Phillies' Bullpen Turnaround Ignites Hot Start to 2021

After last year's disastrous bullpen Philadelphia’s relievers have acquitted themselves well so far in the young season.
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It took exactly one game for Phillies fans to get that all-too-familiar sinking feeling in the pits of their stomachs again.

Facing the Braves on Opening Day, Philadelphia held a 2–0 lead in the seventh inning behind a strong outing from ace Aaron Nola. That lead was erased on a two-run homer by Pablo Sandoval, which caused Nola to give way to a revamped Phillies bullpen that was the team’s undoing last season. Now tasked with pitching without even a lead to protect, expectations had to be low.

Instead, the quartet of Archie Bradley, José Alvarado, Héctor Neris and Connor Brogdon held the Braves scoreless over 3 1/3 innings, and the Phillies won on a walk-off single by Jean Segura. It was just one game, and the bullpen was never tasked with facing a save situation, but the close victory could signal a turning of the page after last year’s disaster.

To call the Phillies’ 2020 bullpen the team’s Achilles' heel is an insult to Greek mythology. We don’t need to spend too much time dwelling on the past, but let’s just say it was very, very bad. Nine games are far too few to draw concrete conclusions, but Philadelphia’s relievers have acquitted themselves well so far in the young season. The team is 3–1 in one-run games (including Sunday night’s umpiring fiasco) and the bullpen ranks eighth in fWAR (0.4), 10th in strikeout rate (26.5%) and fifth in win probability added (0.99).

Those numbers don’t jump off the page exactly, but they don’t have to for the Phillies to be markedly improved this season. The team was the seventh-unluckiest team in baseball last season, falling two games short of its Pythagorean won-lost record. That’s a little over five wins when extrapolated over a full season, which could drastically swing Philadelphia’s playoff chances.

Phillies relief pitcher Héctor Neris celebrates with catcher J.T. Realmuto after beating the Braves.

Apart from the bullpen, another reason to believe the Phillies can make it to October this year is the early returns from their lineup. The big names, at least, have come out of the gates strong, as Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto have picked up where they left off last year. And while Rhys Hoskins will likely need to be more selective—he has zero walks and 11 strikeouts in 36 plate appearances to date—he’s been hitting the ball harder than ever, with a 92.5-mph-average exit velocity and a 68% hard-hit rate.

Hoskins’s newfound aggressive approach appears to be one that the Phillies as a whole have adopted, at least early on. Before this season, he had a career walk rate of 15.3% and swung at pitches outside the strike zone 23.9% of the time. Through nine games, he’s chased 36.5% of pitches outside the zone, which has led to more strikeouts, fewer (in this case, zero) walks and more power.

As a team, the Phillies have the seventh-highest strikeout rate (27.3%) and rank 26th in walk rate (7.3%) after ranking 24th and eighth, respectively, in those categories a year ago. Philadelphia has basically the same hitters in its lineup as it did a year ago, and the same hitting coach in Joe Dillon, who’s in his second season with the team. Perhaps this extreme contrast is merely the result of a small sample size, or an extreme change in philosophy. Either way, how Phillies hitters approach opposing pitchers is something to monitor in the weeks and months ahead.

As for starting pitching, the trio of Nola, Zack Wheeler and Zach Eflin has been stellar. Nola and Wheeler each profile as aces, while Eflin has quietly produced a respectable 4.05 ERA in 235 1/3 innings since 2019. Depth could be an issue beyond those three, which would put that much more pressure on the new-look bullpen that will be without Bradley after the righthander was placed on the injured list with a left oblique injury.

So far, though, the bullpen has handled pressure with apparent ease. April games don’t have the same feel as those in October, but you can’t play in the latter without acquitting yourself in the former. After actively hurting the team’s chances at success a season ago, Phillies relievers are now instrumental in the team’s early success. For the men tasked with ending games this season, that’s a good enough place to start.

Quick Hits

• Shohei Ohtani keeps on raking. A blister has kept the two-way star from making his second start on the mound, but he didn't seem to bother him at the plate on Monday night when he ripped a double to right field with a 119-mph exit velocity, making it the hardest-hit ball of the season.

• Tyler Glasnow continued his superb start to the season, setting a new career high with 14 strikeouts in a 1–0 win over the Rangers. It was the most strikeouts for a Rays pitcher since Chris Archer fanned 15 in 2015.

• Ronald Acuña Jr. was at it again on Monday night. He was 1-for-2 with a triple, three walks and two runs scored in a 5–3 loss to the Marlins in 10 innings. His best moment, though, came when he tagged up and scored on a pop-out to the second baseman.

• That's one way to win a game. The White Sox won in walk-off fashion when, on what could have been an inning-ending double play, Cleveland first baseman Yu Chang's throw to second base hit Yasmani Grandal on the head.

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