Opinion

Should Phillies Try A Six-Man Rotation?

Vincent VelasquezIn April, they had a 3.55 ERA with 156 strikeouts and 32 walks.
In May, they had a 4.16 ERA with 139 strikeouts and 44 walks.
And so far in June, they have a 6.06 ERA with 96 strikeouts and 36 walks.

Phillies starters haven’t been pitching well.

Aaron Nola hasn’t looked himself, though he claims nothing is actually wrong. It may be true. Pitchers – especially 23 year olds still in their first full season of play – can struggle, and often over the course of a few consecutive starts.

Zach Eflin began his major league career with a rather terrible start at Rogers Centre. He did rebound a few days later with a solid start at home against Arizona, but we’re in the infant days of Eflin’s career.

Jerad Eickhoff has been up and down, down and up. But with increased use of his slider, he seems to be developing into a more well-rounded pitcher. That’ll still take time.

Adam Morgan is hanging by a thread. Sometimes he pitches really well, like his start Saturday against Arizona. And sometimes he doesn’t pitch so well, like his start Wednesday against Minnesota. It’s still hard to tell if Morgan is good back-end filler, something slightly more, or something slightly less.

Jeremy Hellickson is still here, still doing his thing. There are moments he looks like the kind of strikeout-registering starter a contending team would love to have down the stretch. Then there are moments he pitches much worse than his slightly below-average 4.41 ERA.

And Vince Velasquez is on his way back. After resting a strained bicep, he threw 76 pitches – 51 for strikes – and hit 97 mph in a rehab start for Reading. Experts thought Velasquez would have to be limited in 2016 to be effective, and thus far it seems that assumption is playing out correctly.

When Velasquez returns – which could be as early as Monday in Arizona – it’s assumed one of the other pitchers listed will be sent to triple-A Lehigh Valley. And of those listed, it’s assumed it’ll be Morgan. He hasn’t pitched very well (1-6, 6.49 ERA, 45 K, 13 BB before his start Wednesday) and already started the year as an IronPig. So it makes sense. One can argue Eflin needs more seasoning in triple-A, but he probably doesn’t, and he likely possesses more upside than Morgan.

But what if the Phillies don’t do that? What if, instead of sending Morgan or Eflin down to Lehigh Valley, the Phils send down Elvis Araujo, Andrew Bailey or Brett Oberholtzer?

What about a six-man rotation?

Six-man rotations are infrequent but not rare in the majors, as the Tigers are now using one and the Cubs are about to employ one. The Phillies have an intriguing and unique case to employ one of their own.

There are good reasons.

First, and most importantly, health. Velasquez doesn’t seem to be feeling pain right now, and if he’s healthy he should absolutely pitch in a major league rotation in June. But going with a six-man group, at least for a few turns through the rotation, can chop up to 10 innings off each pitcher’s regular workload. There is a certain link between six-man rotations and improved health of pitchers, since the added rest and fewer innings lessen the rate of injury. So employing a six-man rotation can – even in a small way – help keep Velasquez and the rest of the staff healthier.

Second, it gives the Phillies more time to see Morgan (or Eflin) in the majors. While Morgan hasn’t pitched well, he still hasn’t reached 150 major league innings. That’s still a small sample, and it could be wise to give Morgan a little more time (30-40 innings at least) to further establish his value. Of course a six-man group also gives Eflin a longer opportunity to prove himself in the majors.

A six-man rotation could also help the young starters work through some of the struggles they typically face. An extra day of rest, and more time to review film and work with coaches, could always help guys like Nola, who are trying to understand why they’re not very effective.

Plus the Phillies aren’t contending. We certainly know that now. There’s no pressing need to put the top five pitchers out there every five days, so why not experiment with the rotation for a little while? One plan could involve using a six-man group until the trade deadline, when the Phillies may trade one of their pitchers (likely Hellickson). At that point the Phillies can reassess the pitching situation, make a decision on Morgan (or anyone else truly struggling) and think about bringing up someone like Jake Thompson.

The only major knock against a six-man is the loss of a reliever, but in a real pinch the Phils could use the starter throwing bullpen. Plus the all-star break in mid-July offers the Phils a decent amount of rest time, which helps beat back the fear of overworking the relievers.

So why not go six men deep for a few weeks? Heck, it wouldn’t hurt any more than it already does.

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