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Phillies Early Pitching Dominance is No Fluke

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The staff's hot start isn't powered by sheer luck.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, Baseball Prospectus unveiled a new ERA equivalent entitled DRA, or Deserved Runs Average. The goal behind this metric's invention was to create a new measure of results by controlling and accounting for as many variables as one can. You can read the whole explanation here, as well as updates here. Given the Phillies' many shortcomings (framing, defense, some relievers), it is unsurprising that advanced metrics like their pitchers a bit more than traditional metrics like ERA and FIP. I would not go so far as to say that these values are predictive of the future, but what we can start to see is whether what has happened to this point is mostly luck-based.

Pitcher DRA WARP:

I don't want to delve too deeply into the WARP leaderboards because WARP is a cumulative stat and differences in innings can affect the standings, but a quick glance at the leaderboard returns this.

6th - Aaron Nola (6 GS)
12th - Vincent Velasquez (5 GS)
29th- Hector Neris (0 GS, 17.1 IP)
37th - Jeremy Hellickson (6 GS)

Individual DRA:

Now, if we just sort the leaderboard by DRA to get a per inning measure of dominance, we find more Phillies goodness. Coming in at number two on the DRA leaderboard is none other than Hector Neris, who trails only Dellin Betances. Then, at number eight, we find none other than David Hernandez. Velasquez follows them at number 15, with Aaron Nola at number 28.

While the leaderboard is fun, let's compare these values to values for ERA and FIP:

Player DRA ERA FIP
Hector Neris 1.96 1.04 2.47
David Hernandez 2.32 3.14 2.87
Vincent Velasquez 2.52 1.44 2.61
Aaron Nola 2.70 2.93 2.52
Jeremy Hellickson 3.67 4.88 5.07
Charlie Morton 3.76 4.15 3.16
Adam Morgan 3.95 6.00 3.66
Jerad Eickhoff 4.23 4.21 3.44
Jeanmar Gomez 4.68 2.70 3.46

As we expect, Neris and Velasquez have unsustainable ERAs, but both have DRAs that indicate that their early season performance is not a fluke. A lot has been written about Aaron Nola this week, so I won't repeat too much other than to say that he might not be an ace in some senses of the word, but he looks like a guy who can head a competitive rotation. DRA likes both Hellickson and Morton (RIP) more than ERA, and while I don't entirely believe it with Hellickson, the creator of DRA has indicated that home runs don't end up weighing as much in the early season. As for Morgan, an ERA and DRA around 4.00 seems fair and totally acceptable. Eickhoff actually tumbled down the rankings after yesterday's start, and has clearly been less dominant in his last few starts. Also: While DRA believes in Neris and Hernandez, it really does not believe in Gomez, who certainly looks better suited for middle relief than closing.

Team DRA:

Up to now I have given you some individual leaderboards and only mentioned those excelling. We know the Phillies are not deep with talent this year and are top heavy on both sides of the ball. So how does it work when we look at it from a team perspective.

Composite Team DRA:

1. Phillies - 3.53
2. Rays - 3.62
3. Nationals - 3.73
4. White Sox - 3.77
5. Red Sox - 3.85

So, that's pretty awesome. Last year, the Phillies were 27th in baseball with a 4.64 DRA, better than only the Giants, Brewers, and Rockies. Last year, the top teams were the Indians (3.51), Rays (3.56), Cubs (3.67), Astros (3.81), Yankees (3.93), and Nationals (4.03), so being among the leaders seems to generally be a good sign of success. Overall, if the Phillies can hold close to this pace, they will see a drop of about 160 runs allowed; almost solely attributable to improved pitching this year.

Starting Pitching DRA:

1. Rays - 3.22
2. Phillies - 3.37
3. White Sox - 3.66
4. Indians - 3.71
5. Nationals - 3.72

With Nola and Velasquez at the top of the rotation, the Phillies can match almost anyone in baseball. It helps that DRA thinks that the remaining starters in the Phillies' rotation are competent, mid-rotation starters.

Relief Pitching DRA:

1. Mariners - 3.47
2. Mets - 3.60
3. Cubs - 3.60
4. Yankees - 3.67
5. Nationals - 3.75
6. Red Sox - 3.80
7. Phillies - 3.83

In some ways, the dominance of Neris and Hernandez makes this number sensible, but I still have my doubts about the group at this level. This is the number I believe in the least. I think Neris-Hernandez is a good one-two punch in the back of a bullpen, but I don't know if both of them will hold up as elite pitchers. The rest of the bullpen continues to be poor, and it doesn't look like the minors will provide immediate relief.

In truth, I don't know if the Phillies' pitching will keep up their end of the deal throughout this season. We have already seen one young starter (Eickhoff) get hit by the train of regression and league adjustment, and while Nola and Velasquez look very good right now, it is not impossible to see them struggle later this season (in fact, both have already had a troubling start this season). What this does say is this is not all is smoke and mirrors when talking about the pitching talent currently rostered.

It will be interesting to see if the remaining parts of the team can provide them support on run prevention - including fielding, framing, and preventing stolen bases. This team is not going to go away, as even if the bats are often silent, the arms will keep plenty of games close.