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October 02, 2023

Phillies bullpen confidence meter: Who can you trust in the playoffs?

The postseason is coming. Which relievers can Phillies manager Rob Thomson trust during this Red October?

As the Phillies prepare to play host to the Miami Marlins in the Wild Card Series beginning on Tuesday, manager Rob Thomson’s top priority is establishing a trust tree within his pitching staff. While the team’s bullpen for the first round of the postseason is not yet finalized, much of its makeup is already clear. 

 So, the question is obvious: who can Thomson trust this October?

No. 10: Taijuan Walker 

Walker had a solid run in the midseason stretch, but has started and finished 2023 on poor notes. His biggest issue is one that becomes even more important in October: giving up early runs. Walker finished the season with a 7.04 ERA in the first inning, and it’s difficult to craft an argument that he should be given a role greater than mop-up duty to begin the postseason. 

No. 9: Michael Lorenzen 

After two dazzling starts to begin his Phillies tenure — the second being a no-hitter — Lorenzen struggled mightily after being dealt to Philadelphia, eventually losing his spot in the starting rotation. Lorenzen has a solid track record as a reliever in prior stops in his career, and that figures to be his role the rest of the way. Lorenzen will most likely be a long man to begin the playoffs, but could pitch his way into high-leverage situations. 

No. 8: Orion Kerkering 

Kerkering’s surprise September call-up makes for the most interesting subplot within this discussion. In the very small sample size that exists of Kerkering facing major league bats, he has looked outstanding, already flashing enough potential that his place on the postseason roster is likely solidified. It will be fascinating to see just how much trust he can gain from Thomson in such a short period of time. 

No. 7: Gregory Soto (L) 

Soto has had a shaky season that has disappointed relative to expectation. His tendency to give up big innings has been frustrating, but in a slightly lesser role, he may be a weapon. Soto has extreme righty/lefty splits this season -- he has a 1.43 WHIP with an opponent’s batting average of .257 against right-handed hitters, but lefties have not been able to touch him: Soto’s WHIP against left-handed hitters is just 0.74, and those batters are hitting just .130 against him. Soto may be best used finishing an inning with a lefty batter or two due up, protecting him from facing a righty bat. 

#6: Seranthony Domínguez 

Domínguez has had a decent season by a typical reliever’s standards, but not by his own. His strikeout numbers are down a noteworthy amount, and he has really struggled in high-leverage situations. However, Domínguez entered the 2022 postseason dealing with similar issues and was arguably the Phillies’ best bullpen weapon in October, posting absurd strikeout numbers and dominating opposing hitters. This is not to say he will automatically revert back to excellence this month, but it is worth noting he has that sort of potential. 

No. 5: Christopher Sánchez (L) 

No. 4: Matt Strahm (L) 

Watching Sánchez’s rise from a spot starter who struggled to throw strikes to an incredibly consistent pitcher with excellent command of one of baseball’s best changeups has been remarkable. He has a solid argument as the team’s second-best starting pitcher from when he was added to the rotation through the end of the season. At least in the best-of-three Wild Card Series, he is expected to pitch out of the bullpen. 

Strahm, meanwhile, opened the season as a starter out of necessity, did an admirable job, and then went to the bullpen where he has been even better. Strahm’s strongest attribute may be his confidence: while he doesn’t have overpowering stuff, he is never afraid to attack and challenge hitters in the strike zone — and he has the strikeout numbers to prove it. 

What makes Sánchez and Strahm especially interesting weapons in October, though, is their ability to record more than three outs in an outing. Sánchez is already stretched out as a starter, and Strahm has demonstrated all season that he has more stamina than the average lefty reliever. If the Phillies have a starter get knocked around early in a playoff game, Sánchez or Strahm could come to the rescue with a few solid innings. 

No. 3: Craig Kimbrel 

Kimbrel’s presence is an odd one: the stats say that he has been a tremendous closer, but the eye test and anecdotal evidence suggest he is a roller coaster ride. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle, but it doesn’t change that he is both volatile and valuable.

What will be especially interesting is seeing when in games Thomson goes to the 35 year-old veteran, whose numbers are by far best in the ninth inning, decent in the eighth, and troublesome elsewhere. Thomson excelled managing his bullpen last October in part because he did not assign inning-specific roles. Kimbrel must be ready to get outs at any time, even if he isn’t coming in to lock the game down. 

No. 2: Jeff Hoffman 

The Phillies returned their most trustworthy right-handed reliever from last season and added a future Hall of Fame closer, and as we enter October, their best right-handed relief pitcher is… Jeff Hoffman? 

Signed to a minor league contract early in the year, Hoffman joined the Phillies in May and has been absolutely outstanding. Thomson decided midway through the season to begin entrusting Hoffman with high-leverage opportunities, and the 30 year-old has made his manager look wise. Thanks to an uptick in velocity, he has been one of baseball’s best righty relievers and an invaluable part of the 2023 Phillies. 

No. 1: José Alvarado (L) 

Alvarado looked a bit shaky late in the summer after returning from his second lengthy absence of the season. Recently, though, he has found his form that dominated baseball for the last several weeks of 2022 and the first several weeks of 2023.

“I feel like I’m back,” Alvarado told Matt Gelb of The Athletic. “I’m very confident right now.”

Indeed he is. The lefty flamethrower has once again mastered the art of harnessing and controlling his electric stuff, making it abundantly clear that he is the prized possession of this bullpen. 

One subplot to watch with Alvarado: he has only recorded more than three outs in an outing once this season, a four-out appearance back in April. After dealing with multiple injuries this year, he appears to be back at peak form. Does this mean he is ready to take on even more responsibility? Thomson surely hopes so.

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