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The Phillies don’t have a closer

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In fact, they have closer(s)

Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

With the Phillies signing David Robertson to be a member of the bullpen for the next two years, it might be easy for casual fans to assume that a closer has just joined the team. That’s natural. After all, Robertson has demonstrated the ability to be a closer, having saved 37 as recently as 2016 while a member of the White Sox. On a team that had some issues closing out games in 2018, he would seem to be the perfect remedy for what ailed the Phillies.

Yet, he should not be counted on as THE closer. Rather, he adds to the arsenal that Gabe Kapler has at his disposal now in the final third of a game. He even said so himself,

with the quote found here in Scott Lauber’s analysis of the trade.

“This is a place where I’m going to get a lot of opportunities to pitch in the back end of the bullpen,” Robertson said. “If I’ve got to pitch in the sixth, seventh or eighth, or even the ninth, it doesn’t matter to me.”

Even general manager Matt Klentak said as much during the same conference call with reporters. From the same story:

“I would expect that he will pitch the ninth inning at times,” general manager Matt Klentak said. “But I also know that, with Seranthony [Dominguez] and [Hector] Neris and others back there, that we are likely to continue to use guys in a variety of roles late in the game.”

It’s a luxury for Kapler to have, three dependable guys to get the final three outs in a game. It doesn’t particularly matter that all three are right handed either, as Jeff Sullivan noted in his write up about the signing.

On average in the sample, lefties hit the righties better, by the tune of 19 wOBA points. But lefties hit Robertson worse, by the tune of 50 wOBA points. Over just the past five years, the split is 53 wOBA points, so this isn’t some early-career artifact. David Robertson is not a left-handed reliever, but does it really matter as long as he gets the lefties out? The Phillies aren’t short on right-handed weapons. Robertson is someone they can feel comfortable using in any situation.

Sullivan is absolutely right about Robertson. The team should, and probably will, count on him whenever there is trouble brewing the game, no matter the situation. We’ve seen this winter how the Phillies were rumored to be hunting all kinds of relievers, but names like Andrew Miller and Zach Britton stood out because of their ability to dominate left handed hitters, something this team was lacking. The addition of Robertson gives them that “lefty killer”, just not in the traditional sense we have become accustomed to.

However, when it comes to the ninth inning and the person that would inherit the closer role, Robertson is not going to simply do that job every night and call it a day. What we might forget is that in Dominguez and Neris, Kapler suddenly has multiple players who can close out a game no matter what.

In 2018, Seranthony Dominguez was excellent in what Baseball Reference refers to as “high leverage” situtations. In these situations, batters had 107 plate appearances against Dominguez and had a slash line of .163/.271/.228 with 34 strikeouts and 11 walks. Among relievers with at least 30 relief appearances, Dominguez was one of only 10 pitchers with an OPS against under .500 in high leverage situations. That shows a guy who can get those important outs needed.

In the case of Neris, we all recall the horrific start he had to the season. What we may not recall is the difference in Neris from when he went to the minor leagues and when he returned.

Hector Neris 2018

Time IP ERA FIP BABIP K% BB%
Time IP ERA FIP BABIP K% BB%
pre-demotion 30 6.90 6.39 0.343 30.6% 8.2%
post-demotion 17.2 2.04 0.05 0.379 50.7% 7.2%

Yeah, that FIP in his post-demotion appearances is not a misprint. He had a 0.05 FIP. That’s due in large part to the fact he was able to find the tumble on his splitter that he had lost before heading to the minor leagues. While his numbers in high leverage situations weren’t as sparkling as Dominguez’s were (56 PA for a .234/.333/.404 line), if the Phillies are able to coax an entire season out of Neris like what they got from him in August and September, that’ll form a serious three headed monster that Kapler will be able to deploy at will.

We all love having that Kenley Jansen-esque flamethrower at the end of a bullpen. It makes us all feel more comfortable knowing that the team has someone who is able to get those last three outs consistently enough to ease our nerves. While early sabermetrics thought led many to believe that closers could be anyone, we as Phillies fans have come to see that that is not always the case. We could argue whether using your best reliever only in the ninth inning is the best use of him (it isn’t), but with this signing, Klentak has given Kapler more options. The team has the security to know that if someone is needed to get two or three important outs in the sixth, seventh or eighth innings, there is another option just as good still available in the ninth should his services be needed. After years in which names like Jeanmar Gomez were routinely summoned from the bullpen to save games, that is a welcome addition indeed.