PHILADELPHIA — Everyone knows the history of the Phillies’ bullpen in recent years.
It was one of frustration and heartbreak.
But the bullpen is doing something this year, especially since the end of May. Not only does it hit well; it dominates. It’s making up for the losses of Bryce Harper and Jean Segura by keeping the Phillies in games when they’re behind and holding onto narrow leads when they’re ahead.
Philadelphia’s bullpen allowed a five-inning run in Thursday’s 5-3 win over the Nationals at Citizens Bank Park. It’s a big reason the Phillies will hold a share of the third-place NL wild card as they open a nine-game road trip in St. Louis on Friday.
“Everyone throws the ball really well down there,” said Phillies ace Zack Wheeler. “Give them credit. You keep grinding. They know the narrative of the last few years, but they’re pushing against it and doing it well. They keep everyone quiet, which is good.”
From opening day through May 31, the Bullpen was 8-11 with an ERA of 4.17. Opponents had a .731 OPS against it. It ranked seventh in baseball for strikeout rate (25.3 percent) but 29th for walk rate (11.1 percent). According to FanGraphs, it placed 18th with a 1.1 WAR. But from June 1 through Wednesday, it was 9-3 with a 3.11 ERA. Opponents had a .581 OPS against it. It ranked fourth in strikeout rate (27.1 percent) and 17th in walk rate (9.5 percent). It is tied for second place in baseball with a 1.5 WAR.
Phillies reliefs are also better at limiting hard contact, as evidenced by a 42.6 percent hit rate and an average exit speed of 89.4 mph through May, compared to 32.3 percent and 88.6 mph since June 1. They’re also less behind on the count: 30.1 percent of pitches through May versus 28.8 percent since June 1. And they’re further ahead in the count: 26 percent of pitches through May versus 27.2 percent of pitches since June 1.
An extra strike here and there every night makes a big difference.
“I think once you get a bullpen hot and things start clicking right, it’s a lot easier to keep things going than when it’s the other way around,” said left-hander Brad Hand. “When you start giving up some leads, start giving up some runs, it can snowball. We just have to keep attacking thugs and keep coming out.
Phillies interim manager Rob Thomson is pushing the right buttons along the way as his pitchers have settled into their roles. Hand and Seranthony Domínguez have shared finishing duties for the past few weeks. Thomson swaps them out depending on how the opposing lineup is set up in the eighth and ninth innings. José Alvarado, Corey Knebel and Andrew Bellatti perform well in high-leverage situations in the mid to late innings.
Nick Nelson was an effective long man for most of the season. He put up two scoreless innings on Thursday. Alvarado followed; he knocked out Juan Soto, Josh Bell and Nelson Cruz in the seventh in a row. After being nominated for Triple-A Lehigh Valley in late May, Alvarado has had 17 strikes in his last 11 appearances and ran 4 of 9 innings.
Alvarado threw seven sinkers Thursday at an average speed of 100.7 miles per hour. He threw seven cutters at an average speed of 95.5 miles per hour.
Most importantly, he threw nine strikes.
“His stuff is electric,” said Hand.
Hand allowed a run in game eight, but Domínguez pulled off a scoreless ninth place to make his third save. The 27-year-old right-hander has been absolutely dominant this season and should be considered an NL All-Star, although that often seems to go to the relievers with the most saves.
“That’s what we were just talking about,” Wheeler said of Domínguez’s All-Star case. “He’s not getting as much credit as he should, but he’s tackled the toughest parts of the lineup, whether it’s eighth or ninth.”
But think back to the past few years. So often the Phillies went into the late innings with a run or two, then—phew—a small deficit ballooned into a big one, ruining any chance of a comeback. Then, of course, there was the seemingly endless series of missed saves.
It will not take place this year.
“Everyone’s calmed down a bit,” Thomson said. “They know where they’re going to serve and what part of the game they’re going to be in. I think that helps them. They reacted.”