The Philadelphia Phillies have been notorious for poor bullpen performances for the last few seasons. In 2022, the club's relievers combined for a 4.27 ERA— good for 23rd in baseball. The previous two seasons were even more ominous. The relief core sported a 4.60 ERA in 2021 and a staggering 7.06 ERA in the shortened 2020 campaign— good for 25th and last in bullpen ERA rankings respectively.
Dave Dombrowski recognized the bullpen was an issue if the team wanted to build on its successful run in 2022. In December, the Phillies signed Craig Kimbrel to a one-year $10 million deal. Then a few weeks later, Dombrowski sent three players— Matt Vierling, Nick Maton, and Donny Sands— to Detroit in exchange for their closer Gregory Soto and Kody Clemens.
These two moves bolstered the back end of the bullpen as Soto and Kimbrel joined the likes of Seranthony Domínguez and José Alvarado. While these four relievers have been good overall, other bullpen pieces have contributed to give the Phillies their best bullpen in recent memory. On the season, the Phillies bullpen has a 3.85 ERA, however, since April 16th, the relief core ranked first in baseball with a 3.17 ERA heading into the series against the Milwaukee Brewers per Todd Zolecki of MLB.com. The bullpen expanded the gap in ERA between themselves and the next closest team after Tuesday night's victory as they lowered their average to 3.15 and San Francisco's increased to 3.46.
The way the season began, it may have been difficult to imagine that the Phillies relievers would have improved to this point. However, Kimbrel has returned to his old dominant form as he has lowered his ERA from 7.07 on May 10th to 3.15 after notching his 16th save of the season on Tuesday night. He has also not allowed an earned run since June 8th. The right-handed reliever also just played in his ninth All-Star game.
Alvarado and Domínguez have missed some considerable time due to injuries— though when healthy both looked good. Alvarado in particular had a great start to the season as he has allowed just four earned runs in 26 innings and has struck out 39 hitters in that span.
Soto has looked dominant in some games and has struggled in others. The flame throwing left-hander relies on his velocity and control to retire hitters. When the command is there, he can appear unhittable, however, if the command is off, he walks batters and misses his spots. Overall, Soto has had more good games than bad games, but his poor outings have inflated his ERA to 4.79 on the season.
Other middle relievers have looked good this season too. Matt Strahm— who began the season in the rotation— has been a key left-handed piece in the bullpen. Andrew Vasquez, Jeff Hoffman, Andrew Bellatti, Yunior Marte, and Luis Ortiz have all had big moments throughout the season as well. Hoffman most recently pitched two innings in the Phillies extra inning win against the San Diego Padres. He held the Padres scoreless despite having a runner start the inning on second base in both innings.
ERA is not a perfect stat to use for individual relievers because they pitch a small number of innings so any earned runs surrendered can falsely inflate their average— as seen in Soto's case. Conversely, they can pitch poorly and allow inherited runners to score, and the earned runs are credited to the previous pitcher deflating their ERA. Team ERA though, is a bit more inviting to use. Since there are more relievers, hence more innings pitched, the numbers may be a better representation. The Phillies bullpen has also struck out a considerable number of opposing batters. They rank sixth in baseball with a 9.93 K/9 rate per FanGraphs.
The improvement the bullpen has made since the first two weeks of the season has been impressive. The bullpen has also been a major reason as to why the Phillies currently sit nine games above .500 and are just a half game out of the Wild Card race. The club will rely on the relievers to continue to keep the team in games, strand runners, and help carry the team into a playoff hunt.