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Why can’t the Phillies get the bullpen right?

No matter what they do, the Phillies simply continue to be buried by an awful bullpen.

Miami Marlins v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

There’s no better vibe killer in baseball than a well-executed 9th-inning meltdown by a reliever.

It happened again last night. The Phillies, riding 10 wins in their last 11 games and another heroic performance from an offensive slugger, this time Rhys Hoskins’ four hits, two home runs and six RBIs that included a go-ahead homer in the bottom of the 8th, handed their closer a one-run lead.

Once again, somehow, the Phillies lost.

It was Corey Knebel’s turn once again to turn a wild, rousing, would-be victory into a heart-sinking, depressing, last inning defeat at the hands of a division rival. Knebel failed to retire any of the four batters he faced, done in by a throwing error by Alec Bohm, two walks and a grounder through a drawn-in infield. Andrew Bellatti tried to mop up, but an error by J.T. Realmuto opened the door to another two runs, sinking the Phils in their 11-9 loss.

This year, no pitcher in baseball has walked more batters in the 9th inning than Knebel, who has issued 11 free passes in 23 appearances (Detroit’s Gregory Soto and Oakland’s Dany Jimenez were tied for 2nd, with 10). He’s also allowed the 3rd-most hits in the 9th (18), and has also hit a batter for 30 total baserunners in 21 innings.

And while he’s allowing a lot of baserunners, his 20.9% strikeout rate in the 9th ranks just 42nd out of 57 pitchers with at least 6 IP in that frame. His 12.1% walk-rate is 8th-worst.

Perhaps the biggest indictment against Knebel is that no relief pitcher in baseball has hurt his team’s chances to win more than him. According to Baseball Reference, Knebel has a Wins Probability Added (WPA) of -2.3, 224th out of 224 relievers with at least 15 appearances.

Before Wednesday’s series finale against Miami, manager Rob Thomson announced Knebel was being removed from the closer’s role.

Either is a better option. Dominguez’ 0.8 WPA is tied for 35th in MLB, and has posted a 1.88 ERA and an ERA+ of 218 in 24.0 innings thus far. Hand’s 1.96 ERA looks pretty good, but he’s been lackluster in high leverage spots, with a -0.2 WPA in 18.1 IP.

Given the Phils’ track record, no one should expect to feel confident about the 9th inning ever again.

Why haven’t they been able to get this right? Multiple GMs and managers have failed to solve the Phillies’ late-inning conundrum, leaving fans scarred and scared every time a Phils hurler takes the mound with a one-run lead and three outs to go. This off-season, Dave Dombrowski decided to avoid a proven closer like Kenley Jansen (0.5 WPA, 18 saves) and chose to sign three pitchers (Knebel, Jeurys Familia and Hand) to one-year deals. Familia (-0.7 WPA, 4.50 ERA) has been a disaster, too.

Last season, the Phillies tried a similar tact when they signed Archie Bradley to a one-year deal, and he responded with a -0.3 WPA and pitched in 51 innings of work. They traded for the electric yet wild and inconsistent Jose Alvarado was electric yet wild and inconsistent, and Sam Coonrod, who had an ERA over 4.00. By mid-season, Hector Neris was booted from the closer’s job when the team acquired Ian Kennedy at the trade deadline. Kennedy had a 2.51 ERA in 32 appearances for Texas. It was 4.13 in 23 games with the Phils.

The 2020 pandemic-shortened season brought us Heath Hembree (12.54 ERA), Brandon Workman (6.92 ERA), David Phelps (12.91 ERA) and David Hale (4.09 ERA). Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta were shipped to the bullpen but both failed in relief roles. It was the one of the single worst bullpens in modern baseball history. It had to be seen to be believed.

Over the last three years, the numbers are ghastly. Since the start of the ‘20 season, Phillies relievers have given up an MLB-most 138 runs in the 9th inning, 17 more than the next closest team (Cincinnati). Their 1.510 WHIP is also dead last, as is their .838 OPS allowed.

That’s right, the Phillies have allowed an .838 OPS in the 9th inning over the last three years. By comparison, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has an .837 OPS right now and, from 2020-22, that .838 OPS would be better than what Ty France, Brandon Nimmo, Mike Yastrzemski, Luis Robert and Carlos Correa have put up.

The last time the Phils had a serviceable bullpen was in 2019, with just 19 blown saves, 6th-fewest in MLB. Neris closed most of the season and, although he had his typical blown saves stretch, put up a 2.93 ERA with 28 saves that season.

But that was also the year Matt Klentak went out and signed David Robertson to a two-year contract to be their closer. Robertson had never appeared in fewer than 60 games in any season from 2010-18, yet lasted just five games with the Phillies over the course of that two-year contract due to injury.

By the way, he’s now posting a 1.59 ERA and 2.21 FIP with 7 saves in 20 games as the Cubs’ closer this year. Maybe second time’s the charm?

Most teams would turn to their minor league affiliates for reinforcements, but the Phils’ reinforcements have only reinforced the idea of the Philadelphia bullpen as a never-ending tire fire of incompetence. Maybe this year will be different. Seranthony Dominguez and Connor Brogdon have done well, Bellatti has been a nice surprise, and youngsters like Francisco Morales and Cristopher Sanchez could potentially make an impact. Ryan Sherriff, the reborn Mark Apell and a rehabbing Sam Coonrod could be back soon too, all of which could give the Phils some depth.

But without going and getting someone like Pittsburgh’s David Bednar, Robertson, or someone else with experience, it will be hard to feel confident anytime the Phillies enter the 9th inning with a lead of any kind.

The Phillies have tried to hand the closer’s job to in-house candidates. It hasn’t worked. They’ve tried to sign an experienced veteran with a proven track record. It didn’t work. They’ve signed veterans on one-year deals, hoping for bounce-back season and/or finding diamonds in the rough. It hasn’t worked. They’ve tried trading for relievers at the deadline. It hasn’t worked.

But there’s no other choice than to try, try again, as the Phillies spin the closer’s roulette wheel once again.