Who has the early edge in the bullpen duel for the Phillies' closing job?

The Phillies have tried a few different looks early in the season, but one reliever stands head and shoulders above the rest as the best ninth-inning option.
Philadelphia Phillies relief pitcher José Alvarado
Philadelphia Phillies relief pitcher José Alvarado / Rich Schultz/GettyImages

The Philadelphia Phillies are starting to make some noise. They are now 11-8 after the first three weeks of the season and fresh off a three-game sweep of the Colorado Rockies.

This is a Phillies team that's beginning to hit its stride with a starting rotation that has delivered some dazzling performances over the last week — highlighted by a 112-pitch complete game gem from Ranger Suárez on Tuesday night. It doesn't hurt that Phillies hitters are starting to wipe away the cobwebs on the offensive side of the equation either.

Ahead of a three-game weekend series against the equally inept Chicago White Sox, the Phillies have an opportunity to close out the current homestand at The Bank on a heater before they head back on the road to face off against the Cincinnati Reds next week. And while the Phillies have gotten it done against weaker competition so far, it's not without some questions about a bullpen that is still trick-or-treat when called upon in the late innings.

The bullpen has been a work in progress in the early going. Without a major upgrade in the closer's role during the offseason, manager Rob Thomson has opted for a closer-by-committee arrangement that has made the ninth inning anything but comfortable in close games. With four pitchers combining for the team's six saves, it's clear that anyone can be handed the ball with the game on the line.

But some patterns have emerged through 19 games. Manager Rob Thomson and pitching coach Caleb Cotham have featured two hurlers more frequently than anyone else so far in closing situations. Jeff Hoffman and José Alvarado have been getting the ball the most often to begin the season — and the results have been a mixed bag — to put it mildly.

Let's take a look at how Hoffman and Alvarado have performed when closing games this season, and see if we can determine who has the edge in the race for the closing job.

Jeff Hoffman hasn't proven himself as the closer, yet.

Jeff Hoffman was perhaps the biggest surprise for the 2023 Philadelphia Phillies.

His minor league contract signing at the end of spring training last year didn't register as important, but he soon turned heads as one of the team's most dominant relief pitchers for the majority of the season. Drafted as a starting pitcher in the first round by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 2014 MLB Draft, Hoffman seemed a journeyman bust before he laced them up with the Phillies.

Hoffman finally found his calling as a bullpen arm. He delivered a 5-2 record with a 2.41 ERA and recorded one save in 52 1/3 innings pitched. His 69 strikeouts in those frames, compared to just 19 walks, made him one of Thomson's relievers. That confidence has carried over to 2024, where Thomson has hoped Hoffman's previous success would translate to the ninth inning. It's safe to say his current numbers are a bit misleading.

The 31-year-old has saved one game and blown two in his three ninth-inning opportunities. In a recent non-save situation on Monday versus the Rockies, Hoffman came into a tied 1-1 game in the ninth inning and gave up a hit, a walk, and uncorked two wild pitches in a performance that caused Phillies fans to suffer flashbacks of Craig Kimbrel's wildness.

His second wild pitch of the inning nearly cost the Phillies a run if not for Hoffman rushing to cover home and tagging out the runner in a dramatic collision that ended the inning.

Kudos to Hoffman for covering the plate and getting the third out the hard way, but this sort of tight-rope walking in the ninth inning has been Hoffman's calling card all season.

Sure, Hoffman has a 2-0 record and a 2.00 ERA in nine appearances. However, his 13.5 percent walk rate is a problem, especially compared to his 2023 walk rate of 9.1 percent. His strikeout rate has also declined from a career-high of 33.2 percent in 2023 to 24.3 percent this season.

The right-hander will certainly help this team win games and contribute some big outs down the stretch for the Phillies this season — but Hoffman is not the man for the ninth inning.

His job on last year's squad, getting big outs in the seventh and eighth innings, is a perfect role for him. It will be curious to see how long Thomson continues to save him for ninth-inning duty in the coming weeks. Unless something clicks for Hoffman soon, it doesn't look like this is the best direction for the Phillies to take the closer's role.

Has José Alvarado done enough to secure the closing job?

José Alvarado currently leads the Phillies in saves, after shutting the door in the ninth three times to begin the season. And while Alvarado has had more success in the role than Hoffman, including closing out Wednesday's too-close-for-comfort 7-6 victory, he has had his fair share of tough moments on the mound as well.

A rough start to the season has left the big lefty with a concerning 5.40 ERA and a negative -0.1 bWAR through his first nine appearances. But when you take into account that his numbers are still recovering from his disastrous 67.50 ERA season debut against the Atlanta Braves, things don't seem so bad.

Alvarado has hit his stride since the Opening Day massacre. He has tossed eight straight scoreless appearances and is a perfect 3-for-3 in save opportunities. The hit he gave up on Wednesday was the first hit he has allowed since Opening Day.

Closing out ball games is nothing new for Alvarado. Over the course of his eight-year MLB career, he has recorded 35 saves, with 10 of those coming last season when he was simply unhittable with a superb 1.74 ERA. According to Baseball Savant, since ditching his four-seam fastball prior to the 2023 season, Alvarado's sinker and cutter have been devastating MLB hitters with nasty movement and velocities that average 98.1 mph and touch 100 mph.

Those continue to be eye-popping numbers, but does that make Alvarado the right man for the job?

Alvarado can carve up hitters like few bullpen arms in the game but has periods where control is a major issue. This season, Alvarado's walk rate is 17.6 percent, a noticeable increase from the 10.5 percent he recorded in 2023. It's a small sample size, but his strikeout rate has also declined from 37.2 percent last season to 26. 5 percent. While these numbers are still elite, it's worth keeping an eye on until Alvarado logs more appearances.

An argument can be made that Alvarado should get the majority of chances in the closer's role, based on past experience and owing to his filthy stuff. But an argument can also be made that he needs to get the ball for the biggest outs in close situations, as he did on Monday when he entered a tie game in the eighth and got two quick outs. Alvarado tends to function best in this type of role, where his presence alone represents a rally killer for opposing ball clubs. Will that be the case in 2024?

The verdict: Who has the edge in the duel for the Phillies' closer job?

The Phillies have a few relievers capable of closing games.

Gregory Soto did it the hard way with the Detroit Tigers in 2022, saving 30 games in 33 chances while carrying a less-than-inspiring 2-11 record that points to someone who can't be trusted. His meltdown in relief of Cristopher Sánchez's masterful start on Wednesday, when he gave up five runs (all earned), is the latest example that Soto is not the man for the job.

Seranthony Domínguez? That's not looking like a great option with a 6.43 ERA and three home runs allowed in seven innings. Electric arm? Yes. Closer's mentality? Not present.

The Phillies could also turn to other options like Matt Strahm and Yunior Marte, who have settled into being two of the most consistent bullpen arms early in the 2024 season.

Strahm has overcome some hiccups in his first few appearances to provide the kind of multi-inning relief that made him a savior in the Phillies bullpen in 2023. Marte has been lights out when called upon, with a 1.04 ERA and 10 strikeouts in eight appearances. These guys have settled into the right roles and are getting the job done. If it ain't broke, why fix it?

The Phillies should continue to use José Alvarado to lock down saves until they know what they have in rookie Orion Kerkering or seek help via the trade market.

Bullpens need roles, and this closer-by-committee experiment has all the early indications of something that could doom the team's playoff hopes. The trade deadline isn't on anyone's radar just yet. Until then, the Phillies will continue with the "Who Wants to be a Closer?' competition until a viable option is named or the wheels completely fall off.