Analysis

A starting pitching primer: Which young hurler is set to emerge?



With a full year of Rhys Hoskins to look forward to and a newly signed Carlos Santana taking over at first base, it seems like the Phillies’ offense is set to do some heavy damage going into the 2018 season. The same cannot be said, however, for their starting rotation, which remains arguably the team’s most glaring weak point.

While Aaron Nola is already the team’s ace with Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez, for now, likely to be the next two starters in line, there remains plenty of uncertainty as to which pitcher in the next tier will emerge and solidify himself as a rotation mainstay. Though any number of players could fulfill this need for the Phils, the most attention early will likely be given to Jake Thompson, Ben Lively, Mark Leiter Jr., Nick Pivetta and Tom Eshelman. Most of them already have some experience at the major league level already, but a lack of regular playing time and some inconsistent performances mean that we can’t quite say for sure how they’ll end up playing next year.

Of all the pitchers who were given their first real opportunity in 2017, Nick Pivetta had by far the most starts with 26, but it’s hard to say that he’ll be a lock for the rotation given his ugly 6.02 ERA. Pivetta’s season was a mixed bag across the board, as he averaged more than a strikeout per inning, with a median fastball speed of nearly 95 mph, but he gave up 25 home runs. He also finished with a .281 batting average against him. There’s little doubt that Pivetta will be given a fair look at the start of the season, but moving past his inconsistencies will prove to be a challenging endeavor.

When it comes to Mark Leiter Jr., the Phillies will need to decide whether he’s more useful as a starter or a reliever, assuming he makes the team from the start. Of the 27 games Leiter appeared in last year, 11 were starts while the other 16 were out of the bullpen. If the Phils do decide to keep him around, his splits would seem to indicate that he’d fare better as a regular reliever. Though he only pitched half as many innings in relief, he posted a 4.50 ERA, a .198 average against and a 1.27 WHIP. Compare that to his 5.19 ERA, .280 average against and 1.37 WHIP as a starter, and it does seem like Leiter was more comfortable pitching in shorter spurts, though not necessarily lights out. That said, with the Phils bringing in Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter to strengthen their relief corps, Leiter becoming a regular reliever isn’t even a certainty at this point.

Down in the minors, Sixto Sanchez may be the Phillies’ most highly touted pitching prospect, but Tom Eshelman, last year’s winner of the Paul Owens Award for the best minor league pitcher in the system, is probably the closest to making his debut. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, Eshelman will likely be making his first start with the Phils at some point this season, and there are plenty of reasons to be excited to see him. Between 23 combined starts with Reading and Lehigh Valley last year, Eshelman went 13-3 with a 2.40 ERA and 0.97 WHIP. He only seemed to get better after being promoted to the IronPigs, throwing his first professional shutout on May 31. Eshelman improved nearly every aspect of his game from a decent 2016 season, but as we’ve seen in recent years, minor league success is no guarantee that he’ll do as well with the big club. He should absolutely be given a chance to show what he’s got, but that will prove to be far more telling than anything we’ve seen so far.

If the Phillies do focus on filling the holes in their rotation internally, Ben Lively and Jake Thompson may just be the best candidates to take those roles. Though Lively pitched less than a full season’s worth of starts last year, his numbers show that he made a bigger impact on the team than one might think at first glance. Ten of his 15 starts were quality starts, which was second on the team and higher than Pivetta’s eight, which is even more impressive considering Lively made nearly half the amount of starts Pivetta did. He managed to cut down on base runners, giving up 24 walks in 88.2 innings with an overall 1.29 WHIP, and had the Phils’ only complete game of the season. He’ll need to miss more bats, as he only had 52 strikeouts, but if can combine more whiffs with some decent run support, he could be in for a breakout year (at least by the Phillies’ standards).

As for Thompson, he may have only had eight starts last year, but like Eshelman he managed to make significant improvements from a lackluster 2016 season. Only throwing 7.1 fewer innings in 2017 than he did in 2016, Thompson cut his ERA down to 3.88 from 5.70, increased his strikeout total and finished the season by allowing only two runs over his last three starts. It’s a small sample size, but Thompson appears ready for a full season to hopefully prove his worth from the Cole Hamels trade.

Regardless of who ends up becoming a mainstay of the Phillies’ rotation, the team will need to put a lot of effort into shaping a proper starting five. As we saw in 2017, Aaron Nola can’t be the only one to carry the staff and needs some solid starters backing him up. The offense looks primed to do some real damage in 2018, but they won’t have any hopes of contending anytime soon if they don’t have the starting pitching to back it up.

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