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April 08, 2021

Kevin Cooney: So far this season, Joe Girardi has been handling the 'bull'

The early results of Phillies relievers are more in line with what the manager has been in his career

Hector Neris isn’t Mariano Rivera.

Archie Bradley is not David Robertson in his prime.

Jose Alvarado may have the velocity, but he otherwise wouldn’t draw comparisons to Aroldis Chapman.

But those six men now have one common theme and one manager linking them in Joe Girardi. And if you are a Phillies fans, the one thing you have to hope is the hand that the former Yankees manager had in developing one of the steadiest bullpens in the game could make an impact on a Philadelphia grouping that – at least for the first week — appears to have some favorable signs of growth.

The first homestand saw Philadelphia’s bullpen — which finished with a 7.06 ERA in the 2020 shortened season — go 22 innings with eight earned runs (a 3.27 ERA). Yes, there were two really strong starting pitching performances on Saturday and Sunday that relieved some pressure and a four run explosion in Wednesday’s 8-2 win over the Mets.

“I think so. The job they did, the innings they had to give us the last three days… I think everyone has a ton of confidence in them,” Girardi said Wednesday evening. “I like the arms, how they prepare and the personality of our bullpen. We have to continue and we have to spread the work around. They were all good during that stretch.”

What made the 2020 bullpen disaster so incredibly brutal was the fact that Girardi and Bryan Price both had reputations within the game for molding serviceable bullpens out of units that probably were not all that hot. Blown games late turned into multiple problems.

“The toughest games to lose are the ones that are late,” Girardi said. “The fact that we were able to do what we did (in the first homestand) is a good thing.”

Girardi’s track record before last year proved this, as the stats below indicate. The ERA’s are not great, but remember that the Yankees played in the small ballpark have of the AL East that tended to have a ton of scoring anyway.

Bullpen ERA Under Joe Girardi


*2006 with Marlins, 2008-'17 with Yankees

The biggest thing to keep an eye on could be that last stat. Unlike Joe Torre, who practically went to the whip on his bullpens late in his tenure as Yankee manager in the 2000s, Girardi was more willing to let his starters go deeper into games. In turn, the bullpens did not get overly abused and tended to perform at a higher level.

Some may snicker, saying the Yankees payroll and talent level should have produced a great bullpen no matter who the manager was. Others will also point out that Girardi’s Yankee years resulted in one World Series and one championship. But the playoffs, as stated before, are indicators of random chance more than skill depth. (That 2017 team, also, gets a special note because the Astros cheated the Yanks out of a spot that could have saved Girardi’s job.)

But bullpen management involves dealing with people and placing them in the right spot. All of those numbers indicate that. So what has this week proved? With the exception of Tuesday night’s Vince Velasquez and David Hale disaster, Girardi and the Phillies have pulled the right cards on virtually every turn. While Alvarado and Neris both have experienced white knuckle moments, both emerged virtually unscathed. And for a bullpen that was such a disaster, it is the guys at the back end — Alvarado, Neris, Bradley — who have to build the confidence.

And what Week 1 of this six-month journey has showed is that this bullpen looks a hell of a lot more like the ones that Joe Girardi has been used to handling.

Home Run Payoff

It was remarkable how alive Citizens Bank Park felt during the first homestand given the fact that it was still roughly at one-quarter capacity. Crowds were loud and it felt like the stands were not that empty, even with the pod seating around the place.

One person’s theory on why it may appear that way: since the post-pandemic rules do not allow for people to stand at the concourse and drink rails to consume their food and beverages, there’s a lot less standing around or walking out to Ashburn Alley. In other words, people are sitting down and actually watching the ballgame they are attending.

Center of Attention

If you want a name to consider for center when the Phils enter the trade market, focus on Randal Grichuk from Toronto.

Remember that the Blue Jays signed George Springer to play center for them, but he has been hurt with a quad injury and hasn’t played just yet. When he returns, it would be surprising to see Toronto hold onto Grichuk — who does have a 31 homer season two years ago for the Jays — when they have other needs if they want to get into the thick of the AL East and AL wild-card races.

Grichuk, 29, is signed until the 2023 season at $10.3 million per year – not pocket change, but hardly backbreaking. Given the fact that Toronto will likely want to keep payroll reasonable in the future and the Phillies will have some salary off the books this offseason — remember Andrew McCutchen’s salary comes off the books with only a $3 million buyout if they want to pay it — Grichuk could be a nice option.

Vinny Ve-Low

Vince Velasquez’s first appearance at Citizens Bank Park was that 16 strikeout, no walk appearance against the Padres in 2016.

Since that game, Velasquez has appeared in 113 games and started 97 total. He has gone 5 innings pitched with no walks just eight times since then. The Phillies recorded in those games is 4-4.

The point of this was to show that Vince Velasquez is what he is – no matters what position you use him in, either out of the bullpen or as a fifth starter. When he walked four and struck out four on Tuesday night, it just highlighted what the player has been.

Ultimately for the Phillies and for Velasquez, this can’t keep going much longer. It isn’t fair for a contending team to have the player keep running out there to become the point of scorn for the fan base. And for Velasquez — well, a fresh start somewhere where there’s no expectations is deeply needed.

Headin’ Home

- One thing that’s amazing to me is that Didi Gregorius didn’t have more of a market in this offseason. The guy is an ultimate professional, both at the plate and in the field. He isn’t flashy, but you can’t win unless you have guys like him who can post a .270-ish average, swing with some pop, make the routine defensive play and is never going to bitch and moan about where he is hitting in the lineup. The J.T. Realmuto signing got the headlines and rightfully so. If the Phillies are going to be in the hunt in September, Gregorius will be a huge factor.

- It was great to hear Dan Baker back at the ballpark for the start of his 50th season and after undergoing some medical issues. One thing the Phillies should do is put Baker’s name up on the franchise’s Wall of Fame. You can’t overstate how much that man’s voice has been tied into generations of Phillies fans. The honor would be well deserved.

- Note to self: ask Kempski to teach me MS Paint by June. It will break up those Matt Moore starts really nicely.

- The Mets roster has a chance to be really good. But if you are sold on Luis Rojas being a great manager, you are the only one. The management of the New York pitchers in the series against the Phillies this week was practically Kapler-esque.

The week ahead

This stretch of the first 13 against the Braves and Mets continues with three games in Atlanta – including the Sunday night contest with A-Rod talking about his favorite subject of A-Rod’s career — and four more in New York.

All the Phillies had to do was survive the first two weeks without getting buried early. After a 5-1 homestand, they can start to dream about a really big start.

Kevin hosts the “Working The Beat” podcast with Mike Kern, available on iTunes, Google Play and everywhere podcasts are heard. A regular on WIP, Kevin loves to interact with readers on Twitter. Follow him there at @KevinCooney.

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