For the immediate future, the Phillies will be operating on a bit of a tilt.
Tommy Hunter, one part of Matt Klentak’s suite of offseason acquisitions, was activated from the disabled list Sunday morning. To make room, sidewinding lefty Hoby Milner was optioned to Triple-A Lehigh Valley, leaving the Phillies still with eight relievers...but now only one lefty. Period. On the entire staff.
The Phils haven’t had a lefty start a game in some time - that much has been known and covered - but having just one lefty on a 13-man pitching staff is a bold (ahem) bit of intentional imbalance. How can it work?
Let’s take a look and what Hunter adds to the equation. Since fully converting to a reliever for the start of the 2013 season, Hunter has proven to be an adept performer against the platoon disadvantage.
Hunter as a Full-Time RP
The 2013 season was a bit of a mess, as transitions tend to be. And 2016, for it’s comparatively light sample, was also a little haggard. But over the course of these five seasons, Hunter’s held lefties to a collective OBP below .300 with a strikeout-to-walk ratio that’s still above 4.00. That’s a pretty rare feat: Now that Hunter has been reactivated, he’s one of 10 right-handed relievers to log 100-plus innings over 100-plus relief appearances since 2013 while keeping lefties below a .300 OBP and registering a 4.00 or higher K/BB ratio. That’s a rather specific set of criteria, sure, but a look at the list of names reveals a bit more of the pattern of intent of the Phils’ FO.
That’s pretty good company above. You’ll see that 7th place belongs to Spring Training invitee Francisco Rodriguez, and what’s more, further on down that list you’ll also find Hector Neris (27th-highest K/BB). That’s three separate right-handed relievers with high strikeout-to-walk efficiency histories when facing lefties. With players like Austin Davis and Brandon Leibrandt and possibly Ranger Suarez or JoJo Romero too far away from being Major League relief help to start this season, the club knew they had to shore up their lack of true lefty depth somehow. In this case, it seems to be with guys who could suppress them from the right side.
In Hunter’s case, he’s accomplished that by more and more frequently attacking lefties with a cutter.
That’s a clear plan of attack, and it’s worked: Left-handed hitters have managed SLGs of just .200, .200, and .215 against the cutter over the last three seasons.
The hard truth on top of all of this is that, despite his left-handedness, Milner wasn’t getting the job done against left-handed batters this year. With clear wariness toward using him against righties already in play, his usage was severely restricted. His .389 OBP and .856 OPS allowed to the 18 lefties he’d faced so far in April, small sample though it may be, offered little comfort, and made Milner the odd man out while Drew Hutchison could provide emergency length. Milner’s option flexibility - and Hutchison’s reciprocal lack thereof - on top of his recent ineffectiveness made this a sensible-if-still-slightly-unusual decision.
Regardless of the handedness mismatch, the Phillies look no worse off with Hunter swapped in for Milner, and they even gain a little extra length to boot. Comfortingly, it all feels like part of a plan.