Come October, the Phillies hope that they’ll be teaching the masterclass in how to rebuild a bullpen in one day.
On Friday, the team swung two trades, one with the Red Sox and and one with the Yankees, to acquire three bullpen arms, in an effort to fix what has been the worst relief corps in the major leagues to start this abridged season. In the early afternoon, Philadelphia acquired David Hale from New York for pitching prospect Addison Russ. Later that evening, the deal with Boston was a swap of Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree for Nick Pivetta and pitching prospect Connor Seabold.
The moves come on the heels of an unfortunate start to the season for the Phillies bullpen, capped off with a pair of heartbreaking losses to the Blue Jays in Buffalo on Thursday. In game two of the twin bill, the Phillies’ staff relinquished a 7-0 first inning lead, something that the team hadn’t done in the last 50 years. The Blue Jays scored seven runs in the bottom of the sixth inning to cap off the come-from-behind victory.
Yesterday’s performance represented just a microcosm of the issues. As Steven Martano wrote just a week ago, the bullpen is exactly what has held the Phillies back. Updating the numbers into games on Friday, they’re currently sitting on a 8.07 ERA (the third-worst team bullpen ERA through 21 games), a 5.61 FIP and a 4.76 xFIP. Regression should have ultimately come — there’s no way they could have sustained a .412 BABIP across the staff — but in a 60-game season, it’s quite possible that it would have been too little, too late. (And more than likely not enough.)
Enter Hale, Hembree and Workman. The three pitchers all bring something a bit different to the staff, but stockpiling even average-to-above-average arms is of paramount importance. That’s exactly what Hale has been throughout his career to date. Designated for assignment by the Yankees on August 17, Hale has a career 4.23 ERA (100 ERA-), alongside a 4.25 FIP (107 FIP-). He’s pretty much the definition of an average middle reliever, though he records the majority of his outs by generating groundballs rather than strikeouts. Hale’s career 15.3 K% would rank as the fifth-lowest strikeout rate by any reliever on an active staff, out of the 185 with at least 100 career innings. His 51.0% groundball rate, meanwhile, would rank in the top-20 percent of active relievers.
This year, Hale’s strikeout numbers have ticked up a touch to a 26.9% rate, though this has only come in six innings and against 26 batters faced. When looking at his five-game rolling average, it does represent a slight deviation from the trend for him, but a much larger sample will be needed to evaluate whether this will stick:
Hale was far from the biggest get for the Phillies Friday, with Hembree and Workman both serving as much splashier acquisitions.
Hembree serves as Hale’s great antithesis. While Hale isn’t the hard-throwing, strikeout-generating arm to which we’re accustomed in baseball, Hembree is closer. He’s the traditional fastball-slider backend reliever, featuring a fastball that has reached as high as 95.9 mph here in 2020. Hembree has struck out 25% of batters so far this season, a mark just a touch the average for relief pitchers. Throughout his career, Hembree’s Achilles heel has always been his control, walking more than 10% of hitters in both 2018 and 2019, but so far this year, he’s been much better in that regard, at just a 7.5% rate.
Workman, meanwhile, looked almost like a more drastic version of Hembree last year, striking out 36% of hitters but walking 16%. A minuscule 2.6% HR/FB rate helped keep the homers off the board, and his 1.88 ERA in 71.2 innings was the sixth-best among all relievers. There probably was some level of sustainability in that home run suppression, considering his expected wOBA on contact mark ranked in the top-four percent of pitchers last year. He’s been considerably worse so far this year — the strikeout rate has fallen to 26%, with the walk rate still at 13% — but the stuff and hard contact prevention still appear to both be there.
In return for this basket of arms, the Phillies provided their own.
To the Yankees, they sent Russ, a 25-year-old reliever who has yet to pitch above Double-A. He is Rule 5 eligible this offseason, and his the scouting report from Eric Logenhagen at FanGraphs says his fastball works up to 96 alongside a 45-grade slider. Last season, in 56 2⁄3 innings, Russ pitched to a 2.54 ERA and a 2.62 FIP, striking out 34% of the batters he faced while walking just 8%. It does seem to be a bit of an interesting decision to trade Russ rather than just promote him — especially if the Yankees think they’ll add him to their 40-man roster by the end of the year. It is possible that the Phillies would rather have the known player in Hale than the unknown in Russ, especially as they try to compete now.
To the Red Sox, the Phillies sent a more intriguing package, that of Pivetta and Seabold. Pivetta, whom the Phillies originally acquired from the Nationals in a one-for-one swap with Jonathan Papelbon, has struggled to become a reliable major league arm and could benefit from a change of scenery. He has a career 5.50 ERA and 4.64 FIP in 92 appearances, 71 of which were starts. Though those numbers are far from good, Pivetta’s stuff has always been tantalizing. Throughout his career, he has featured a mid-to-high 90s fastball, hitting as high as 98.6 mph in a game in 2018. This is alongside an elite spin rate curveball with high efficiency, the perfect ingredients for well above-average vertical movement on the pitch, like so:
Chaim Bloom and Co. in Boston might think they can put the final pieces of the Pivetta puzzle together, and it’s hard not to blame them. Even as a two pitch fastball-curveball guy, Pivetta could profile as a high-leverage multi-inning reliever, or even a backend piece. Even better, he could be a mid-rotation starter with further development of a third pitch.
Seabold, on the other hand, is a 24-year-old starting pitching prospect who also has not appeared above Double-A. He had good marks there last season — a 2.25 ERA, 23% strikeout rate and a 6% walk rate — and did flash 94 in the Arizona Fall League. Injuries limited his innings total last year, likely keeping him off the Phillies’ 2020 top prospect list at FanGraphs. Described as a “command and control guy,” the reports give him the potential to be a back-of-the-rotation starter.
Though the Phillies might have had to part with some decent talent in the process, they did make an attempt to address their bullpen issues head on, notable for a team that is feeling mounting pressure to make the postseason for the first time since 2011. Perhaps this sudden, single-day overhaul of the bullpen will be looked back upon as the first step in saving their season. They can only hope so.
Devan Fink is a sophomore at Dartmouth College and a Contributor at Beyond The Box Score. Previous work of his can be found at FanGraphs and his own personal blog, Cover Those Bases. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.