Phillies 2017 Preview: Starting Pitchers (Part 2)

The seemingly eternal spring training ends within a fortnight, and with that, the regular season roster is beginning to take shape. While the bullpen is still up in the air, several position players and potential rotation arms have been re-assigned to the minors. Among those demoted the past week is catcher-of-the-future Jorge Alfaro. This whole paragraph has been constructed so that I can segue to Alfaro’s absolute bomb in the World Baseball Classic. Watch it and feel hope for the future of the organization wash over you.

With that over with, let’s finish off our look of the starting rotation.

Previous Posts –
Middle Infield
First and Third
Starting Pitchers (Part 1)

Starting Pitchers

Aaron Nola

With Velasquez and Eickhoff, Nola rounds out the trio of promising young starters. He might not throw as hard as Velasquez, but Nola’s future might be the brightest. His curveball has the biggest horizontal movement in the majors, and he uses it in different ways to different batters, giving it a different look and further increasing its value. You might point to his 4.78 ERA and recent conversation that Nola is “the fifth starter” in contrast with my optimism, but Nola’s results last year were unlucky. A 60.6% strand rate was the 2nd lowest in the majors (min. 100 IP), and his .334 BABIP was 12th highest. Look beyond that to his strong peripherals (19.1% K-BB% was 18th in the majors) and versatile repertoire. Good results follow good process, and in this case, the process is great.

What should we expect for 2017? As long as Nola can stay healthy (which is no guarantee), he should remind everyone why he was considered the potential ace of the rotation. Look forward to his starts.

Zach Eflin

Have you ever had a dream where you tried running and it felt like your limbs were trying to wade through molasses? For years, the Phillies were that. Not winning games despite trying as hard as they could, the franchise was stuck in one spot. It was directly a result of holding onto fan favorites long past their prime. Rollins, Utley, Howard, Ruiz – these are household names. Now when fans look at a line up or high level prospects, it’s row after row of unfamiliar names. Despite their unfamiliarity, there’s still a connection to the old guard – many of the players and prospects on the team now are here because of trades of the former faces of the franchise. Zach Eflin is one of these – he was acquired from the Dodgers after the Jimmy Rollins trade. 2016 saw Eflin pitch at AAA, pump up his strike outs, lower his walk and home run rates, and make his major league debut. That debut was rough – facing a potent Blue Jays line up, Eflin gave up 8 earned runs in only 2.2 innings of work. Eflin shook it off, and strung together eight starts ranging from good to excellent, including a complete game and a shut out. Digging into the numbers, his success seemed unsustainable – a low .221 BABIP, low strike outs, and low home run numbers (which, while some pitchers can be home run prone, pitcher home run rates tend to fluctuate). Over the course of these eight starts, Eflin ran the 10th lowest K%, the 12th lowest HR/9, and 6th lowest BB% (out of 68 pitchers). If you’re going to succeed and not strike anyone out, it’s good to couple that with no walks and no home runs. After July 22, Eflin continued to not strike anyone out, but the walks and home runs exploded. From July 27 to August 8, there were 70 pitchers that recorded at least 10 IP. In this sample, Eflin’s K%, BB%, and HR/9 were the worst, 3rd worst, and worst, respectively. This resulted in a major league worst ERA of 13.85. The gap between his ERA and the 2nd worst ERA was the gap between 2nd and 17th. His season ended after a fracture was discovered in his foot.

What should we expect for 2017? When Eflin was on last year, it was because he was limiting walks. If he can limit walks (and pick up some of the strike outs he seemingly left behind in Lehigh Valley), he could pitch his way back into the majors. Given how dramatic his performance dropped off in his last three starts, the injury could be to blame. With an offseason of healing, we’ll see if 2017 brings with it the return of Good Eflin or Bad Eflin.

Alec Asher

Another piece of the Cole Hamels trade, Asher was suspended for 80 games last year for testing positive for PEDs. This limited his 2016 to five September starts, in which he recorded a 2.28 ERA – largely by “the Eflin method” of limiting home runs, walks, and a low BABIP.

What should we expect for 2017? With the number of arms in front of him and just recently having come off a suspension, Asher will start the year in the minors. While Nola was unlucky, Asher had benefited from the ball bouncing his way. It will be interesting to see if there’s any sort of repeat in terms of his performance, but I’m not holding my breath.

Ben Lively

Marlon Byrd was traded by the Phillies twice – once in 2005 to the Nationals for Endy Chavez (who went on to play in 91 games and hit .215), and nearly a decade later on December 31, 2014 to the Reds. The 2014 Reds won 76 games, so I don’t know what the Reds saw in Byrd that made them think he would right the ships (and he didn’t – the 2015 Reds won 64 games, one more than the Phillies). Whatever their reasoning was, the Phillies ended up acquiring a promising young pitching prospect in Ben Lively. Lively spent 2015 at AA and split 2016 at AA/AAA and looks to have a future with the organization. Put one in the win column for ol’ Ruben Amaro Jr.

What should we expect for 2017? Lively has already been optioned to the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, which is where he’ll start the season. His promotion, as it should be, is going to be entirely based on his performance. He has a lot of players in front of him, so it’s going to be an uphill climb. Even if he reaches the precipice, his fastball sits around 90 and touches 94. Don’t expect much more than an innings eater/back end starter.

Jake Thompson

Another piece of the Cole Hamels trade (it feels like I’ve typed those words a dozen times), Thompson made his major league debut in 2016. Like Eflin, the results of his debut weren’t pretty (6 ER in 4.1 innings). Unlike Eflin, his next starts didn’t go much better.

What should we expect for 2017? With his poor 10 start audition and the signing of Buchholz, Thompson will be competing in the minors to return to the show. He has a decent fastball and was considered the best pitching prospect in the Hamels return, so he’ll be given every chance to earn his way back up.

That does it for starting pitchers. Next week we’ll look at the bullpen. Let’s hope more of that picture comes into focus, or I’ll have to break out the Ouiji board to figure out what 2017 has in store for that.

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