Predicting the Phillies Starting Rotation Order

The 2017 Phillies feel unique among rebuilding teams in that their starting pitching rotation is likely to be 80 percent the same as it was the previous season. Potential building blocks like Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, and Vince Velasquez are all back. For better or worse, Jeremy Hellickson is back as well after accepting the Phillies’ qualifying offer instead of testing the free agency waters. The only difference in the rotation is not the arrival of a top prospect or big free agent intended to vault the team closer to contention. It’s just Clay Buchholz replacing Charlie Morton. At risk of oversimplification, Buchholz and Morton are, in the grand scheme, more or less the same: veteran pitchers with histories of injuries and inconsistency acquired on the cheap.

With that level of similarity between the 2016 and 2017 pitching rotations, it shouldn’t be surprising that manager Pete Mackanin has suggested another similarity between 2016 and 2017: Jeremy Hellickson is the likely opening day starter. This builds on what is a growing trend of boring announcements coming from the Phillies, beginning with the revelation that Jeanmar Gomez would likely be the team’s closer once again. The selection is not without merit. After all, one could reasonably argue that Hellickson was the team’s best starter in 2016, though Jerad Eickhoff has a similarly compelling case and Aaron Nola’s peak performance was undoubtedly better than both. Even if Hellickson is truly the best pitcher on the team–and it’s very possible he is–having him as the team’s nominal number one starter feels somehow disappointing.

We’ve been in this situation before. Despite some clamoring last year for Aaron Nola to be named Opening Day starter after a solid, if unspectacular, debut the previous season, the Phillies went with Hellickson. Opening Day starter is largely a symbolic designation and the arguments for Nola over Hellickson were thus largely symbolic as well and boiled down to: Nola is part of the team’s future; naming him the Opening Day starter is a statement that the future isn’t far off.

Because the Phillies opened their season on the road against the Cincinnati Reds, they found another symbolic place for Aaron Nola in the rotation: home opener starter. When we’re projecting the rotational order for 2017, we could face a similar consideration. While making Nola the starter for the home opener last year was, in practice, equivalent to making him the number two guy, this year’s schedule suggests that the pitcher who starts the April 7th CBP opener against the Nationals will be the fourth pitcher in the rotation. It’s one thing to make Nola the number two starter and save some symbolic face by playing up the fact that he’s starting the home opener. It’s perhaps another to similarly spin the fourth spot in the rotation.

A third constraint on the rotation was first offered by Matt Winkelman–of The Good Phight and Phillies Minor Thoughts–on Twitter. Due to Velasquez’s struggles to pitch deep into games, Nola’s injury concerns and late-season struggles, and Buchholz’s more extreme version of the just-stated Nola situation, it’s probably not best practice to put the more reliable innings eaters Hellickson and Eickhoff back-to-back. Such an alignment could open the bullpen up to three consecutive days of abuse on a consistent basis.

So, to summarize our three constraints:

  1. Hellickson starts opening day
  2. The fourth starter is somewhat symbolic as the guy who gets the home opener, but it might be tough to sell Nola as a fourth starter.
  3. For the sake of the bullpen, we can’t have Nola, Velasquez, and Buchholz in three consecutive slots.

Given these constraints, the rotation unfolds pretty naturally. Hellickson gets the opening day start against the Reds–why do we have to open against the Reds again? Because we care about the arms of our relief pitchers, we can’t put Eickhoff in the second spot despite his strong claim as the next best pitcher on the team. Instead, we’ll move him to the home opener where he a) won’t be back-to-back with Hellickson and b) will serve as a fitting symbolic face of the rebuild. This also allows us to save face with Aaron Nola, who can slot right back in as the number two starter for the second season in a row. Moreover, if we take at face value everything coming from the Phillies and Nola about the latter’s health, Eickhoff–the most reliable starter in the rotation, health-wise–fits well between Velasquez and Buchholz–the two least reliable starters.

We’re left with Velasquez and Buchholz for the third and fifth spots and there’s just about every reason to relegate Buchholz to the end of the rotation–he’s new, hasn’t been all that good in a couple years, gets injured a lot, and isn’t part of the future. So, Velasquez will slot in to the third spot with Buchholz bringing up the rear.

That gives us the following rotation:

  1. Jeremy Hellickson
  2. Aaron Nola
  3. Vince Velasquez
  4. Jerad Eickhoff
  5. Clay Buchholz

As we’ve known all offseason, that’s a pretty solid rotation and holds up reasonably well to a quick gut-check of the relative abilities of those five pitchers. Of course, we know that with off days, injuries, and skipped starts, the rotation will likely look nothing like this as the season ages. But, if you’re planning your ticket purchases for the first couple series, this seems like a reasonable guide.

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  1. Mike Fassano

    February 21, 2017 02:48 PM

    I understand your wanting Nola or Eickhoff for symbolic (sentimental) reasons, but for practical purposes your rotation is perfect. I remember every time Jim Bunning took the mound he was facing Koufax, Marichal, Gibson, Drysdale, etc. Bunning lost more 1-0, and 2-1 games than anyone I can remember. That’s a real burden for a kid to handle. By the All Star break the kids will have their feet wet and Pete can rearrange the order.

  2. Romus

    February 21, 2017 03:44 PM

    The IronPigs rotation this season excites me with anticipation as much as the Phillies rotation.
    Eflin, Thompson, Lively, Appel and Pivetta all have the potential to somewhere someday crack a MLB starting rotation.
    Just maybe not as a TOR guy.

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