Let’s start this out with a statement that might feel contradictory to the title of this piece. Things are not as dire as they might seem. Sports in general will always have a “what have you done for me lately?” vibe to them since we tend to base our dissatisfaction on what we have just seen. It’s worse in football than in any sport thanks to the length of the schedule where a bad month from one team often leads to an early look at the offseason. In baseball, there is the advantage of being able to see trends even out over time thanks to near 180 days of action. Recency bias leads many to make sweeping generalizations about a part of a team that are sometimes factually not true. For example, ask anyone what the biggest concern is about the Phillies and most will probably point to a bullpen that has blown leads with an alarming regularity of late. Yet a quick look at the data available will show that by most any measure, the team’s collection of relievers hasn’t been nearly as bad as other teams in the league. We just assume they’re bad thanks to having to endure lead after lead being surrendered after key moments of a Phillies comeback.
It would be foolish to not see a group of relievers that are coming into a game on a nightly basis and miss the fact that they are not themselves. There is likely to be a fair amount of exhaustion on their part thanks to some starters not being able to give enough length in a start to where the relievers are not needed as much. This exhaustion is causing manager Rob Thomson to mix and match his relievers, searching for wins as well as any kind of combination of arms that will help him further down the road. Based on what we have seen in games lately, those arms are having trouble bubbling up to the surface. I showed you in a piece last week about the current tiers of trust in the bullpen, but even that probably changed in the days since Milwaukee. One could make the argument that, right now at least, the tiers could look like:
Tier 1 - Jeff Hoffman
Tier 2 - Craig Kimbrel, Jose Alvarado
Tier 3 - everyone else
Based on what you have seen, is this list that far off?
Listening to Matt Gelb and Paul Boye on Phillies Therapy, there was discussion of the current state of the pitching and Gelb made an interesting point that the issues we see right now are “regular season issues”. The struggles that are occurring with some of the pitchers are pitchers that likely won’t make a pitch during October. Do we think Andrew Bellatti will be starting down someone from the Braves? Do we think Yunior Marte will have a high leverage pitching situation in a few weeks?
The struggles that we do see from pitchers like Alvarado, Seranthony Dominguez and Gregory Soto, those are the ones that have to be concerning. Yet the silver lining to it, if you are interested in searching for one, is that we’ve seen in the past that at least Alvarado and Dominguez are able to turn it on once the bright lights emerge. As dreadful as Dominguez was last September, he was almost the polar opposite once the playoffs began. Alvarado had the well documented mental hurdles to overcome last year, yet he was probably the best reliever throwing a baseball in October. We haven’t seen what Soto is able to do in a playoff situation due to the Tigers being almost Pluto-like in their distance from the playoffs, but the team looks like they might have a special role created for him once high leverage situations emerge.
However, those are going to be things discussed in a few weeks. In order to be able to discuss them, the team needs to make the postseason first. Depending on what model you look at, the odds of the Phillies making the postseason are in the 90’s, a far cry from this time last year. Outside of a catastrophic collapse, they’re making the playoffs. Yet watching the bullpen lately allows doubt to creep into one’s mind. Seeing the offense continually bring the team back into games only to see that momentum evaporate has been disheartening. The fixes for that seem to be to simply allow them to pitch their way out of it. No help is coming from the options in the minor leagues. If Orion Kerkering were going to get a spot in the bullpen, one would have to think it would have happened by now. The fact that it hasn’t can lead to the assumption he’s just not on their radar at this point. Options like Griff McGarry or Connor Brogdon, well, have you seen them pitch lately?
So the answer to “can the bullpen problems be fixed?” should probably be twisted around to look something like “can the rotation help the bullpen?” Exhaustion in a reliever comes from a higher workload. If the rotation is unable to hold up their end of the pitching bargain - getting deep into games with a lead intact or the game close - the relief corps is going to be used often. That is the likely problem here with what we’ve seen.
Not that they are absolved of blame because they’re not. There have been obvious struggles. It just looks like most members of the bullpen have chosen the exact wrong time to have issues. It looks much worse than it actually is.
It would behoove the bullpen group to get things straightened out soon. October baseball is fast approaching and there won’t be time to allow for pitchers to figure things out. They could also use a little help from their rotation friends. Can’t we all just get along?