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Gauging the bullpen’s readiness for the three-batter rule

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In 2020, a new rule governing reliever usage will change the way pitchers are deployed. How ready are the Phils for that change?

Miami Marlins v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Gone are the days of the LOOGY, the Lefty One-Out GuY used so deftly by managers like Bruce Bochy to distill innings down to single batter-versus-pitcher matchups. Recent Phillies history isn’t without them, either: Mike Zagurski, Jake Diekman, Joely Rodriguez, and Aaron Loup are all certainly well-remembered by Sporcle players nationwide.

Specialized appearances and the specialists that made them, though, are now endangered species. The 2020 season will bring about a rule change requiring all pitchers, barring injury or illness or the end of an inning, to face at least three batters per appearance.

It’s a change meant to cut down ever so slightly on pitching changes, one particularly scrutinized part of the game in the quest to speed up the pace of play, but also asks more of relievers than before. Now, relievers will need to be more well-rounded, ideally capable of retiring hitters no matter who holds the platoon advantage in a matchup.

The Phillies certainly aren’t without relief options at the moment — 13 or so projected relievers currently reside on the 40-man roster — but building the most effective Major League group from that corps (or knowing whether to find an external upgrade) will depend on those pitchers having even splits more than it ever has before.

Are the Phils’ current bullpen options well-suited for this brave new world of relief? Who excels, and who might be exposed as a liability? Let’s dig into the team’s current roster and see how things look.

Righties

The team’s best reliever, Hector Neris, is right-handed. The team’s highest-upside reliever, Seranthony Dominguez, is also right-handed. One of their most intriguing relief prospects, Edgar Garcia, is right-handed. Their top swingmen — Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez, Enyel De Los Santos — are all right-handed. Even one of their biggest bounceback hopefuls (Victor Arano) is right-handed. The only player among that group without a minor league option is Neris.

If there’s a position where the Phillies have pieces to move around the board as needed, it’s right-handed relief. That’s not to say they’re exactly chock full of relief aces in that department, though. For as much upside and potential as some of those arms are touted to have, the only truly reliable guy in the group right now is Neris. Dominguez and Arano have significant injury recovery uncertainties; Garcia has stuff, but hasn’t harnessed it yet; no one has any idea what roles Pivetta, VV, and EDLS will fill. If you thought the Zack Wheeler pickup was a bet hedged on realizing potential, then the right-handed side of the bullpen is a penny stock buy with the hope of cashing out at Google levels.

But talent will always get looks, and the flashes of occasional brilliance shown by nearly everyone listed above is tantalizing enough to make you think that something might just come out of the group this year. Maybe. Hopefully.

RHP vs. LHB

Player 2019 BF 2019 vs LHB 2017-19 BF 2017-19 vs LHB Notes
Player 2019 BF 2019 vs LHB 2017-19 BF 2017-19 vs LHB Notes
Hector Neris 125 .167/.272/.324 390 .237/.314/.410
Seranthony Dominguez 47 .372/.426/.581 163 .243/.331/.410 2018-19
Victor Arano 7 .167/.286/.667 120 .274/.358/.481
Nick Pivetta 201 .261/.348/.517 794 .264/.338/.438
Vince Velasquez 223 .266/.336/.492 688 .280/.358/.507
Enyel De Los Santos 10 .500/.600/1.250 47 .244/.340/.439 2018-19
Edgar Garcia 59 .313/.424/.688 59 .313/.424/.688 2019
J.D. Hammer 28 .208/.321/.417 28 .208/.321/.417 2019

Not a ton of encouragement to be found in the performances above. Walks are a problem; the huge differences between the averages and OBPs allowed hint at that, and everyone above has a BB% of at least 10 against lefties over the last three seasons, where applicable. Although, it should be said that some of these samples are flimsy, if not for their size than for the delivery dilution between wind-up and stretch for guys like Nick and Vinny, who bounced back and forth between roles and styles in 2019.

No matter how many members of the group above break camp with or pitch for the team in 2020, there needs to be some universal improvement. Neris, thanks to his splitter’s profile, is most well-equipped to keep suppressing lefties, but many of the others are lacking a plus secondary offering to keep those hitters off their fastballs. Maybe Pivetta can finally get a game-ready changeup, or Velasquez can add movement to a plane of his curveball, or Garcia can hone in on the back foot with his slider. Lots of “ifs” and “maybes” lead to lots of potential vulnerability.

There are a couple of free agent options, in a market relatively light on high-end relievers, still available as of this post that could possibly provide a boost. Todd Zolecki mentioned three (Blake Treinen, Jimmy Nelson, Junior Guerra) in a piece on MLB.com Friday, and others like Daniel Hudson, Steve Cishek, and Will Harris are still out there. Each should be light on contract length, and none may command eight figures in AAV (not that the Phils should be budget-conscious at this stage), so it’s difficult to really rule any option out. And this is before considering trade options like Mychal Givens or even Edwin Diaz. An addition could come from anywhere.

Lefties

Left-handed relief has been a problem for a couple of years now. Jose Alvarez provided a bit of stability last year, and hopefully will do so again this coming year, but outside of him, southpaw relief has been a bit capricious lately.

Back in the fold for the Phillies, at least for now, are Alvarez, Adam Morgan, Ranger Suarez, Cole Irvin, and Austin Davis. Lingering in the periphery are recent 40-man adds JoJo Romero and Garrett Cleavinger. That’s a group that could be improved upon.

Alvarez, for his part, was a good pickup, but even he had his struggles when pitted against right-handed batters in ‘19. Things don’t exactly improve by leaps and bounds as we move down the list, either.

LHP vs. RHB

Player 2019 BF 2019 vs RHB 2017-19 BF 2017-19 vs RHB Notes
Player 2019 BF 2019 vs RHB 2017-19 BF 2017-19 vs RHB Notes
Adam Morgan 64 .224/.297/.466 292 .257/.322/.468
Ranger Suarez 137 .310/.353/.468 184 .327/.374/.524 2018-19
Austin Davis 67 .273/.403/.582 152 .256/.342/.473 2018-19
Jose Alvarez 135 .328/.385/.475 345 .285/.360/.393 2017-18 w/LAA
Cole Irvin 123 .236/.311/.418 123 .236/.311/.418 2019
JoJo Romero 355 .299/.378/.503 1,011 .265/.337/.416 In Minors
Garrett Cleavinger 137 .183/.307/.261 351 .235/.362/.325 In Minors

Similar caveats apply to those who split time between starting and relieving, and especially for those who split time between multiple levels and multiple types of baseball.

Morgan, to his credit, did a nice job. He got touched up by the rabbit ball a bit, but for the most part was improved over 2018. We’re sort of waiting for someone else to break free from the pack; maybe that’s Irvin, who looked like he’d be more effective in relief than in the rotation.

A league average OPS allowed in this split in 2019 was right around .790, which meant Irvin (86 sOPS+, lower is better in this case) and Morgan (92 sOPS+) were actually better than league average in the platoon disadvantage last season. Morgan was even better against LHB (.454 opp. OPS, 23 sOPS+ after a poor showing there in 2018), while Irvin was victimized in those situations where he should have held the upper hand (.935 opp. OPS, 144 sOPS+). Alvarez and Morgan are clearly slated for bullpen spots to start the year, but whether the team will carry a third lefty may hinge on whether one of the above shows they have a pitch to get righties out.

As far as external options go, the lefty relief market isn’t exactly robust. The Braves signed Will Smith (.212/.297/.412 vs. RHB last year), who was the best relief option in free agency. The trade market seems thin, too, unless you consider the Phillies players for Josh Hader. They’ll either need to get creative to strengthen this group, or hold their breath and hope someone in the current crop rises to the surface.


Think of the flip side of this rule change, too. Lineups may tend to be built with an even distribution of batter handedness in preparation for these late-game scenarios. It’s highly unlikely that teams will stack lefties or righties (except in some cases like, say, the Angels with Mike Trout and Justin Upton), so bullpens will have to steel themselves to face hitters who will wield the platoon advantage over them. Every game, every appearance.

Right now, the Phillies don’t look well-prepared to go to battle in this new bullpen world. They are rather heavy in specialists for a game that no longer values those specialists, and if they truly don’t want to allocate additional money beyond the first tax threshold (although they should), they stand to be at a disadvantage later in games. But the offseason is still young, and this probably isn’t something the Phillies don’t already know. Just consider it one more item on a long list of areas to bolster on the way to trying to make this roster a true contender.