“Starting pitching is king.”
-- Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo shortly before he signed free-agent lefthander Patrick Corbin to a six-year deal worth $140 million.
Since baseball’s birth, the underlying belief has been that the team with the best pitching also has the best chance to win the World Series. That is why the Phillies, with their four aces, were World Series favorites going into the 2011 season. It is why you have to like the Nationals’ chances of rebounding from a disappointing 2018 season despite potentially losing outfielder Bryce Harper to free agency. Even that, however, is no longer a foregone conclusion as we have recently learned.
Mike Rizzo’s proclamation that “starting pitching is king,” probably still holds true as we near the end of the second decade of the 21st century. But the head that wears the crown should at least be feeling a bit uneasy these days. It is easy to visualize a future in which relievers rule, and perhaps that has had some influence on the way the Phillies have conducted their business this offseason.
It has already happened in Tampa Bay, where the Rays’ relievers logged 200 more innings than their starters last season and accounted for 55 of the team’s 90 wins. Seventeen pitchers started games for the Rays. It was revolutionary and it worked, which means it is bound to catch on in other places.
Could Philadelphia be one of those places?
We’ll answer that question with a question: Is Gabe Kapler the Phillies manager?
The Phillies made their most significant pitching acquisition of the offseason Thursday by signing free-agent reliever David Robertson to a two-year deal worth $23 million. Even though he will turn 34 in April, it’s impossible not to like the move. Robertson has been one of the best and most durable relief pitchers in baseball over the last decade. Only Tyler Clippard has logged more relief innings than Robertson since 2010, and his 2.72 ERA during that span ranks fourth among relievers who have logged at least 500 innings.
A handful of stud relievers were available this offseason and the Phillies got one of them.
“We think we’ve built a pretty good group and we think that the bullpen should be a strength of our team next year,” general manager Matt Klentak said.
On paper, the Phillies have compiled a formidable stable of relievers. In addition to Robertson, who is adept at retiring left-handed and right-handed hitters, Klentak has also acquired lefties Jose Alvarez and James Pazos as well as right-hander Juan Nicasio. Add in the trio of Seranthony Dominguez, Hector Neris, and Pat Neshek and you might just have the best bullpen in the National League East.
Even without the newcomers, the Phillies bullpen was a close third behind those of the Nationals and the Atlanta Braves in bullpen ERA last season. The Nats had a 4.05 ERA, the Braves checked in at 4.15, and the Phillies at 4.19, which ranked 18th in baseball.
The Nationals have stuck to the “starting-pitching-is-king” philosophy by signing Corbin and Anibal Sanchez while pinning their hopes for an improved bullpen on former St. Louis closer Trevor Rosenthal and Miami setup man Kyle Barraclough.
Rosenthal, signed as a free agent, will try to rebound from Tommy John surgery that prevented him from pitching in 2018. Barraclough, acquired in a trade with the Marlins, will try to bounce back from a poor 2018 season.
The Nats have a star closer in Sean Doolittle, but the Phillies have more depth in the 'pen than Washington and every other team in the division.
The Mets, who had the third-worst relief ERA in baseball last season, may have improved the most with the free-agent addition of their former closer Jeurys Familia and the trade acquisition of former Seattle closer Edwin Diaz, who led baseball with 57 saves last season while posting a 1.96 ERA.
The Phillies, of course, do not have a standard closer, and Kapler has made it clear he does not want one. It remains to be seen how unconventional the manager is willing to become with his bullpen usage.
Despite his refusal to declare bullpen roles last season, the Phillies’ total number of relief innings was not outrageous. The total of 569 1/3 innings ranked 18th in baseball. One reason to think that number could be about to rise is that Klentak believes the Phillies' starting pitching will still be good without an addition. He reiterated that belief after signing Robertson.
“We have to be convinced that it is making our team better,” the general manager said. “Our group of five starters that pitched for us last year plus [Jerad] Eickhoff and the ton of depth we have at triple A is a pretty high floor for a starting pitching unit. We would need to move the needle, and if we find a deal that we think accomplishes that then we’ll explore it.”
The starting pitching ERA last season was 4.12, which ranked 16th in baseball, 11th in the National League, and fourth in the NL East. That leaves a lot of room for improvement.