It was April 18, only 13 games into the 2007 season, when the Phillies made an unusual move. They turned their opening-day starter into a late-inning reliever.
That's how it came to pass that Brett Myers threw the first and last pitch of a season.
“We wanted to strengthen our bullpen up at the back end,” former manager Charlie Manuel said the other day, recalling an injury to closer Tom Gordon and the early-season ineffectiveness of other relievers. “I can remember when we discussed it, we definitely felt that Myers could help us better there because of our needs.”
Twelve years later, a case could be made that Nick Pivetta or Vince Velasquez might be able to do the same for the Phillies, especially with David Robertson and Tommy Hunter likely sidelined for at least another month.
Or maybe not. Regardless, the consensus within the organization seems to be that the Phillies’ best roster includes Pivetta and Velasquez in some capacity whenever they return from triple A and a stint on the injured list, respectively.
A choice must be made, then, and sooner rather than later, about the role that best suits the two right-handers for the rest of this season. It’s a complex decision with potentially far-reaching effects.
In recent conversations with Manuel and former pitching coach Rich Dubee, we explored three issues that went into moving Myers to the bullpen, where he had a 2.87 ERA and converted 21 of 24 save chances in 2007, and how the Phillies might be weighing each with regard to Pivetta and Velasquez.
When the Phillies made the move with Myers, they promised him one thing: He would stay in the bullpen for the rest of the season.
“We didn’t want to yo-yo Brett back and forth,” Dubee said by phone. “Once we made the move we were going to stay with it. We were going to be committed to it and run with it for that season at least.”
The Phillies would want to make a similar commitment to Pivetta or Velasquez because of the difficulty in stretching out a pitcher after scaling back. They must determine, then, that they have enough rotation depth to compensate for such a move. And, really, is there such a thing?
“We didn’t think much about that,” Manuel said.
Putting Myers in the bullpen left Cole Hamels, Jamie Moyer, Freddy Garcia, Adam Eaton, and Jon Lieber in the rotation. But Garcia and Lieber got injured and didn’t pitch after June; Eaton posted a 6.29 ERA.
The Phillies went through 13 starters, including J.D. Durbin (10 starts) and Kyle Kendrick, who got called up from double A and made 20 starts. And they still had to trade for pitching help in July, sending fringe prospect Matt Maloney to the Reds for Kyle Lohse.
Last season, the Phillies had five pitchers who made at least 24 starts. Given the preponderance of injuries across the game -- and pitching attrition, in general -- that’s both unusual and unlikely to happen again.
So, if general manager Matt Klentak and manager Gabe Kapler are skittish about taking from the rotation to help the bullpen, it’s perfectly understandable.
As much as anything, the Phillies believed Myers had the head for relief work.
"If you remember, Myers, he'd be pitching real good and all of a sudden it would be, 'La la la,' like he said, 'Look how good I'm doing' and started giving up runs,” Manuel said. “We figured that his attention span, if we put him back there and let him go for a couple innings that he'd be lights out."
There’s no telling the effect it would have on Pivetta or Velasquez.
Pivetta has made one relief appearance in the big leagues, at the end of a 13-inning game last season. Velasquez came out of the bullpen 12 times as a rookie with the Astros in 2015 but insisted as recently as last week that he’s determined to succeed as a starter.
"I'm still a starting pitcher," said Velasquez, who has a 3.86 ERA in six starts this season. "I have a lot to accomplish. I've still got a lot of juice in me to throw the towel just yet."
But part of the trick to successfully moving a starter to the bullpen, according to Dubee, is the messaging. The Phillies sold Myers on the idea that the role change reflected his importance to the team.
“You have to present it that it’s not a demotion,” Dubee said. “A lot of times a starter gets moved to the bullpen and it almost was like a demotion. In Brett’s instance, it wasn’t. It was out of a need, and he’s a guy that we thought, with his mental toughness, could do it.”
Myers had decent command as a starter, averaging only 2.85 walks per nine innings and throwing a first-pitch strike to more than 60 percent of the batters he faced in 2005 and 2006. Those qualities figured to play well in the bullpen, where the margin for error is even slimmer and falling behind hitters can be even more harmful.
Last season. Pivetta exhibited good command, averaging 2.80 walks per nine innings and throwing a first-pitch strike to 63 percent of batters. But he has tended to struggle at the outset of starts. He had a 4.22 ERA in the first inning last season and a 9.00 first-inning ERA in four starts this year. Even in triple A, he has allowed five first-inning runs in five starts.
"I think there's a preparation level he can get to that will prepare him better for the first inning," Kapler said.
Velasquez’s command hasn’t been as good. He averaged 4.25 and 3.62 walks per nine innings in 2017 and 2018, and has walked 4.45 batters per nine innings this season. His first-pitch-strike percentage over the last three years has regressed from 63.8 percent in 2017 to 59.2 percent and 52.7 percent this year.
But maybe a change in routine would help.
"The biggest concern was just learning how to warm up,” Dubee said. “As a starter, you think you need those 40 pitches, but you can find a routine down the bullpen where you can get loose a lot quicker. Coming to the ballpark knowing that you might play every day, a lot of guys enjoy that."
Myers did. Might Pivetta or Velasquez?
“If there’s an opportunity to use a starter in a relief role and that helps our team, we have to consider that,” Klentak said last week.
“At the same time, I do want to appreciate the depth that has allowed our rotation to be a strength for us through the first quarter of the season and not take anybody out of that role that would compromise that depth. It’s a tough decision to make.”