Fourth place is not where the Phitin’s thought they’d be at this point in the season. Behind the Mets isn’t where anyone plans to be, though trying to plan for what the Mets might be is like trying to chart a Dali painting. Yes, they’re only two games out of a wildcard spot, with only two teams to leap, and two very limited teams in Milwaukee and the Cardinals at that. But they must have thought before the season, after getting Bryce Harper to defect intradivisionally (we get to make up words now), that they were the favorite in the NL East, or at least poised to run with the Braves. They’re nine games back of that outfit, so it clearly hasn’t worked.
It’s a variety of factors. Harper has been merely good, not uplifting to an entire team. The pen has been pretty much a mess all season. The lineup hasn’t hit too many other places, though the acquisition of Corey Dickerson is meant to address that. Still, it’s hard not to look at what the rotation was supposed to be, what it actually is, and wonder if something is amiss.
Sure, betting on young pitchers is always a huge gamble. They get hurt, they lose control, they try things that don’t make sense, the learning curve is rock-wall steep. And they’re still getting good work out of Aaron Nola, though he’s fallen off from his second-tier in the league status of last year.
Still, when they drew it up in Florida in March, the Phillies were probably thinking Nola, Zach Eflin, Nick Pivetta, a returning Vince Velasquez, along with Jake Arrieta would make for a pretty stiff rotation. Well, Arrieta’s elbow is currently a barroom brawl of various, floating entities and might put him on the shelf for the rest of the season. Pivetta couldn’t even make the team out of spring training, even though last year he had one of the best strikeout-rates in the National League. He came up in the middle of this season, couldn’t get anyone out, and is now being tried as a late-inning weapon in the pen, while also making way for human tub of cottage cheese Jason Vargas, whom the Phils picked off the Mets scrapheap. Clearly the Mets miss him.
Pivetta’s problem is he throws basically only two pitches, a fastball and a curve. And while he throws the fastball hard, nearly averaging 95 MPH, it gets hit a ton. Hitters are waffling it to a tune of a .732 slugging percentage. And his curve doesn’t generate that many whiffs, though it does get a ton of grounders. Pivetta would do well to throw it more often, seeing as how his fastball is consistently becoming something the FAA is aware of.
It’s been a similar story for Eflin. Until July 1st, Eflin was actually pretty effective, with a 3.34 ERA. Though he had a 4.44 FIP which suggested he rode his luck a bit, it didn’t suggest he would spend all of July decomposing into a puddle of sadness. Eflin’s ERA in July was 11.88, he walked nearly five hitters per nine innings, and he was giving up 2.70 homers per nine innings. Again, Eflin really only threw two pitches, though he had a two-seam and four-seam fastball. Whatever it was, along with a slider hitters tuned him up in July for a slugging percentage over .700 on all pitches. He’s now in the pen too for science experiment Drew Smyly.
Velasquez is now in his second season removed from a major injury, and the strikeout and walk numbers look pretty good. He’s been undone by some bad sequencing, with his left-on-base percentage criminally low for a second-straight season. But he’s still got an ERA over 4.00 and a FIP over 5.00, and mostly it’s because he’s getting hit hard when he gets hit (46.1% hard-contact rate). Again, V-squared only used two pitches mostly, a fastball and a slider. He spots in a curve here and there, but only about 7% of the time. Of late, like the other two, his fastball is getting mutated into some sort of element. He only throws his slider 20% of the time, but he might consider upping it.
That’s three young pitchers the Phillies were hinging on, as well as an aging Arrieta who everyone knew was a declining value bet, and it’s left them barely .500. Something has to change a bit.