Phillies' bench was putrid early last year but should be better in 2020

Phillies' bench was putrid early last year but should be better in 2020

The Phillies' bench was a clear weakness early last season, the worst in the National League from opening day through the end of May. Phillies pinch-hitters went 13 for 90 in the season's first two months, hitting .144 with one home run in 95 plate appearances.

The early-June acquisition of Jay Bruce from Seattle was designed to improve the bench. But Andrew McCutchen tore his ACL just after the trade and Bruce was thrust into everyday duty.

Bruce figures to be the key member of the Phillies' bench in 2020, his last year under contract. If he can hit for power in key pinch-hit opportunities, he could turn a few losses into wins. If he can also just do what he's always done when asked to spot start — hit .230-.240 with power — that would be enough from that role. He is unquestionably a positive clubhouse presence. He became a leader here last summer quickly and organically.

Bruce was great last June. In his first three weeks as a Phillie, he had the decisive, multi-run hit in six wins. Then he was absent for most of the second half. An oblique strain led to an IL-stint out of the All-Star break, and then a flexor strain cost him three weeks in August. He was relegated to strictly pinch-hit appearances as the season wound down.

Beyond Bruce, the Phillies have three other likely bench candidates in centerfielder Roman Quinn, catcher Andrew Knapp and Josh Harrison, who can play second base, third base and both outfield corners. 

Joe Girardi, set to enter his first season as Phillies manager, spoke positively of Quinn in one of his first radio interviews. The H-word with Quinn is so obvious that it's barely even worth mentioning anymore. We all know what has prevented him from producing. He's still worth his spot on the 40-man roster because of the tools, upside and inexpensive contract.

Knapp is back as a backup. The Phillies could carry three catchers in 2020, though, as MLB expands to 26-man rosters from March-through-September. That could mean a spot for Deivy Grullon or non-roster invitee Christian Bethancourt.

What about Odubel Herrera? He's a big wild-card heading into spring training. It feels like a significant long shot that he is back with the team, but there's always a chance he could convince the organization he deserves a second chance.

Spring training invitees Phil Gosselin and Matt Szczur, both local guys, will battle for roles as extra men in the infield and outfield, respectively. Gosselin was, statistically, the Phillies' best pinch-hitter in 2019. Szczur is a former Villanova football and baseball standout who was on the Cubs' 2016 World Series team. 

Nick Williams is still on the 40-man roster but seems like a big-time change of scenery candidate if/when the Phils need to clear space.

Mikie Mahtook was invited to spring training as well. He's a 30-year-old outfielder who spent the last three seasons with the Tigers. He showed some flashes in 2017 when he hit .276 with a .787 OPS in 379 plate appearances. He spent a good portion of that second half hitting at the top or in the middle of Detroit's order. He's barely hit in the two seasons since.

The Phillies are also likely to add a few more bench candidates between now and mid-February. Pitchers and catchers report Feb. 11 and the first full team workout is set for Feb. 17. We're only six weeks away, people.

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Phillies most affected by MLB’s new 3-batter rule

Phillies most affected by MLB’s new 3-batter rule

MLB's new three-batter rule for relievers should have a fairly significant impact on the way managers manage and pitching coaches handle their bullpens.

To review, the new rule is that a pitcher entering after the starting pitcher must face at least three batters or pitch to the end of the current inning. So, for example, if Adam Morgan comes in with two on and two outs in the sixth inning and gets the third out, he does not need to come back out for the seventh.

This rule will obviously most affect relief specialists. Let's use Jose Alvarez as an example. Last season, Alvarez was one of the few Phillies pitchers who didn't take a step back from the prior year. He had a 3.36 ERA in 67 appearances. In 14 of those appearances, Alvarez faced one or two batters. It's why he amassed just 59 innings in those 67 appearances.

As best as they could, the Phillies tried to avoid having Alvarez face right-handed hitters. But it still happened frequently because there are more righties than lefties and because other teams routinely try to gain the platoon advantage by pinch-hitting.

Lefties hit just .236 with a .277 on-base percentage and .382 slugging percentage vs. Alvarez in 2019. Righties hit .328/.385/.475. 

An actual example

To find an example of the type of appearance we'll no longer see, let's go back to last June 15, a 6-5 Phillies win in Atlanta. In that game, Alvarez came on with runners on first and second and two outs in the bottom of the seventh to face left-handed hitting Nick Markakis. He struck him out looking to end the inning.

This season, Joe Girardi and Bryan Price may be leery of bringing in Alvarez in that spot. The next two hitters were right-handed Austin Riley and switch-hitting Ozzie Albies, who was one of the best hitters in baseball last season against lefties (.389/.414/.685). The upside of ending the inning at Markakis may not be worth having to potentially use the lefty Alvarez against Riley and Albies. 

Risk vs. reward

Managers and pitching coaches will have to constantly weigh whether the platoon advantage against a specific player (Markakis in this case) is worth the subsequent disadvantage if the inning doesn't end. You're always going to want a lefty facing Freddie Freeman, but you may be able to get away with keeping your right-handed pitcher in to face Markakis in that instance above.

Recently signed Francisco Liriano could be better equipped to deal with this rule change. While he's been much better against lefties throughout his career, he's also had some success against righties because of the effectiveness of his changeup. His career splits: .218/.296/305 from lefties and .249/.335/.399 from righties. That follows closely with how he performed against righties last season as well.

Morgan should be relatively unaffected — when he's been successful it has been against hitters from both sides, not just lefties.

Not just lefties

The rule change doesn't end with southpaws, though. While the left vs. left matchup traditionally is harder on the hitter than right vs. right, some right-handed relievers will feel this too.

Vince Velasquez, for example, could play a key relief role for the Phillies. Throughout his career, Velasquez has allowed left-handed hitters a batting average 24 points higher than righties and an OPS 67 points higher. Maybe you want Velasquez coming in to face Marcell Ozuna, who is 3 for 20 lifetime off of him, but you're going to hesitate if Markakis (9 for 22 with a double and four walks) is lingering on deck.

How 'bout the hitters?

On the flip side, this could benefit a few Phillies hitters. We don't yet know how the Phils are going to construct their lineup, but you'd think that Bryce Harper will be followed by right-handed Rhys Hoskins and J.T. Realmuto. Harper was so good against lefties last season (.283 BA, .949 OPS, 15 HR) that teams in 2020 may opt to just use a right-hander against those three hitters. Why bring in a lefty who may not retire Harper anyway just to be forced to use that lefty against Hoskins and Realmuto?

Faster pace of play

It's unclear exactly how managers will adapt to the new three-batter rule but it is clear that it will shorten games. Think about all the innings last season — particularly in September — when three or four different pitchers were used. That's about 10 minutes right there of just pitching changes, factoring in the time it takes a manager to walk to the mound and the time it takes the new reliever to get to the mound and complete his warmups.

This should also create more offense, too, since there will be fewer platoon-based matchups late in games. If MLB goes away from golf balls and goes back to actual baseballs that don't turn 50 percent of the league into 20-home-run hitters, that extra offense should be a positive as well.

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At the Yard podcast: 3-batter rule, DH dynamic, NL East predictions


At the Yard podcast: 3-batter rule, DH dynamic, NL East predictions

Ricky Bottalico and Corey Seidman discuss one big rule change, another on the horizon, and make their NL East predictions in the latest At the Yard podcast.

• How does the new 3-batter rule for relievers change their mentality?

• Which Phillies relievers does it affect the most?

• If the DH does come to the National League in the next two years, how would it help the Phillies?

• Both guys are still vehemently anti-DH.

• Fan Q&A.

• NL East win total predictions.

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