PHILADELPHIA — Long before the Houston bullpen struck out a third of the batters it faced in the 2022 World Series and held those Phillies to a .123 batting average and .178 slugging percentage, Dave Dombrowski was thinking about velocity. The first player the veteran executive acquired upon taking control of the Phillies was José Alvarado. Velocity was worth chasing, but there was more to it than that. Velocity had to become more than an acquisition strategy.
But, in the last World Series, it was a separator. Astros relievers averaged 96 mph on their fastballs. They had command. They had sharp breaking balls.
“As far as their bullpen,” Nick Castellanos said Sunday, “just quality s—.”
Now, when Castellanos watches the Phillies bullpen this October, what sticks out?
“Great stuff,” Castellanos said. “But, I mean, Dave’s a really smart guy. I don’t think that’s by accident. You know?”
It’s not. Dombrowski, the club’s president of baseball operations, did not need last year’s World Series as proof. “It really didn’t influence me because it’s been a philosophy of mine for years,” he said. “That did not change it. The difference, like a lot of things, is it becomes the opportunity to acquire individuals that fit that description.” Phillies relievers, during the 2023 season, threw harder fastballs on average than any other bullpen in baseball. Their 96.3 mph average velocity was 0.5 mph higher than the next-closest bullpen and 1 mph higher than the third- and fourth-ranked bullpens.
That might represent the biggest disparity between the Phillies and Diamondbacks in this National League Championship Series. Arizona’s bullpen ranked 19th in regular-season fastball velocity. In the postseason, Phillies relievers have fired their fastballs at 97.2 mph on average. Arizona’s bullpen averages 3.5 mph less at 93.7 mph.
Phillies relievers have thrown 119 fastballs at 97 mph or greater this postseason and not one of those pitches has resulted in an extra-base hit.
“I think from the time I got here, every year there was a little bit more emphasis on building that bullpen,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “And I think we’ve got an extraordinary bullpen now that I have a lot of confidence in.”
It’s not as if the Phillies have stumbled upon some incredible revelation.
“I don’t think it’s a major-league secret that teams are trying to acquire stuff,” Phillies director of pitching development and assistant pitching coach Brian Kaplan said. “But it’s the consistency and the durability of the stuff from the beginning of the season all the way through the playoffs. That’s what is truly valuable.”
This, the Phillies believe, is where they have uncovered something. They do not want to discuss it. It’s one thing to target pitchers who throw hard. It’s another to take those pitchers and optimize their pitch usage and strike-throwing ability while keeping them healthy.
The year before Dombrowski came to Philadelphia, the Phillies had one of the worst bullpens ever — albeit in a shortened, 60-game season. Their relievers threw fastballs that averaged 92.5 mph. “Whatever (the) reason,” Dombrowski said, “a premium wasn’t put on that.” Now, Dombrowski said, it’s an organizational cornerstone that extends beyond the actual number on the radar gun.
“From our perspective, we have pitching coaches at the big-league level and throughout the system that are able to help individuals,” Dombrowski said. “Then you get into the training staffs and the conditioning people that are able to help people maximize that. It’s really a thought process from the top to bottom in the organization. It’s something we emphasize a great deal.”
The Phillies have invested significant resources into their biomechanics department. Their athletic training staff, honored in 2022 as the best in baseball, underwent key changes before the 2020 season. The Phillies overhauled their strength and conditioning programs before the 2022 season. They hired pitching coach Caleb Cotham before the 2021 season and Kaplan before 2022.
They finished the 2023 season with two 40-man roster pitchers on the injured list — Dylan Covey and Erich Uelmen. Andrew Painter, the club’s top pitching prospect, suffered a major elbow injury in spring training. But, more often than not, the Phillies have found ways to harness high velocity and keep it available.
Their relievers are throwing even harder in October.
“Stuff by itself is incredibly physical,” Kaplan said. “It’s taxing. It’s stressful. It requires a very strong understanding of that athlete and how they move their body. How they carry stress. How they manage stress from the training room to the weight room to nutrition. It’s all a piece of it.”
The difference, to Dombrowski, was what constituted elite velocity and what did not. Five years ago, he thought of elite velocity being 95 mph.
The Phillies established a higher benchmark as they constructed the current unit.
“Now, it’s 97 mph,” Dombrowski said. “There are a lot of guys coming in and throwing 95. I don’t mean to take away from 95. But all of a sudden, it’s different. You notice even when people are doing the calculations on how guys hit against velocity. Really, the number they’re using is 97. So those are harder to find than guys throwing 95.”
It presents a challenge to an upstart Diamondbacks team that soared into this round by smashing 13 homers in five postseason games. Arizona slugged .359 against 97-plus mph fastballs during the regular season. That ranked 15th in baseball.
Arizona manager Torey Lovullo said it’ll be a point of emphasis.
“It’s about the preparedness,” Luvullo said. “It’s about figuring out how to win the inch and making sure that we’re ready to go. We’ve got all of our information in the hopper right now, and we’re going to pull it out and give it to the players and have those meetings with the players. Allow them to go out there and just be as great as they can be.”
A good rotation and bullpen are symbiotic. No bullpen threw fewer innings during the season (543 1/3) than the Phillies’ did. (Houston had the second-fewest bullpen innings in 2023.) The Phillies managed their relievers with the idea of going deep into October. They had starters who could shoulder larger workloads and still be effective in October. They had their methods of monitoring and maintaining health.
Now, in a seven-game series, that stable of pitchers will face a stress test. The Phillies don’t want to run out of gas this time if they are to reach another World Series. Maybe what Houston threw at the Phillies in 2022 didn’t influence 2023, but it was hard to forget how that bullpen did what it did.
“Guy after guy after guy,” Castellanos said.
“They already did it and perfected it,” Dombrowski said. “But it was not a change in philosophy because of what they did.”
It just proved how powerful a hard-throwing bullpen can be when the last teams are standing.
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(Top photo of the Phillies bullpen during the Wild Card Series against the Marlins: Rob Tringali / MLB Photos via Getty Images)