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What to do with all these starting pitchers?

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The first part of two that looks at some solutions to a good problem to have

MLB: SEP 23 Phillies at Nationals Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Phillies have a problem.

Let’s re-phrase that.

The Phillies have a good problem right now. As compared to years past, when the team was scrounging about the trash bins of free agency towards the end of the offseason, this year they have signed starting pitching. In fact, they currently have seven viable starting pitchers for five rotation spots. Before we move forward, let’s make note of the term “viable” used here. As in each one is capable of going out and giving the team starter’s innings for the season. No one mentioned they’d all be good.

The front of the rotation is pretty much set in stone. We know that Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler and Zach Eflin are going to likely be the first three starters Joe Girardi uses to open up the season. After that though? It is going to be anyone’s guess. Matt Moore and Chase Anderson have major league contracts, setting them a pinch ahead in the race. Spencer Howard has the most talent remaining. Vince Velasquez is out of options and almost out of time in Philadelphia. Ivan Nova, Adonis Medina, Damon Jones and possibly Erik Miller lurk in the minor leagues just a hot spring training away from entering consideration. So, let’s check that statement from before just a little bit the team has eight possible options for two rotation spots up for grabs.

That’s a good problem to have.

But what is the plan? As the team enters a season unlike any other in history, one where players are going to be expected to play a full 162 game season one year after playing just a fraction of that, the possibility for injury is going to skyrocket with each pitch thrown by any pitcher on the staff. The likelihood that someone gets injured is high, meaning a plethora of arms is going to be needed to get through the season. Most, if not all, of those names mentioned above, all eleven, are probably going to make at least one start this season for the Phillies. You would expect those that have shown the ability to get through a full season’s worth of starts (Nola, Wheeler) will be counted on to get close to, if not pass, the 180 inning mark each. The others? That remains to be seen.

So is that why the team has prioritized starting pitching this offseason? Is that why $7 million of the resources we were told were scarce were simply handed to free agents that have both had ERAs over 6 their last seasons in the major leagues?

What is the plan moving forward? I can think of maybe two possibilities as the season begins.

Piggybacking starters for the first month

With spring training used as a time for teams to ramp up their starters to go the needed 5-7 innings each start, this spring training might look a little different. Instead of getting all the pitchers on the team ready to handle that much work, it’s possible the Phillies are only going to start the season with one or two pitchers ready to go that long. Nola and Wheeler are the most obvious candidates, so that leaves the team with several arms that need to be handled carefully. It is anathema to the old school to hear that, but it is the reality of the situation.

So, if that is the plan, we’re looking at the possibility that Eflin could be paired with someone like Velasquez to give two different looks, Eflin being a sinkerball pitcher and Velasquez being more of a four-seam pitcher. Moore and Anderson might be paired up as the lefty-righty combination that would also vary the looks for opposing lineups. As the month progresses, the strategy of letting each pitcher work three or four innings per outing might be adjusted depending on how each is progressing, but if the team lays out the plan early enough that this particular way of handling pitching is what they feel is best, the pitchers would be more likely to get on board. Pitchers, being creatures of habit, may not like only being able to go three or four innings once the regular season hits. They would rather have something where they are on more of a schedule. That leads me to the other options that might be being considered.

A six-man rotation

This is the one I think might be more likely. As we noted above, the team might have seven viable starters to begin the year. Getting them on a schedule where they know when they are pitching is something the team might want to do for morale purposes. When the old manager tried to have undetermined roles for the pitching staff, there was a lot of grumbling. While that may have been for the bullpen, pitchers are an eccentric group, so it’s reasonable to believe that starters would want the same kind of schedule.

If the team were to go with a six-man rotation, we’d have to begin by assuming that Spencer Howard will not be a part of that rotation. Recent comments by Dave Dombrowski lends some credence to that thought process:

As for Howard, the Phillies are speaking in broad tones about how he’ll be deployed. They might put him on a slower track because his innings will be capped...“There’s a lot of different alternatives: skipping starts, pitching out of the bullpen, shortening starts,” Dombrowski said. “But we haven’t really come up with what we’re trying to do as of yet, and it’ll be something that we do prior to getting into spring training.”

So we can reasonable assume that they are thinking outside of the box when it comes to the rotation this season. Looking at data, there is some background for this idea. I looked at each player that is up for the final few rotation spots to see how well they pitched on different days rest. The first number is the number of starts they made on that amount of rest, the second number is the ERA in those starts.

Phillies pitchers on number of days rest

Player 4 days rest 5 days rest 6+ days rest
Player 4 days rest 5 days rest 6+ days rest
Nola 66; 4.34 61; 2.71 12; 2.76
Wheeler 68; 3.22 44; 4.10 25; 4.43
Eflin 40; 4.59 24; 4.67 20; 4.96
Velasquez 41: 4.65 33; 5.55 30; 3.82
Moore 73; 4.39 52; 4.55 24; 3.66
Anderson 74; 4.39 61; 3.77 29; 3.51

While this is an admittedly imperfect way of considering it, the evidence does suggest that the pitchers being considered most for the backend of the rotation would benefit from having some extra days off to be at their most effective. We can see that by using tOPS+ for those starts, which BR defines as “OPS split relative to the player’s total OPS’. For a pitcher, if the number higher than 100, it’s bad; lower than 100, it’s good.

tOPS+ for each pitcher on days rest

Player 4 days rest 5 days rest 6+ days rest
Player 4 days rest 5 days rest 6+ days rest
Nola 118 85 79
Wheeler 86 112 119
Eflin 102 99 100
Velasquez 104 105 86
Moore 95 105 88
Anderson 105 93 96

Using these two tables, there are some things that stand out. One is that Aaron Nola seems to be really good when he is on longer rest. However, his numbers have been skewed by early career struggles on four days rest as compared to lately in his career:

with 4 days rest: first three years - 5.80 ERA, last three years - 3.37 ERA
with 5-6 days rest: first three years - 2.48 ERA, last three years - 2.91 ERA

From that evidence, Nola seems to be a guy who can literally go whenever the team needs him to provided the proper rest and routine are maintained. It certainly would help his September issues. The other things that jumps out is that the majority of your six pitchers listed above seem to do much better when given more rest. Without looking it up for each pitcher in the game, you might assume that was true for anyone. What’s strange is how much worse Wheeler does when given that extra time. I wonder why.

Whatever the issues are, the team is certainly snapping up pitchers at a rapid pace. Even with the reported signing of Anderson, just today, we’ve seen the team being linked to other starters on the market, a few that might cost some serious money.

We have to assume that the front office, Girardi and new pitching coach Caleb Cotham have a plan in place that they have discussed and are ready to execute. Otherwise, the roles that are assigned to each pitcher might not be the one they want.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk a little more about the best way to set up the rotation if it came down to either a five- or six-man rotation.