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2018 Phillies in review: The top of the 2018 Phillies rotation had a job to do

A large man who became enormous, and a young man who stood tall.

MLB: Colorado Rockies at Philadelphia Phillies Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The top of the Phillies 2018 rotation had a job to do: Be good, in case no one else was.

Of course, that wasn’t going to happen. There was too much potential in this crop of young hitters, hurlers, and platoons for no one to look good for very long stretches of the season. But with the likes of Aaron Nola and newly acquired Jake Arrieta at the top of the rotation, there existed the insurance that for at least two days out of the cycle, the Phillies could lean on an ace to make a few runs stand up and give the bullpen a rest.

Flash forward six months, to the day the Braves clinched the NL East while the Phillies wallowed in third place. Arrieta, who’d made the start and lasted only two innings, allowing three walks, four hits, and four runs, diagnosed what exactly had gone wrong:

“Defense, pitching and we didn’t swing the bats well. That’s all phases of the game that we weren’t as good and I think that’s pretty obvious.”

Yes, it didn’t take many long nights in Gabe Kapler’s analytics lab to determine what was broken about the second half Phillies, mostly because it was “everything.” That happened for a lot of reasons no one could have expected, and one of those unexpected things was Arrieta looked a lot less like the front line starter he was signed to be, as he told reporters that day in Atlanta.

“I didn’t do my job today. You’ve got to tip your cap. They won the division. They really did.”

Jake Arrieta’s acquisition for three years and $75 million may have impacted the Phillies’ season more than his pitching did. That’s not because he didn’t do his job all year, but prior to the Phillies signing him, early and highly biased projections had them a few additions away from the potential to fall ass-backwards into a wild card spot. The team nabbing Arrieta off the quiet free agent market made you not sound insane for suggesting so. And through the first half, his pitching made you believe that you were right, stirring talk of postseason contention in a town where such a thing hadn’t happened since the first Obama administration.

But the 32-year-old Arrieta was one of the many Phillies who, come crunch time, didn’t crunch. He joined the majority of the roster as it flopped and flailed after August 5, falling face first on the rest of their schedule and stumbling out of postseason contention.

In the first half, Arrieta, a large man made enormous by the new vertical red pinstripes of his work uniform, was exactly the second punch the Phillies had wanted at the top of their rotation. May proved monstrously effective for Arrieta, in which he allowed only three earned runs in five starts, resulting in a 0.90 ERA for the month, the best numbers for a single calendar month for a Phillies pitcher since Cliff Lee in 2011. He balanced that out with a horrid June marked by the beast with a 6.66 ERA, then came back to be effective again in July, leading to a lot of statements regarding his output that began with the phrase “You know, if you remove his numbers from June...’

The two-game series with Boston just before the all-star break really let the Phillies take their Aaron Nola/Jake Arrieta tandem out for a spin, and the two hurlers did their jobs against the team we already knew was headed for the postseason. Nola gave the Phillies the first eight innings of a 13-inning loss, and Arrieta and his filthy slider won them the next day’s game with seven innings with no walks and seven K’s. Having split the pair—as well as the net one against the Red Sox in August, this team, it was concluded, could hang with the best.

Which seems ridiculous now. Imagine this flat offense or punchless staff from later in the season trying to go up against the 119-win monstrosity that just won the World Series. As the year went on, Arrieta faded with the rest of them. He wasn’t walking batters much more, his strikeouts stayed about the same, and even his innings totals weren’t much different. But he was getting hit harder and further, allowing ten home runs combined in August and September as opposed to two in April and May. To put it another way, the HR/9 of his last nine games ballooned from 0.78 to 1.93. He wasn’t getting hitters to miss pitches in or out of the zone, and they weren’t missing them very, very hard.

But another part of Arrieta’s appeal to the Phillies had been the leadership he could bring to a young staff. Arrieta showed that he wasn’t afraid to voice frustration with the team’s occasional complete lack of everything you want a baseball team to do. At the start of June, Arrieta had been reportedly “furious” with the team’s sweep at the hands of the Giants, a series in which the Phillies were one home run away from being shut out in three straight games (and that home run had been hit by... Jake Arrieta).

“...just a really [awful] series,” Arrieta bluntly and accurately told reporters. “Really bad. Really bad.”

Arrieta followed his summation of the series with a critique of the defensive shifts, saying that the Phillies were the “worst in the league” in that regard, and called out Scott Kingery for a miscue. He wasn’t wrong.

In hindsight, it’s easy to nod along with Arrieta’s statements. The Phillies had gotten off to a hot start, despite some initial concerns, and he had been a big part of that. And give Gabe Kapler credit; he not only responded to his pitcher’s comments by saying he wants his players to express themselves, but actually said he agreed with Arrieta that the Phillies hadn’t executed well. How their dynamic forms moving forward could play a key role in the team’s future.

The Phillies would have liked to have seen more from their veteran No. 2, but you can put Arrieta in with the rest of the team that so often collapsed as a whole. When Arrieta did succeed, however, he did so following a reliable Aaron Nola gems.

It’s tough to wrap your mind around the infinity of muscle spasms, lateral strains, positional tweaks, shifting stances, outside influences, and key interactions that go into development of a championship team. And out of all of those draft picks, trades, and body parts, you have to squeeze nine players good, effective, or lucky enough to win 90 games together. It’s not a streamlined process. After going through this process with Maikel Franco, a prospect formerly considered to be the franchise’s future slugger, it all culminated in a crucial 2018 season for him to show the team what he could do with a few years of experience and a head full of hitting tips. And, following years of development, adjustments, and the tutelage of Carlos Santana, the answer the Phillies have on him is a resounding, “maybe.”

So you can see why the Phillies and their fans cling so tightly to Aaron Nola right now.

There is nothing to complain about the Phillies’ young ace, a starter who earned that title, the opening day start, and the top slot in the rotation with a dominant 2018.

A 2.37 ERA in 212.1 IP. In five August starts, when the Phillies were still mesmerized by the illusion of a postseason berth, his ERA barely crossed over 1.00. He pitched well at Citizens Bank Park. He pitched well away from Citizens Bank Park. He pitched well in the first half, the second half, and would have done so in the third half, if that was how math (and human arms) worked. He was the Phillies’ sole all-star, and will finish in the top three for National League Cy Young voting for a reason, which as a 25-year-old is a statement of what the future holds, along with some of his other statistical landmarks from this season: You’re not f****** around in the NL when you finish the season above Jacob deGrom in WAR (Nola: 10.5, deGrom: 9.6).

But perhaps most importantly, he represents something the organization did not receive much of, personnel-wise, in 2018: Good news. In a year defined by nightly experiments, disappearing production, and consistent inconsistency, Nola is the only player on the Phillies to stay healthy and good for the entire season.

Which isn’t normal. Any playoff team is going to suffer through scrapes and bruises over the course of six months and lose key players at the worst times. They may get a little luckier in that regard, but its something every team needs to survive. The Phillies may not get Nola for six healthy months again, but hopefully he proved what he is capable of to the point that they surround him with the depth a team built to weather the season requires. In a year spent structuring a roster with new pieces, Nola let them know at least one part of the foundation is in place.