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September 29, 2020

Phillies 2020 blame index: Who was worse — the GM, the owner or the players?

Phillies MLB
Sad-Bryce-Harper_092920_usat Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports

Phillies right fielder Bryce Harper has yet to make the postseason in Philly.

The Phillies blew it.

On September 19, the Phils had taken three in a row from the Blue Jays and were sitting pretty at 27-25 with eight games to play in the 60-game season. With eight playoff spots available, the team needed to win two, yes, two of eight to slide into the postseason for the first time in nine seasons.

They went 1-7.

This is the third straight September collapse for the Phillies, but it is quite possibly the worst. 

• They scored first in 41 of their 60 games. They lost 20 of those games.
• They ranked 10th in starting pitcher ERA. Thirteen of the other top 14 teams in that stat category made the playoffs. Zack Wheeler's 2.9 WAR is the highest among all NL pitchers.
• They ranked fifth in runs scored. Alec Bohm (a rookie) was sixth in all of baseball in batting average, while Bryce Harper was fourth in on base percentage and in total walks.
• They had the best catching situation of all 30 MLB teams (1.2 WAR) and were in the top 13 in WAR for six of 10 positions (including DH).

But they more or less had the worst bullpen, ever, in the history of baseball. And they had a GM who was unable to fix it, a coach who was unable to make it work with the pieces handed to him, and several players who choked down the stretch. 

So who is most to blame for this most recent epic collapse?

Matt Klentak, Phillies GM

Offenses against baseball: Not creating a better bullpen, not building a deep farm system, trusting Vince Velasquez

Klentak is the No. 1 most blameworthy person in the Phillies organization. The young GM simply did not show any ability to build a bullpen and it cost the Phillies the season. First, a few years ago he dished out a huge contract to David Robertson, who didn't pitch all year after some very bad injury luck (luck that decimated the Phillies down the stretch in 2019). He then decided there was no need to spend any more money on the bullpen.

As a result, the Phillies spent about 5% of their entire 2020 payroll on relief pitching, a number that ranks as the 18th most in baseball by dollars and 22nd by percentage. Every other National League playoff team this year is above them in bullpen spending. With no real capital invested in the Phils' 'pen and the unit struggling early, Klentak turned to the trade market where he brought in David Phelps, David Hale, Heath Hembree and Brandon Workman for what could be called a steep price in prospects.

PlayerBefore tradeAfter
Brandon Workman4.05 in 6.2 IP6.92 ERA in 13 IP
Heath Hembree5.59 ERA in 9.2 IP12.54 ERA in 9.1 IP
David Hale3.00 ERA in 6 IP 4.09 ERA in 11 IP
David Phelps2.77 ERA in 13 IP12.91 ERA in 7.2 IP

Woof.

None of the trades worked out, and with the new acquisitions failing miserably, the Phillies forced prospects like Ranger Suarez, Adonis Medina, JoJo Romero and Conner Brogdon into action in the 'pen, in the middle of a playoff race, before the group was really ready for it (with many of them having pitched in the minors as a starter).

Klentak was too cheap, then made bad trades to cover his inaction in the bullpen, and then forced his top pitching prospects to carry the weight. 

The GM also was seemingly content with the stable of starting pitchers offered up at the start of the season, with the Phillies relying on Vince Velasquez every fifth day and more than a few games entirely pitched by the aforementioned bullpen, as the Phils literally didn't have enough starting pitchers on their 60-man roster to even have one ready for the slew of doubleheaders the Phils saw in 2020. Klentak was ill prepared to deal with the COVID-altered schedule and put a ton of pressure on manager Joe Girardi to do the impossible and find a way to win with what he was given.

The result was what we saw — and somehow, Klentak still has a job.

The Bullpen itself

Offenses against baseball: Being the worst

The Phillies bullpen was simply unwatchable this season. No lead was ever safe. It was less likely that they would hung on to win any particular game than that they would blow a save, an occurrence usually pretty rare in baseball. Klentak may have failed to put together a potent bullpen, but the players themselves were the ones who failed — particularly the trade acquisitions — as mentioned above — who for whatever reason fell off the earth when they put on red pinstripes.

The bullpen was jokingly bad in 2020.

StatNumberRank
Bullpen win %.36029th
Bullpen ERA7.06Worst
Bullpen IP186.0Fewest
Bullpen WHIP1.790Worst
Bullpen BAA.315Worst


We'll let The Athletic's Jayson Stark take it from here, as he laid out his case for the Phillies bullpen winning his annual "Cy Yuk" award:

• They’ve served up 41 home runs in 177 innings! That works out to an unfathomable 2.08 per every nine innings they’ve pitched — by far the worst rate of any bullpen in history. (Next closest: 1.73, by the 2019 Orioles.)

• And one more thing about those 41 homers. That’s more home runs allowed by the bullpen than Phillies starters have given up (38) — in 119 more innings! And how many bullpens in the live-ball era have ever done that? C’mon, that would be zero, according to our friends at SportRadar.com — as long as you factor out “openers” and just look at seasons in which the starters pitched significantly more innings.

But those are just the highlights — or should that be the lowlights? — for a team that still has more blown saves (13) than saves (11). This is a team that has lost 14 games it led by at least two runs (most in baseball), seven it led by at least three runs (most in baseball) and four it led by at least four runs (yep, most in baseball).

Finally, though, there’s this:

JOE DIMAGGIO’S CAREER: .325/.398/.579

HITTERS VS. THIS BULLPEN: .320/.395/.563

Yep, they’ve turned the entire sport into Joe DiMaggio! So how do you win a group Cy Yuk award? That’ll do it. [The Athletic]

Aaron Nola

Offenses against baseball: Falling apart down the stretch

The Phillies finished just one game out of a playoff spot — making for a lot of potential revisionist history regarding just how the team could have scraped up an extra win or two and had a series of games scheduled this week. Aaron Nola is the easiest culprit to blame. 

The Phils ace and one-time Cy Young finalist was looking like he would replicate the feat, sporting a 2.40 ERA in his first nine starts, with 77 strikeouts through 56.1 innings pitched and a .184 batting average against. But then, for whatever reason, he fell apart in his last three.

Nola had a 6.60 ERA in his final trio of starts, all losses as opposing batters hit a comfortable .274 off of him. He permitted 42% of the runs he allowed all season to score in his final three starts. The run support was lacking in his last two, but who knows, with a little more confidence from their starting pitcher the Phillies probably could have earned just one more win if their ace pitched like one in a playoff race.

Nola needs to be better in the clutch. It's how teams win playoff games — something Nola has never had the opportunity to do.

Second basemen

Offenses against baseball: Almost being the worst, also

The Phillies' second base situation was kind of a sleeper reason why they missed the playoffs in 2020. With Scott Kingery, Neal Walker and Jean Segura combining to start 56 of the team's games there, the position saw the Phillies produce a cumulative WAR of -0.6, one of the worst rates in baseball.

Second basemen for the Phillies hit .197 on the year (second worst of 30 teams), got on base .262 percent of the time (second worst), and scored just 25 runs (10th worst). Kingery was just awful all year, perhaps never feeling 100% healthy after having COVID to start the year. Segura may have felt like he was playing out of position as he was much better at third base. Walker was cut from the team.

An honorable mention in this space should be centerfield as well, which also combined for a -0.6 WAR on the year. Their offensive stats were slightly better, and defense slightly worse, with Kingery contributing nine starts in center. Adam Haseley hit a solid .310 in 22 games, but Roman Quinn disappointed hitting .228 (with 12 stolen bases).

John Middleton, owner

Offenses against baseball: Being stingy?

Phillies majority owner John Middleton operates mostly behind the scenes, so it is difficult to know exactly how much of as role he played in Klentak's inaction at bullpen or their lack of a stable of starting pitching. We do know he was a key component in the Phillies landing Bryce Harper and signing him to a 13-year deal. 

Will the Phillies be able to keep Harper here for all 13? Or even for three? With the state of the team as it is now, they will need to really do something drastic to change things and avoid an embarrassing trade demand from their franchise player. And, they need to find a way to back a Brinks truck up to J.T. Realmuto's house and somehow convince him to sign an extension with the Phillies before he hits the open market and almost assuredly finds employment elsewhere. 

If Middleton keeps Klentak on the payroll and fails to implement any kind of real change within the Phillies organization, then there is no reason to expect 2021 will be different than 2020. And Middleton will assume the biggest part of the blame for this once competitive and storied franchise being mired in crap.

Joe Girardi, manager

Offenses against baseball: Not finding one more win, somehow

We are leaning toward absolving Girardi of blame after writing this article. No manager could have saved this team. Hopefully he'll have more tools and better support next year.


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