The Philadelphia Phillies were carried to the top of the National League East Division standings over the season’s first four months by their starting pitching rotation.
All season long the team had struggled to consistently produce runs. They played shoddy defense on an individual and team basis. And for the first three of those months the bullpen struggled to close out victories or keep the Phillies in ball games.
But that starting rotation competed hard and propelled the Phillies to a surprise contending campaign. Aaron Nola became a true ace and a National League all-star. Jake Arrieta provided a proven, quality, veteran presence that had been missing since Cole Hamels was traded three years ago.
Those two pitchers were expected to win. The true revelations were coming from performances being delivered on a consistent basis by the Phillies back-end starting pitchers Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, and Zach Eflin.
Through August 3, Velasquez had made 21 starts over which he went 8-8 with a 3.80 ERA. Turning 26-years-old at the end of June, he was dominating opposing batters, holding them to a .222 batting average against with 129 strikeouts over 113.2 innings. A dozen times he had pitched at least six full innings.
Eflin turned just 24-years-old right after the season opened. He would go 8-4 over his first 16 starts with a 3.57 ERA. The right-hander had allowed just 91 hits over 90.2 innings with an 86/19 K:BB ratio.
The 25-year-old Pivetta began the season going 4-6 over his own first 16 starts, but he was pitching much better than that win-loss record indicated. He allowed 80 hits over 84.1 innings in those outings with a sensational 101/24 K:BB ratio.
But those three starting pitchers would not hold up as the summer wore on. As Corey Seidman of NBC Sports Philadelphia pointed out in a tweet just yesterday, that has been especially so when it comes to outings against divisional opposition.
Phillies are 28-32 vs. the NL East.
Aaron Nola & Jake Arrieta started 25 of those games and have a 2.39 ERA.
In the other 35 games, the rest of the Phillies' rotation has a 5.41 ERA.
— Corey Seidman (@CSeidmanNBCS) September 10, 2018
In his last half-dozen starts, Velasquez has a 6.66 ERA and has given up 28 hits over his last 24.1 innings. Hitters have spanked him to the tune of a .292 batting average against in that span. He hasn’t reached the sixth inning even once.
Over his last 13 appearances, a dozen of those starts, Pivetta is 3-5 with a 5.49 ERA. He has surrendered 66 hits including 11 home runs over his last 60.2 innings. Over his last five starts Eflin has a 7.71 ERA, allowing 36 hits across 23.1 innings.
The offense continued to struggle with consistency and timely hitting and the defense remained inefficient as the summer droned on. And then the collapse of that back-end starting pitching saw the Phillies lose the support pillar that had propped up their rise. It’s no surprise then that the team has dropped back in the standings.
Those three back-end starters have been hurt more than either Nola or Arrieta by the sub par defense. All three have FIP marks which are more than a half-run better than their ERA. In fact, Pivetta’s is a full run better. It would be logical to assume that each could have better numbers and results with stronger defensive support behind them.
All year long the Phillies have continued to play youngsters Rhys Hoskins and Scott Kingery out of position in left field and at shortstop respectively. These two future keys would be best served playing on the right side of the infield at first and second base respectively for the next half-decade or longer.
Committing to putting Hoskins and Kingery where they belong would allow the Phillies to concentrate on pursuing impact players who would help improve the pivotal shortstop position as well as the outfield. Manny Machado and Bryce Harper anyone?
Nola will be back for the 2019 season to lead the rotation. Arrieta will be back as well, his contract guaranteeing one more season before he can either opt out or the Phillies can renew him for his ages 34-36 seasons from 2020-22 at a $60 million total price tag.
While he has been better than the team’s #3-5 starters, Arrieta himself has been slipping down the stretch as well. Over his last five starts the veteran is 1-3 with a 5.93 ERA, surrendering 30 hits over his last 27.1 innings. He has surrendered two home runs in each of his last three outings.
At the MLB all-star break it seemed as if starting pitching was going to be one area that Phillies management could rely on next year without necessarily needing to reach outside the organization in the coming off-season. That is no longer the case.
Questions are now resurfacing regarding Velasquez ultimate best role possibly being as a back-end bullpen arm, even perhaps as the team’s future closer. And would either or both of Eflin or Pivetta be capable of providing a winning arm on a consistent basis for a contending ball club?
After five losing seasons, it is likely that general manager Matt Klentak and controlling owner John Middleton entered 2018 hoping that the team would show improvement and move towards a .500 record, perhaps even a winning finish. Actually contending was not likely the plan.
That will be different entering next season. Middleton clearly wants to win. The organization has been positioning it’s finances in such a way that they could take advantage of expected free agent talent that will be coming available this off-season.
A number of changes will be needed this fall and winter, but a contending 2019 is within range with the right moves. Now in addition to a couple of new impact everyday bats, it is becoming clearer that the addition of one more proven starting pitcher will need to be part of the plan as well.
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