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Gone pitching: Who is doing what in the Phillies rotation these days?

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If you can say one thing about the Phillies’ starting rotation this year, it’s that it’s been rotating.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at San Diego Padres Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

When you get home from work, put dinner in the oven, make yourself a drink, close all the blinds, nail the front door shut, inject the hamster on a wheel that powers your television with adrenaline, and flip on the Phillies game every night, lately, you might be asking yourself: Now just what in the heck is going on?!?

No, not because of the poor throws, mashed dingers, strange decisions, avoidable miscues, Henderson Alvarez signings, and general unsightly, unseemly, unfun, ungood losing that’s been going on for weeks. But because at this point in the season, the rotation has ballooned to include a few more faces than the five who populated it on opening day. Granted, that can happen to a good team, as well, but in the Phillies’ case, a swell of optimism that the young arms priming for permanent jobs has not been rewarded during a year that was hoped to be a big step in the rebuilding process.

Instead, here we are; it’s August, it’s humid, the hamster has stopped fearing the adrenaline needle and instead begun beckoning it toward his jutting chest with a tiny paw and a series of aggressive chirps, and on a given night, the Phillies projected starter could be anyone from Aaron Nola to Drew Anderson to TBA.

So, at this random date and time, perhaps it’d be a boon to do a quick rundown on just what each starter still with the team (Jeremy Hellickson escaped out a window and went on the lam only to be recaptured by the same shelter that tracked down the Cardinals’ cat; the Phillies claimed he’d been traded to save face and offered a player to be named later to the Orioles to get them to be a part of the cover-up) is up to.

Aaron Nola

Sweet, sweet Aaron. Do not wander too close to the stands as too many fans yearn to gently caress your cheeks with the backs of their hands. Too easily could your six-foot frame suddenly find itself pulled into the crowd and smothered by the love, robbing the Phillies of one of their only effective pitchers; the only one with a seemingly solidified role in the future.

Going into the first game of a doubleheader against the Marlins, Nola was the Phillies’ ace, or to use the cautious pronunciation of the time, "...ace...?" With leadership in the Phillies rotation still a question, Nola has been giving us reasons to insert him into the role with every start. And he still probably has the job, with his successful stretch from June 22 to August 12 as the top item on his resume. In that time, Nola went at least seven innings in seven out of ten starts, his ERA dropped from 4.32 to 3.17, he allowed more than two walks only once, and in general saw the kind of success that has eluded just about every Phillies pitcher this year who is still on the team, as well as Jeremy Hellickson. It wasn’t all Padres and Braves out there, either; Nola held back the hot or middling lineups from Arizona, Seattle, Milwaukee, and even threw six shut-out innings against the Astros on July 26 - notching a season-high 10 strikeouts.

But in his last two starts, Nola has allowed 12 earned runs, 2 home runs, and five walks in 11.1 innings. "Mistakes," are what Pete Mackanin chalked the most recent bad batch up to, in which Nola mistakenly allowed seven runs to the Marlins. The miscues Mackanin refers to are, according to Nola, coming against the leadoff hitters who are conga-lining through Nola’s nightmares. He couldn’t keep them off base late and had a hard time keeping the count even, leaving him vulnerable to hitters like Ichiro and Giancarlo Stanton.

Fortunately, it seems as though Nola put together an impressive enough stretch that not even two bad starts can change his narrative. Let’s settle on this plot point, the one in which he strikes out a fearsome slugger with 96 mph gas down the heart of the plate.

Next move: Climbing out of this shallow hole in the season’s final month.

Jerad Eickhoff

First of all, Eickhoff is fine. Totally healthy. Matt Klentak said so, and why would you need anymore reassurances? Is it because Eickhoff’s fastball velocity has crashed to the point that it averaged below 90 mph two starts ago? Is it because the Phillies found a way to wedge an extra day of the week between Eickhoff’s starts, just to give him some more time? Is it because in Eickhoff’s last start, he kicked off 4.2 loopy innings by delivering an inside-the-park home run to the first batter he faced? Is it because following that game, which the Phillies somehow won 12-9, Pete Mackanin stared into the abyss and swore, "I don’t look happy, but I am?"

In 11 out of his 22 starts this season, he’s failed to make it to the sixth inning. In 21 of them, he didn’t make it to the seventh inning. Left-handed batters are hitting .302 against him. None of this is to suggest that he actually is injured, just that, there have been people who were injured before, and some thought for a time that perhaps Eickhoff had become one of them. Which might give you an idea of how well things have been going for Eickhoff, who at one point was being nudged, at least around here, as the Phillies’ 2017 opening day starter. Now, the Phillies are standing over him, scratching their heads, trying to reboot him.

And unlike Nola, Eickhoff hit a downward trajectory and hasn’t pulled out of it. Or... has he...? If we parse the data enough and throw in some baseball emojis, is the mathematical result... "hope?"

Eickhoff was last year’s Nola; making 33 starts, never facing a big hole of sustained failures, ending with a 3.65 ERA and the second most WAR on the team behind Odubel Herrera (3.5). There’s been a definitive shortage of haikus penned this year regarding Eickhoff’s unhittable curve, but the Phillies believe it’s still in there. They’re probably right. But Eickhoff was thought to have a table set for him last week, the hope being he’d ride his recent success into two starts against the weak-hitting Padres and Giants. He didn’t, but at least he’s keeping the ball in the park; after surrendering three home runs on July 17, he’s allowed only two in six starts.

Next move: Hang tight, kid. It’s a long season in a career full of them. The GM’s still behind you: Not only did he say he was, but if Klentak still considers Velasquez a starter, than Eickhoff is, too.

Mark Leiter, Jr.

Leiter was on track to being the go-to punchline for Phillies futility on the mound this season. Then he ruined everything.

Not even Leiter himself likely expected this much of a chance this season. He’s come into play out of necessity, and never had his own paperclipped dossier in Matt Klentak’s "MY SECRET PLAN" binder.

Leiter had been lit up by the Marlins on May 30 for four runs, but in his five appearances prior, he’d allowed two hits, one earned run, and only two walks in 6.2 innings. Before June 23, the longest he was allowed on the field had been 3.0 innings. Then he jogged out there and threw six scoreless against the Diamondbacks.

From there, he’s darted in and out of the Phillies’ pitching needs and struggled when his command fades (This is an ongoing theme around here). But he’s found more success than a mere arm connected to a heartbeat, inserted into the rotation under ghastly circumstances that include Vince Velasquez’s finger injury. With more confidence in his fastball and greater confidence from experience, Leiter is... I mean, he’s better. He is. Eight runs from the Padres in five innings aside (Four were unearned), he’s better.

Look man; I don’t want any trouble, I’m just out here trying to make sweeping generalizations to support my narrative, and Leiter’s out there taking a no-hit bid into the sixth against one of the hotter offenses in the National League.

Next move: Keep telling reporters he’ll do whatever it takes to help the team. Help the team. Strike out more Padres next time.

Nick Pivetta

If you thought Nola’s last start was discouraging enough, you probably didn’t stick around for Pivetta’s start in game two of the doubleheader against the Marlins. If you had, you would have seen him get four outs between six earned runs and then leave before the end of the second inning.

This came on the heels of a low-key shutdown of the Padres, the team that serves as the punching bag for any young Phillies pitcher looking to have a break-out performance between poor outings.

I think, in general, if there’s a lesson to be learned by this young staff collectively, it’s that velocity is limited by command. It’s fun to make the guy with the radar gun’s eyes roll back in his head and speak in another language for ten minutes, but being able to locate and control pitches is going to come into play. If your plan after having your fastball knocked around the outfield is to just throw it harder, you are going to be a burned-out, limp-armed husk getting blown by the wind back to the dugout.

Next move: Get a good audio book for the bus ride from Lehigh in case of spot starts. Hunker down for a few days and wait for September call-ups. It’s been a rough August.

Zach Eflin

Playing the Giants would seem to even the playing field a bit for the Phillies, as both teams bumble and whine through the season’s final weeks before a long, cold winter. But in Eflin’s last start, it didn’t seem to matter that San Francisco would, days later, become the first team to be eliminated mathematically from the playoffs. Instead of falling down and cowering, the Giants knocked Eflin around with seven hits and six runs, topped off with the 23-year-old leaving the game with shoulder soreness and finding a seat next to Vince Velasquez on the Disabled List Express Bus idling outside (Though Eflin will be getting off a lot sooner, scheduled for merely a 10-day trip).

Eflin called this soreness "steady" and "a little different than I’ve had before," which isn’t quite the revelation he gave us last year when he admitted that his knees had been sort of hurting since he was, like, 12  in Little League. But it was enough to remove him from making appearances, something Eflin had done 11 times this season, first being called up to replace Clay Buchholz once the janitor had finished sweeping him off the field, and again earlier this month to take Jake Thompson’s place, if you think it’s fair to call two Major League starts for Thompson a "place" in the rotation this year.

Pete Mackanin watched Eflin use a 96 mph fastball to wriggle free of trouble in what might have been his last start of the season, depending on how this DL stint goes, and mentioned that boy, he’d really like to see Eflin make use of that more often. Eflin’s sinker has been known to attract bats, and while part of that is by design, when it’s not sinking effectively, those bats are just hitting the hell out of it. That’s why he’s sitting on a 6.16 ERA after 11 starts and 4.57 ERA through seven starts in the minors. But like most of the guys on this page, the Phillies aren’t quite done with Eflin as a starter, inspired by moments such as the one on August 8, when Eflin issued passes to the first three Braves hitters he faced in the seventh inning, only to, one Bob McClure conversation later, get all three of the outs he needed without allowing more than one run to score.

Next move: If there’s anything we learned from Eflin’s injuries last year, it’s that there’s nothing that a little bilateral surgery can’t fix.

Vince Velasquez

Who was going to emerge as the star among Aaron Nola, Eickhoff, and Velasquez in 2017, and who would be the Nos. 2 and 3 stallions behind him, snorting and stomping their cleats? What? Who cares, it’s all anyone was talking about this spring. Don’t think too hard about it, but I’ll bet, without remembering too distinctly, you heard at least four people say that exact sentence a few months ago.

The cliche thing to do here would be to follow that montage of gleeful, retrospective whimsy with the harsh, grim truth of our current reality, which is that we had to wait for Matt Klentak to tell us whether or not Velasquez was even considered a starting pitcher anymore. Which he is, apparently. But first he’s going to have surgery on his middle finger for a vascular issue that first surfaced on August 10, when Velasquez left a game with numbness in the troublesome digit and his magnificent heater never moving faster than 92 mph. He then perplexed his audience of reporters by mentioning blisters, not showing them the finger that seemed to be the issue, and not clarifying if it was the tip of the finger or the enitre thing that was uncomofrtable. Pete Mackanin swirled some more chaos by hinting at a small blue dot somewhere on Velasquez’s finger.

Nobody knew what the hell was going on; Velasquez’s finger could have hopped off and been halfway to the Broad Street line. But it became a very real issue, one that served as the early end to the season for the 25-year-old, who was referring to himself as "a chicken without a head" back in May. He relied too much on his fastball. He didn’t have a deep enough arsenal. He’d throw until the sun went down in the second inning and would rack up 80 pitches by the ninth out. His HR/9 was rubbing up against 2.0 before his year came to an end. To make matters worse, he’d come find the press after each outing and publicly lash himself, citing his inability to adjust.

Talk began, and continued, that perhaps VV was better suited for a bullpen role. Not just yet, Klentak says. "We still believe," the GM said, believing the effectiveness that blinks occasionally could still be an indication of the real Velasquez, and claiming that fastball, when it’s humming - ho boy, that fastball - is still burned into his retinas.

I’m paraphrasing.

Next move: Take a vacation, Vince. Get your mind off things. May I recommend getting a hamster? They make tremendous companions/energy sources.

Ben Lively

When Lively passes through the cornfield between the Triple A and Major League fields, something happens, as if there is some sort of difference in the skill level or talent pool between the two locations. The 25-year-old has thrown close to one hundred innings for the IronPigs this season, with only a 3.15 ERA. Among the guys who have pitched at least 50 innings in Lehigh, he’s allowed the fewest home runs, with three. And other than Thomas Eshelmann (3) and Nick Pivetta (1) (Probably the same sort of thing happening in his case), he’s the only one to have pitched a complete game.

And yet, he projects merely as a No. 5 starter, at best. Which, what does one expect from their last rotation spot? Five strong innings of six-run ball? Taking a four-hitter into the third? A guy who is always available when the PR team needs a body for a shoot?

I guess Lively could be that hurler, but we are also only talking about eight major league starts. Remember Mark Leiter, from a few paragraphs ago? He’s made some interesting improvements after gaining some experience. Lively will square off with Kyle Hendricks on Saturday, having last pitched on August 20, and before that on July 5, and before that for all of June. And that’s his big league experience thus far: Sporadic call-ups dictated by injuries, a lot of fly balls (96 vs. 69 grounders), three straight seven-inning starts but none since June 13, and typically being good for a hair too many walks and not too many strikeouts - once, he had neither, in 5.1 innings.

"Dominant" isn’t Lively’s style, and now he’s been pulled out of his Triple A bed again to make a start for a team hungrily devouring arms and looking forward to next month, when rosters expand and the buffet table is extended. This is the life of a projected No. 5/swing man: getting a call to board a late flight across the country because Odubel Herrera is having hamstring issues and about to leave a roster spot open.

Next move: Channel that experience into confidence. Easy as that. There, fixed.

Jake Thompson

At 111.1 IP, no one’s thrown more innings than Thompson for the IronPigs this year. But only Mark Appel has more walks (in almost 30 fewer innings, too; oh, Mark...). And in two Major League starts, Thompson hasn’t had much time or ability to find his groove or his pitches or some sort of ancient wish-granting deity.

But he got a third one Thursday! And the stats going into it were turned into the best version of themselves:

That 3.05 ERA stretches aaaallllll the way back to August 29, 2016; a season that slowly improved toward a seven-inning, one-run, four-hit, six-strikeout high point against the Braves, and then plummeted away from that until the end of September. On September 25, he helped author a 17-0 loss to the Mets, in which he lasted four innings, gave up five hits and three walks, and preceded equally putrid outings from a who’s who of who-the-hell-is-that: Colton Murray, Frank Herrmann, Patrick Schuster, and Phil Klein. Nothing like long relief in late September on a last place team. And it’s a good thing they’re playing at home, because Thompson has a 7.61 ERA away from Citizens Bank Park.

Look, no one’ was going to boo if Thompson threw the game of his life yesterday. But we can all see what’s happening down there, and the truth is his command struggles have weighed down any statistical success. Four walks, seven hits, and five earned runs didn't do much to change topics on Thompson. There’s a reason he’s faded from the conversation on young Phillies pitching, but what even is that conversation anymore except for high-pitched stress-whimperings?

[Hamster slows down, flickering the image on my TV]

[Beer bottle smashes on the wall above hamster wheel, causing him to begin running furiously]

Drew Anderson

Anderson has made zero starts for the Phillies this season, has appeared in one inning of one game, gave up two hits and two runs (one earned), and was here because Pete Mackanin is an agent of chaos.