Last year, the Phillies’ disastrous bullpen was a major reason why they missed out on the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season. If you go back to 1969 — the year MLB lowered the mound — the 2020 Phillies bullpen posted the absolute worst league-adjusted ERA in a single season. By FIP, they were only a little better, landing 16th worst among 1,438 team seasons. Upgrading the bullpen had to be a significant focus of their new front office tandem, president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and general manager Sam Fuld.
Their problems were numerous, but the Phillies’ relief corps suffered from a significant lack of gas in 2020. Their relievers threw the second lowest rate of fastballs thrown over 95 miles per hour in 2020. Indeed, just 10.5% of them reached that threshold. To address this dearth of heat, the Phillies have added a bunch of relievers who throw extremely hard fastballs. Just before the calendar flipped to 2021, they added José Alvarado in a three-way trade with the Rays and Dodgers — Alvarado’s fastball averages 97.7 miles per hour. Then a week ago, they acquired Sam Coonrod from the Giants — his heater comes in even faster at 98.7 mph. And yesterday, they added a third hard-throwing reliever to their bullpen, signing Archie Bradley to a one-year, $6 million contract. Adding elite fastball velocity won’t be a panacea for all their woes, but it should help.
Bradley’s fastball is the slowest of the bunch, averaging 94.4 mph in 2020. That’s actually a point of concern. It was the lowest average velocity for his four-seamer since he transitioned to the bullpen full-time in 2017.
Despite the drop in velocity, Bradley posted the best FIP of his career last season. His strikeout rate dipped a bit, from 27.4% to 24.7%, but he also slashed his walk rate to just 4.1%. In 2019, he had survived as the Diamondbacks closer with a 11.4% walk rate. During that season, his rate of pitches thrown in the zone dipped below league average for the first time as a reliever. He reversed that trend in 2020, getting his zone rate just above league average.
That dip in strikeout rate is just as concerning as his lower velocity. His fastball’s whiff rate was right in line with where it had been in years past. The biggest change for him in 2020 was the number of swinging strikes he was getting on his curveball. The whiff rate on his bender dropped from 30.5% to just 16.7%. Like his fastball, his curveball lost velocity last year, dropping down to 80 mph on average. It’s possible that lost velocity affected the effectiveness of the pitch enough to cause batters to spit on it more often. Now, he did record the highest rate of called and swinging strikes of his career in 2020, so it’s also possible that his falling strikeout rate was simply poor sample size luck.
The only reason why his overall swinging strike rate didn’t budge all that much in 2020 was because of his changeup. That third pitch had been a part of his repertoire back when he was a starter but it was inconsistent and he often lost his feel for it. He brought it back in 2019 with some success and increased his usage of it to 11.6% last year. He threw just 32 changeups in 2020, but its 38.9% whiff rate would have ranked 18th among all changeups thrown at least 100 times during the season.
Beyond his downward sloped strikeout and walk rates, Bradley worked through some odd results when opposing batters put his pitches in play. He induced the lowest hard hit rate of his career while also allowing the highest barrel rate of his career. His expected wOBA on contact of .370 was just a hair below league average so those additional barreled balls didn’t do much damage — he allowed just a single home run in 2020. His groundball rate had consistently been above league average throughout his career but it dipped below average for the first time in 2020. He threaded a very narrow needle by allowing more contact in the air, even though it was a little weaker contact overall, all while pitching in the zone more often with a fastball that was thrown a little less hard.
It was a bit of a surprise that Bradley was available as a free agent at all. He was entering his final year of arbitration and had pitched decently enough for the Reds after they acquired him at the trade deadline. But with all these red flags and concerning trends, you can see why they decided to non-tender him. He ended up getting a contract around his estimated arbitration salary anyway. If he can find that lost velocity on his fastball and curveball and continue to refine his changeup, he should be a stabilizing presence for the Phillies bullpen.
Simply based on his track record, Bradley will likely enter the season with at least a job-share in the ninth inning with Héctor Neris. Like every other Phillies reliever last year, Neris had his own problems and lost his handle on the closing duties when Brandon Workman was brought in. Between Bradley, Neris, and Alvarado, they’ll have plenty of options should any of them falter during the season. But there are enough question marks between the three of them that the Phillies should probably be in the market for another reliever, just in case.