Positional Preview: The Starting Rotation
When the Crashburn Alley crew received its year-end report card assignments for the 2015 season, I somehow managed to end up with the unenviable task of writing up Aaron Harang, Jerome Williams, AND Sean O’Sullivan. You can read my thoughts on those three fellows here (Harang), here (Williams), and here (SOS). Without forcing you to relive the tire fire that was the 2015 Phillies starting rotation, I’ll simply say you’re in for a much more pleasant experience this season. Now, with no further discussion of that 2015 rotation ever ever ever, I present your shiny, new Phillies starting pitchers.
The 6’1″ righty from Baton Rouge, Louisiana will be 22 on Opening Day. In 13 major league starts for the Phillies last season, Nola struck out 21.4% of the batters he faced and walked 6.0% of them. That’s pretty good considering he made his major league debut about a year after he was selected with the 7th pick of the 2014 draft. After his callup, Nola averaged six innings per start and was never allowed to throw more than 100 pitches. He threw 187 innings combined between the minors and the big leagues. The Phillies brought him along carefully last year, but you can expect Nola to take on a normal workload this year.
Nola enters the 2016 season as the Phillies de facto ace, even if he’s not supposed to be one. He has the unfair burden of replacing Cole Hamels, which of course is impossible. He’ll mix his fastball, changeup, and slider atop the Phillies rotation until someone else forces his way into the top spot. Also, he doesn’t believe a hot dog is a sandwich.
When the Phillies traded Hamels to the Texas Rangers at last season’s deadline, the prospects headlining the deal were Jorge Alfaro, Jake Thompson, and Nick Williams. All three players deserved that buzz, as they all have star potential and could be big parts of the Phillies’ core for the next several years. But less-heralded prospect Jerad Eickhoff has returned immediate dividends, turning lots of heads in the process and adding evidence to the argument that the Phillies got EXACTLY the deal they needed to get for Hamels. In a miniscule sample size of 51 innings across eight starts for the Phils, Eickhoff impressed with a 24.1% strikeout rate, a 2.65 ERA (quite a bit lower than his 3.25 FIP and 3.56 SIERA), and 1.2 fWAR. His big league strikeout rate was just a tick above his 21.8% rate in AAA with the Rangers. He did give up a lot of hard contact after his callup — his 34.0% hard contact rate was 15th-highest among all 186 starting pitchers who had at least 50 innings in the bigs last year. Eickhoff pitched 154.1 innings in 2014, and combined for 184.2 innings between the majors and minors last year. Despite a bunting drill gone bad, he’s penciled in for a regular workload and has cemented his spot in the rotation.
The first two pointless things I can tell you about Charlie Morton are that he reworked his pitching mechanics before the 2011 season to mimic Roy Halladay, and that my brother Josh owns Morton in fantasy every year for reasons unbeknownst to everyone on the planet except Josh. After 875.2 major league innings, the 32-year-old Morton is a known quantity. He generates a lot of ground balls (55.3% career rate), doesn’t strike out a ton of batters (15.8%), and has some trouble with walks (8.5% career walk rate and 1.44 career WHIP). His career 4.54 ERA is slightly higher than the retrodictors. Morton’s success as a Phillie, particularly at home, will be based on not giving up too many bombs and limiting the free passes. It doesn’t help the groundballer that the team’s infield defense isn’t exactly the 1999 Mets. The tall righty is expected to eat innings, which will be an accomplishment in itself considering Morton hasn’t pitched more than 160 innings in the majors since 2011.
The Phillies acquired Hellickson from the Arizona Diamondbacks to help stabilize the rotation. If that means pitch innings, hey, alright. If that means pitch quality innings, well … that remains to be seen. With the Rays and Diamondbacks, Hellickson has accrued 6.0 fWAR in four-plus seasons. In his lone season with Arizona last year, Hellickson surrendered a 34.1% hard contact rate, which was the seventh-highest rate out of 133 starters to pitch at least 100 innings. Within that same group of 133 pitchers, Hellickson’s rate of giving up 1.36 homers per nine innings was higher than all but 20 pitchers (including Aaron Harang, Jerome Williams, and Kyle Kendrick). Long perceived as being plagued by the longball, Hellickson will need to keep the ball inside Citizens Bank Ballpark to have any chance of a successful season. There are people out there who still believe there’s a breakout coming for Hellickson, but to me, he’s just a guy. On the other hand, at least he (and Morton) performed better last year than the three worst Phillies pitchers.
Source: FanGraphs — Jerome Williams, Aaron Harang, Jeremy Hellickson
Oberholtzer, originally a Braves farmhand, was acquired in the massive Ken Giles trade with the Houston Astros. In 253.2 major league innings with Houston from 2013 to 2015, the lefthander put up a 15.3% strikeout rate, a 3.94 ERA, a 3.72 FIP, and a 101 ERA-. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with being average. Somebody’s got to be, right? The William Penn High School graduate is in desperate need of a legitimate nickname, because Obie is a fat dog’s name. Oberholtzer is out of options, which means he can’t be sent to the minors without passing through waivers. He’s a lock to break camp with the Phillies, either as the fifth starter or the long man/swing man/first spot starter.
Velasquez has a big fastball that he complements with a changeup. He’s got the potential to be the best piece from the Ken Giles trade with Houston. He doesn’t have a guaranteed spot in the rotation or even on the big league club to start the season, and considering how conservative the Phillies typically are with their prospects, it’s likely Velasquez will begin the season in the AAA rotation. The Astros, charging toward a playoff berth last season, may have brought him up to the majors before he was ready. The Phillies have no such pressure and won’t do anything to stunt Velasquez’s development. Nevertheless, expect him to be a significant part of the starting rotation at some point in 2016.
Adam Morgan, David Buchanan, Severino Gonzalez, Mark Appel, Jake Thompson, Zach Eflin, Alec Asher, and Ben Lively are all still developing in various ways. They represent an amazing quantity of pitching depth for a franchise that as recently as a year ago had barely anything in the cupboard. Morgan made a heartwarming return from shoulder surgery and performed adequately in 15 starts for the Phillies last year. However, he’s probably going to be pushed out of any meaningful role with the team sooner rather than later, considering how many promising young hurlers the Phillies have at their disposal. Buchanan and Gonzalez are organizational depth guys, vestiges of a thankfully bygone era of Phillies baseball that was so bereft of pitching after the decay and departure of the aces.
Morgan, Buchanan, and Gonzalez will be the first three in line to fill the Sean O’Sullivan role in a pinch, if someone gets injured, or both. Brad Engler’s prospects writeup yesterday featured some great insights on Appel, Thompson, and Eflin. Asher and Lively are near the bottom of the pitching prospect totem pole, but can still contribute to the organization’s long-term plan.
There’s an abundance of high-floor young pitchers available to the Phillies for the first time in … well, I really can’t remember the last time the franchise’s young pitching was in such good shape. There is a chance one or two of these guys eventually develops into an ace — maybe Velasquez is the most likely bet there — but an even greater chance for several of them to become dependable mid-rotation starters. You’ve read countless times already that 2016 will be a year of evaluation as the Phillies bide their time and methodically develop their potentially formidable young team. As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as too much starting pitching.