What’s Wrong With Aaron Nola?

The 2016 Phillies were supposed to be a terrible team and lately they’ve been living up (or down) to that expectation. What was not expected, however, was the complete deterioration of Aaron Nola‘s early season success. Entering play on June 11th, Nola had a 2.65 ERA, but now, three starts later, that ERA has risen all the way to 4.11.

2016 Aaron Nola
GS IP H ER R BB K ERA OPS
Through 6/10 12 78 62 29 23 15 85 2.65 .580
Since 6/10 3 9.2 22 20 17 7 10 15.83 1.191

He’s gone from one of the best pitchers in the league to a guy who is allowing the opposition to hit like peak Barry Bonds. That’s… well, it’s not good. But is it worth worrying about? Is it just three starts or is it a sign that something is wrong with the 23-year-old pitcher who looked, just weeks ago, like he could be a top of the rotation pitcher for the Phillies for the foreseeable future?

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In June, Eickhoff Increasing Slider Usage and Effectiveness

Much has been made of the importance of furnishing Jerad Eickhoff’s arsenal with an offering that complements his existing fastball-curveball combination.

After Eickhoff’s initial success in April that featured his curveball nearly every third pitch (4-for-48, .098 batting average and .244 slugging), hitters began to lay off his deuce and do damage against his fastballs. Only 26 at-bats in May ended in a curve. With a heater and a hook that the league had adjusted to, Eickhoff was faced with the most important hurdle all wannabe starters must surmount: what’s your third pitch?

Starters essentially can’t exist in the majors with only two offerings, regardless of how devastating they are. Especially not one who entered the season with just 51 major league innings on his resume. Eickhoff couldn’t effectively set down big league hitters once the book was out on both pitches.

In his newly polished slider, Eickhoff has found that elusive third pitch.

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Odubel Herrera Isn’t Walking Anymore

Aside from a shockingly positive win-loss record, the most talked about development of the early Phillies’ 2016 season was the explosion of Odubel Herrera‘s walk rate. Herrera said that he was disappointed with his rookie season strike out, and merely worked in the offseason to improve on his discipline. Whatever he did, it certainly worked early on – through the end of April, his 22.1 percent walk rate was tied for the league lead with Paul Goldschmidt.

However, much like that unexpected early season success, Odubel hasn’t maintained the walk rate. He’s still been a productive hitter (126 wRC+), but a rate that was tied for the league lead in April became tied for 69th in May, and has only been tied for the 114th-highest June walk rate (through 6/21). His cumulative 13.3 percent walk rate is still among league leaders – it just appears to have regressed to the mean over the last two months.

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The Potentially Underrated Tyler Goeddel

The Phillies are a difficult team to watch right now. The unexpected, early season run is over, the briefly dominant pitching has taken a few steps backwards, and the offense has slowly ground to a complete halt. The upper levels of the minors seem to be teeming with exciting prospects, but we’re stuck in limbo until the front office deems them ready to handle a major league job. The only fun in watching a game these days is following the few players on the team that have both youth and potential still on their side. That’s why it’s so frustrating to see one such young player, Rule 5 pick Tyler Goeddel, riding the bench on a regular basis.

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Severino Gonzalez, Flamethrower

In a somewhat problematic admission as it relates to my baseball writing career, I’m still fairly new to the sport. I didn’t actually start following along until the end of my freshman year of college, and as I’m oft to mention, the first game I watched from start to finish was Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS. As someone from South-Eastern Pennsylvania, that’s not an ideal first memory.

However, I caught on, and as a result of this late start, I’ve always had a fascination with likely-fungible-relief-arm Severino Gonzalez. A great story (a $14,000 signing as an undersized 18-year old in Panama), he was putting up video game numbers in the waning Venezuelan Summer League in 2012, and the low minors in 2013, as I was gaining an understanding of the Minor Leagues and the prospect industry. I didn’t *really* have an appreciation of the relationship between advanced command and low-minors video game numbers, so despite his size and lack of inherent stuff, he always seemed like an overlooked and underrated prospect.

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What Should the Phillies Have Discussed in their Team Meeting?

After Thursday night’s 13-2 loss against the Blue Jays, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin held a team meeting to discuss the Phillies’ poor play of late. After starting the season 24-17, the young team has been much worse over the past 30 days, with a record of 6-20. While the meeting may have simply been filled with platitudes about “working harder day in and day out” and “keeping your heads up,” I wanted to find concrete things the Phillies could do better to recapture some of their early season magic.

Offense

Over the past 30 days, the Phillies have easily the worst wRC+ among Major League teams. Their 68 wRC+ is a full 8 points lower than the White Sox in 29th place. Their hitters have the second-lowest walk rate, and the highest K%-BB%. They also have the lowest WAR at 0.0. In short, the Phillies need to do everything better. But that’s not exactly instructive, so let’s dig in and find a few specific things the lineup could improve upon. Continue reading…

Tommy The Usurper

For the first time in almost 11 years, Ryan Howard is not the Phillies’ everyday first baseman. What did it take to supplant the former National League Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, and World Series champ?

It took a former second round pick drafted out of high school in Scottsdale, Arizona. It took a prospect originally acquired in the 2012 trade that sent Hunter Pence to San Francisco. It took a Triple-A performance from a catcher-turned first baseman that the big league club couldn’t ignore. It took Tommy Joseph.

Even given Howard’s vile 2016 performance—his .150 batting average is worst of any major leaguer with 100 plate appearances—there was reason to not rush Joseph into a starting role. An injury-plagued minor league career saw Joseph appear in just 176 games (671 plate appearances) in the Phillies organization between August 2012 and May 2016, when he was called up to the bigs. His experience in the minors fell far short of what one would normally expect from a 24-year-old career minor leaguer.

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Franco’s Problems Are Popping Up

There is one number that sums up the frustration of Maikel Franco‘s season thus far: 26.5%. That’s the percentage of hard hit balls, according to Baseball Info Solutions, that he has hit this year, and that ranks him 151st out of 175 qualified hitters in MLB. It’s not that Franco is incapable of hitting the ball hard, as he has certainly shown the ability to crush a baseball. His problem is in doing it with any consistency.

The obvious answer to this is the approach. Franco is an aggressive swinger, and this year he has increased his rate of swings specifically on pitches in the strike zone. This aggressiveness would be justified if he was choosing the right pitches to swing at, but a small piece of Franco’s batted ball profile hints that he is not.

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Exploiting Bottom of the Zone Amplifies Phils’ Dominant Curveballs

Last week I explored the Phillies’ pitching staff’s ability to make hitters chase pitches while keeping swing rates down on balls in the zone. The numbers are staggering, but how exactly are they doing it? The answer: their most potent weapon, the curveball, plays incredibly well off their location-based, non-overpowering fastballs.

Exploiting the bottom-most edge of the strike zone makes a lot of sense given the current make-up of the arms manager Pete Mackanin sends to the mound. The staff as a whole lacks the dominant velocity that allows some leeway when leaving balls up in the zone. Despite an average fastball velocity only better than the Angels and Astros, according to Statcast, opponents haven’t punished the Phils’ offerings up over the plate.

Opponents are slugging .494 (eleventh-lowest in the league) against Phillies’ fastballs up in the zone with middle tier .224 isolated power. The teams with the three highest opposing batting averages against fastballs up in the zone all rank in the bottom five in average fastball velocity. But the Phillies are the outlier. Continue reading…

Let’s Talk About Maikel Franco

Maikel Franco is not off to the start Phillies fans hoped to see. He’s posted a 91 wRC+ and his 0.2 fWAR ranks 25th of 26 qualified major league third basemen. Last night, he hit his ninth home run of the year and over his past ten games he’s batting .306/.350/.500; so, maybe a corner has been turned. But whether brighter days are on the horizon or not, it’s worth taking the time to look at what’s gone wrong.

I’ve stopped and started writing an analysis on Franco’s struggles multiple times over the past month, and the reason why I haven’t completed one until now isn’t good. It’s been hard to find an interesting or compelling angle on this analysis because what Franco has been doing is in line with his known profile. To be clear, there have been changes and areas where we can expect to see Franco improve going forward, and we’ll get to those; but, overall, what’s happened in 2016 so far aligns well with what we know to be true about him. Maikel Franco has been Maikel Franco this year and, given the results, that’s a scary thing.

If you were to boil down Franco’s offensive profile to one sentence, it might look something like this: Franco is an aggressive hitter with power and strong bat-to-ball skills. Now check out Brooks Baseball’s automatically generated profile of Franco at the plate in 2016:

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