Phillies’ bullpen has fueled wins and enhanced springtime moods

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Jim Salisbury
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Phils’ bullpen has fueled wins, enhanced springtime moods originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Springtime always feels a little more pleasant after a nasty winter.

That little bit of wisdom is inspired by the Phillies’ bullpen.

Now, before we go any further, we must point out that the Phils have played just 3.7 percent of their schedule. If this were a marathon, as the baseball season is often compared to, they wouldn’t even have a bead of sweat on their collective forehead yet.

There’s a long, long way to go before the story of the 2021 Phillies is written, before we know if this team will break a nine-year streak of non-winning seasons, the longest in the majors, and a playoff drought that is equally as long and stands as the second-longest in the majors.

But this morning, the Phils awakened with a 5-1 record, tied for the best in the majors.

There have been a lot of reasons for the hot start and the bullpen has been one of the biggest.

You know the ugly details all too well. Last year, the Phillies had the worst bullpen in the majors. It recorded an obese 7.06 ERA, the worst in the majors since 1930, and was a huge reason why the club lost a majors-high 21 games after holding a lead at one point. Opponents hit .315 with a .946 OPS against the Phils’ bullpen last year, both major-league highs.

The bullpen single-handedly kept the Phillies out of the playoffs last season and that shortcoming was the reason that ownership blew up the front office and eventually hired Dave Dombrowski to lead the club’s baseball operations.

If the Phils had made the playoffs in 2020, Dombrowski is not here.

When Dombrowski came aboard in December, he was told by ownership that re-signing J.T. Realmuto was a priority. Great, Dombrowski told ownership, and he eventually got a deal done. But, in between, Dombrowski told ownership that the club needed more than just Realmuto if it was going to compete. It needed starting pitching depth and it needed a bullpen overhaul.

Dombrowski addressed the starting pitching depth with Matt Moore and Chase Anderson, and that’s probably just a start because this team will likely need more as the season unfolds.

Dombrowski addressed the bullpen most notably by acquiring Jose Alvarado and Sam Coonrod and signing Archie Bradley, three relievers with the kind of high-end stuff that was short in the Phillies’ bullpen last year. To wit: During the 60-game season of 2020, Phillies relievers threw just 64 pitches at 96 mph or better, fewest in the majors. In six games this season, Phillies relievers have already thrown 74 pitches at 96 mph or better. That’s the fifth-most in the majors.

Again, we’re only 3.7 percent into the season. Maybe these rays of springtime sunshine feel good because the winter that was the bullpen of 2020 was so miserable. But even a week into the season, this bullpen looks and feels much improved and that does wonders for the long-range forecast.

The bullpen has had a hand in all five wins. In fact, it has earned four wins, the most in the majors so far.

Phillies relievers have picked up 22 innings in six games. They rank seventh in the majors in opponents’ batting average (.190), sixth in opponents’ OPS (.572), eighth in WHIP (1.18), 10th in strikeouts/9 (10.64), seventh in hits/9 (6.14) and fifth in pitches per inning (16.3). The Phillies’ bullpen ranks 13th in ERA (3.27) and 21st in walks/9 (4.50), but Vinny Velo happens and the best way to avoid that will be having the starters go at least six innings and provide their own bridge to the setup crew.

Winning is the ultimate mood enhancer in sports. This bullpen has given every corner of the roster a lift. The feeling of dread that gripped everyone every time the bullpen door swung open last season is gone.

“It’s refreshing,” manager Joe Girardi said. “The toughest games to lose are the ones you lose late. A lot of times they feel like more than one loss. The fact that we were able to do what we were able to do is a big lift for our team.

“I can’t say enough about the job that they’ve done. Everyone has a ton of confidence in them. I like the arms, I like how they prepare, I like the personality of our ‘pen. It’s been fun to watch and we need it to continue. We also need to spread the work around. That’s an important thing.”

The baseball season is a constant test, and the Phillies passed the first homestand with good starting pitching, timely hitting, big defensive plays (especially on opening day) and strong bullpen work. The springtime sun is warm, but Friday brings a new test with the Braves in Atlanta, the first of seven games on the road.