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The long ball is killing this Phillies team

Los Angeles Dodgers v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

There’s a lot wrong with this Phillies team but what is probably hurting the team the most is Phils pitching giving up the worst hit they can: the home run. Sure, home runs are up all around baseball but they’re REALLY up with this Phils staff. It’s almost the same exact staff as last year which gives us an excellent comparison model to see what’s going on.

How bad has it been? Well the 2019 Phillies pitching staff is tops in the National League in quantity of home runs allowed – more than even the Colorado Rockies staff. They’ve given up 163 home runs in 95 games. The Rockies have given up the second most in the NL at 143, a full 20 home runs fewer...and they play half their games at Coors Field.

To put that in perspective with last year, on July 16th the team played it’s 95th game and had only given up 94 home runs, a difference this year of +69. It’s a 72% year over year increase to this point in the season, which is ridiculous.

“But yeah man, like, home runs are, like, up all over baseball so…#ballisjuiced man.”

Well said, but the truth is they’re not up anywhere close to the ratio for which they are up for the Phillies. League average for HR/9 last season was 1.2, this year it’s 1.4. For the Phillies they gave up home runs at a rate of 1.1 per 9 and so far this year it’s 1.7 per 9. In 2018 they had the ninth best HR/9 rate in the majors, this season they have the second worst.

There are reasons why home runs are up around baseball but those reasons don’t provide any insight into why they’re up so much for this staff. If they went up by X league-wide it’s unreasonable to accept that going up by 2X for the Phillies is okay.

There are some really telling details in the splits though and those details seem to point toward the approach the Phillies pitchers are taking towards batters.

For instance, last year the team gave up 56 home runs in two strike counts. So far this season they’ve given up 51 and that’s in 1421 less plate appearances. They’ve given up 11 home runs so far this year in the 356 counts in which they were 0-2 against the hitter and last year they gave up a total of 8 home runs in 0-2, of which there were 657. Pitchers should NOT be giving up this many long balls in instances where the hitter should be on his heels. It cannot happen.

Also curious is pitch usage and outcomes.

Nick Pivetta for his career before this season had 521 at-bats to left-handed hitters and had given up 17 HRs for a rate of one HR per 30.64 at-bats. But this year lefties have had seven homers in 129 ABs for an ABs/HR rate of 18.42. When we look at the difference in his usage of pitches to lefties this year we see he’s thrown his foursome fastball a total of 305 times and it left the park four times for a rate of once every 76 times thrown. However, for his career prior to this season he threw it 1543 times and it resulted in a home run only nine times for a rate of once every 171 times thrown.

Overall, to both righties and lefties, we also see him relying much less on the fourseam fastball and it getting hit a lot more; he threw it 554 times this year total and has given up ten home runs with it which is once every 55 times he throws it. And again there’s a massive difference in previous years where he threw it 3043 and gave up only 26 long balls on it, a rate nearly half at one home run every 117 times he threw it.

And what’s he throwing to lefties more this year instead of the fourseam? The curve ball…and that’s not working out that well. He’s throwing the curve to lefties 31% of the time this year compared to the 20% he threw it before this year. It ended up in the seats only .20% before this season but this year it’s finding its way to a souvenir 1.71% of the time.

With Vince Velasquez there’s also an extreme difference in how much he’s using his four seam but with him usage has gone up...but like Pivetta’s usage change it is in no way helping him. Prior to this season Vince used his fourseam fastball 56% of the time to left-handed hitters and he only gave up 23 home runs with it. But this season he’s using it a whopping 69% of the time to those same LHH and he’s already given up 13 home runs in those instances. As a direct result of this usage his HR per AB rate skyrocketed by 20 at-bats, going from a home run for lefties of one every 33.08 ABs to one every 13.14 ABs.

Before this season Vince had an overall home run rate of 1.3 home runs per nine innings pitched; this year it’s at 2.5. Every other statistic for Velasquez is within the level of career norms, hits per nine, K/BB ratio, WHIP, everything but the home run rate.

These were two of the young pitchers whose development the Phillies were counting on but instead they seem to have regressed. There is some disagreement as to whether or not the Phillies should have counted on these guys but both, unequivocally, pitched well enough last year – by every pure pitching metric – to give them the benefit of the doubt. The defense was absolutely atrocious last year but in as far as strikeouts, walks and home runs as well as expected averages against and expected slugging against goes these guys far beyond earned the benefit of the doubt and the numbers bear that out completely.

They also deserved to have a level of stewardship facilitating the furthering of that development and it really doesn’t appear they’ve gotten it and there’s every reason in the world to believe that the problem could lie there.

There’s a lot left of the season to go but to expect that this would somehow average out is really hoping against hope. There’s a problem and it’s obviously systemic. A team so heavily reliant on analytics should be able to figure out exactly what’s going on. The pitching coach is such a heavily numbers-driven guy that it’s pretty much the only reason he has the job. His experience putting on a major league uniform is basically this year and last year as assistant pitching coach (never as a player). Why the problem is only getting worse is anyone’s guess but someone has to fix it, and quickly.