The Phillies rebuild is finally beginning to take shape.
Odubel Herrera has quietly been a top 8 CF in baseball over the last 3 years. Cesar Herrnandez has quietly been a top 7 2B over the last 2. Righty Aaron Nola is a budding ace, with 4.3 WAR in just under 170 IP in 2017 at just 24 years old. Young 1B/OF Rhys Hoskins burst onto the scene last season and hit 18 HR in his first 118 AB and was worth 2.2 WAR in just a third of the season. They signed 1B Carlos Santana earlier this offseason and have been rumored to have been in contact with FA pitcher Jake Arrieta. Top prospect JP Crawford should start the year as the opening day SS and figures to provide immediate value. Top pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez has yet to pitch more than 95 IP in a season but has some of the most electric stuff in the minors, including a fastball that can touch 102 mph.
The future looks extremely promising for the Phillies. So promising, in fact, that predictions of a dark horse Wild Card team for this season are beginning to surface here and there. I love what the Phillies are doing; they’ve put themselves in a great spot to perhaps be one better teams for the next decade if everything works, but pushing for a Wild Card in 2018 is not something I expect. Even if Hoskins continues to mash, Santana plays well, Crawford has an extremely good rookie season, and 3B Maikel Franco can somehow be once again productive, the Phillies don’t have the necessary starting pitching. Arrieta would add about 2-3 wins, and Nola should contribute the same 3-4 WAR season with a chance for more if he stays healthy, but the rest of the rotation is made up of high variance, low floor, back-end type arms. Vince Velasquez has shown to be pretty good when healthy, but the unhealthy days have dominated his last 2 years. Nick Pivetta had respectably good and durable minor league career prior to being called up, but had an ERA north of 6.00 in 26 starts in 2017. Ben Lively finished the year with a good first 15 MLB starts, but there may be some regression coming. Jake Thompson is an interesting, former top prospect, but nothing else until he can show sustained success at the MLB level. Ultimately, no one should be expecting the Phillies to make a playoff push in 2018 due to a lack of starting pitching.
The bullpen, however, could be one of the best in baseball.
Here’s a look at the Phillies’ bullpen at the time of this writing according to Roster Resource:
At first glance, there aren’t too many sexy names. It isn’t a bullpen that’s backed by an elite closer like Kenley Jansen or Craig Kimbrel and doesn’t have the dominant fireman such as Andrew MIller or Chad Green. In fact, in terms of fWAR, the none of these guys were a top 35 RP in all of baseball. So why would this bullpen be any good?
Neris is coming off his third straight successful season and his first as the Phillies closer. He regressed a bit from 2016, both in terms of ERA and FIP, but according to Brooks Baseball, Neris’ pitch usage, movement, velocity, and whiff% were all essentially the same from 2016 to 2017. After proving he could handle the pressure of the closer role (if you believe in that), expect Neris to once again have a 1+ WAR, 2.80-3.30 ERA season.
After being a failed starter, Hunter has had a decent amount of success out of the bullpen in the past, including 1.4 WAR from 2013 to 2014 with the Orioles. But Hunter had never had the success he did in 2017, a 1.2 WAR season. According to xwOBA, Statcast’s primary quality-of-contact metric, Hunter was the 29th best RP in baseball out of 254 qualified RP (min. 100 AB), including the second best 2nd half in all of baseball, where he allowed only a .204 xwOBA. The reason? Hunter’s cutter, which has always been an extremely good swing-and miss pitch for him, has been utilized more and more in lieu of his 4-seamer:
Not only that, but the cutter’s velocity jumped from under 92 mph in 2016 to well over 94 mph in 2017. Between the velocity increase and usage increase of the pitch, he saw his strikeout rate jump to 9.8 K/9 after just a 6.8 K/9 from 2013-2016. Expect Hunter to continue to utilize this pitch in 2018 and beyond. An ERA in the mid-to-low 2.00s in 60+ innings is not out of the question.
Remember how I told you that Hunter was the second best RP in baseball in the 2nd half according to Statcast’s quality-of-contact metric, xwOBA? Well the 1st best RP in baseball over that time was none other than Hunter’s now-teammate Pat Neshek, who had a 0.198 xwOBA. A very good reliever throughout much of his 12-year career, Neshek was a different animal in 2017, partly due to scrapping a changeup that he threw 8.6% of the time from 2006-2016 and had mixed results with, but also due to much improved success vs. left-handed hitters, as Eno Saris pointed out in this article here.
The left hand side shows Neshek’s slider locations to lefties from 2016 and the right shows locations from 2017. It seems weird that Neshek would have better success vs LHH when throwing his slider more consistently right down the middle, but he did. Lefties in 2016 had a .379 wOBA against his slider while that number reduced to .261 wOBA. Neshek was the 5th best RP in baseball last season by fWAR and you can expect that success to carry over to 2018 if his success against LHH does as well.
Garcia had a very good 2017, and for good reason(s). First and foremost, Garcia’s fastball command was better in 2017.
(per Baseball Savant)
The left (or upper, if you’re on mobile) is Garcia’s FB locations in 2015 (the only other season of 35+ IP) and the right is 2017. Garcia kept his 97+ mph FB up and in on the hands of right-handed hitters and up and away from lefties consistently this past year, and it helped drop his wOBA vs. his fastball over 100 points from .396 to .278. Garcia’s fastball was the 14th best out of all qualified RP last season with a 13.2 wFB. Another contributing factor was the introduction of a new pitch. After throwing nothing but a fastball and slider for 4 years prior, Garcia introduced a changeup late in 2016 and ended up throwing the pitch 13% of the time in 2017, and it allowed his FB and SL to play way, way up. Opponents hit .113 against Garcia’s slider and .179 against his changeup. He allowed a .050 isolated power against his fastball, .094 against his slider, and just .107 vs. his new changeup. The new pitch mix carried Garcia to a 2.65 ERA and 3.12 FIP in 2017 and gives reason to believe he can repeat that in 2018.
After once being considered a top 150 prospect by John Sickels at Minor League Ball, Morgan’s career as a SP was beginning to look bleak after a 5.37 ERA as a starter in his first 36 career starts. Morgan was moved to the bullpen 2017 and he was quietly much better than his 4.12 ERA may indicate. Not surprisingly, Morgan’s stuff saw a decent velocity jump out of the bullpen, including a FB that now pushes 95 mph:
Morgan’s xwOBA in the second half was .243, tied for 14th in baseball over that time, which was extremely similar to other RPs in baseball such as Brandon Morrow, Brad Hand, and Tommy Kahnle. Morgan was one of Mike Petriello’s picks for relief pitchers to break out this year.
Edubray Ramos had a very good 2017 including a FIP below 3.00 and a strikeout rate of 11.7 K/9, 22nd best of 155 qualified RP. His slider (12.6 wSL) created tons of bad contact and ranked 3rd in baseball, behind teammate Neshek and Andrew Miller, and he used it more and more as the season went on. His FB tends to get squared up and hit hard, but the slider should allow him to be high strikeout, high WHIP, useful piece all by itself. Fernando Abad is more or less just a LHP in the pen to face lefty hitters, but he’s had a decent career in that role and had his highest K/BB rate since 2014 this past season with the Red Sox. He makes for a nice compliment to Morgan as the other LHP in the pen. Mark Leiter had a sub par 2017, getting hit hard all year and finishing with a 4.71, but he logged a lot of innings and struck out almost a batter per inning, and with a starting that shouldn’t eat too many innings, 80+ IP at league average ERA has it’s value. Hoby Milner has intrigue on paper, pitching to a 2.49 ERA between AA-AAA in 2016 and then holding a 2.01 ERA in his first 37 MLB appearances in 2017. Victor Arano and Yacksel Rios fit this same mold as guys in the system with intriguing success out of the pen in the upper minors of the last year or too. New acquisition Enyel De Los Santos could move quickly if the Phillies elect to put him in the bullpen.
Between Neris, Hunter, Neshek, Garcia, Morgan, their notable adjustments/improvements, and the plentiful amount of possible remaining pieces to allow some experimenting, expect the Phillies to have one of the better bullpens in Major League Baseball in 2018. Since they will most likely need to pitch more innings than the average team due to their SP woes, I feel confident this bullpen can pitch to 6+ wins, which would have made it a top 6 bullpen in baseball last year. It isn’t good enough to get them to a Wild Card, but it is yet just another thing that the Phillies and their organization can look forward to.
Photo Credit: AP Photo