Sunday’s game against the Brewers in the seventh
“We want to look for the highest-leverage situations to use Seranthony,” Kapler said after the game. “With the idea that we’re going to use him for two innings, we know that he’s probably going to face the middle of their lineup. We just felt like there was no time to deploy him like then. We wanted to preserve that lead.”
There’s a quibble to be had over whether starting Dominguez’s outing with the 7-8-9 spots in the order was the highest possible leverage situation, Kapler’s use of him through a second inning validates his strategy. Perhaps in a more perfect situation - one in which Dominguez doesn’t allow a few hits and a run to cross - the ninth inning lead stays at two with the 5-6-7 spots due up, rather than a one-run lead with 7-8-9 up again ahead of the top of the order. The former is certainly the more comfortable position.
But you can see the logic at play here. With the idea that Dominguez would look to preserve a multi-run lead through pitching two innings, a couple of strategy points emerge:
- Dominguez is currently the best option to preserve the score, whatever it is
- In using the best preservation option before the ninth, you allow the Phillies’ offense to build on a lead, one it already has in last Sunday’s case
- By the time the ninth inning would roll around, even if the Phillies hadn’t scored again in the seventh or eighth, the tying run would start with Jonathan Villar (.396 SLG at the end of June 10), and depending on the runners that got on during the seventh or eighth, would progress to Manny Pina (.348), Eric Sogard (.152!), or a pinch-hitter spot
- If the ninth inning started with the nine-hole pinch-hitter, though, it’s likely Milwaukee would have already scored a couple of runs and turned this into an entirely different situation
The Phillies haven’t really had a guy in their bullpen who could provide this kind of quality length prior to this year. Madson was one of the last to even get asked to pick up more than three late outs, outside of mop-up duty, and even then those appearances were infrequent; the exceptions to the rule. Other guys, from Clay Condrey in the early 2000s up through Drew Hutchison this year, existed to provide emergency, take-one-for-the-team relief in the event of a blowout or shortened start. They haven’t really had the chance to use a guy like Seranthony this way.
It’s incredibly important that Dominguez gets used responsibly.
Imagine how tempting it must be to use a guy for multiple innings of really good relief every other game. Take anywhere from four to six of the nine to 12 relief outs you need per game, hand them to Dominguez, feel pretty good about your odds, profit.
Human bodies being what they are, you just can’t do that. The highest inning totals for guys who pitched exclusively in relief over the last eight-plus seasons are 96 and 92, the former by Anthony Swarzak (48 games) in 2013, and the latter by Matt Belisle (76 games) in 2010 and Josh Collmenter (49 games) in 2013. The aftermath for those three hasn’t been the prettiest.
- Swarzak, now with the Mets, fared the best of the bunch over the following four seasons. From 2014-17, he threw 207.2 innings of 3.80 ERA ball, but also suffered a rotator cuff injury in 2016 and is currently on the Mets’ 60-day DL with an oblique injury
- Collmenter was moved back to Arizona’s rotation in 2014, but had to endure a massive drop in strikeouts. In all, with the D-backs and Braves, Collmenter pitched in 107 games from 2014-17, logging 358.2 innings. He is still a free agent after posting a 9.00 ERA in 11 innings with Atlanta in 2017
- Belisle, now 38, also has not matched his 2010 season in any of the next eight tries. His 24.9 K% and 8.9 K/9 remain career highs, most closely contested with a 21.9 K% and 8.1 K/9 in 2017, which aren’t bad. Colorado continued to lean heavily on Belisle, as he pitch 72, 80, and 73 innings in the three years following his 92. He missed a third of the 2015 season due to right elbow inflammation
Hit or miss in terms of future results, and a mix of different styles of pitching. Not really any conclusions to draw from that lot, beyond their seasons being the reasonable maximum in terms of innings pitched. To reach 100 innings of relief at his current four-out average per appearance, Dominguez would need to pitch in 75 games. No pitcher has had that combo of 75-plus appearances and 100-plus innings purely in relief since Scott Proctor in 2006, and there have been only seven player seasons (by five different pitchers) to meet those criteria in 23 post-strike years. Proctor, it should be noted, immediately began to decline in the following season before getting injured and flaming out of the league entirely in 2011.
So, where’s the happy medium?
Only Dominguez, Kapler, and the Phillies training staff can know for sure. Seranthony’s body will tell him when he’s available and when he’s not, and it’s on everyone involved to be sure he’s deployed responsibly. We can’t say for sure what his reasonable max of appearances or innings could be, but it seems safe to say that the unreasonable max would be anything approaching Proctor levels.
With his ability to cover multiple innings in efficient, often dominant fashion, it’s easy to dream on Dominguez putting up numbers like fellow cutter enthusiast Kenley Jansen, or maybe one day matching the preposterous strikeout stuff of Craig Kimbrel. In the present, he’s making a stronger and stronger case to be regarded as the Phillies’ best reliever, and his usage in the most crucial moments of games could help propel the Phillies into the postseason chase.
But he can’t pitch every game. It’s on the rest of the bullpen (and rotation and offense, too!) to play well when Seranthony is unable to go. With smart spacing of his outings, and tactical usage in innings before the ninth, the Phillies stand to reap the rewards of a unique, exciting pitcher.