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The Phillies bullpen can’t throw fastballs

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Why is the Phils’ bullpen so bad? Because they struggle with baseball’s most common pitch.

Philadelphia Phillies v Miami Marlins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Another game against the Miami Marlins. Another nightmare finish.

Phillies fans are fed up and for good reason. This tired act by the bullpen stopped being annoying weeks ago and has became flat-out infuriating as Tommy Hunter and Brandon Workman blew a three-run, eighth-inning lead in the Phils’ 7-6 loss to the Marlins last night.

These two teams will play another six games over the next four days, and this was not how the Phillies envisioned kicking things off.

Back on August 21, general manager Matt Klentak swung two trades, one with the New York Yankees and one with the Boston Red Sox, for relievers David Hale, Heath Hembree and Brandon Workman. Ten days later, at the trade deadline, they picked up David Phelps from the Milwaukee Brewers. These four new relief pitchers were supposed to stop the early-season bleeding from the gaping chest wound that was the Phils’ bullpen through the pandemic-shortened season’s first month.

Instead, they’ve exacerbated it.

What’s going on? Why are opponents having so much success against this ragtag crew who, after last night’s implosion, possesses an MLB-worst 7.35 ERA? Why, since adding Hale, Hembree and Workman, has the ‘pen’s ERA gone up?

Faulty Fastballs

According to Fangraphs, the Phils’ bullpen as a whole has an average fastball velocity of 92.7 mph. That ranks 24th out of 30 MLB teams. Most big league bullpens have a few guys that can get the ball up to home plate in the upper ‘90s, but not these Phillies. Jojo Romero leads the team in fastball velocity at 95.2 mph, but he only uses his fastball 53.1% of the time, 9th-most among relievers. Ramon Rosso, Hembree, Phelps, Vince Velasquez (who accumulated most of his innings this year as a starter) and Hector Neris are the only relievers who clock in over 94 mph on average.

As a result, those fastball have been getting rocked. Fangraphs says, as a group, their four-seamers have a -23.7 wFB, which is the total number of runs “saved” by a pitcher using that pitch.

In other words, their fastballs have cost the team 23.7 runs this season.

No Whiffing

Because hitters don’t have to “catch up” to those fastballs, there are rarely swings and misses on any of their pitches. Breaking balls, split-finger pitches and changeups are only effective if hitters have to worry about the four-seamer, too. As a result, Phils relievers have generated a 11.5% swing-and-miss rate on all their pitches this season, 16th in MLB. That has helped contribute to a league-worst 22.1% home run per fly ball ratio and 25.9% line-drive rate.

The ‘pen has struck out just 21.3% of hitters faced this season, fifth-worst in baseball and opponents are hitting a whopping .327 against them, with an incredible 2.19 home runs per nine innings that is far and away the highest in the big leagues.

David Phelps, in limited action, has allowed a .455 opponent’s batting average. Hitters are batting .360 against Hembree, .353 against Hale, and .348 against Workman. Even Hunter, who had been among the more effective relievers in his last 12 outings, is allowing a .279 average to hitters he’s faced.

Faulty Logic

When Klentak traded for Workman, most looked at his 1.88 ERA from a season ago and assumed he’d be that good with the Phillies. What most failed to notice was his walk rate of 5.7 BB/9 last season and an unsustainable 3.6 hits per nine that helped bring his WHIP down to a sparkling 1.033. This year, the walk rate has gotten even worse (6.4 BB/9) while his hits allowed has skyrocketed (12.7 H/9). He had a 4.05 ERA when the Phillies traded for him this year, although no one knew for sure if they were small sample size struggles or an indication his performance had truly faltered.

Now, we know.

Hembree put up a 3.86 ERA in 45 games last year for Boston, but walked 4.1 batters per nine. This year, he’s right back at that number, although in 11 games with the Red Sox it was 2.8 BB/9. He had a 5.59 ERA when he joined the Phils and since coming to Philadelphia, has seen that walk rate soar to 6.4 BB/9 and his ERA balloon to an unsightly 9.53 in nine appearances in red-and-white pinstripes.

Phelps has only appeared in four games for the Phillies, but he’s given up five hits and three home runs in just 2.1 innings. His track suggests he’ll turn it around, but nothing is a given this year in the Phils’ bullpen.

When you trade for relief pitchers who don’t miss bats, and when you ignore the bullpen during the winter leading into the season, this is what happens.

No Homegrown Arms

The Phillies had to acquire four veteran relievers because they have been unable to develop their own homegrown studs.

Neris and Adam Morgan are the best examples of solid relief pitchers the team has brought through the system in recent season. In seven seasons, Neris has a 3.37 ERA but has been wildly inconsistent. He has a 5.14 ERA this year with a 1.857 WHIP and was relegated to set-up duty after opening the season as the closer. Morgan, who is on the injured list with a fatigued shoulder, has a career 4.83 ERA, and a 5.87 ERA in 11 appearances before he went on the IL.

The team counted on hard throwers Seranthony Dominguez and Victor Arano to be those home grown relief aces, but Dominguez unsurprisingly had to undergo Tommy John surgery after dealing with a sore arm for much of the past two seasons, and Arano is out for the year after dealing with repeated arm injuries as well. The Phils tried to get production from Austin Davis, Ramon Rosso, Cole Irvin, Nick Pivetta (before he was traded), Ranger Suarez, Trevor Kelley, Connor Brogdon and Mauricio Llovera, but none has panned out. Arms like Enyel de Los Santos and Adonis Medina are still biding their time in the minors, and there doesn’t appear to be any answers coming from Lehigh Valley’s alternate site anytime soon.

***

Manager Joe Girardi said after last night’s disaster, “These are the guys that gotta get it done. These are the guys we have, and they gotta get it done.”

Game 2 of today’s seven-inning doubleheader is a bullpen game. Hide the women and children.