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To Arms! Why Phillies Pitching Should Surge in 2010

Watching the Phillies "30 Teams in 30 Days" segment on MLB Network the other night, I was struck by how much better the team's 2009 pitching numbers were after the All-Star break. The team's ERA dropped dramatically between July and the end of the season, Phils hurlers allowed home runs at a sharply lower rate, and--most significantly in my opinion--the starters in particular worked more innings. 

The reasons for this aren't a mystery: between May and August, struggling starters Chan Ho Park, Brett Myers, and Jamie Moyer gave way to J.A. Happ, Cliff Lee and Pedro Martinez, with Antonio Bastardo and Rodrigo Lopez taking interim turns in the rotation before Lee and Pedro showed up. The two former Cy Young award winners were magnificent for the Phillies, and all Happ did was finish second in Rookie of the Year balloting. Meanwhile, Joe Blanton rebounded from a shaky start to the '09 season, and Cole Hamels was sharply better after a terrible April.

I've written here before that rotation stability--or, to put it another way, starter quantity almost independent of quality--seems to be the key for overall Phillies pitching performance. With a 2010 rotation that's considerably more settled than its immediate predecessor, the stage could be set for the team's best mound performance in a long time.  

Overall, the team put up middling pitching numbers in 2009, with a 4.16 team ERA (6th in the National League) despite a .265 batting average against (12th), .757 opponents OPS (11th) and 189 home runs allowed (13th). There wasn't much quality differentiation between rotation and bullpen: the starters put up a collective 4.29 ERA, 7th in the league, while the relievers' 3.91 mark was 9th. Phillies starters threw 963.2 innings, 6th in the Senior Circuit; that looks a lot better when you consider that through the first month or so, the starters barely topped an average of 5 innings per game.  That put a lot of strain on the bullpen, which itself wasn't at full strength with Brad Lidge embarked upon his nightmare 2009 and J.C. Romero still suspended. 

Nothing is foreordained, of course, but there's reason to think that 2010 could see a return to the successful dynamic of 2008, when starting pitcher quantity--Phils starters worked the fourth-most innings in the NL--contributed to reliever quality (a league-best 3.22 bullpen ERA). Rebounds from Lidge and Romero will be crucial here, but even if they don't totally return to form, a collective 800 innings from the first four men in the rotation will go a long way toward limiting the damage they might do. 

Is that feasible? I think so. As you might have heard, this Roy Halladay guy we have now is both pretty good and quite durable: in the last four seasons, he's worked 220, 225.1, 246 and 239 innings and thrown 29 complete games. Assuming good health--an across the board caveat here, of course--those inning numbers shouldn't go down now that he'll see opposing pitchers rather than designated hitters three or so times each start. Consensus projections have Halladay throwing around 210-220 innings this season, which might represent slight error on the conservative side--though maybe they're figuring Charlie Manuel will want to keep Doc relatively fresh for additional work in October. 

Then there's Number Two starter Hamels. It's a bit startling that only three years ago we were all concerned about the lefty's durability, but he's shaken the "fragile" label that followed him through the minors with over 600 regular season innings the last three years, plus another 60 or so in the playoffs. About 200 frames in his age-26 season sounds about right to me, and I think they'll be of sharply higher quality than his overall 2009 work. 

Third starter Joe Blanton came to the Phils during the 2008 season with a reputation as an innings-eater--a descriptor that nicely fit with the innumerable fat jokes made at Blanton's expense. But some minor health concerns limited his durability down the stretch in '08, and he didn't quite crack 200 innings in a generally strong '09 season. Still, 190-plus innings at slightly above league average from your #3, in front of a great lineup and strong defense, is just fine, thanks. Having shed a few pounds this offseason, it's not unrealistic to imagine Kentucky Joe taking both a quantitative and qualitative step forward--Bill James, who seems uniformly bullish on the Phils, is a believer--but even more of same is just fine.  

J.A. Happ, in camp with a guaranteed rotation spot for the first time in his short career, doesn't have the workhorse track record of his three rotation mates. But the lefty's large frame, relatively clean injury history as a professional and intelligence all suggest that it's no stretch to pencil him in for 180 innings or so. There's also no particular need for Charlie Manuel and Rich Dubee to monitor Happ's innings workload: at age 27, he's more or less out of the "injury nexus." 

In total, Phillies pitchers threw 1455.2 innings last year. Their four heaviest-workload starters were Blanton (195.1 IP), Hamels (193.2), Happ (144.1), and Jamie Moyer (143.1), for a total of 676.2 innings at a combined 4.18 ERA. Lee, Brett Myers, Martinez, Park, Lopez, Bastardo, Kyle Kendrick and Andrew Carpenter combined to throw another 287 innings, of wildly varying quality. If Halladay, Hamels, Blanton, and Happ can approach a combined 800 innings at around a collective 3.80 ERA, that buys a lot of certainty even with the questions around Moyer and Kendrick in the fifth starter slot, the comeback efforts for Lidge and Romero, and uncertainty elsewhere in the bullpen.