Closer Encounters: Pen Woes in Philly & Boston

Closer Encounters: Pen Woes in Philly & Boston

This article is part of our Closer Encounters series.

In this installment, let's review two struggling bullpens and what these teams could do to turn things around.

Phillies - The last time Philadelphia's bullpen ranked in the top 10 of the league by ERA was all the way back in 2011. The Phillies were anchored at that time by Ryan Madson and Antonio Bastardo. Since then, it's been more than a decade of bullpen woes and bottom-half finishes in ERA, save for 2017 season during which they just barely snuck into the top half of the league.

Year

PHI Bullpen ERA

MLB Rank

2022

4.38

27th

2021

4.60

25th

2020

7.06

30th

2019

4.38

16th

2018

4.19

18th

2017

4.18

14th

2016

5.05

28th

2015

3.81

17th

2014

3.64

18th

2013

4.19

27th

2012

3.94

21st

More recently, Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and vice president/general manager Sam Fuld have yet to assemble a competitive bullpen during their brief tenure in Philadelphia's front office. Prior to the 2021 season, the team signed Archie Bradley and Jose Alvarado, then traded for Ian Kennedy to supplant Hector Neris in the closer role near mid-season. None were effective and only Alvarado remains with the team. Even starting pitcher Ranger Suarez closed a few games last season when other late-inning relievers were struggling.

Yet another bullpen overhaul was required prior to this season. It's unclear whether the Phillies were players for Raisel Iglesias, Kenley Jansen or Craig Kimbrel this offseason, but the team ultimately went the veteran route,

In this installment, let's review two struggling bullpens and what these teams could do to turn things around.

Phillies - The last time Philadelphia's bullpen ranked in the top 10 of the league by ERA was all the way back in 2011. The Phillies were anchored at that time by Ryan Madson and Antonio Bastardo. Since then, it's been more than a decade of bullpen woes and bottom-half finishes in ERA, save for 2017 season during which they just barely snuck into the top half of the league.

Year

PHI Bullpen ERA

MLB Rank

2022

4.38

27th

2021

4.60

25th

2020

7.06

30th

2019

4.38

16th

2018

4.19

18th

2017

4.18

14th

2016

5.05

28th

2015

3.81

17th

2014

3.64

18th

2013

4.19

27th

2012

3.94

21st

More recently, Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and vice president/general manager Sam Fuld have yet to assemble a competitive bullpen during their brief tenure in Philadelphia's front office. Prior to the 2021 season, the team signed Archie Bradley and Jose Alvarado, then traded for Ian Kennedy to supplant Hector Neris in the closer role near mid-season. None were effective and only Alvarado remains with the team. Even starting pitcher Ranger Suarez closed a few games last season when other late-inning relievers were struggling.

Yet another bullpen overhaul was required prior to this season. It's unclear whether the Phillies were players for Raisel Iglesias, Kenley Jansen or Craig Kimbrel this offseason, but the team ultimately went the veteran route, signing Corey Knebel (67 career saves), Brad Hand (127) and Jeurys Familia (125) to one-year deals. Seranthony Dominguez, who tallied 16 saves for the Phillies in 2018, also returned after missing the majority of the last two seasons recovering from Tommy John surgery. Unfortunately, this unit collectively ranks 27th with a 4.38 ERA and 1.40 WHIP.

Here is how Phillies relievers have performed through May 16:

Name

IP

K%

BB%

ERA

WHIP

W

SV

HLD

Corey Knebel

15.0

22.2

9.5

3.60

1.27

0

7

0

Brad Hand

9.1

29.5

15.9

1.93

1.39

1

1

4

Seranthony Dominguez

13.2

33.3

11.1

2.63

1.10

2

0

6

Andrew Bellatti

9.1

36.6

12.2

2.89

1.39

1

0

1

Nick Nelson

16.1

20.0

11.4

3.86

1.41

1

0

1

Jeurys Familia

12.2

25.0

10.7

4.26

1.50

1

0

5

Connor Brogdon

4.0

26.3

15.8

4.50

1.75

0

0

0

James Norwood

10.1

25.6

4.7

6.97

1.16

1

0

1

Jose Alvarado

9.2

31.3

12.5

7.45

1.86

0

0

4

All but two have a walk rate higher than 10 percent.

Knebel, in particular, hasn't performed as terribly as some closers in 2022, but he has three losses and two blown saves on his stat line through mid-May. A meltdown against the division rival Mets on May 5 was particularly alarming as the Phillies carried a 7-1 lead into the ninth inning and lost 8-7. Poor Aaron Nola.

Philadelphia was lucky to take three of four games from the Dodgers last weekend after blowing late-inning leads in multiple games during the series. Los Angeles narrowly avoided the sweep Sunday after Gavin Lux hit a game-winning, two-run double off Knebel in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Unfortunately, there isn't much on the way in terms of reinforcements either. Sam Coonrod (shoulder), Ryan Sherriff (biceps) and Kent Emanuel (elbow) are on the 60-day IL and have yet to debut this year. All three are average relief pitchers at best. Philadelphia's 15th-ranked prospect Francisco Morales moved from the starting rotation to the bullpen this season and recently made his major league debut after 16.1 impressive innings at Double-A. He even converted his first big-league save, but was recently optioned to the minors.

There's only so much manager Joe Girardi can do when the team is trying to monitor Knebel's innings and most of his other relievers are performing poorly. Perhaps Philadelphia will trade for one of Girardi's former players in New York, Aroldis Chapman? Chapman has some red flags too, but he's in the final year of his contract with the Yankees and New York has the bullpen depth to easily replace him at closer. That's just one idea for an upgrade, but it's clear Philadelphia needs to address its bullpen if they wish to remain competitive in the NL East. I'll be monitoring this relief corps closely in the coming weeks and especially as we draw closer to the trade deadline.

Red Sox - I couldn't help but laugh at recent Twitter posts on my timeline suggesting Boston should sign Steve Aoki and 50 Cent to upgrade its bullpen. What a mess! Through mid-May, the Red Sox are the only team in the league with more blown saves (nine) than saves (seven). Their 4.21 reliever ERA ranks 24th in the league and their 19 home runs allowed are tied for third most. May has not been kind to this unit, as Boston has gone 5-8  (through May 16) with the bullpen responsible for four of those losses — two each by Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier.

Barnes was a dominant closer in the first half last year and signed an extension with the Red Sox last summer, but Boston turned to a committee once he began to struggle and even left him off its  ALCS playoff roster. Barnes experienced reduced velocity this spring due to a possible mechanical flaw and his average fastball velocity has been roughly 2 mph lower than it was last season. Fortunately, his velocity appears to have spiked back to normal during his most recent outings. He only threw one fastball Monday, but it was 95 miles per hour. He averaged 95.6 mph during a clean outing at Texas over the weekend, which is in line with his 95.9 mph average from last season:

While the recent velocity gains are encouraging, Barnes has three losses this year while sporting a 10.9 percent walk rate. His chances of entering the mix for saves anytime soon are slim. Of his 14 appearances, he's allowed at least one earned run in half of them, while only four appearances have been clean. I've held Barnes on my bench in a deeper 15-team league where I'm struggling to accumulate saves, but I'm finally going to cut bait. I probably should have done so long ago.

Hansel Robles leads the Red Sox with two saves, including the team's most recent save Monday night against the Astros. His surface stats don't look bad — 2.51 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 2 saves, 6 holds — but prior to Monday's save he had allowed an earned run in four of five appearances. Robles' groundball rate is down five percent while his walk rate is at an uncomfortable 10.3 percent. While he has experience in the closer role after tallying 14 saves between Minnesota and Boston last year, his 17.2 percent strikeout rate does not inspire much confidence. Robles stands as the leader of this closer committee, but he's certainly not the best reliever in this pen.

On a more positive note, former Tigers reliever John Schreiber has stepped up in a huge way since his most recent promotion from the minors May 6. He has yet to allow a run or walk through 7.1 innings and has earned a high leverage role for Boston in a short period. Schreiber leads the Red Sox with a 25.9 K-BB percentage. Likewise, southpaw Matt Strahm has been the Red Sox best reliever to date. Strahm sports a 2.13 ERA (1.59 FIP), 0.71 WHIP and has racked up two wins, a save and three holds through 15 appearances. He leads Red Sox relievers with a 0.74 WPA and should be one of Alex Cora's primary choices for save opportunities in the near future. I recently moved Strahm and Schreiber ahead of Jake Diekman and Matt Barnes within Boston's hierarchy for saves. Ryan Brasier is also ahead of those relievers after a hot start to the season, though he's allowed six runs in his last two appearances.

If Boston relievers continue to struggle as we approach the summer, I wonder if Chris Sale would be open to pitching out of the bullpen when he's healthy. Pitching in shorter stints could actually accelerate his return from a rib injury for a team that desperately needs a spark, as the Red Sox are seven games under .500 and are fourth in the AL East. If not, Sale's eventual return to the starting rotation could mean stud Garrett Whitlock steps back into a versatile relief role that could lead to him closing out games. If Boston fails to turn things around this summer and falls out of playoff contention, I expect it to trade Strahm and Robles, who are free agents after this season.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ryan Rufe
Ryan manages the MLB Closer Grid and authors 'Closer Encounters'. He also contributes to the MLB draft kit and has been helping RotoWire subscribers through our 'Ask An Expert' feature since 2014. He's an NFBC enthusiast.
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