What will the Phillies be next year? Probably a partially-formed baseball juggernaut, crawling in a circle and howling for starting pitching help. Part of the reason all fans have not completely abandoned the Phillies this season is the young parts of the roster who have provided its weak pulse. In the lineup, the names are numerous, but in the rotation, success has been sparse.
There have been not-actively discouraging blips from pitchers like Nick Pivetta, Jake Thompson, and Mark Leiter, Jr. throughout a season of actively discouraging stretches. Now and again, someone breaks off six promising innings and the bullpen gets half a night off--a bullpen that has really held together in the season's final weeks. But there's no question that when it comes to the rotation, only one pitcher has shown the progress needed to pencil him in as a potential 2018 opening day starter. And his name's in the headline.
The rotation isn't the only part of a team in a constant cycle, it's just the part that cycles the most; not only who is pitching today, but who is pitching at all. There are plenty of forgettable inning-eater's and emergency call-up's from the past five years (though even they can be saluted for the roles they have played) who have come and gone. But Aaron Nola made an impact this year that gave the Phillies staff its best chance for a W every five days.
That may have been a 2017 season wrap on Nola last Monday night against the Nationals, and with it goes Nola's career fastest heater and most miss-able curve. But let's dive one tier lower into the splits just to gape for a moment.
He made more starts this year than ever (27) and had a 5.68 SO/W rate vs. right-handed batters - walking less than 20 of them in 339 AB. He had a 2.98 ERA at Citizens Bank Park. In July, he made five starts, allowed only five earned runs, eight walks, and 43 strikeouts. He averaged 11.4 SO/9; a monthly stat he'd beat in September with a 12.8 SO/9.
As delightful as it was to witness, none of this, as well as being a right-handed pitcher, makes him, say, Steve Carlton. But there is a twinkle in Pete Mackanin's eye when it's Nola's turn to pitch; one that certainly has not been there all season.
Nola's success not only keeps a grin on the manager's face, but also conjures memories of the dynamic in the Phillies clubhouses of the '70s, when Carlton was the steely-eyed, cotton-eared ace. In 1972 particularly, when the team would win only 59 games, almost half of which could famously be credited to Carlton (27), who threw 30 CG and 8 CGSO in 41 starts with a 1.97 ERA. This isn't new information I'm offering you; if Philadelphia had its own localized currency, those stats would probably be on it somewhere.
During a broadcast, Garry Maddox once recalled Carlton's demeanor on his turn in the rotation; from his early arrivals at the park, to the cotton balls he'd jam in his ears to quell the noise, to the name the Phillies used to describe his starts after Carlton had made himself a singular force on the rotation:
"I remember on days when you'd pitch, when I came in and I come to the ballpark pretty early around 3:30, and you were already there and it was 'Win Day.' From the first guy that got in there, it was 'Okay, today is Win Day.' And that was your theme the whole time."
Let's skip specifying that Nola and Carlton are different pitchers, and that Carlton's impact on the franchise is solidified while Nola's is still being made. This is merely to casually point out that the culture seems to have developed a similar outlook on the day each hurler got the ball. We look forward to a future in which Jerad Eickhoff figures things out, Vince Velasquez makes the adjustment or finds the role he needs for sustained success, and the rest of the rotation is filled out by efficient, effective starters.
But in 2017, a season in which pitching coach Bob McClure's role was questioned, young starters seemed to lose a few steps, and Pete Mackanin pleaded for a pitching upgrade, Nola, in certainly a more low key fashion than Carlton, brought Win Day back to Philadelphia, as Mackanin, confirmed after the 24-year-old's final start:
"When Nola pitches, we all expect to win."