The Philadelphia Phillies are in trouble. After dropping four of their last five series, the Phils are 13 games back of the division. That skid also includes a sweep by the New York Mets and a losing streak that stretches five games. The pitching has been bad over this stretch, but the Phillies bullpen is not entirely the source of the team’s woes.
Aside from awful defence, streaky offence, and embarrassing late-game collapses, pitching has been a significant concern. Phillies pitchers have allowed 34 runs over the last six games, averaging over five and a half runs a game. On the season, the Phillies have pitched to a 4.03 ERA and an ERA+ of 99. No starter has an ERA below three, and as bad as the starters have been, the relievers have been even worse.
Not all of the Phillies relievers have disappointed this season. Some of been rather surprising in their efficiency, but others have had blowups too terrible to watch. Looking at three losses, in particular, one can see a pattern. On May 29, the Phillies had a 4-3 lead in the ninth against the Mets in Queens before Corey Knebel gave up two runs and allowed the Mets to walk it off. Against the San Francisco Giants the next day, Knebel again threw away a win when he gave up a game-tying homer to Evan Longoria. Andrew Bellatti replaced Knebel in the 10th, only to cough up a go-ahead home run to Curt Casali. And again, the very next day, tied in the 11th, Bellatti allowed three runs to score in another Giants come from behind win.
Knebel, Bellatti, and other relievers have been at the center of recent Phillies’ late-inning disasters. However, pinning the blame entirely on them or others like them would be unfair.
Phillies Bullpen Woes
Issues Originate from the Bench
Pitching decisions is one of the manager’s duties, whose choices can lead directly to wins and losses. Phillies manager Joe Girardi might be the one to blame for the bullpen issues than most would like to admit.
Corey Knebel was trotted out in the ninth inning as the Phillies are closer to mixed success this season. However, the collapses against the Mets and Giants have been catalyzed by Knebel blowups in the final inning. Knebel is not a top-tier closer—he has only 68 saves in an eight-year career.
Knebel’s blown saves have been bad ones and have come at times when the team needs a lockdown performance. His leash should be short, but it hasn’t, and that decision has cost the Phillies. But Knebel is not the only pitcher to who this applies. Andrew Bellatti has had good outings this season—his 12.7 K/9 ranks first among Phillies pitchers, and his ERA of 3.86 is serviceable but not inspiring.
Knebel and Bellatti can’t call their number; they don’t choose when they enter the game. The manager decides that Girardi has decided that Knebel and Bellatti are his best options on back-to-back occasions.
However, there are better options in the Phillies bullpen. Seranthony Dominguez and Brad Hand have been excellent this season, with Hand posting a team-best 1.29 ERA and Dominguez not far behind him at 1.83. Both relievers have career years and seem to be better options for Girardi in these late innings, at least on paper. Hand’s ERA+ of 317 is staggering, and considering he is not being used in higher leverage spots is simply mystifying. Dominquez’s FIP of 1.92 is an incredibly encouraging sign for the Phillies staff.
Phillies Relief Roles Need a Shakeup
Dominguez and Hand record-outs do it much more effectively than others who get higher leverage spots. Girardi’s insistence on returning to pitchers who have routinely cost Phillie’s leads or even games are starting to bury them in games that they should be winning and is the root cause of their bullpen woes. Dominguez and Hand are the best options in relief for Girardi, yet they sit on the bench when the game is on the line.
So the Phillies pitching woes are not as serious as they seem. It’s certainly been crippling, but the answer is right in front of the manager’s face. He needs to start pitching Brad Hand and Seranthony Dominguez in save opportunities. Baseball is an analytical game, and Hand and Dominguez excel at the most basic analytical measurements. They get outs, and they get them more efficiently and less painfully than most Phillies relievers.
If anything, it’ll show that the Phillies are willing to look at the data and take steps to improve the team’s chances of winning. If not, then something might have to be done.