Phillies 2017: Club Is Missing a Bullpen Opportunity
The Philadelphia Phillies are not quite ready to contend in 2017, but still look to take a step forward, and creative bullpen use could help make that happen.
On the first day of workouts for Philadelphia Phillies pitchers and catchers, manager Pete Mackanin took the opportunity to make a public announcement regarding his bullpen.
The substance of that announcement is, for me, a sign that this may not be the man to lead this team into contending status.
“Premier guys have those kind of numbers. You don’t see very often a guy like Brad Lidge save 48-for-48 in 2008. He had a hiccup but at the same time I believe that he deserves to be called the closer at this point.”
Gomez had more than a hiccup. He completely collapsed over the season’s final six and a half weeks. And the fact is that he was never a classic “closer,” never dominated opposing lineups at the end of games.
GOMEZ’S 2016 SEASON
Let’s look first at that final month and a half. On August 19 at home against St. Louis, Gomez blew a save opportunity against the Cardinals. That day he allowed a two-run homer to Jedd Gyorko in the top of the ninth inning. The Phillies would go on to lose the game in the 11th inning.
That blown save began a closing stretch in which the righty would allow 27 hits over 13 innings spread across 17 games. He stuck out just 10 batters during that stretch. Batters hit for a .422 average against him. His ERA was a shocking 13.85 during that time.
Mackanin couched his praise carefully, never calling Gomez a premier guy himself. However, in saying that “premier guys have those kinds of numbers” he is being more than misleading.
Gomez dominating hitters as a true “premier” closer would do is something that happened all too infrequently. He allowed hits in 46 of the 70 games in which he appeared. For the year, Gomez allowed 78 hits over 68.2 innings. He produced just a 6.2 K/9 ratio. Those are far from premier closer numbers.
Mackanin stated that Gomez “deserves to be called the closer at this moment.” Why? He was never a closer prior to having some success registering saves for a few months last season. He didn’t dominate in the role. Gomez either completely lost it, or the league caught up to him, or both for a long stretch at the end.
NERIS BETTER SUITED TO CLASSIC CLOSER ROLE
The facts are that Gomez has not earned anything other than an opportunity to be considered as a part of the bullpen mix in the 2017 season.
If you want a classic closer, someone who can potentially dominate hitters and become that “premier guy” type, there is another arm in-house better suited to the role.
Hector Neris is a 27-year-old right-hander who showed last season that he has that kind of stuff. Neris allowed just 59 hits over 80.1 innings with a 102/30 K:BB ratio.
This isn’t even close, and Mackanin knows it. Or at least he had better know it.
It would be one thing for the skipper to say that he is going to give both guys a shot during spring training. He could then go with whichever takes the role and runs with it best. There was absolutely no reason to publicly anoint Gomez as his closer on the first day.
PHILLIES CAN GET AHEAD OF THE CURVE
Neris is indeed clearly better suited for that classic role. But I believe that the Phillies are missing an opportunity by naming anyone a “closer” at this point.
Chapter Nine of Brian Kenny’s ground-breaking book Ahead of the Curve is devoted to the “bullpenning” concept. A modification of the idea was used effectively in the 2016 postseason by Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona.
I am not going so far as to say that the Phillies should do away with starting pitchers. But I do believe that there is a unique opportunity at this stage in their rebuilding program. The Phils have a golden opportunity to do away with classic bullpen roles, including a closer.
As Kenny rightly describes it on page 167, the game is always on the line:
“The ‘ninth inning closer’ model has bolstered the myth that the game is on the line only in that final inning. It certainly is more obviously on the line at that point, but the fact is, most games are decided before then. Somehow, teams managed to forget this at some point in the late ’80’s.”
Mackanin is an old-school manager, even if he might like to be thought of differently. He came up as a player in the 1970s, and got into coaching in the 1980s. He is a product of the era where bullpens began to take on specialist roles such as “middle reliever,” “setup man,” and “closer.”
CROSSROADS BETWEEN OLD-SCHOOL AND MODERNITY
The Phillies have a new, young general manager in Matt Klentak. They have a newly expanded analytics department. They are allegedly trying to become a modern baseball organization.
If that is all indeed the case, then the Phillies should be breaking old molds, not doing everything they can to conform to them.
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Again, especially at this time, during a complete rebuild, using a flexible bullpen makes sense. Mackanin is not only wrong in thinking that Gomez has “earned” a specialized role. Actually, none of the Phillies relievers have earned a specialized role.
This coming season is an opportunity for the Phillies. Look at what Francona did in that 2016 postseason. Realize that games can just as easily be won and lost in the fifth and sixth innings as in the final frame.
Spring training this year should not be about figuring out who is going to be a “closer” in the 2017 Phillies bullpen.
It should be about finding a half-dozen reliable arms, ideally at least two of those being left-handers. Heading north from Clearwater should be arms who can get outs whenever they are brought into games.
If Mackanin allows the Phillies to become mired in old-school thinking, thinking that increasingly makes little sense, then he and the team are missing an opportunity. This is a chance to take the National League a bit by surprise, and perhaps to steal a few games to push the win-loss record forward.