Phillies 2017 Preview: Starting Pitchers (Part 1)

Snow has hit Philadelphia once again. Just when you thought spring was approaching and a faint echo resembling the crack of a bat starting tickling your eardrums, a layer of the white stuff blanketed the city and put a damper on the excitement. Make up your mind, lousy smarch weather. With each word I type (and each word you read), snow-free weather nears. I will do my best to help bridge the gap from winter to spring, and kick off our look at the other half of the clubhouse – pitchers.

Starting Pitchers

Jeremy Hellickson

Originally drafted by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2005, Hellickson joined the Phillies on November 14, 2015 in a trade that saw the Phillies part with a low level prospect. Given the pitching options the Phillies had at the time (Charlie Morton after an off year and the talented but inexperienced trio of Nola, Eickhoff, and Velasquez), the 2011 AL Rookie of the Year was ordained the opening day starter. He went on to have the best year of his career, combining an average strike out with a low walk rate to produce consistently solid results. His 14.1 K-BB% ranked 34th out of 71 qualified starters. What fueled his revival? Less four seam fastballs, more secondary offerings. His 49.4% fastball rate was the lowest of his career. Sometimes success is as simple as shifting your focus away from what you do poorly.

What should we expect in 2017? Hellickson is back on a 1 year deal. Last July, it was expected that he was going to be traded. Circumstances outside the team’s control led to him sticking around for another season. It’s hard to project another “career year” for Hellickson, but he isn’t a power pitcher and is still only 30 years old, so any velocity decline will be small and have little impact on his effectiveness. League average is likely the floor. With any luck, he’ll be dealt in July for pieces to aid in the Phillies rebuild.

Jerad Eickhoff

Jerad Eickhoff was yet another piece that came back from the Rangers in the Cole Hamels trade. He was considered a lower pedigree piece of the trade – close to the majors but the ceiling of a 5th starter. Just to prove to everyone that prospecting is at best educated guesswork, he made his major league debut a few weeks after being acquired and has since been the most valuable piece of the trade. By fWAR, Eickhoff has nearly matched Hamels’s value since the two were swapped. It’s safe to say that given Cole’s current salary, the number of years left on Cole’s contract, and the number of other pieces that were acquired, this trade can be considered a win.

What should we expect in 2017? In 2015, Eickhoff recorded a stellar 2.65 ERA, but the peripherals suggested he should have an ERA in the 3’s. He did just that in 2016 (3.65 ERA), except that now the peripherals suggest that he should have an ERA in the 4’s. One main area of regression is the number of home runs he gave up – his 1.37 HR/9  was the 15th worst in the majors among qualified starters. He wasn’t allowing more fly balls and HR/FB% doesn’t have a high year to year correlation, so this will hopefully be an issue of the past. An ERA below 4 is do-able, and that’s perfectly fine to expect out of your 3rd/4th starter.

Clay Buchholz

If there’s one thing that rebuilding teams can never get enough of, it’s buy-low bounce-back candidates. Buchholz is exactly that – at the cost of a 24 year old who has topped out at High A, the Phillies acquired Buchholz in his final year of team control. Truly a steal. You can’t put a price on a man that can grow a beard like this.

What should we expect for 2017? 2016 hopefully will represent an aberration – his walk rate almost doubled and his home run rate almost tripled, a worrisome combination for any pitcher. His 2016 groundball rate was the lowest of his career, and if he can get back to inducing those, that should take care of his home run problems. If things break right, he’ll be pitching for another team at the end of the year. If the Phillies aren’t that lucky, they can take solace in knowing they didn’t part with much to get Buchholz.

Vincent Velasquez

Ken Giles was one of the few remaining valuable pieces with the club last year, so dealing him would require an enticing offer. The Houston Astros would rise to the occasion, parting with Vince Velasquez and four other players in order to acquire Giles. Velasquez had the reputation of being injury prone, which was why he was deemed expendable. What was expendable for the Astros would morph into indispensable for the Phillies. Out of 102 pitchers with at least 130 IP, Velasquez had the 8th highest strikeout rate (27.6%) and the 13th best K-BB% (19.4%). His electric fastball offset any shortcomings his secondary pitches had, paving the way to the best strikeout numbers the Phillies had seen since Curt Schilling in 1997. Sadly, the baseball gods are unkind. They frequently feast on the health of young exciting pitchers. Pulled after throwing two pitches on June 8th (an outing in which his fastball topped out at 86), Velasquez was placed on the 15-day disabled list on June 10th. Given the initial Tommy John scares on that day, it wasn’t surprising that the Phillies shut down Velasquez in September.

What should we expect in 2017? He’s as exciting a pitcher as he is worrisome an injury risk. He’ll be a starter to begin the year, but if there’s a significant injury, he might have a future in the bullpen. For entertainment’s sake (the 16 strikeout game was another highlight in the desolate landscape that was the Phillies 2016 season), let’s hope he can prove he has the durability to be part of the starting rotation. There’s All-Star potential.

Mark Appel

Phillipe Aumont 2.0

What should we expect in 2017? After an injury sidelined him for the bulk of 2016, he’ll start the year at AAA. Former #1 overall pick, his professional career since has been tumultuous. Time will tell if he manages to harness his dynamite stuff into consistent results.

That concludes part 1 of our look at the Phillies 2017 starters. You might have noticed the conspicuous absence of one of the more exciting young starters on the team. I had to save something for part 2 besides prospects! Until next time, remember – think warm thoughts, and only three weeks until baseball is back.

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