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2022 season preview: the starting pitchers

While the Phillies’ offense looks lethal, the starting pitching might still be this team’s biggest strength.

Toronto Blue Jays v Philadelphia Phillies
Aaron Nola, and his fresh new haircut, can make or break this Phillies rotation.
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

The 2021 starting rotation

Here’s how the Phillies divvied up the starts last season:

  • Zack Wheeler: 32 starts
  • Aaron Nola: 32 starts
  • Zach Eflin: 18 starts
  • Vince Velasquez: 17 starts
  • Matt Moore: 13 starts
  • Ranger Suárez: 12 starts
  • Kyle Gibson: 11 starts + 1 long relief appearance that was essentially a start
  • Chase Anderson: 9 starts
  • Spencer Howard: 7 starts
  • Bullpen games/openers/etc.: 11 starts

The 2022 projected rotation

And here’s who the Phillies are counting on to start in 2022:

The Starting 5
  • Zack Wheeler
  • Aaron Nola
  • Zach Eflin
  • Ranger Suárez
  • Kyle Gibson
Depth
  • Bailey Falter
  • Hans Crouse
  • Cristopher Sánchez
  • Nick Nelson
  • It feels strange not to write Vince Velasquez here...

Here at The Good Phight, we’ve already covered the Phillies rotation quite extensively this offseason. And truth be told, not much has changed since last September, with the exception of a few minor health updates and visa issues.

With that in mind, I decided to fill this preview with quotations and links rather than writing a completely new piece. The articles I’ve quoted, along with the notes I’ve added, should thoroughly fill you in on everything you need to know about the Phillies rotation heading into 2022.

For starters (no pun intended), John Stolnis wrote an excellent piece about what to expect from the rotation in January. Largely everything he wrote in that piece remains true two months later, except for the fact that Adonis Medina is unlikely to start any games for the Phillies in 2022 considering that he now plays for the Pittsburg Pirates organization.

Stolnis settled on these perfectly reasonable expectations for the 2022 rotation:

Wheeler: 3.50 ERA, 4.2 WAR

Nola: 3.85 ERA, 3.7 WAR

Suárez: 3.80 ERA, 2.0 WAR

Gibson: 4.50 ERA, 1.5 WAR

Eflin: 4.05 ERA, 2.0 WAR

While I would be inclined to list Eflin as the third starter, I think everything else Stolnis wrote is pretty spot on. Especially this last paragraph:

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.

The Ace - Zack Wheeler

Philadelphia Phillies v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images
2021 numbers: 32 starts, 213.1 IP, 2.78 ERA, 10.42 K/9, 1.94 BB/9, 0.68 HR/9, 7.3 fWAR

From Zack Wheeler’s 2021 report card:

I think we all had a pretty good idea that he’d be a top starting pitcher when the Phillies signed him in 2019, but to have a season like this? I sure didn’t see it coming.

-Ethan Witte

In 43 starts with the Phillies, Zack Wheeler has been phenomenal, pitching 284.1 innings with a 2.82 ERA. He may not be as good this year as he was in 2021, but that’s only because he was just so good last year, and it would be hard for anyone to replicate that kind of performance. As long as he stays healthy, there’s no reason to believe he won’t be one of the top ten starting pitchers in the league once again.

His health, however, is a bit of a concern. After the lockout ended, Wheeler revealed that he had been dealing with some shoulder soreness over the winter, and so he’s off to a slow start this spring. However, he says that he feels good now, and he threw a live batting practice session yesterday.

According to Paul Casella of MLB.com, “Wheeler remains optimistic that he’ll be ready the first time through the rotation.” However, Wheeler did go on to say, “It’s not my choice. It’s just whatever’s better for the team. If I can only go an inning or two and [we have to] blow out the bullpen, that’s probably not the way to go.”

We’ll just have to wait and see whether or not Wheeler is ready to go in early April. It’s incredibly important that he takes the time he needs to get his arm ready rather than rushing himself back. The Phillies will need him at full strength.

The No. 2 - Aaron Nola

Philadelphia Phillies v Atlanta Braves Photo by Casey Sykes/Getty Images
2021 numbers: 32 starts, 180.2 IP, 4.63 ERA, 11.11 K/9, 1.94 BB/9, 1.30 HR/9, 4.5 fWAR

From Aaron Nola’s 2021 report card:

For years, I have been banging the “Aaron Nola is an ace” drum. It wasn’t outlandish. Nola had performed a below the radar ace for a few years, always included in those darkhorse Cy Young candidate pieces each year.

No longer can we call Nola an “ace” because he isn’t even the best pitcher on his own team anymore. I’m ready to admit that.

What I’m not ready to admit is that Nola is no longer a good starting pitcher anymore and that he should be dealt. In fact, were one able to buy stock in a player, Nola might be the best bet to bounce back among all starters in the game that disappointed.

-Ethan Witte

Because of Zack Wheeler’s sore shoulder, Aaron Nola will be getting the Opening Day start (for the fifth year in a row). We’ll all be waiting with bated breath to see what Aaron Nola looks like this season, and it would be an absolute shock if he’s not better than he was last year.

Nola has more than 1000 innings of major league experience under his belt, and he’s still just 29 years old. Nearly all of his underlying numbers were excellent last year.

But enough with all that talk. We’ve discussed Aaron Nola’s ability and track record and potential ad nauseam. Now, it’s time for him to go out and show us that he can pitch like an All-Star once again. (That is, if the Phillies don’t move him to shortstop first.)

The No. 3 - Zach Eflin

Philadelphia Phillies v San Francisco Giants Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
2021 numbers: 18 starts, 105.2 IP, 4.17 ERA, 8.43 K/9, 1.36 BB/9, 1.28 HR/9, 2.2 fWAR

From Zach Eflin’s 2021 report card:

If we ignore [Zach Eflin’s] final start — when he was clearly playing through injury — his final numbers look much more impressive: 102 IP in 17 starts with a 3.88 ERA. That’s an average of six innings per start, a feat that very few starting pitchers achieved in 2021. A pitcher who can average 6 innings with an ERA under 4 is very valuable to say the least.

...

While the recurring knee problems are a very worrying sign, it is, perhaps, somewhat reassuring to remember that Eflin has dealt with these problems throughout most of his career and he is capable of pitching through the pain when he needs to. After his last knee surgery in 2016, he was able to return as a productive major league pitcher for several years before needing surgery again.

-Leo Morgenstern

While you could make the argument to arrange the Phillies starters in all sorts of orders, Zach Eflin is still the number three in my mind. He was a reliable pitcher last season before his injury, and it seems like he is feeling healthy and ready to go for 2022. He’s not a star, but you can count on him to throw quality starts, and he’s capable of pitching a real gem every now and then.

Here’s one more excerpt from his report card:

The most impressive number that Zach Eflin put up was his excellent walk rate. His 1.36 BB/9 led all pitchers with at least 100 IP, and it wasn’t even close. Clayton Kershaw had the next lowest walk rate, finishing with a 1.55 BB/9.

The No. 4 - Ranger Suárez

Pittsburgh Pirates v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images
2021 numbers: 39 games, 12 starts, 106 IP, 1.36 ERA, 9.08 K/9, 2.80 BB/9, 0.34 HR/9, 3.0 fWAR

From “PECOTA has some things to say about the Phillies”:

Last year, Ranger Suárez was possibly the most pleasant surprise on the team. Sure, having the NL MVP on the team was pleasant, but we all knew Bryce Harper had that kind of season in him. Having the runner up in Cy Young voting was pleasant, but Zack Wheeler has been trending that way for a while. Hardly anyone saw the success Suárez had last year coming and PECOTA, for one, believes it’s real.

Ranger Suárez: 27 GS, 132 IP, 3.16 BB/9, 8.62 K/9, 54.5 GB%, 3.46 ERA (4.37 DRA)

-Ethan Witte

Ranger Suárez had a really fun season last year. This offseason, I got to write about how he might have won the ERA title if he’d just had more time, and how he probably would have won the Cy Young if he’d put up those numbers in 2020.

He’s not going to win the ERA title or the Cy Young this year. But that doesn’t mean he won’t be an incredible asset for this team. If Suárez can pitch 140+ innings with a league average ERA, that should give the Phillies lineup more than enough to work with.

The No. 5 - Kyle Gibson

Pittsburgh Pirates v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images
2021 numbers (w TEX & PHI): 30 starts, 182 IP, 3.71 ERA, 7.66 K/9, 3.16 BB/9, 0.84 HR/9, 3.0 fWAR

From Kyle Gibson’s 2022 report card:

Gibson threw six or more innings in seven of his eleven starts with the Phillies. He largely kept the ball in the yard and allowed 66 hits in those 69 innings. Gibson was never brought in to be an ace, just to eat up innings and help with a playoff push. He ate up innings to the tune of six quality starts in his eleven. This was made possible partially due to his best ground ball percentage (53.2%) since 2015. His four seam fastball velocity remained steady at 92.6 mph.

-Austin DeCouta

The Phillies haven’t had a reliable number five starter in a long time. Or, perhaps they have, but they’ve been counting on him to be their number two, three, or four starter instead (I’m looking at you, Jake Arrieta).

This year, they’re going into the season with five competent major league starters, and it’s going to make a difference. Kyle Gibson probably almost certainly won’t be an All-Star this year, but he should be able to keep the Phillies in the ballgame more often than not.

One thing to keep in mind about Gibson is that he is a ground ball pitcher. Joe Girardi would be wise to sacrifice some offense in favor of putting his best defense on the field when Gibson is pitching.

The Depth

Philadelphia Phillies v Washington Nationals Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

Bailey Falter

2021 numbers: 22 games, 33.2 IP, 5.61 ERA, 9.09 K/9, 1.60 BB/9, 1.34 HR/9, 0.3 fWAR

From Bailey Falter’s 2022 report card:

Even though [Bailey Falter] was stretched out a starter prior to his arrival in Philadelphia, he still could not go longer than four innings as a member of the pitching staff. That could be the result of the coaching staff not wanting him to go through an order more than twice... but if he wants to be considered a viable option for the rotation, he’s going to have to figure out a third pitch.

Relying mostly on that fastball/slider combination that got him to the majors in the first place, he began working in a changeup as something else for the opponents to see. All we have is a sample size of 32 pitches, but from those 32 changeups he threw, batters couldn’t do much with them (8 whiffs out of the 32 changeups he threw). That will likely change as teams become more familiar with him, so this offseason, he’ll have to work on his pitch mix a bit to make sure... he can make it through more than four innings each start.

-Ethan Witte

Bailey Falter will almost certainly start some games for the Phillies this year. He’s good depth to have, but if the Phillies need someone to make more than a spot start here and there, they’d be wise to trade for a more proven starting pitcher.

Hans Crouse

2021 numbers: 2 games, 2 starts, 7 IP, 5.14 ERA, 2.57 K/9, 9.00 BB/9, 2.57 HR/9, -0.2 fWAR

From Hans Crouse’s 2022 report card:

Hans Crouse came over to the Phillies on July 30 as part of the Kyle Gibson/Ian Kennedy/Spencer Howard trade. He quickly became a fan favorite (at least on my Twitter feed) for several reasons, including the moustache/mullet/neck tattoo look he’s rocking in his headshot, the dearth of major league-ready pitching talent in the Phillies farm system, and the need for something to get excited about after a lacklustre trade deadline in which the Phillies sold low on a former top prospect.

There’s also his name, which calls to mind iconic villains like Hans Gruber of Die Hard and Jerry Krause of the 1990s Chicago Bulls.

-Leo Morgenstern

It seemed, for a time, that Hans Crouse might challenge Bailey Falter for that sixth starter role, but that’s no longer the case. He was sent down to minor league camp after a very brief (and unimpressive) cup of coffee in big league camp.

Matt Gelb recently referred to Crouse as the “7th or 8th” man on the Phillies starting pitching depth chart.

If Crouse is, indeed, the eighth starter on the depth chart, the man ahead of him is either Cristopher Sánchez, who started one game for the Phillies last year, or Nick Nelson, who started 2 games for the Yankees in 2021.