J.T. Realmuto had as good a view as anyone of the Phillies' historically bad bullpen in 2020. Finally re-signed, he had a chance Monday to share his thoughts about why things went so horribly wrong for the Phillies late in games and why he's hopeful it's been addressed.
He was behind the plate to watch the implosions of pretty much anyone the Phillies used in the eighth and ninth innings, from incumbents like Hector Neris and Adam Morgan to acquisitions Brandon Workman, Heath Hembree and David Phelps to young guys experiencing their first taste of the big leagues. The Phillies couldn't find a formula that worked in the 60-game season and it cost them a playoff spot, even in an expanded 16-team field.
New president of baseball ops Dave Dombrowski has worked to improve the 'pen in his nearly two months on the job, signing Archie Bradley to a one-year, $6 million contract and trading little for hard-throwing lefty Jose Alvarado and righty Sam Coonrod. There are still many relievers in free agency and the Phillies could add a few more before opening day.
An obvious theme in the Phillies' bullpen additions to this point has been velocity. Alvarado and Coonrod both have fastballs that average 97-98 mph. Bradley is not as reliant on velocity but does average 95-96 with his heater.
This is a stark contrast to how the Phillies' bullpen has been built in recent seasons around guys like Neris, David Robertson, Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek. None of them had big velocity. Neris relies on his splitter, Robertson and Hunter on their cutters and Neshek on his funky delivery/offspeed stuff. The Phillies reliever during that stretch with the most velocity was Seranthony Dominguez, who has not pitched since May 2019 because of elbow issues.
The strikeout potential the Phillies have added can only help.
"We didn't strike a ton of guys out and late in games guys were putting balls in play more than they should have been," Realmuto said Monday. "With that being said, we gave up a lot more soft contact hits than anybody in the league, especially late in games. We had some really bad luck, so a lot of things didn't go in our favor. Hopefully with a little bit better luck that can change next year, but obviously there are a lot of adjustments that needed to be made on the mound.
"We have to pound the zone better. We can't put guys on base for free. We had too many free passes last year. We have to put guys away when we get them to two strikes and not make that mistake pitch and give them a chance to put it in play."
The Phillies’ bullpen is not totally fixed, but they have a more impressive core (Bradley, Alvarado, Connor Brogdon, Neris, Coonrod) now than they did a year ago when the relief corps derailed a talented roster. It's true that the Phillies might still be the third- or fourth-best team in their division, but they have a better chance to compete late into the summer after retaining their top two free agents and committing themselves to adding pitching.
With Realmuto, so many attributes are mentioned — speed, defense, his bat, his pitch-framing, his leadership — but a vitally important aspect of his skill set is calling a game behind the plate. It's a responsibility he doesn't take lightly and it's something he's thought about for months in reference to the bullpen.
"As a catcher, that’s part of your job," he said. "You take it personally when any of your pitchers struggle, so to be there and go through that with our bullpen last year, that was definitely tough on me. I’ve thought about it all offseason long. I’ve been trying to dive into stuff and think about things we could have done differently, so I definitely take it personally. It’s something that I have to improve upon. I want to work with those guys better and help them become the best pitchers they can be. There are a lot of ways we can do it. We just have to get to spring training and get to work and make it happen."
It will be here soon enough. Players are preparing as if spring training will begin on time in mid-February, despite the league's proposal over the weekend to push everything back.