The smell of beer and champagne probably lingers still in the air of the Phillies clubhouse. Though they have gone home already, ready to sleep off yet another night of indulgence, the Phillies will live to play another game. Across the way, the Braves are headed home early in another October disappointment, some even getting on the bus a bit earlier than others. The questions that they will have during the next few months are going to be many, but the big one is still this:
How do the Phillies keep doing this?
Already, we’ve seen pieces written about how the Phillies keep winning in the playoffs. You could build around the premise of vibes, you could build around the premise of having a superstar that performs. This idea is backed by what Jayson Stark said here:
Dombrowski’s team-building M.O. is no secret. He has assembled a roster led by stars, a pitching staff full of high-velocity arms and a clubhouse occupied by baseball nuts who love to play as much as they love being around each other. But when Dombrowski, the Phillies’ president of baseball operations, was asked how much of this was by design, the product of constantly searching for players who are ready for moments like this, he laughed.
“Well, I mean, it’s hard to identify, specifically,” he said, “because if it was easy, everybody would do it.”
I would beg to differ slightly.
Going out and getting a superstar is not all that easy. They are starting to become available less and less thanks to each team’s desire to lock up talent on a cost controlled contract early in their careers. We’ll probably never see players like Bryce Harper or Manny Machado available in an offseason together ever again.
The flip side of that is gathering up enough pitchers that are a) good enough and, b) durable enough to get a team through an entire season. The Phillies may never get enough credit for identifying Zack Wheeler as the best available pitching free agent in December of 2019, then signing him to a deal. Developing arms like Aaron Nola and Ranger Suarez has helped keep the machine rolling along, arms that meet both qualifications of being good and durable (enough) to make it through all 162 games. This is something the Phillies have done well recently, almost to the point of it being a strength of the team and around the league.
Yet for me, the two things the Phillies have identified as being the key ingredients to winning in October are things the league should be taking note of, yet still have not. If you want to move forward in October, you need a deep, hard throwing bullpen to get important outs and, more importantly, a manager and a coaching staff that creates a plan to use them properly.
When the Phillies traded for Gregory Soto, there were mixed emotions. In order to obtain the services of the flame throwing lefty, the Phillies had to give up two of the fan favorites that were a part of the 2022 National League champion in Matt Vierling and Nick Maton. Thinking solely of the roster (and not the vibes), the team was parting with some valuable depth pieces that Rob Thomson used liberally to gain an advantage around the diamond. However, in return, the message was clear for the Phillies: they saw what the Astros had during their October triumph and wanted a bit of that for themselves. Houston deployed arm after arm after arm in the World Series that was able to throw the baseball past hitters with ease. It wasn’t the sole reason that the Astros were victorious, but it was hard to notice that once they had a lead in a game, it felt virtually over.
The Phillies saw this and set about getting more velocity in their ‘pen for themselves. Adding Soto to the duo of Seranthony Dominguez and Jose Alvarado gave Thomson those options he craved. We’ve all heard the story of how Bryce Harper begged the team to sign Jeff Hoffman after he saw him in live batting practice, so that added another horse to the stable. Craig Kimbrel was signed with the Corey Knebel money and began to add velocity thanks to some tweaks suggested by the coaching staff. When the team drafted Orion Kerkering last summer, they did so with the idea that he could arrive in the big leagues quickly with premium stuff that could be used in a leveraged spot during a game. Matt Strahm has been used often now that he has become a full-time reliever and has seen the average velocity tick up every so slightly on a fastball that comes from a funky arm angle. All of this to say: the team has done a marvelous job of not only giving Thomson options during a game, but also options that were able to, that’s right, throw the baseball past the hitters.
Now, we’re not a stupid group. One cannot survive on heat alone. Each of these pitchers named has relied on a second pitch as much as their primary fastball, a necessity in today’s game. For each of those names set forth above, you can also probably name their second (or in some cases, first) pitch as easily as their fastball. But for anyone who has watched baseball since the beginning of time, having and using a fastball effectively is priority one for being a reliever.
We are also well aware of the impact the coaches have had on the staff as a whole. Think of the job that they have done this year and consider:
- how they have turned Hoffman from a waiver claim to one of the more trusted arms in the bullpen
- though it may not feel like it, they’ve helped Soto bring his walk rate to a career best 8.8%
- they’ve gotten Kimbrel to add somewhere in the area of 2-3 miles an hour to his fastball
These are just a few things they have done to help this bullpen becomes arguably the best remaining in the playoffs. Now, in order to have success in the playoffs, they need to be used correctly. For the second season in a row, we have ample evidence that the man in charge of it all, the one to decided when to pull the right levers, has given the team a big advantage over his counterparts.
2022 was a magical run for Rob Thomson. He used his bullpen aggressively and used it often. Outside of the questionable decision to take out Zack Wheeler in game six of the World Series, almost every decision made regarding the bullpen last year felt like the correct one. Thus far in 2023, we needn’t look any further than game one of this series against Atlanta. Thomson and the coaching staff created a plan of attack against the Braves lineup that not only included ideas of when to bring in certain pitchers, but also how to attack those hitters once the relievers came in. Every team does this, of course, but it felt almost completely different. At Baseball Prospectus, Robert Orr went into great detail to show this deficiency and how Thomson went about crafting the plan to attack it:
More than any singular type of pitch, this vulnerability to elite velo was one the Phillies were uniquely equipped to exploit. They had assembled a bullpen full of stuff-over-command power arms and had one of the game’s premier power starters in Zack Wheeler. During the regular season, 10% of their staff’s pitches cleared that 97 mph threshold, the third-highest share in MLB. In the postseason, they’ve turned it up even further, more than doubling how often they’re pumping premium velo up to 20.7%, the most of any team in the postseason field.
Compare that with the game that ultimately decided the series against Atlanta where the Braves decided to go with Bryce Elder over A.J. Smith-Shawver. At the beginning, it seemed like a solid plan as Elder mowed down the first six Phillies hitters with ease. Once the dam started cracking and the Phillies showed signs of life, Brian Snitker got caught with his pants down. The image of pitching coach Rick Kranitz hanging up the phone to get someone warmed up right before Harper blasted a ball back to Camden is a stark one. It showed a manager that managed the game passively, almost without a clear idea of what he wanted to do rather than one who had a plan and the conviction to stick with it. Atlanta fans will probably be left wondering why a pitcher as accomplished as Ranger Suarez was given such a short leash in the opening game while a young pitcher like Elder who had struggled in the second half of the season was allowed to pitch to someone like Bryce Harper. It’s not THE reason Atlanta lost, but it felt like the tide had turned at that moment, a moment a more prepared and aggressive manager would have been prepared for.
There is more left to do in order for the Phillies as an organization to feel fulfilled. Taking these two series have been great for the morale, but the job is not done. Not content himself, Thomson and the staff will undoubtedly be working hard to prepare properly for a talented (and not to be underrated) Diamondbacks team. But if they finish the job, if they are able to parade down Broad Street in early November, you can guarantee teams will begin studying and copying what the Phillies are doing. The results will be there. We’re just fortunate enough that we are reaping the rewards now.