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The bullpen wasn’t the problem this season

Complaining about the Phillies bullpen is so 2020.

Pittsburgh Pirates v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Thirty-four blown saves. If you were following the Phillies this September, you probably heard that number come up one, two, or three million times.

The Phillies bullpen blew 34 saves this season. Depending on how you define a blown save (apparently there isn’t one universal definition – FanGraphs and Baseball Reference have different criteria), the Phillies were either tied with the Washington Nationals for the most blown saves in baseball (via FanGraphs) or they were second behind only the Nationals (via Baseball Reference). Either way, it’s pretty awful. However...

Okay, wait. Let me make one thing clear: 34 blown saves in a season is bad. I’m not refuting that. But I do think the narrative about the Phillies’ bullpen letting them down once again has been, well, overblown. For one thing, a blown save doesn’t necessarily mean a loss, and I think that bears repeating. Furthermore – and this is really what I came here to say – I think the narrative around the blown saves has placed too much blame on the bullpen, when the Phillies’ offense is just as much to blame for the 34 blown saves this season.

A blown save doesn’t necessarily mean a loss

If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say, “if the Phillies had only blown fewer saves, they could be leading the division right now,” I would be a rich man. Technically, that statement is true. But what those people really mean is “if the Phillies had only lost fewer games, they could be leading the division right now,” and blown saves don’t always lead to a loss.

In fact, several of the Phillies’ blown saves came in the same game. On six different occasions, the Phillies blew multiple saves in one game, and once, on May 9, they managed to blow three saves in the same game. That means that although the Phillies blew 34 saves, only 27 of their games were actually affected by blown saves. That’s still not great, but it’s a significantly lower number than 34. For context, the league average team blew 26 saves in 2021.

Still, I could completely sympathize with someone who wished that the Phillies had achieved a different outcome in those 27 games. Except...

The Phillies were actually better in games in which they blew a save. According to Destiny Lugardo of Phillies Nation, the Phillies were 14-13 in games in which they blew a save. That’s an 84-win pace. If you recall, the Phillies finished the 2021 season with only 82 wins.

Some of the blown saves were heartbreakers, I can’t deny that. And if some of those losses had ended up as wins instead, this season could have gone very differently, I agree. Nevertheless, it wasn’t really blown saves that ruined the Phillies season so much as just, well, losing.

The Phillies’ offense is just as much to blame for the 34 blown saves

Obviously, the offense can never be directly responsible for a blown save. A blown save involves the offense giving the team a lead and a relief pitcher giving that lead back to the other team.

The thing is, it’s a lot harder to secure a save when you’re working with a one-run lead as opposed to a multi-run lead.

The Phillies offense was perfectly mediocre in 2021. They ranked 7th in runs score, 9th in batting average, 7th in OBP, 8th in slugging percentage, 7th in OPS, 7th in home runs, 7th in weighted runs created, 7th in wOBA, 9th in wRC+. You get the point. Pretty much whatever stat you look at, the Phillies offense was middle-of-the-pack.

That is better than the bullpen, which ranked in the bottom third in most metrics. They ranked 11th in ERA, 13th in FIP, 12th in batting average against, 12th in WHIP, and 12th in home run rate.

Be that as it may, the offense still stands out to me as the problem. Offense was supposed to be this team’s strength. Allow me to quote from beat writer Todd Zolecki, who wrote an article entitled “Phillies’ offense key factor in NL East race” on March 29, 2021.

If everybody is healthy, the Phils should score a ton of runs. Nobody is worried about the offense, which tied for fifth in baseball in scoring in 2020. But does Philadelphia have enough pitching? Last season’s club had the worst bullpen in baseball in 90 years. It should be better... Now, nobody is saying the Phils need to have a top-five bullpen or top-five rotation (although the rotation had the third-best WAR in baseball last season, according to FanGraphs). They just need to provide the offense opportunities to win. And hold a lead here or there.

Zolecki wasn't saying anything groundbreaking here. The 2021 Phillies were built to succeed by having a strong offense, a decent starting rotation, and a bullpen that wouldn’t totally implode like it did in 2020.

How did things work out? The starting rotation was fine. The bullpen didn’t totally implode. But the offense never showed up.

It’s hard to remember just how good the Phillies’ offense was in 2020, considering that they were purportedly “running it back” in 2021. Last year, when the Phillies led the league with 14 blown saves in only 60 games played (a 38 blown save pace), they also ranked fourth in the NL in runs scored. They were averaging 5.1 runs per game. In 2021, they averaged just 4.53 runs per game.

So when the bullpen was blowing all those saves last year, more often than not they were giving away sizeable leads. This year, the problem was more so that the offense wasn’t giving the bullpen big enough leads to work with. That doesn’t mean the bullpen was good this year. It wasn’t. However, if we’re going to focus on one aspect of the team that let us down the most, I think that aspect is the offense and not the bullpen.