Phillies new-look bullpen providing optimism early in season

Hector Neris #50 of the Philadelphia Phillies (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Hector Neris #50 of the Philadelphia Phillies (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

A common belief around Major League Baseball this season is that if the Philadelphia Phillies can replicate their offensive and starting pitching production from last season, they will be playing October baseball in 2021 — as long as their bullpen is anywhere close to decent.

FanGraphs kept it simple in their preseason bullpen power rankings, in which they had the Phillies ranked No. 12:

"The ‘pen simply returning to the realm of “okay” should give the Phillies a significant boost in the standings."

The historically bad Phillies bullpen was the worst in Major League Baseball in 2020, posting a -7.35 win probability added, which FanGraphs notes was the fifth-worst bullpen mark since 1974 … and they did it in a 60-game season. Things can only get better from here, right? “Yes” is probably a safe answer. Based on the offseason additions to this year’s new-look bullpen alone, there is reason for optimism.

So far, the Phillies bullpen is significantly better than last season.

Through nine games this season, the Phillies bullpen has allowed 13 earned runs in 31 1/3 innings — good for a 3.73 ERA — with 35 strikeouts and 13 walks. Those aren’t top-of-the-league quality numbers, but they’re still solid and a huge improvement from a unit that posted a 7.06 ERA in 2020.

When you disregard poor performances from two current long relievers Vince Velasquez and David Hale — who have combined to allow eight earned runs and seven walks in 5 1/3 innings — the bullpen numbers look even better.

The other half dozen relievers who have appeared this season — holdovers Hector Neris and Connor Brogdon and newcomers Jose Alvarado, Archie Bradley (now on the 10-day IL), Brandon Kintzler and Sam Coonrod — have looked good in a combined 25 appearances. This group has a 2.08 ERA (six earned runs in 26 innings) with 30 strikeouts and just six walks. None have allowed more than two walks.

Neris, the longest-tenured Phillie, is off to an excellent start after manager Joe Girardi named him the closer before Opening Day. The 32-year-old veteran has collected five strikeouts with just one hit allowed in five scoreless innings. Neris has also converted both of his save opportunities, with his latest coming Sunday night against the Braves in Atlanta. The right-hander needed only 10 pitches in a one-two-three ninth inning — swiftly retiring Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies for the final two outs and protecting a one-run lead.

Alvarado was the talk of spring training after getting in shape in the offseason and showcasing career-high velocity in Clearwater. He has been an extremely valuable addition. His sinker — which he throws more than 70 percent of the time — is averaging 99.6 miles per hour, almost three full miles per hour faster than when he appeared in nine games for the 2020 Rays. Also, Alvarado has struck out nine of the 22 batters he’s faced and is averaging 17.4 strikeouts per nine innings.

Every member of the bullpen has had bright spots early on — some more than others. They haven’t all had their best stuff every night. But, as a unit, they’ve been able to hold leads — something you couldn’t say often last year.

Nine games is an extremely small sample size. It’s too soon to predict how the bullpen will hold up through 162 games, but there are plenty of encouraging signs from the Phillies’ stable of relievers early this season.

More. Phillies: 3 silver linings with Archie Bradley injury. light