A common concern surrounding the Philadelphia Phillies right now is the taxing of the bullpen in the early going of the season.
Due in large part to the starting rotation’s inability to go deep into games, the Phillies have had to dip into the reserves of their bullpen quite a bit. Entering play on Tuesday afternoon, Phillies’ starters have averaged less than five innings pitched per start.
While the trend is concerning, there is something greater than this to be taken into account.
It is no secret that starting pitchers have shorter leashes than ever with baseball’s decision makers using more data than ever in an attempt to maximize performance and health. In the hopes of protecting starters, reliever usage is getting increasingly out of hand across the big leagues.
In an article published by The Athletic on Tuesday highlighting one concern for every team in Major League Baseball (MLB), the Phillies were one of five teams with their biggest concern being the lack of innings from their starters. The other four teams included the Baltimore Orioles, Detroit Tigers, San Diego Padres and Tampa Bay Rays.
This underscores a source of trouble for the game of baseball, as the New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves are two examples of teams that could have easily been added to that list of clubs who have seen their bullpen heavily involved early.
So, what exactly does this mean for a team’s future success? Here’s the reasons to both be concerned and feel at ease about where the Phillies staff is at.
Causes for Concern
In the last three 162-game seasons, the Phillies have finished the month of April with a top-10 innings workload for their starting pitching. This organization has had a pair of workhorses in Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler that have certainly carried those numbers.
Coming into the season, there was concern about the short offseason, the number of innings pitched by both and how they would hold up. Early on, Nola’s stuff looks slightly off and Wheeler has been shaky in his command.
Even amidst the team’s early season struggles in 2022, the starting rotation was able to go deep into games. At the end of May 2022, the Phillies’ starting rotation had pitched the 7th-most innings of any rotation in baseball and ended up pitching the 5th-most.
Contrast that with the current rotation that has thrown the 25th-most innings in baseball and you start to see the worry.
Last season, the Phillies could look to Bailey Falter or Christopher Sanchez to eat innings for them. Right now, there is a legitimate question mark of who the spot starter is (they’ll need one on Saturday) and the organizational depth is razor thin for guys they feel comfortable starting in the bigs.
Due to that, certain bullpen arms are being used excessively and potentially overexposed.
Andrew Bellatti has been used in nine of the team’s 16 games. Connor Brogdon and Gregory Soto have been used in eight games so far. It’s an unsustainable pace of usage for the trio.
In what feels like a sick, twisted game of whack-a-mole, the Phillies may end up seeing a reversal of recent history’s pitching problems.
The Phillies finally hit on one of their biggest needs of previous seasons. After securing more talent in the bullpen, the starting rotation is starting to show cracks and that could end up being detrimental to the success of those relievers.
On top of that, eight of the 10 teams that were in the top-10 of innings pitched by their starting rotation during April of 2022 finished with winning records. Conversely, the bottom-10 of innings pitched by their starting rotation in April 2022 only feature three teams with winning records and just one of those teams won 90 games (St. Louis Cardinals).
In 2021, none of the teams in the bottom-10 of innings pitched by their starting rotation during April made the postseason and only one of those teams won 90 games (Toronto Blue Jays).
Why You Shouldn’t Freak Out
The Phillies are yet to see Ranger Suarez or Nick Nelson in uniform this season.
The former offers top end talent and a stabilization of six innings almost every single time he steps onto the mound. The latter is a reliever who can pitch multiple innings at a time, working in a variety of settings.
The two will also allow Matt Strahm to return to the bullpen, where he also can offer multiple inning solutions in tough spots.
In addition to that, as brutal as the rotation may feel like it has been to watch, the Phillies’ group ranks in the middle of the pack in Major League Baseball in terms of ERA (4.46, 15th), walks per nine innings (3.32, 13th) and strikeouts per nine innings (8.58, 14th).
There is a problem across baseball with pitching early on this season. Whether it’s a product of the way pitchers are being used, the way the new rules are impacting the product or the baseballs having a little more juice in them, it’s a game about offense.
The proven commodities on this team have to adjust just like anyone else and it will take a little longer than half a month.
It’s impossible to know for sure how this workload will impact the bullpen in the long run, but it’s a very real concern that will impact this team’s long term aspirations.
You can’t manage in April with your mind totally focused on September, especially with the way the Phillies have started, but it’s worth a consideration what this early season stress may do to the bullpen.
The starting rotation should get healthy and adjust in time, making things easier on the bullpen.
Ultimately, how the Phillies mitigate their staff’s workload compared to the rest of the league will be the telling indication of how well they compete in 2023.