Closer uncertainty is commonplace in Major League baseball. The closer role is extremely volatile due to both its extreme pressure and its small sample size. For ten years, the Dodgers haven’t had to deal with this, as Kenley Jansen was a rock in the back of the bullpen. After Jansen’s departure, the team acquired Craig Kimbrel to pitch the ninth. It ended up being disastrous, as Kimbrel blew five saves and created a lot of traffic with a 4.2 BB/9. Kimbrel then departed in free agency, leaving the Dodgers with a massive hole in the backend of their bullpen. However, there is one person who seems obvious to fill in the closer role – Evan Phillips. Yet, the team is reluctant to use him in the closer role, leaving us to wonder why.
Evan Phillips broke out in 2022, pitching 63 innings with a 1.13 ERA, 0.76 WHIP, 11.0 K/9, and 0.3 HR/9. The Statcast numbers are just as flattering, as Phillips ranked in the 95th percentile or higher in xBA, xSLG, xWOBA, and xERA. His strikeout rate (94th percentile), hard-hit rate and average exit velocity (93rd), and barrel rate (92nd) are not too far behind. His pitches combined for a -22 run value for a -2.4 RV/100. Phillips also does not get fazed under pressure, having faced an average leverage index of 1.43. To further this point, Phillips once faced a bases-loaded, no-out situation on back-to-back days. His line: two innings, three strikeouts, two shallow fly balls, no runs.
While all of this shows that Phillips has all the tools to be an elite closer, that role may actually diminish his value. Johnny Murphy was the first fireman reliever, named such for his ability to “put out fires” in relief. The fireman reliever hasn’t been as prominent in the closer era but has been huge when they do pop up. The most famous example is 2016 Andrew Miller, who pitched in 10 games in the 2016 postseason. He would come in as early as the fifth inning, even in Game 7 of the World Series, because that’s when the team needed him the most. He would pitch 19.3 innings in the playoffs posting a 1.43 ERA and 30 strikeouts winning ALCS MVP. That role is where Phillips generated a majority of his value, and the fear is he will become less valuable if he takes the closer role.
If Phillips does remain the team’s fireman reliever, the question remains, who becomes the closer? All indications are the team will take a closer-by-committee approach. However, one thing does throw a wrench into this plan, and it’s the same thing that Dodgers fans are always quick to blame – Dave Roberts.
It’s the bottom of the seventh inning at Petco Park; Tommy Kahnle has given up three straight hits to make it a 3-1 game. The top of the Padres order is up with runners on first and second, no outs; the leverage index is 3.08. This is the perfect situation for Evan Phillips to stem the tide and send the game into the eighth. Yency Almonte steps out of the bullpen, and there is a problem here. Almonte’s aLI did not exceed 0.76 in this series, and all of Dodger nation is confused. Despite striking out all five hitters he’s faced in this series, it now becomes of question of whether or not Almonte can handle the pressure. Ha-seong Kim doubles, and it’s now a one-run game. Soto would then single to tie the game, and Almonte has failed.
After Manny Machado strikes out and Brandon Drury pops out, Dave Roberts makes another move to the bullpen. The leverage index here is 1.97, as Jake Cronenworth is all that stands in the way of passing this game back to the offense to re-take the lead. Alex Vesia then steps out of the bullpen. Evan Phillips has once again been snubbed. Cronenworth would then set Petco Park into a frenzy, as his two-run single would be the difference in the game. In the biggest inning of the season, Evan Phillips was nowhere to be seen. He would come on in the eighth to strike out the side. The leverage index: 0.16.
Taking a look at relief pitcher rankings, one thing stands out: Evan Phillips is the one name there who isn’t a closer. The fireman reliever is more of a luxury than a necessity in the game. James Karinchak and Devin Williams were both fireman relievers last year. After the Josh Hader trade, Devin Williams stepped up and became the Brewers’ closer. Emmanuel Clase blocks Karinchak from taking the closer role in Cleveland. There is no one blocking Phillips in Los Angeles. Perhaps most importantly, as proven by Game 4 against the Padres, Phillips does even get the ball in high-leverage spots. In theory, his value is good as the fireman, but he isn’t the team’s fireman. The best use of talents would be as the team’s closer. If that happens, the Dodgers will be in a new era of closer dominance, and I, for one, can’t wait.