1 big question about each Phillies starting pitcher

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It’s everyone’s favorite time of year. With Phillies pitchers and catchers reporting today, let’s look at a major question for each starting pitcher in line to contribute to the Phillies in 2021.

Aaron Nola

Can he clear those late-season hurdles?

Last season was a good indication of where Nola should settle in over the next handful of years. He had a 3.28 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 12 starts with a career-best 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings. 

That ERA was essentially the midpoint between Nola’s 2.37 in a Cy Young-caliber 2018 season and his 3.87 mark the following year. He is likely somewhere in between those two seasons and that’s what we saw in 2020.

Something else we saw in 2020, again, were late-season stumbles from Nola. He allowed 14 runs (11 earned) over his final 27⅓ innings.

It followed a career-long trend for Nola of pitching well from April-August and slowing down late with the Phillies on the periphery of the playoff picture. Here are his career splits:

April-August: 51-28, 3.28 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 0.85 HR per nine innings

September: 7-12, 4.28 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 1.5 HR per nine innings

This will be a big question facing Nola until he changes the narrative by pitching well in September, helping the Phillies to the playoffs down the stretch, or both.

Zack Wheeler

Can he sustain 2020 success with a contact-heavy approach?

Wheeler performed as advertised last season by keeping the Phillies in the game all 11 times he took the mound. He allowed more than three runs only once.

He did so despite striking out a career-low 6.7 batters per nine innings, down two full strikeouts from his previous career mark of 8.7. That strikeout drop-off wasn’t an immediate cause for concern, though, because it occurred with Wheeler maintaining his 99 mph fastball and top-shelf repertoire. 

The decrease in K’s was mainly a result of Wheeler’s inducing weak contact early in counts. He had a groundball rate last season of 56% compared to a shade under 44% the prior two years.

Wheeler averaged just 3.74 pitches per plate appearance last season, the 10th-lowest figure in the majors among pitchers with at least 60 innings. One spot ahead of him on that list was Zach Eflin at 3.73. The league average was 3.96.

The big question with Wheeler in 2021 will be whether he can maintain similar success if so many balls are put into play against him. The Phillies do not have a strong infield defense which could play a large role in answering this question, as will luck with seeing-eye singles.

Zach Eflin

Full-season breakout on the way?

Eflin has become a bit of a trendy pick this offseason as a breakout candidate. There are several good reasons why. 

He was more impressive than ever before in 2020, with a career-low 3.97 ERA and 1.27 WHIP. He struck out 70 batters in 59 innings, by far the highest rate of his career. Eflin struck out 10.7 batters per nine innings last season compared to 6.8 the prior four years.

Standing 6-foot-6 and entering his age-26 season, this could be the year Eflin establishes himself as a mid-rotation workhorse. He is such an X-factor for this Phillies team, especially in a season with so much uncertainty around pitcher workloads coming off an abbreviated 60-game schedule. His career-high to this point is 163⅓ innings, a number he’d exceed this season if he makes at least 30 starts and averages 5.5 innings.

It’s not a lock that Eflin hits another level this season but even if he provides steadiness and stability behind Nola and Wheeler with the occasional hyper-efficient gem, it would be big for the Phils.

Spencer Howard

Health, effectiveness and confidence

Howard did not experience the same kind of rookie success in 2021 as division rivals Ian Anderson or Sixto Sanchez. Howard made six starts and allowed 17 runs in 24⅓ innings. His opponents hit .300 with an .893 OPS.

Howard’s fastball didn’t have quite as much zip as advertised and you have to wonder how much he was affected by shoulder issues in consecutive summers. For that reason, he’s a bit of a question mark entering the season. 

Will he be in the opening day rotation? If so, will he have starts skipped to help preserve his arm? Will the fastball settle in around last year’s 94.4 mph average? 

The Phillies have added a lot of rotation depth this winter to create more options in the Nos. 4 and 5 spots and also to protect against injury in a year when pitchers could be increasing their innings totals by 100 or more.

Vince Velasquez

Bullpen? Trade?

Velasquez is back, due $4 million in 2021 even though he’s not guaranteed a rotation spot. He will have to earn it, competing with Howard, Matt Moore, Chase Anderson, Ivan Nova, Bryan Mitchell and maybe Ranger Suarez. 

Those six pitchers will be fighting for two spots, though there could be three available if the Phillies dabble with a six-man rotation throughout the season.

Of all those starting pitching candidates, Velasquez makes the most sense as a late reliever. He has the fastball velocity and the attitude to do it.

He also could be a spring training trade candidate given his $4 million salary and the Phillies’ proximity to the $210 million luxury tax threshold, which they’re about $5-6 million below as of now.

Matt Moore

Control

The lefty Moore has three seasons with 72 or more walks and has issued 3.8 free passes per nine innings as a major-league starter. Unless you’re able to keep the ball in the yard, you’re flirting with disaster walking 2.5 guys per start as he has. Moore has made only two big-league appearances the last two years (he pitched in Japan in 2020), so he hasn’t yet been a victim of the juiced ball. MLB is reportedly making small changes to deaden the ball in 2021, which could obviously be a big boost to pitchers everywhere.

Chase Anderson

Dingers

Anderson had a 3.94 career ERA entering 2020, his first year in the AL and worst as a big-leaguer. 

Anderson is a flyball pitcher whose strikeout rate spiked last season and walk rate dropped as he incorporated more cutters and changeups and fewer four-seam fastballs. That was the good.

The bad was the continuation of a three-year theme of serving up dingers. Anderson has been taken deep 64 times in his last 330⅔ innings, giving up nearly a homer per start and 1.7 per nine innings. His 30 HR allowed in 2018 were the most in the National League, and last season he gave up 11 in just 33⅔ innings (one to Bryce Harper).

How will that play in the small dimensions of Citizens Bank Park?

Efficiency is also a question. While he’s had five seasons of at least 25 starts, he is not known for going deep into games. 

Anderson has averaged just over 5.0 innings per start since 2017. For reference, Velasquez has averaged 4.95. 

Anderson’s completed six innings in 35% of his career starts. For reference, Eflin has done so in 50% of his career starts. 

Ivan Nova

Ground balls

Nova does not possess strikeout stuff, whiffing 368 batters in 554 innings the last three years. He’s lasted 11 seasons in the bigs because of his ability to keep the ball low and generate groundballs and that’s what he’ll need to do in camp to earn a spot on the Phils’ roster. The league average groundball rate hovers around 42-43%. Nova has had seven seasons at 49% or higher.

Guys like Nova are interesting this season because every team will need more rotation depth than usual. Even if he doesn’t win a rotation spot, it could behoove the Phillies to carry him on the opening day roster as a long man rather than risk losing him. That doesn’t apply to guys with guaranteed deals like Anderson and Moore, who will have an easier time making the team because of the money the Phillies have already committed. 

Spring training performance will bear it out. The games begin Feb. 28.

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