The 2021 MLB regular season is less than one week and, to be completely honest with you, this is the worst time of year to analyze baseball. The sample sizes are so small and it is damn near impossible to differentiate what's meaningful from what's nothing more than baseball being weird. But, we soldier on.
With that in mind, our weekly series breaking down various trends across the league begins Wednesday with a look at baseball's worst bullpen a year ago, and one team's unusual struggles at their historic home ballpark. Let's dive in.
An improved Phillies bullpen
If the Phillies had a bad bullpen in 2020, they would've made the postseason. Instead, they had a historically awful bullpen that sank their season. It was only a 60-game season, but the bullpen's 7.06 ERA was the second worst ever, better than only the 1930 Phillies (8.01 ERA). When your bullpen does that and you miss the postseason by one game, it's tough to swallow.
Philadelphia's new Dave Dombrowski-led front office set out to fix the bullpen over the winter and they didn't throw money at a big free agent (Liam Hendriks, Trevor Rosenthal, etc.). They instead picked up Jose Alvarado in a relatively minor three-team trade with the Rays and Dodgers, and they signed Archie Bradley and Brandon Kintzler to sensible one-year contracts.
Five games into the new season, the Phillies bullpen has allowed seven runs in 17 innings, and four of the seven were scored in a single Vince Velasquez inning. The bullpen has already done something it did not do a single time last year: not allow a run in three consecutive games. On only one occasion last year, Sept. 1-2, did Philadelphia's bullpen have back-to-back scoreless games, and in one of those two games Aaron Nola went eight innings, so yeah.
The new personnel has certainly helped. So have the starters. The Phillies received excellent work from Nola, Zack Wheeler, and Zach Eflin over the weekend, which meant fewer innings for the bullpen in general. It also meant manager Joe Girardi could lean on his top relievers. Alvarado, Bradley, and Hector Neris threw 6 1/3 of the bullpen's 7 1/3 innings in the first three games.
The bullpen's best effort in the early going came Monday night. Starter Matt Moore could not complete four innings, then three relievers kept the Mets off the board the next 4 2/3 innings, giving the offense a chance to get back in the game. . The bullpen that night:
The run Alvarado allowed in the ninth was the first run charged to Philadelphia's bullpen this season and it came in their 12th inning. 12 innings do not made a season, not even close, but after a nightmarish 2020, the bullpen getting off to such a strong start in 2021 has been a welcome development. Nothing can sink a season as quickly or spectacularly quite like a bad bullpen.
"We're coming out attack mode," Kintzler told reporters, including MLB.com's Todd Zolecki, following Monday's game. "I think that fires position players up because they know how hard it is to hit relievers in attack mode. We all know any big loss in the ninth or any big deficit in the fourth or fifth is deflating for everybody. So the fact we can come in and attack and put up some zeros, and all of a sudden we get some momentum, a little bit at a time each inning -- you saw -- it puts pressure on the other team. For this offense, if we can keep doing that throughout the year, I think we're going to win a lot of games."
Philadelphia's bullpen was so bad last year that it would be almost impossible to be that bad again this year. The Phillies could have brought back the same relievers and probably received better work just based on the law of averages. They didn't though. Alvarado, Bradley, and Kintzler are legitimate late-inning relievers, and guys like Brogdon and Coonrod bring big power arms. In a tough NL East, the bullpens could be the difference in the race, and Philadelphia's has started well, especially after last year.
Fenway Park woes continue for Red Sox
Hard to imagine a worse start to the season for the Red Sox. They were swept at home by the Orioles and were outscored 18-5 in the first three games of the year, giving them their first 0-3 start at Fenway Park since 1948. The Red Sox bounced back to win the first two games of their series against the Rays, though they're still 2-3 on the young season, with all five games played at home.
"We need to be a lot better. This is a place we have to take advantage of, and we're not doing that," manager Alex Cora told Bill Koch of the Cape Cod Times ... back in 2019! The club's Fenway Park woes date back a few seasons now.
The Red Sox went 11-20 and were outscored 205-160 at home last year. In 2019, they went 38-43 at home, though they managed to outscore their opponents 452-439. Since Opening Day 2019 the Red Sox are a hard to believe 51-66 with a minus-61 run differential at Fenway Park. This is a franchise that went 195-129 with a plus-331 run differential at home from 2015-18.
Coming into 2021, the Red Sox had the third highest home winning percentage in history. They typically dominate at Fenway Park, but not so much the last few years. That old Fenway intimidation factor has been missing.
The problem is not so much that the Red Sox aren't built to win at Fenway Park. They haven't been built to win anywhere the last two years. They went 13-16 with a minus-14 run differential on the road last year, and their pitching was woefully inadequate. Early on this season, it does not appear to be improved much, if at all. This is far from a powerhouse Red Sox team at the moment.
Eighteen percent of teams to start the season 0-3 have gone on to make the postseason in the wild card era, though the Red Sox themselves have never done it, according to Alex Speier of the Boston Globe. That could change this year, but for that to happen, the Red Sox must regain their homefield advantage. Fenway Park should be a place no one wants to play and that hasn't been the case the since 2019.
Tracking MLB's three true outcome rates
Baseball has a ball in play problem. The three true outcomes (strikeouts, walks, homers) dominate the game and it's very much a chicken or the egg thing. Are there so many strikeouts because there are so many homers and pitchers want to avoid contact? Or are there so many homers because there are so many strikeouts and it's hard to score otherwise?
Here's how many plate appearances have ended with a strikeout, walk, or homer the last few years:
- 2016: 32.3 percent
- 2017: 33.5 percent
- 2018: 37.8 percent
- 2019: 35.1 percent
- 2020: 36.0 percent
For whatever reason 2018 was an unusual, anomalous year, but the point is more than one-third of all plate appearances end in a walk, a strikeout, or a home run these days. That's too much, I think. This game is at its best when the ball is on the field and the players have a chance to really showcase their skills defensively, on the bases, etc.
Going into Tuesday's action, 37.9 of all plate appearances ended in a true outcome in the early going this year. Sunday at Yankee Stadium the Yankees and Blue Jays combined for only 17 true outcomes among 69 plate appearances (11 strikeouts, four walks, two homers), or 25 percent, and watching the game, I felt like I traveled back in time. It was refreshing to see so many balls in play.
For an individual player or even an entire team, the first week of the season doesn't mean a whole lot. Aside from injuries, nothing we see in the first week should drastically change our expectations. On a league-wide level though, that first week can tells us a lot about where the game is heading. The league's first week true outcome rates tend to track closely with the final season numbers.
Here are the three true outcome rates during the first week of the season the last few years. In parentheses are the end of season numbers. They don't perfectly match up, but they're close, and you can see the patterns.
* 60-game season
Generally speaking, the strikeout rate in the first week of the season is what you're going to get all year. Any deviation tends to be small. A few tenths of a percentage point. Aside from 2020, which was a bizarre short season, the end of season walk rate ends up roughly a full percentage point below the first week walk rate. Expect fewer walks in your team's final 155 games or so.
Historically, the league home run rate peaks in July and August, when it's hot outside and the ball really carries. That's why the end of season home run rate -- I'm using homers per ball in play here because that strips away walks and strikeouts, and tells us how often the ball leaves the yard when hitters make contact -- tends to be higher than the first week home run rate.
2019 was a historic home run season and the homer rate really shot up in the summer months that year. In 2017, 2018, and 2020 though, the end of season home run rate was only a few tenths of a percentage point higher than the first week home run rate. It increased but not a dramatic amount. That increase is essentially negligible when you're watching games regularly.
MLB made changes to the baseball this year in an attempt to curb the home run rate and a few weeks ago I noted the league home run rate in spring training had increased. The Ringer's Ben Lindbergh and Rob Arthur ran the numbers again at the end of camp and yep, the homer rate was up despite the new ball. MLB had its highest spring homer rate since at least 2005 this year.
This first week home run rate this year is down from last year and roughly in line with 2019, when all sorts of home run records were set. Will we see the typical small increase we saw in 2017, 2018, or 2020 the next few months? Or are we headed for another huge home run spike like 2019? MLB hopes its the former. At this point, there's nothing we can do other than wait and see.