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Dismissing the haters: Starting pitching

Forget what the haters say; the 2020 rotation is gonna be lit!

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Philadelphia Phillies v San Francisco Giants
A full-strength Jake Arrieta is a more than adequate third starter
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

I generally consider myself to be an optimistic Phillies fan - even when the available evidence provides little basis for it. However, I’ve found myself feeling negative regarding the team’s moves and their chances heading into the 2020 season. Maybe that’s what eight consecutive seasons out of the playoffs will do to a person?

Now that Spring Training has begun, the time for pessimism is over. I’m going to turn an optimistic eye on the Phillies and dismiss what the haters might have to say. First up: the starting rotation.

Aaron Nola

Haters gonna say: He wasn’t projected to be an ace when the Phillies drafted him - and aside from the 2018 season, he hasn’t been. Last year, when the team tried to ride him down the stretch, it failed miserably.

Optimist gonna say: Nola seemed bothered by the new baseballs in 2019. Hopefully after a full season of throwing them, he should have a better feel, and will avoid the early season bumps he experienced last year. He also should benefit from improvement throughout the rest of the rotation. The presence of other reliable starters should result in a few additional rest days along the way, leaving him fresher for the stretch run. He also won’t feel pressure to be perfect every time out.

Zack Wheeler

Haters gonna say: The Phillies paid a mid-rotation starter like an ace.

Optimist gonna say: The former Met may not be Gerrit Cole, but he’s averaged 3.75 bWAR the past two seasons, which represents a significant upgrade over the likes of Jason Vargas and Drew Smyly. His K/BB ratio has improved the past two seasons, so some believe he hasn’t yet reached his full potential.

New York Mets v Philadelphia Phillies
Can Zack Wheeler continue to improve?
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Jake Arrieta

Haters gonna say: He’s being paid like a Cy Young Award winner, but he sure hasn’t pitched like one.

Optimist gonna say: When healthy, Arrieta has been fine. He had a 3.96 ERA in 2018, and was off to a good start in 2019 before a bone spur in his elbow caused him to struggle and eventually get shut down. His Cy Young-winning days are likely behind him, but as long as he can avoid injury, he should be able to consistently deliver quality starts.

Zach Eflin

Haters gonna say: Eflin was brutally bad for a stretch in 2019, and its tough to depend on a guy who seems to get tired out way too easily.

Optimist gonna say: It’s amazing that I haven’t mentioned the Phillies change in pitching coaches before now, because going from Chris Young to Bryan Price might be the biggest reason for overall optimism with the rotation. Young was seemingly universally disliked by the pitching staff, and was unable to translate his theoretical ideas on how to pitch into real world results.

Young famously wanted to pitchers to concentrate on throwing high four-seam fastballs. Unfortunately, Eflin’s body was simply unable to do so, leaving him ineffective and fatigued early in starts. Eflin finally scrapped this approach and went back to his preferred method of pitching. The result was a 2.90 ERA over his final seven starts.

Eflin probably isn’t good enough to carry a sub-3.00 ERA all season, but as long as he doesn’t try to pitch in a way he isn’t capable of, he should be a competent fourth starter.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Miami Marlins
Freed from Chris Young, Eflin is poised for a much better season in 2020
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez

Haters gonna say: We’re really counting on one of these two to handle the fifth spot in the rotation? We’ve been waiting for their promised breakout seasons for years now, and all that supposed spin rate and elite velocity ever results in is long nights for the bullpen.

I’ll be honest here: As far as Velasquez goes, I’m with the haters. I think “Four Inning Vinny” is a lost cause. If it wasn’t for him being Matt Klentak’s first major move as general manager and that one brilliant start four(!) years ago, Velasquez would have been given up on already. His good starts aren’t nearly good enough to overcome the absolute disasters that seem to happen at least twice a month.

Optimist gonna say: On the other hand, I still have some hope for Pivetta. There was a reason why everyone was so high on him at this time last year, and maybe Price can help him harness it.

Cole Irvin and Ranger Suarez

Haters gonna say: Neither man was all that dominant as a starter in Triple-A, so it shouldn’t be a shock that they’ve mostly struggled in their limited starts at the major league level. If these guys weren’t left-handed, would they even be in the conversation?

Optimist gonna say: Suarez is going to get a chance to start, but based on his success in the role last season, his future may be as a reliever. Considering the attrition the Phillies relief corps suffered last year, having a plethora of good options (especially left-handed ones) for the bullpen seems like a good thing. As for Irvin, he did have one strong start against the Twins in 2019, so maybe there’s something there?

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Philadelphia Phillies
Ranger Suarez’s future may be in relief
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Field

Haters gonna say: Enyel De Los Santos? Connor Seabold? Damon Jones? Who are these f***ing guys?

Optimist gonna say: It feels like the Phillies are well overdue for a young starter to come out of nowhere and have a good season. When was the last time it happened? Vance Worley? Maybe one of these guys gets a midseason call to the majors and ends up providing a boost to the team.