Starting Rotation Keys Phils’ Late Surge
On Monday, I looked at the starting rotation’s volatility compared to last year, concluding that overall, the rotation had declined in general and provided fewer elite outings. There is no question that the 2012 iteration has fallen short of expectations, due in large part to age and injury concerns. Since returning from the All-Star break, though, the rotation has surprisingly been a big asset as the team has gone 35-21 in the meantime.
Four of the seven players who have started games for the Phillies since July 13, the first day play resumed after the All-Star Game, have posted an ERA under 3.00: Cliff Lee, 2.66; Kyle Kendrick, 2.72; and Joe Blanton and Cole Hamels, 2.74. Roy Halladay and Tyler Cloyd haven’t been dreadful, with a 4.04 and 4.24 ERA, respectively. Only the now-sidelined Vance Worley had been awful at 5.33. Among all NL starters who have faced at least 100 batters since the break, Lee, Kendrick, and Hamels rank eighth, ninth, and tenth, respectively and are only three of 16 pitchers to have a sub-3.00 ERA in that span of time.
The three starters, despite having nearly-identical ERA’s, have gotten to that point in three separate ways. Hamels’ story is the least-interesting because he has been this good all year long and should garner some top-10 Cy Young votes after the season. He hasn’t been as good as he was last year as he has walked more batters, induced significantly fewer ground balls, and over-performed his xFIP by about 0.30. A 3.31 xFIP, though, still puts him in the top-5 in the National League behind Stephen Strasburg, Cliff Lee, Adam Wainwright, and Clayton Kershaw.
Lee, as predicted, regressed back to his mean after a very unlucky first half that had the entire city of Philadelphia writing him off and nearly running him out of town at the trade deadline. He didn’t get his first win until July 4, the first start after his ERA crossed the 4.00 threshold. Lee, however, had a .330 BABIP going into the All-Star break. Since then, his BABIP is .293 and he has improved his K-BB numbers from 98-20 in 97.1 first-half innings to 76-7 in 84.2 second-half innings. If the Phillies do end up winning the second Wild Card and call on Hamels in the one-game playoff as many expect, Lee would likely pitch Game One of the NLDS if the Phillies were to win.
Kendrick, on the other hand, has benefited from a combination of luck and skill. There is no question the 2012 version of Kendrick is the best to date. His second-half 18 percent strikeout rate easily surpasses his 12 percent career average and he has been very stingy with the walks as well (five percent). He is getting ground balls at a 50 percent clip since returning from the All-Star break, a rate that would be his highest in any full season at the Major League level. Kendrick does have a .234 BABIP in his last eight starts, though, indicating that some of his recent success has been a fluke, especially compared to his career .285 BABIP, which is still 15 points under the National League average.
Only the Braves are close to the Phillies when it comes to second-half starting rotation success. Here are the top-three starters since the break for the Phillies’ Wild Card foes:
- Atlanta Braves: Kris Medlen (0.81), Mike Minor (2.35), Tim Hudson (3.79)
- St. Louis Cardinals: Kyle Lohse (2.85), Adam Wainwright (3.27), Jaime Garcia/Joe Kelly (4.25)
- Los Angeles Dodgers: Chad Billingsley (1.80), Clayton Kershaw (2.41), Aaron Harang (4.22)
- Pittsburgh Pirates: A.J. Burnett (3.64), Jeff Karstens (3.86), Kevin Correia (4.17)
- Milwaukee Brewers: Marco Estrada (3.56), Michael Fiers (3.59), Yovani Gallardo (3.69)
- Arizona Diamondbacks: Wade Miley (3.12), Ian Kennedy (4.14), Patrick Corbin (4.21)
If the Phillies are to complete the comeback, they will need the starting rotation to light the way. The pitching staff as a whole has held the opposition to two runs or fewer in eight of the last 11 games, so it should come as no surprise that the Phillies are 9-2 in that span of time. But in the remaining 19 games, Hamels needs to continue being Hamels, Lee needs to continue his progression, Kendrick needs to avoid regression, some sunnier days for Halladay would be nice, and maybe a Dick Ruthven-esque contribution from Cloyd, too. Needing 15 wins in 19 games to reach 87 wins, the Phillies don’t have room for mistakes anymore.