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Realistic expectations for the Phillies 2022 starting rotation

The Phils’ rotation had its ups and downs in ‘21, what should we expect next year?

Philadelphia Phillies v Atlanta Braves Photo by Casey Sykes/Getty Images

There is still so much about the 2022 Phillies we don’t know, still so many holes to fill.

They need a left fielder and center fielder. They need bullpen help. Third base and shortstop are question marks. There is lots left to do and until they’re done checking the boxes, it’s impossible to feel one way or the other about this team’s chances.

But one area in which we aren’t likely to see much tinkering between now and Opening Day (whenever that ends up being) is in the starting rotation. Barring something unforeseen, next year’s appears to be set.

Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola, Ranger Suarez, Kyle Gibson, and Zach Eflin or Hans Crouse.

Maybe Dave Dombrowski adds an additional starter to provide some depth, but it’s unlikely to be one on a Major League deal. These are the horses the Phillies will probably run with once the season begins.

What are reasonable expectations for this group?

The most optimistic view of the rotation is reasonable, one in which Wheeler repeats his dominant Cy Young runner-up performance, Nola bounces back and becomes a second ace, Ranger Suarez builds on his surprising year and Kyle Gibson serves as a stabilizing No. 4 starter. The return of a healthy Zach Eflin and the emergence of a prospect like Hans Crouse could hopefully prevent the need for any bullpen games this year, too.

But let’s look at some projections and take a more dispassionate view.

Zack Wheeler

Last year, Wheeler put up one of the finest seasons in Phillies history. Based on fWAR, his 7.3 tied for 12th-best since 1900.

He finished second in the Cy Young balloting and probably should have won, posting numbers that helped make the team’s overall numbers look pretty darn good.

In 2021, the Phillies’ rotation was 4th in baseball with 16.8 fWAR, trailing only the Dodgers (20.4), Brewers (20.3) and White Sox (19.3). That’s thanks mainly to a team-wide Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) of 3.84 that was 5th-best in the league. Their 3.46 K/BB ratio was 6th-best, they did a decent job at limiting home runs, just 1.19 HR/9, tied for 8th, and they held opponents to a .239 batting average and 1.22 WHIP, both of which were 11th.

However, their 4.25 ERA was 16th, the 6th-highest difference between ERA and FIP in the league. Subtract Wheeler’s innings pitched and earned runs and the rest of the Phils’ starters would have compiled a 4.75 ERA in 2021.

How likely is it Wheeler puts together another historic performance? Looking at the three main projection systems, Steamer, ZiPS and Marcel (a projection used by Baseball Reference). Here’s how they see it, compared to what he did last year:

2021: 213.1 IP, 10.42 K/9, 1.94 BB/9, 0.68 HR/9, 2.78 ERA, 2.59 FIP, 7.3 fWAR

Steamer: 203.0 IP, 9.24 K/9, 2.26 BB/9, 1.15 HR/9, 3.63 ERA, 3.66 FIP, 4.2 fWAR

ZiPS: 192.3 IP, 9.4 K/9, 2.2 BB/9, 0.8 HR/9, 3.23 ERA, 3.07 FIP, 4.7 WAR

Marcel: 186.0 IP, 9.4 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 0.8 HR/9, 3.34 ERA

Understanding that projections systems generally tend to lean to conservative numbers, it’s more likely he’ll be unable to duplicate what he did last year. The projections see his ERA climbing back up into the 3.20-3.60 range with a WAR drop from around 7.0 to 4.0-4.5. Still, that’s an excellent season, one worthy of a staff ace.

That being said, much of last year’s overall rotation numbers were propped up by Wheeler’s season, and that’s unlikely to be the case in 2022.

Aaron Nola

So, let’s consider this question.

For me, the answer is Aaron Nola.

The 2021 season was a very weird one for the Phils’ right-hander. He was never injured and had multiple outings in which he looked like the Nola of old. Yet his 4.63 ERA was his highest since his second season, in 2016, but with a FIP of 3.37 resulting in his high fWAR of 4.5. He still strikeouts per nine were higher than Wheeler’s (11.11) and his walks per nine (1.94) was the lowest of his career.

And yet, we saw with our eyes his inability to execute with two strikes and two outs. We saw home runs leave the yard at a higher rate than he has ever allowed (career high 1.30 HR/9), with a career-low groundball rate of 40.5% (career 48.7%). While Nola himself couldn’t figure out the answers why his ERA outperformed his FIP by so much, the bottom line was he just didn’t execute his pitches when he needed. Here’s how the projections see things for Nola in ‘22.

2021: 180.2 IP, 11.11 K/9, 1.94 BB/9, 1.30 HR/9, 4.63 ERA, 3.37 FIP, 4.5 fWAR

Steamer: 192.0 IP, 9.98 K/9, 2.58 BB/9, 1.33 HR/9, 3.89 ERA, 3.87 FIP, 3.7 fWAR

ZiPS: 185 IP, 10.6 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, 1.2 HR/9, 3.23 ERA, 3.48 FIP 4.1 fWAR

Marcel: 170.0 IP, 10.5 K/9, 2.7 BB/9, 1.2 HR/9, 4.24 ERA

The projections for Nola are a little all over the place, which generally is reflected in how fans feel about him, but most see a lower ERA for him, which won’t reduce his fWAR much but would greatly increase his bWAR, which is reliant on ERA, not FIP (2.3 last season). Simply put, if the Phillies are going to reach the postseason, Nola needs to hit those ZiPS projections, and I think he will. Those are solid No. 2 starter numbers.

Ranger Suarez

Ranger Suarez’ half-season of ridiculous production in which he made 12 starts and 39 appearances overall with a 1.36 ERA in 106 innings, good for a 3.0 fWAR.

His 1.36 ERA was the lowest among all pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched. The next closest was Carlos Rodon at 2.37.

Before we even see the projections, we know Suarez isn’t going to put up a 1.36 ERA again. Heck, I think everyone would adore a season of 25-27 starts and a 3.36 ERA! But what do the projections say?

2021: 106.0 IP, 9.08 K/9, 2.80 BB/9, 0.34 HR/9, 1.36 ERA, 2.72 FIP, 3.0 fWAR

Steamer: 165.0 IP, 8.18 K/9, 3.34 BB/9, 1.18 HR/9, 4.08 ERA, 4.30 FIP, 2.1 fWAR

ZiPS: 102 IP, 8.4 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 0.9 HR/9, 3.79 ERA, 3.74 FIP 1.7 fWAR

Marcel: 87.0 IP, 8.9 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 0.8 HR/9, 2.90 ERA

These projections are so interesting and they show some differences in thought as to whether Suarez will be a full-time starter in 2022 and whether he’ll fill a hybrid role once again. To be fair, ZiPS and Marcel appear to be using his ‘21 numbers and basing innings numbers off those, rather than assuming he will be in the rotation every fifth day.

So as we take a look at the Steamer projections, they see him as a full-time starter with an ERA jump from 1.36 to 4.08, much in part due to a big jump in his unsustainable home run rate, up from 0.34 last year to 1.18 this season.

A regression is undoubtedly coming, but how big it will be is the unanswered question.

Kyle Gibson

Did you know that, in 2021, Kyle Gibson was an All-Star?

It’s true! For the first time in his career, Gibson made the All-Star team thanks to a 2.87 ERA and a 6-3 record in 19 starts for the Texas Rangers. In a desperate need to add a stabilizing force to an injury-riddled rotation, Dombrowski traded for Gibson at the Trade Deadline. Eleven disappointing starts later, Gibson posted a 5.09 ERA with the Phils, allowing 8 home runs in just 69 innings of work.

Funny thing is, his peripherals were similar in both locations. His K/9 increase from 7.5 to 8.0 and his BB/9 came down, from 3.3 to 3.0. His HR/9 jumped from 0.7 to 1.0, but not that dramatically, although he was hit around a lot, with his H/9 of 8.6 up from 7.3 with Texas.

So what to make of Gibson in ‘22?

2021: 182.0 IP, 7.66 K/9, 3.16 BB/9, 0.84 HR/9, 3.71 ERA, 3.87 FIP, 3.0 fWAR

Steamer: 187.0 IP, 7.69 K/9, 3.44 BB/9, 1.32 HR/9, 4.56 ERA, 4.66 FIP, 1.7 fWAR

ZiPS: 150 IP, 7.9 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, 1.3 HR/9, 4.63 ERA, 4.62 FIP 1.5 fWAR

Marcel: 167.0 IP, 8.1 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9, 4.26 ERA

The projections see Gibson more as the pitcher as he was in Philadelphia than the guy who was excellent for Texas. Part of Gibson’s strength is throwing ground balls, which he did well both with the Rangers (50.9%) and the Phils (53.1%). Gibson was hurt by Philly’s awful infield defense, and it doesn’t appear as if a life-changing shift in the team’s glove work is upcoming in ‘22. That could hurt Gibson perhaps more than any other starter.

Zach Eflin

Last year, Eflin made just 18 starts before being lost for the season with continuing knee issues that resulted in surgery back in September that was expected to keep him out for 6-8 months. On the short end of that timeframe, Eflin would be able to make it back for sometime in March, however, it could be April or May before he’s ready to go. And even when he comes back, how effective will he be, having spent all off-season recuperating and rehabbing his knee rather than working on his craft?

Eflin has been seen as a star in the making but, it should be pointed out, he has just one season in which he’s posted an ERA under 4 (a 3.97 mark in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season). Last year saw a dramatic drop in K/9 from ‘20 (10.7 to 8.4), but also a big drop in his walks (2.3 to 1.4) as Eflin went for more contact and fewer strikeouts with his sinker. Unfortunately, that shift in philosophy resulted in almost no change in his batted ball profile, with a slightly lower ground ball rate (43.2%) than in ‘20 (46.5%).

So what should we expect from Eflin next year, if and when he’s healthy?

2021: 105.2 IP, 8.43 K/9, 1.36 BB/9, 1.28 HR/9, 4.17 ERA, 3.68 FIP, 2.2 fWAR

Steamer: 130.0 IP, 7.74 K/9, 2.27 BB/9, 1.58 HR/9, 4.59 ERA, 4.60 FIP, 1.3 fWAR

ZiPS: 124 IP, 8.1 K/9, 2.2 BB/9, 1.3 HR/9, 4.06 ERA, 4.10 FIP 1.9 fWAR

Marcel: 127.0 IP, 8.7 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 1.3 HR/9, 4.11 ERA

An ERA in the low 4.00s seems almost a given, and that’s when he’s healthy, with a WAR of around 2.0.

So all told, here’s what we could be looking at, based on the projections.

  • Wheeler: 3.50 ERA, 4.2 WAR
  • Nola: 3.85 ERA, 3.7 WAR
  • Suarez: 3.80 ERA, 2.0 WAR
  • Gibson: 4.50 ERA, 1.5 WAR
  • Eflin: 4.05 ERA, 2.0 WAR

It’s also important to remember that, in the season’s first half, Vince Velasquez made 17 starts before he was ushered along and Matt Moore made 13 and Chase Anderson “contributed” another 9. Their ERAs: 5.90, 6.55 and 6.94, so there will be addition by subtraction and whatnot, but it’s also up in the air what production prospects like Hans Crouse, Cristopher Sanchez, Bailey Falter, or Adonis Medina could provide.

It’s certainly possible everyone in the rotation could exceed expectations, a la the 1993 Phillies rotation, but even if you believe Wheeler and Suarez will regress, it’s likely Nola will regress in a positive way as well.

They could all cancel each other out, or they could all be awesome. Or hurt. Or abducted by aliens. Anything is possible with a Major League rotation. For the Phillies, it’s likely their strength heading into the 2022 season, but how strong it will compared to the rest of the league remains to be seen.