On Wednesday, August 12, 2020, I tweeted that the Phillies bullpen had the worst ERA, at 10.19, in the history of the statistic of “earned runs,” with a minimum of 35 innings pitched. Since that time, they have improved that mark to 9.12 in a total of 48 innings.
But it’s still the worst bullpen ERA in the history of bullpen ERAs.
To be clear, the earned run dates back to 1912, created by sportswriter and early baseball statistician Henry Chadwick. The impetus for creating it was, apparently, the rise of relief pitching. Previously, a pitcher’s win-loss record was considered an indicator of talent, since pitchers were expected to hurl complete games.
This feels pretty prescient for the 2020 Phillies, whose starters have the ninth-best ERA in MLB, at an even 4.00. The bullpen, however, has tugged the entire team’s ERA down to the worst in the majors, at 5.95.
Granted, it’s a tiny sample in an extremely wacky season. The Phillies’ bullpen is the inverse of Charlie Blackmon’s .472 batting average–or possibly Donovan Solano’s .458 mark. On the other hand, to put their 9.12 ERA in historical perspective, the next worst full seasons’ bullpen ERA are the 1936 Athletics at 8.26 and the 1930 Phillies at 7.69, according to FanGraphs (these numbers are slightly different on Baseball-Reference).
So CONGRATULATIONS, PHILADELPHIA.
Also, 48 innings pitched are still 48 innings pitched. A 9.12 ERA accurately portrays the utter horror it has been to watch someone, anyone, jog in from the lower bullpen at Citizens Bank Park.
Why I Put Myself Through This
And no, I don’t mean Phillies fandom. That’s something for me to take up with the therapist that I don’t have.
I do mean: looking up the Phillies’ bullpen ERA and comparing it against the historical precdent. (For which, by the way, I am indebted to Tom Tango, Alex Fast, and Sarah Langs for their assistance in my research.) Though I may see things that concern me, I try to focus my attention on the positive as much as possible, in both life and with my Life Partner (the Phillies).
So, why look this up, when I knew the truth would only cause me pain? There are two reasons.
Reason Number One
I was tired of people informing me that the Phillies bullpen is bad. I am well aware that it is bad, as I have watched, or listened to, every single 2020 Phillies game.
Furthermore, I have been pointing to the bullpen as the most concerning weak spot on podcasts since last December. I remember ranting about it on The Good Phight’s “Hittin’ Season” podcast at the trade deadline last year. As I said to John Stolnis on the same podcast this week, people telling me that the Phillies bullpen is bad feels like people telling Cassandra that Troy is burning. I wanted to get out in front of this happening anymore with a solid fact.
Reason Number Two
Many, many people subscribe to the belief that their bullpen is a mess. Relief pitching is inherently volatile, and 2020 has seen a stomach-dropping churn in bullpen roles. The famous “Closer Carousel” has been a Closer Tilt-a-Whirl.
However, the next worst in ERA is the Mariners bullpen at 6.49, followed by the Reds at 6.23. Not only are these nearly three runs better than the Phillies, they easily clear the historical marks set by the 1930 Phillies and 1936 Athletics, above.
Reds, Mariners, Cubs, Pirates, Giants, Rangers, Padres, and Mets fans are justified in wailing about their bullpens’ performances this year. However, I wanted to put the historically atrocious number out there just to be clear: fans of other franchises, your grief, and your terror is not as great as ours.
How We Got Here: The Narrative
And this historically bad ERA is the result of Phillies GM Matt Klentak either deciding, or only being allowed, to construct a bullpen out of the church charity box / $1 scratch-off lottery tickets / dollar store scotch-tape and the adhesive from post-it notes, which are all metaphors that I have used on podcasts in the last calendar year.
I understand that the recent past for the Phillies has included some swings and misses on bullpen acquisitions, who failed to get the promised swing-and-misses. The contracts given to David Robertson, Pat Neshek, Juan Nicasio, and Tommy Hunter have made the front office gun-shy with handing out large paydays for relief. The real issue was their unwillingness to offer nearly any kind of contract to bolster their pen, because it would put them over the luxury tax.
The Phillies had, on their roster, as late as this July, veteran bullpen arms like Fransisco Liriano–who was great in spring training and I thought would be a lock for the roster–and Anthony Swarzak. Bud Norris and Drew Storen were two other arms that the Phillies had signed to minor-league deals, and released. Liriano ended up opting out of the season, but the Phillies let him go, first. And it’s likely because the $1.5 million they would have owed him would have put them over the luxury tax.
The organization treated the luxury tax threshold like a trip wire for an Indiana-Jones-style booby trap that would lead to instant death. But the percentage they would have paid on this modest overage, had they signed one of these arms, is probably what they tip their pool cleaner.
But instead, we have an assemblage of garage sale toys. I’m not objecting to the fact that these are unrecognizable names, on principle. The problem is that the Phillies themselves don’t know what to expect from these arms. And their strategy, to spend the season figuring out what they have, is a disaster in a shortened season. The Phillies have to waste precious time in the gas station parking lot scratching off each silvery square on their $1 lottery ticket, when they need to be screaming down the highway. It’s not an excellent strategy to build a bullpen, even in a normal season. But having opted for it in the offseason, there is no way to adjust that plan to a 60-game sprint.
How We Got Here: The Numbers
And now, a breakdown parsing the Phillies bullpen 9.12 ERA. If paragraphs are the way to structure a narrative, it feels like a table is the way to tell a story about numbers.
|Name||Earned Run Average||Innings Pitched||Notes|
|Austin Davis||21.00||3.0||Optioned back to alternate training site. Occasional Aaron Nola hair cosplay best thing to recommend him.|
|Connor Brogdon||20.25||1.1||See “hope” section below.|
|Cole Irvin||18.00||2.0||Back to the alternate training site with you!|
|Nick Pivetta||15.88||5.2||Is it possible former pitching coach Chris Young messed Pivetta up this much?|
|Trevor Kelley||10.80||3.1||DFA’d. First veteran $1 scratch-off ticket to be discarded in gas station parking lot.|
|Deolis Guerra||10.80||5.0||Eye-popping minor league numbers have not materalized in the majors for this 31 year-old.|
|Hector Neris||8.31||4.1||This is our closer. Consider this.|
|Adam Morgan||7.36||3.2||Adam Morgan, you’re better than this.|
|Tommy Hunter||6.00||6.0||At least we’re not paying him too much this time.|
|Reggie McClain||4.50||2.0||We’ve reached baseline-quality-start ERA! But he’s on the injured list.|
|Ramon Rosso||3.38||2.2||Good cutter and slider; only 24 years old. Hopefully, he can hang on.|
|Blake Parker||0.00||2.1||Was brought up on 8/12, date of my original This is the Worst ERA Ever tweet.|
|Jose Alvarez||0.00||5.1||A 100% Left on Base rate. Still: save us, Jose Alvarez.|
|Neil Walker||0.00||0.2||Yes. The position player.|
I’m just gonna leave that there.
And ultimately, asking this team to try to swim with the bullpen chained to their ankles is like…asking them to try to swim with an actual bullpen, chained to their ankles. I’m aware that the state of our country and the world is the largest contributing factor to my sense of emotional balance. But as a fan, I have never felt so heartbroken about a sports organization’s “plan,” after having slogged through a rebuild for much of the past decade.
It feels as though they’re looking at the 2020 60-game season with an “If we don’t, we don’t” attitude, to echo Phillies President Andy MacPhail’s comments about making the postseason last year. But this year, there are expanded playoffs, and it may be the last we have of J.T. Realmuto, one of the players keeping the team afloat, with a team-leading 1.0 bWAR and NL-leading homers and RBI. I believe that this is an incredibly talented group of players who could easily take a postseason spot with a league-average bullpen. But they’ve been shot in the foot by the organization that assembled them.
And that’s tough, because they also have an actual bullpen chained to their ankles.*
*I know I’m laying the metaphors on thick and fast, but metaphors are my native language. Consider it like someone’s native accent coming out more strongly when they’re upset. …Okay, technically, that’s a simile.
You Know What They Say: Sloppy Bullpen, Sloppy Play
Okay, maybe nobody says that.
Obviously, I can’t blame the devastating defensive miscues that the Phillies have had in the past week on the bullpen. However, as the President of the Ladies Love Smartly-Executed Defensive Plays lobby, these cut me even more deeply. There have been a number of fielding and baserunning errors in the past week that I genuinely do not have the spiritual fortitude to repeat here; my strength is still sapped by making that table of bullpen ERAs.
But I do have to feel that the team’s morale has suffered when the starting pitching feels as though they have no leeway, and the offense knows it has to score double-digit runs to feel confident in a win.
Since the extra-innings loss to the Orioles on Tuesday, which was as demoralizing as any regular-season loss that I have ever watched, I feel like I’ve been watching a team that’s scrambling to regain its equilibrium. And sometimes flailing as it does so. I think these tough losses really take it out on the players, mentally and physically. Particularly when they’re already under the mental strain of playing a sport for our enjoyment during a global pandemic. And the emotional strain of being in the United States of America in 2020.
Hope as a Tactic
When I was on the most recent episode of “Hittin’ Season,” the wonderful John Stolnis dubbed the Phillies’ bullpen strategy “hope as a tactic.” It’s not my phrase, but I appreciate its accuracy.
As a name. Not as a strategy. It is demonstrably not an acceptable tactic for building a bullpen.
But for fans, hope also has to be our tactic: hope that different arms might serve as the bullpen’s core. Let’s not DFA Deolis Guerra; he has a lot of upside. But perhaps let’s not rely upon him in high-leverage situations right now.
But in this shortened season, it seems unlikely that reinforcements will come via trade, when the organization is carrying around a card indicating extreme allergy to the luxury tax. So, as the Phillies learn what they have with their veteran lottery tickets, they will make room for some of their younger arms.
Some of these moves have already been made. 24-year-old Connor Brogdon was not sharp in his MLB debut on August 13, but with a 2.61 ERA and. 0.92 WHIP across three levels last year, we can hope for a bounce-back. The bullpen could certainly use his good fastball, and he sports a plus changeup.
JoJo Romero was also called up on Friday. The 23-year-old has neither the stat-lines nor the plus pitch of Brogdon, but a decent curveball and changeup could keep hitters off balance for an inning or two.
Of the arms yet to receive a call, Damon Jones shows promise. A 2.91 ERA and 1.16 WHIP across three levels last year are backed by an interesting arsenal. Jones’ fastball and slider are above average, and his changeup and curveball project to be usable.
Mauricio Llovera and Garrett Cleavinger have never pitched above double-A ball, and may be more “in case of emergency, break glass” pitchers for 2020. However, Llovera hurls and excellent splitter with a playable fastball and slider, and Cleavinger’s got a plus curveball.
The Guys We Know
It’s a mistake to imagine that the Phillies bullpen will improve because they are due positive regression to the mean. That assumes that the Phillies have assembled an average major-league bullpen staff, which they have not. For example:
However, I do expect better from some of their arms. For example, Adam Morgan’s 3.83 and 3.94 ERA in the past two seasons suggest his 7.36 mark should improve.
Likewise, track record would suggest we can expect more from Hector Neris, who has a career 3.36 ERA. On the other hand, history also teaches us that Neris can implode. In 2018, he had a 6.90 ERA through the end of June, and needed a stint in triple-A to right his head. The fact that on his return to the majors, he pitched well enough to garner the NL Reliever of the Month for August, suggests that it was, perhaps, a mental struggle. He locked down a 2.04 ERA for the rest of the season.
But there’s no time for this in the 2020 season, something of which Neris is certainly aware. Additionally, his reliance on his splitter–60% usage so far this year, 65% last year–makes his appearances turbulent. When the pitch flattens, he suffers.
The Deus Ex Machinas
Meanwhile, a number of pitchers are rehabbing on their way back to the major league club. But none have definite days to return, and may not contribute at all this season. But if they do, and if they’re productive for the Phillies, they will absolutely be the equivalent of an armored god, descending in a winged chariot.
Victor Arano has a 2.65 ERA in his last three seasons with the Phillies, although the 2019 season was only 4.2 innings before he succumbed to an elbow injury. Arthroscopic surgery consumed the rest of his season, and he’s been plagued with shoulder soreness on his return. He had no way to throw at home during the lockdown, and has had difficulty regaining his velocity at their alternate training site.
Ranger Suarez was battling for the fifth rotation spot with an excellent spring training, but has been absent from camp with an undisclosed illness. Whether Covid-19 or not, he has only recently resumed throwing in Lehigh Valley. However, Suarez was a very serviceable 3.14 ERA arm out of the Phillies bullpen last season, and there’s reason to believe the best for the 24-year-old is yet to come. But his long absence with illness, suggesting a serious case, may make a 2020 comeback difficult.
And then: David Robertson. All the Phillies have to show for the 2-year, $23 million contract they gave to Robertson are 6.2 innings. Robertson has also made his way to the alternate training site after rehabbing in Florida, but returning from Tommy John surgery is difficult to forecast. We may see Robertson in September, but there’s also a chance that he’s pitched his last inning as a Phillie.
Their Place in History
As I said to open, the 9.12 ERA is still in a small sample size of 48 innings, and bullpens are notoriously volatile. But even the most optimistic viewpoint on the bullpen’s future performance can’t predict a total turnaround.
At this point, lowering the ERA to a normal, recognizably-bad number will require Herculean performances worthy of a sports movie. It’s not impossible to imagine them surpassing the 1936 Athletics, and claiming the worst full-season record. To be clear: every night I pray that they don’t. And it baffles my dog, as I kneel, hands clasped in front of the television.
I’m just kidding. Most of the time, I can’t watch those half-innings. I pace around the apartment, listening to my celebrity crush Scott Franzke call the Phillies’ relief appearances on the radio, while I feverishly but haphazardly clean things in a way that’s not really productive.
In the end, it’s also a shame to think that the front office may get a pass on having gone into 2020 with this strategy. I do think the shortened season, and the stoppage of play after the Marlins’ Covid-19 outbreak, have made their task more difficult. But it’s the Phillies’ season that suffers, while they may get to dismiss the blow to their reputations as merely being victim to an anomalous 60-game season.
- / 6 hours ago
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