|Aaron Nola has been a Phillies rotation bright spot in 2018|
That win, behind the pitching of Aaron Nola, lifted the Fightin' Phils record to 17-9 in the early going of the 2018 MLB regular season. It also moved them within a half-game of first place.
As has happened in a couple of recent seasons when the Phillies got off to a hot start, there was talk among some in the fan base of possible Wildcard playoff contention.
Maybe you were one of them last season, when a six-game winning streak lifted them to an 11-9 start in the early going. Or perhaps it was just two years ago, when the club sat at 24-17 and just that same half-game out of first place on May 19, 2016.
Alas, it was not to be for either of those Phillies teams. The 2016 club would win 71 games and finish in fourth place. Last year's bunch sank to 66 wins and a fifth place finish.
This time it seemed to be different. The Phils had opened up their wallets and signed a true Cy Young-winning ace in Jake Arrieta. They had brought in a proven veteran on-base machine in Carlos Santana to tutor and provide an example for the gaggle of talented young hitters who peppered their lineup.
Surely this year, there would be no similar collapse to the last two seasons. Surely this time around, the ball club would fight to contention all through the summer for new skipper Gabe Kapler.
But now after a week in which the Phillies dropped five of six games against division rivals Atlanta, Miami, and Washington, the club has dropped to just three games over the .500 mark. In three of those losses the starting pitchers, Vince Velasquez, Arrieta, and Nick Pivetta were each bombed by the opposition.
After nearly six weeks of the season, the starting pitching has to be a genuine concern. That is especially so if club management actually believes that they can contend for at least a Wildcard berth over the course of the coming summer.
Nola and Arrieta are generally providing the Phillies with good work. Arrieta has allowed 23 hits over 28.1 innings with a 20/10 K:BB ratio. He has solid 3.49 ERA and 1.16 WHIP marks, with slightly better ERA+ and FIP marks.
Nola appears to be elevating himself to true 'Ace' level this season. He is 4-1 with a 2.17 ERA and 0.920 WHIP, surrendering 31 hits over a staff-high 45.2 innings with a 35/11 K:BB ratio. His last four outings have each resulted in a Quality Start effort.
But behind those two, the starting pitching is becoming a true mess.
Velasquez continues to be an enigma, with fantastic stuff and unimpressive results, including a 5.70 ERA and WHIP of 1.467 to this point. While he has a strong 34/9 K:BB ratio over 30 innings pitched, the righty has also allowed 35 hits, including a staff-high five home runs.
After getting blown up by the Braves in his last start, he had this to say per MLB.com's Todd Zolecki:
"You're going to have one of these days and you shouldn't beat yourself up because it's just going to add up. I'll look back at some film and reflect back and go back to the actual first outings and maybe even reflect back to a couple years ago and how I was successful in a couple of games. This is the process of getting better and you utilize stuff like this to better you."
Problem is that his "one of these days" has become a regular occurrence. Just 16 of Velasquez' 45 starts with the Phillies over the last three seasons have been of the Quality Start variety. The argument that he would be more suited to a bullpen role is going to grow louder and louder if something major doesn't change quickly.
Ben Lively was given five starts before landing on the DL this week. He has a 22/10 K:BB mark over 23.2 innings. That's not bad, considering that he is not a classic strikeout artist. But he has been far too hittable, allowing 34 hits and four homers. These have resulted in an ugly 6.85 ERA and 1.859 WHIP.
Pivetta was the latest to get rocked. He lasted just one inning last night, with the Nationals ripping him for five hits and six earned runs, including a pair of Bryce Harper home runs.
“There were some pitches that could have gone my way, but they didn’t,” Pivetta said per Philly.com's Scott Lauber. “It kind of got out of hand a little bit. I need to be able to bear down there and pitch a little better. But they got me tonight. It’s one of those games.”
While Pivetta still flaunts a fabulous 35/10 K:BB mark over 34 innings, his ERA ballooned to the 4.76 mark. It was his second straight poor outing, after he surrendered four earned runs over five innings to Atlanta last week.
Zach Eflin was called up from AAA Lehigh Valley this past week, providing a nice outing against the last place Miami Marlins. But while that effort was promising, Eflin's stuff and big league track record are not.
If the Phillies are going to actually contend for a playoff spot this season, or even remain relevant in the race through much of the summer, they are going to need better starting pitching performances.
Velasquez has proven that he cannot be relied on to provide those performances. Eflin and Lively are decent emergency options, but not truly the types of starting pitchers that a postseason contender wants to be running out on a regular basis. Pivetta remains largely unproven over the long haul.
Some are looking forward to the return from injury of Jerad Eickhoff. The right-hander who will turn 27 years old in early July is recovering from a lat strain suffered during spring training. It is hoped that he will be back by the end of May.
However, Eickhoff is no rotation savior. Last season he went 4-8 with a 4.71 ERA and 1.523 WHIP over 24 starts. On a contending team, he is a back-end option at best.
What the Phillies truly need if they are going to remain above the .500 mark and stay in contention over the course of the summer is another strong starting pitcher. That could possibly come from one of the current arms catching fire.
However, my bet is that the five or six organizational arms behind Arrieta and Nola will not be enough. Maybe one or two can pitch well enough to keep the club in most of their outings, providing a decent back-end for now.
But to contend, the Phillies management is going to have to find a deal for a more proven starting pitcher with a strong career resume. Another arm along the lines of Arrieta, signed so surprisingly this spring.
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The offense is beginning to emerge from an early season funk. The Phillies are fifth in the National League in Runs scored. The club is sixth in both Doubles and Steals, and second in Walks. They could still use a more genuine, consistent power threat to join Rhys Hoskins in the middle of the batting order in order to elevate their everyday lineup.
Some of the possible arms who could become available this summer include Chris Archer, Garrett Richards, Danny Duffy, Marcus Stroman, Julio Teheran, and old friend Cole Hamels.
While each has had his own problems in recent years with either injuries or inconsistency, each is also clearly more talented than what is already in-house with the current Phillies. Either Duffy or Hamels would add a left-hander, something currently missing from the Phils mix.
Maybe the Phillies don't believe they can be a playoff team this season. Maybe management is looking more towards next year. The youngsters get another shot. The club makes a big push in free agency. They look to contend in 2019 instead.
But if they are indeed hoping to contend this year, they need to do something about the starting pitching, and soon. If they don't, they run the risk of the current skid becoming yet another slide to NL East standings oblivion.