The goal of a pitching staff, Sam Fuld said Monday afternoon, is simple: make opposing hitters uncomfortable.
And there may not be a more direct way for a pitcher to make a hitter feel uncomfortable than by throwing hard.
“When you look down in their bullpen and you know they’ve got 95-plus everywhere, that immediately kills your confidence going into those situations,” said Fuld, the Phillies general manager who played eight seasons in the majors before retiring in 2015.
Perhaps that explains the front office’s approach this offseason — which continued Monday with reliever Archie Bradley officially signing a one-year deal worth $6 million — in recasting their flawed bullpen by injecting velocity. Bradley, who throws 96 mph, is one of five relievers added this winter who throw harder than 94 mph.
The Phillies had just one reliever last season — rookie JoJo Romero — armed with a fastball that averaged faster than 94 mph. The bullpen combined for baseball’s worst ERA in 90 years and averaged the ninth-slowest pitch velocity (88.3 mph) in the majors.
Following Fuld’s logic, it’s easy to understand why hitters seemed so comfortable against the Phillies’ relievers.
“I’ve always liked hard throwers,” said Dave Dombrowski, who was hired in December as the team’s president of baseball operations. “It’s been that way my whole career: Wherever I’ve been we’ve had hard throwers in our bullpen. I don’t think it’s essential that you have everybody that’s a hard thrower, but I do think that you have to have some people out there that can bring some velocity up there.
“Now, it doesn’t do you any good if it’s right down the middle of the plate all the time, but if you have some velocity and they can get people out, yes, I do think it’s good. I do think, though, you can still get people out other ways, too. But having some people who can bring some heat up there, I think, is important.”
The Phillies missed the postseason by one game last year and the bullpen shouldered plenty of blame. It was a glaring hole for Dombrowski to fill and he has attacked it this winter, with Bradley being his big addition.
The 28-year-old righthander has a 3.51 ERA with 10 strikeouts per nine innings in the last three seasons. Bradley moved to the bullpen in 2017 and has experience as a closer, a role he could play for the Phillies. For now, he projects to be manager Joe Girardi’s preferred high-leverage option.
“I think it’ll just iron itself out in spring training,” Girardi said. “I don’t think you necessarily have to do anything right now. But he definitely has the ability to close.”
Along with Bradley, the Phillies have traded this offseason for lefthander Jose Alvarado (98 mph) and righthanders Sam Coonrod (98 mph) and Johan Quezada (97 mph) and claimed righthander Ian Hamilton (94 mph) off waivers. Romero and Connor Brogdon, two of the bullpen’s hardest throwers in 2020, return along with Hector Neris.
The Phillies relief situation appears to be in much better shape — and much faster — than it was a year ago.
“I’m excited because of the velocity we’ve added and the opportunity for these guys to be put in good positions,” Girardi said. “The different looks they give. Changeups, curveballs. You have a hard lefty in Alvarado and a hard righty in Coonrod. I’m really excited about what we’ve done to our bullpen. Moving forward, I think this is going to be a really successful group.”
The relievers do not come without concerns. Bradley’s fastball velocity dipped last season to 94.37 mph after averaging 95.88 mph in 2019 and 96.13 in 2018. But that decline could be attributed to baseball’s condensed 60-game season and the fact that Bradley pitched in only 16 games. The righthander said he’s confident his velocity will be back this year.
“I had a little drop in velo, but I didn’t really notice a ton of drop in success,” Bradley said. “I’m still able to compete.”
Alvardo was limited list season by a sore shoulder, Coonrod’s batting average-against nearly tripled last season in high-leverage spots, Hamilton has logged just four major-league appearances in the last two seasons, and Quezada’s three big-league games last season with Miami were his first above single-A ball.
Romero and Brogdon were bright spots last season in a brutal bullpen, but they have a combined 21 major-league appearances.
But with less than a month before spring training begins, there are actual reasons for optimism that the Phillies could have an improved bullpen after they signed just one reliever — Tommy Hunter for less than $1 million — to a major-league contract before last season. Unlike last season, opposing hitters may not feel so comfortable when the bullpen door opens.
“I’ve been excited about the guys they’ve brought in,” Bradley said. “Coonrod, Alvarado. We have Neris coming back. A lot of guys that have a lot to prove but have a huge upside and throw really hard. When you look at completing a bullpen and being able to put a bullpen that can cover 7-8-9, that’s what you’re trying to lock down. It’s very intriguing because you have guys with great stuff. When you put them in the right spot, it’s a very magical thing, watching a bullpen go to work.”