The Phillies Have Had Baseball’s Best Bullpen

The Phillies won again on Wednesday. So this is already off to a silly start, but anyhow, here’s more or less how they did it.

phillies-bullpen

When you allow two runs, you don’t have to do much at the plate to win, and though the Phillies never do much at the plate, they did enough against Tom Koehler to make a winner out of Jeremy Hellickson. Hellickson gave way to David Hernandez, who turned in a scoreless inning. Hernandez gave way to Hector Neris, who turned in a scoreless inning. And Neris gave way to Jeanmar Gomez, who turned in the final scoreless inning necessary. Sometimes good teams are said to have bullpen formulas. This is the Phillies’ formula, and it’s helped propel them into a wild-card spot. The Phillies are in a wild-card spot. You know who’s in a wild-card spot? The Phillies.

Step back in time with me. The Phillies began the season 0-4. In the opener, the bullpen allowed a five-run eighth inning to cough up a 2-1 lead. In the next game, the bullpen gave up the tying and winning runs in the ninth. The next time out, the bullpen was responsible for four runs in 4.1 innings. The next time out, the bullpen was responsible for four runs in three innings. Four games in, Phillies relievers allowed 15 runs in 10.2 innings. Since the end of that four-game stretch, the Phillies have posted baseball’s second-best record. They’re the team that’s played closest to the Cubs.

One thing you notice is the Phillies’ record. It’s awfully good. Another thing you might notice is the run differential. Even since those first four games, the Phillies have had a negative run differential. As I write this, they’re between the Padres and the Yankees. They’re easily the team that’s most outplayed its BaseRuns estimated record. I don’t need to tell you what those things can mean, and I’m not real interested in going over that. I don’t think anyone needs to be convinced the Phillies aren’t this good. It’s just — I mean, we know that. But it’s amazing the Phillies have this record in the first place. How have they gotten to this point? How have the Phillies so overachieved? They’ve had the best bullpen in baseball.

Not by talent. You have to figure the Yankees win on talent. Or maybe the Orioles. The Phillies don’t lead by WAR. They’re middle-of-the-pack in ERA. They’re even worse than that in FIP. To really understand the Phillies, you have to look at Win Probability Added, or WPA. It’s when you account for context that they really stand out. By WPA, their hitters rank 22nd. No secret that they haven’t hit. Their starting pitchers rank sixth. No secret that they’ve had good starters. Their relief pitchers rank first. Their relievers haven’t allowed the starters’ efforts to be wasted.

Here’s the whole league bullpen landscape at this moment:

team-bullpen-wpa

The Reds have been working with a relief corps that’s been historically bad. That part checks out. Of course the Royals are toward the front. The same goes for the Orioles, and the Red Sox and A’s spent the offseason trying to make their bullpens stronger. Those bullpens are strong, but the Phillies have thus far led the way in effectiveness. “Best” usually overlaps with “most talented.” That’s not what I’m trying to convey. The Phillies’ bullpen has been the most important. The most valuable. Whatever the most critical thing is, that’s what it’s been.

The Phillies bullpen is by far the league leader in Shutdowns. That’s not a stat we refer to very often, but it captures those big, high-leverage appearances. And when I refer to the Phillies bullpen, I mostly refer to Gomez, Neris, and Hernandez, who have done the most valuable work. All three of those guys are among the top 20 relievers in WPA. All three of those guys are among the top five relievers in Shutdowns. As recently as the end of spring training, and even the start of the year, the Phillies’ whole bullpen was unsettled. Now they have Wednesday’s formula. Those aren’t the team’s only useful relievers, but they’re the ones other teams are going to see in big spots.

To what extent was this not expected? In our Positional Power Rankings, the Phillies projected to have baseball’s worst bullpen. It wasn’t a totally horrible exercise — the Reds projected at second-worst. And there’s still a lot of season to go. Gomez doesn’t seem likely to keep running a sub-3 ERA. Yet, you know about Neris. He’s striking everybody out, because he’s become comfortable featuring his splitter. And you might’ve forgotten about Hernandez, but he was excellent in 2012, and he had Tommy John surgery in 2014. What he’s doing now, he’s done before, so he might just be back. The Phillies have been right to trust Neris, and they were right to sign Hernandez as a free agent. They’re helping prop up a bullpen that’s allowed the Phillies to miraculously be competitive.

As you could guess, I don’t think it’ll sustain. Not as No. 1 in baseball, not with this group. One issue could be depth, and another issue could be riding the big three too hard. Just last week, I wrote about the Mariners when their bullpen was top in WPA, and then the group immediately started to suck. Unexpected things happen, but baseball is mostly reasonable. There was a stretch last year where the Phillies went 16-5. They still wound up with baseball’s worst record. The Phillies’ bullpen formula might fracture, and then they could look more like…the Phillies, the Phillies we assumed would exist.

But don’t lose sight of the fact that it’s all gravy. The Phillies weren’t even supposed to be able to sniff the race, and here they are, a quarter of the way in, even with the favorites. Some starters have impressed, and some relievers have impressed, and the Phillies are playing baseball fans can enjoy. Good teams tend to have good bullpens. Bad teams tend to have bad bullpens. The Phillies have squeezed an effective bullpen out of what was supposed to be a rotten one. For however long that can continue, so might continue the magic.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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negativecreep
Member
negativecreep

I don’t understand it…it’s not like they’ve even been getting even close to the most ground balls or soft contact according to the leader boards. The only thing I can find besides the WPA pointed out in the article is that they’ve had the 3rd best LOB%, and even with that, still a 3.91 ERA.

I’m just waiting for the whole team to implode when they start playing tougher teams at the end of May and first half of June.

FrancoLuvHateMets
Member
FrancoLuvHateMets

The thing is…. every team not named the Braves were supposed to be a tough team for the Phillies.

buckeyewalker
Member
buckeyewalker

I think what the difference between rate stats and Shutdowns indicates is that all/most of the crap pitching the Phillies have done has come when they were already down or up by a lot- that doesn’t move the needle as much in WPA, but still counts in ERA, contact rate, etc. But when they get on mound close and late, they magically turn on the jets and nail everyone.

Jeagle
Member
Jeagle

The Phillies record in one run games this year is 14-3 which leads the majors. Compared to last year the Phillies record in one run games was 16-27 for the third worst record in the majors.

johnforthegiants
Member
johnforthegiants

It isn’t magic, it looks like they’ve got 3 very good relievers who they use in high-leverage situations as much as possible.