Player Profiles 2020: Philadelphia Phillies Starting Pitchers

Michael Ajeto analyzes the Philadelphia Phillies rotation for 2020 with in-depth player profiles.

Throughout the winter months of the offseason, the Pitcher List staff with be creating profiles for every fantasy-relevant player for 2020. Players will be broken up by team and role through starting pitchers, bullpen, lineup, and prospects. You can access every article as it comes out in our Player Profiles 2020 hub here.

 

Phillies At A Glance

 

This is a contentious group. It’s possible Aaron Nola did the Trevor Bauer thing and had a career year based on limiting hard contact. Zack Wheeler did the same thing in 2018, and is regarded as anywhere from a Jose Berrios-esque pitcher to a borderline elite oneJake Arrieta is washed up. Vince Velasquez has a great fastball, but nothing else sticks out yet. Zach Eflin flashed some promise, and then regressed back to mediocrity.

 

 

Aaron NolaLocked Starter

Nickname: Easy-A

2019 In Review

After a breakout 2018, Nola didn’t back it up in 2019. His K-BB% was his lowest since 2015, and he posted his worst FIP- and xFIP- since 2015, too. Nola’s Command+ is intact, so it’s likely that his inflated BB% has more to do with the fact that his zone percentage dropped from 44.7% to 39.9% rather than him struggling with his command.

 

Fastball (46% usage)

Nola’s fastball CSW improved from 28.4% to 31.6% between 2018 and 2019. That’s about the only plus, though. Despite his slight increase in velocity, Nola’s fastball saw regression in two ways. His xwOBAcon regressed from a .369 to a more sustainable .412. More importantly, his wOBAcon increased from .297 in 2018 to .420 in 2019. His career fastball xwOBAcon is .387, so perhaps the pendulum swung too far last season.

One thing to consider is that Nola’s average vertical fastball location was lower than it was in 2018, and he spotted his heater further to his glove-side than in 2018. This isn’t the great pitch he displayed in 2018, but it’s not as bad as it was in 2019, either. We’ll cross our fingers for positive regression.

With an essentially equal pitch total (1,140 versus 1,136), Nola walked 34 hitters with his fastball, relative to 20 in 2018.

 

Curveball (35% usage)

Nola’s curveball saw its zone percentage drop from 45.3% to 40.8%, and its swinging-strike rate drop from 18.2% to 16.3%. As follows, his pVAL dropped from 23.5 to 15.3, too. Per Baseball Savant, he saw a small reduction in chase-and-miss percentage, but his biggest loss came from a reduction in in-zone swing-and-miss percentage, from 30.6% to 19.1%. To put it another way, his zone contact rate rose from 78.7% to 87.4%.

Its shape didn’t change drastically, By velocity, spin axis, and movement, it was mostly intact — perhaps the most notable change was an inch and a half reduction in horizontal movement. I think what was more important than this was the increase in pitch usage and the lowered average curveball location.

His curveball CSW dropped from 44.7% to 37.9%.

 

Changeup (19% usage)

He dropped the zone percentage on his changeup, too, from 31.9% to 24.4%. He increased his changeup pVAL from 2.4 to 5.1. Its BABIP lowered from .273 to .222, so this may see some regression next year. It’s a good (but not great) pitch.

 

2020 Outlook

Nola’s 2018 was a career year. His .251 BABIP from 2018 wasn’t sustainable, but he’s better than he was in 2019. Unless he sustains a step forward in swinging-strike rate, I think Nola is somewhere around who he was in 2017 and 2018. As such, I’m inferring a 3.70 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and 27% K rate.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 4.00 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 25% K rate in 170 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 2.90 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 30% K rate in 210 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Aaron Nola 2020 projection:

3.50 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 27% K rate in 200 IP

 

 

Zack WheelerLocked Starter

Nickname: The Reinventor

 

2019 In Review

At a glance, Wheeler’s 2019 wasn’t uber-impressive. In terms of peripherals, he was basically Jose Berrios, but his defense really let him down. I wrote an article about Wheeler in December, in which I compared him to pre-Astros Gerrit Cole, and how I’m optimistic about him going forward. In his current form, I think he continues to put up Berrios-ian numbers, but he has the ability to be much better than he’s been.

 

Fastball (59% usage)

According to Baseball Savant, Wheeler used his four-seam fastball 30% of the time, while throwing his sinker 29% of the time. According to FanGraphs, he threw 59% four-seam fastballs. So that sucks. Which is it, then?

Whether or not he actually throws a sinker — which I think he does — he shouldn’t. At least not a lot. He has a four-seam fastball that he can elevate — he just needs to, well, actually elevate it. It would form a really strong tunnel with his curveball in particular. As is, it’s already been a good pitch — it’s accumulated a 29.0 pVAL since 2018. That ranks sixth in both pVAL and pVAL/C since then.

 

Slider (20% usage)

Wheeler’s slider has been his best secondary pitch over his career. By O-Swing rate, its 30.5% isn’t great, and neither is its 11.8% swinging-strike rate. It’s greatest asset to him over the years has been as a pitch that generates weak contact. With a 25.6% CSW, it’s not a particularly good strike-getter.

Perhaps it would be better with an elevated fastball — it’s a 92 mph slider! — but it might just be what it currently is.

 

Changeup (10% usage)

With a 39.8% O-Swing rate, Wheeler’s changeup does a good job of getting hitters to chase. That doesn’t translate to a strong swinging-strike percentage, although its 12.5% was the highest of any of his pitches. His fastball-changeup velocity differential is pretty solid, but it doesn’t separate itself horizontally at all, and not a ton vertically, either.

 

Curveball (10% usage)

In terms of pitch design, this is my favorite of Wheeler’s secondaries. With his fastball, they make up a 190-degree difference in spin axis — that’s close enough to 180 degrees. For this reason, I can imagine it being a putaway pitch, although he’s been quoted saying it isn’t one.

Regardless, its CSW was 34.3% in 2018 and 2019. It has the best combination of being able to throw it in the zone a lot, get hitters to chase, and draw a fair amount of whiffs.

This is what I’m envisioning in my head:

 

This is all speculation, but it’s still my favorite of Wheeler’s pitches. Well, except this next one, if he brings it back.

 

Splitter (1% usage)

Once he introduced his splitter, here’s how often Wheeler used it, by month, in 2018: 15.1%, 12.1%, 11.8%, 11.3%, and 14.8%.

Then, here’s how often he used it, by month, in 2019: 1.1%, 2.2%, 1.0%, 1.7%, and 0.2%.

Obviously, he stopped using it, which doesn’t make any sense. Since he’s introduced it, it’s garnered a 45.9% O-Swing rate — which is the best of any of his pitches. It’s also produced a 13.9% swinging-strike rate, which is also the best of any of his pitches. With a 31.7% zone rate, he doesn’t throw it in the zone that much, but that’s about how often he throws his changeup in the zone.

My theory is that — as Masahiro Tanaka did — Wheeler lost his splitter in 2019. I expect for it to be back in 2020, but that’s not something I can say with certainty. Splitters are known to be erratic in terms of feel, but it’s not like Wheeler is counting on this pitch like Tanaka or Kevin Gausman do.

His splitter essentially gives him another variant of his changeup, but it’s a better version of it because of its vertical drop. If he doesn’t make any tweaks, this is the pitch I’m counting on to come back.

 

2020 Outlook

Jose Berrios isn’t the sexiest pitcher, so I’m not surprised that people don’t view Wheeler in high regard. The difference, as I see it, is I see a route for him to take a step forward — or a leap! Without any tweaks, I would imagine something like a 4.00 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, and 24% K rate. With some changes, I can see a 3.70 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and 27% K rate.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 4.00 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 23% K rate in 180 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 3.00 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 30% K rate in 200 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Zack Wheeler 2020 projection:

3.50 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 27% K rate in 190 IP

 

 

Jake ArrietaLocked Starter

Nickname: The Pirate

 

2019 In Review

For the first time since 2013, Arrieta had an ERA worse than league-average. His peripherals support his down year, too. With a 4.64 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, and 18.5% K rate, he might seem cooked, but he probably isn’t.

 

Fastball (57% usage)

Arrieta threw 56% sinkers, while just 1% four-seam fastballs. His sinker pVAL was his worst since 2012, which is due to a .393 wOBAcon that is much higher than usual. Arrieta has generally thrived by inducing weak contact with his sinker. While his sinker’s average exit velocity was higher than in the past, the biggest change in terms of batted balls was an increased flare percentage. It added an inch of horizontal movement, but perhaps his sinker isn’t doomed. It’s still not good, though.

 

Changeup (18% usage)

Over his career, Arrieta’s changeup has been his worst pitch by pitch value, and he tampered his slider usage in favor of it. I imagine it’s probably a loss of feel thing. (Darn you, juiced ball!) By O-Swing rate (46.2%) and swinging-strike percentage (15.2%), it was great. But he hardly threw it in the zone (24.4% zone rate), and so his -1.8 pVAL wasn’t great — but his .258 wOBA and 65 wRC+ on it were.

 

Curveball (13% usage)

Arrieta’s curveball wasn’t good at all in 2019. While it has historically been his best pitch in terms of earning strikes, he had a career-low 25.6% CSW with it, down from a career 31.4%. Yeesh. With a .237 wOBA, hitters didn’t do much with it when they did put it in play, but that wasn’t often, due to his 29.3% O-Swing rate and 27.7% zone rate. Considering his swinging-strike percentage (literally) halved, he could use this pitch back.

 

Slider (12% usage)

At this point in his career, I think Arrieta’s success hinges on his sinker and slider. His sinker was fine, so he needs to step it up with his slider. Like many pitchers this year, it seems he lost the feel for his slider, provoking his reduction in its usage.

Despite his slider velocity remaining constant, he lost more than an inch of horizontal movement (from 3.16 to 1.85), and over an inch of vertical movement (not accounting for gravity) as well. His 22.8% O-Swing rate and 9.8% swinging-strike percentage are awful.

Obviously, he needs his slider back.

 

2020 Outlook

I don’t think Arrieta is doomed, but he’s certainly not good anymore. With that said, I think 2019 was more of an outlier than it was Arrieta precipitously declining. Something like a 4.50 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, and 19% K rate seems reasonable to me.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 5.00+ ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 17% K rate in 150 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 3.90 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 22% K rate in 190 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Jake Arrieta 2020 projection:

4.40 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 19% K rate in 180 IP

 

 

Vince VelasquezLocked Starter

Nickname: VV

 

2019 In Review

Velasquez had a disastrous 2019, with a 4.96 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, and 24.6% K rate as a starter. While that’s not great, he dealt with a forearm strain and a drop in velocity. He has yet to show a secondary pitch with the ability to take the pressure off his fastball.

 

Fastball (68% usage)

Velasquez’s fastball was really, really affected in 2019. Its 24.5% CSW was down from its previous 29.8% mark. On the other hand, his swinging-strike rate remained mostly intact. His 11.8% swinging-strike rate was higher than his career average in 2019, but lower than his 12.1% in 2018. His pVAL and pVAL/C were also the highest they have been since 2016.

That’s from a combination of two things. First, he elevated his fastball better than ever. He also pitched nearly a third of his games in relief. Filtering strictly by games started, Velasquez’s 11.6% swinging-strike rate falls just short of his 11.7% career average. So, despite the velocity drop, it seems elevating it more often made up for it.

Velasquez’s heater ranks in the 78th percentile in CSW from 2015 to 2018, despite an average vertical fastball location that ranks in the 40th percentile. His vertical fastball location was 62nd percentile in 2019, so it’s trending in the right direction, which is encouraging.

That is a fantastic pitch, and Velasquez desperately needs a secondary pitch to pair it with.

 

Slider (20% usage)

By pitch value, Velasquez’s slider has been his best secondary pitch over his career, and it looked like it was going to be the pitch that was going to take some of the load off his fastball after 2018. But it was his worst pitch in 2019, by pitch value. The pitch itself changed, which is perhaps part of the issue, but he also started throwing it out of the zone more, which isn’t generally a bad change, but it didn’t work for him. It’s possible it could have with his old slider, but there are too many changing variables here to say anything with certainty. As I see it, he could use the drop back that he had on his slider in 2018.

 

Curveball (12% usage)

Velasquez’s curveball made a similar change to his slider. It lost both vertical and horizontal movement, and added a few ticks. Although this doesn’t seem like a good change to me, his pitch value, O-Swing rate, and swinging-strike percentage all improved from his career numbers.

He also started burying it below the zone more, as he did with his slider. This is in part because, in 2018, he used it quite a bit in the middle of the plate, often as a first-pitch offering. He went away from that in 2019 and used it more in the way a curveball should be used.

 

2020 Outlook

Velasquez’s health is dispiriting. There’s a good chance that, if he misses a considerable amount of time with another injury, he’ll end up being moved to the bullpen. I have a lot of confidence in his skills as a pitcher, but you can only get so many chances before a team moves on. If the velocity comes back, I’ll go with a 4.50 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, and 26% K rate.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 5.00+ ERA, 1.50+ WHIP, 23% K rate in 100 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 4.30 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 28% K rate in 160 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Vince Velasquez 2020 projection:

4.90 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 25% K rate in 140 IP

 

 

Zach EflinLocked Starter

Nickname: The Eff

 

2019 In Review

I wrote about Eflin in 2019, in which I made a soft comparison to Zack Wheeler. He still flashed plenty of talent, but, like Wheeler, none of his secondaries are standout pitches. He took a small step back in 2019 due to mistrust in the Phillies’ coaching, but when he was using their recommendations, he looked plenty solid.

 

Fastball (56% usage)

He kept most of his velocity gains from 2018, and even saw a small bump in swinging-strike rate, likely due to him significantly raising his average fastball location. Unfortunately, he brought back his sinker because he didn’t trust the Phillies’ coaching staff, just about doubling his sinker usage from 11.8% in 2018 to 21.9% in 2019. This is all despite his fastball having a very solid (and perhaps sustainable!) .367 xwOBAcon since 2018.

His fastball isn’t as strong as Velasquez’s, but given its propensity to not give up hitter-friendly contact, it’s a good fastball overall, but not a put-away pitch. Thus, he’s in the same boat as Velasquez: He’s got a fastball, but not much else.

 

Slider (31% usage)

Functionally, his slider isn’t that different from his fastball. I know that sounds silly, but here are some numbers from 2018 to 2019:

Eflin, Fastball Versus Slider Specs

 

The reason is that his slider is similar in makeup to a cutter, with slightly less speed and more drop. I really like his slider. It’s good at getting strikes — especially when he throws it in the zone. As I wrote before, he has two versions of this pitch. One is more of a cutter that sits from 87 to 91 mph, while the other is a more conventional slider more in the low-to-mid 80s. He varied his spin axis from 135 degrees to 185 degrees throughout the year, and did so a lot during his last game of the year against the Marlins.

 

Changeup (8% usage)

Of any of his pitches — although I do like that Eflin reshapes his slider based on the situation — his changeup might be the best. Considering its -7.7 pVAL, the worst of any of his pitches, that may sound untrue, but hear me out here.

From 2018 to 2019, his changeup’s .485 wOBAcon greatly outweighs his .357 xwOBAcon. If you look back as far as 2015, his xwOBAcon is .321 since then, too. Despite the fact that our sample here isn’t exactly huge, it shows that it’s good at suppressing hard contact. Furthermore, its 39.2% O-Swing rate, 36.9% zone rate, and 11.0% swinging-strike rate isn’t bad. In 2018, it looked like a Money Pitch, with a 42.9% O-Swing rate, 38.3% zone rate, and 17.2% swinging-strike rate (although we’re dealing with an even smaller sample here).

Its best trait is horizontal separation from his fastball, but its velocity and vertical movement differential is pretty solid as well.

 

Curveball (5% usage)

This is a straight-up show-me pitch.

 

2020 Outlook

I still like Eflin plenty, but it’s not ideal that he’s shown such skepticism with what the Phillies have tried to instill in him. In any case, I like the skills, and I envision him taking a step forward at some point. Perhaps a 4.40 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, and 21 K% is optimistic, but certainly not out of reach. He’s someone to watch this year, in my opinion.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 4.75 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 17% K rate in 110 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 4.00 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 23% K rate in 180 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Zach Eflin 2020 projection:

4.40 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 19% K rate in 160 IP

 

 

Nick PivettaFringe Starter

Nickname: (sigh)

2020 Outlook

Hitters were better than Christian Yelich against Pivetta’s fastball in 2019. It’s really, really bad, despite really good active spin and velocity. If he can solve his fastball woes, he’s going to be good — it’s why everyone loved him going into 2019. His breaking pitches are good enough. Until then, stay away!

 

 

Ranger SuarezFringe Starter

Nickname: Aragorn

2020 Outlook

Suarez should get a handful of starts in 2020, but he’s pretty unexceptional. His fastball seems more solid than you’d think, but his secondary offerings aren’t amazing. He can swing between the rotation and bullpen, but he’s a command guy.

 

 

Enyel De Los Santos – Fringe Starter

Nickname: EDLS

2020 Outlook

De Los Santos is much more interesting to me. He’s sort of the anti-Suarez, with a solid fastball and changeup. The command isn’t great, and his stuff isn’t overwhelming.

 

 

Spencer Howard – Fringe Starter

Nickname: Double First

2020 Outlook

His fastball command is said to be not great, but he’s got a deep repertoire and great fastball velocity. I don’t envision him getting the Chris Paddack treatment and jumping straight from Double-A to the big leagues, but ATC sees him making a few starts,

 

 

Adonis Medina – Fringe Starter

Nickname: The Mythos

2020 Outlook

Medina is even less likely to make it to the big leagues than Howard in 2020, and has (vaguely) the same package. Several pitches with plus-potential, fringe command, and good fastball velocity. He took a step back jumping from High-A to Double-A, but he’s a potential frontline starter, so he’s someone to keep an eye on.

 

Nickname explanations:

Aaron NolaEasy-A. Nola = Big Easy. Starting (A.) Nola = an easy A on your grade.

Zack Wheeler: The Reinventor. We think he’s going to re-make himself in Philly, so he’s reinventing the Wheeler.

Jake ArrietaThe Pirate. Arrrrrieta.

Vince VelasquezVV. It’s easy and quick, not to mention he is a man of extremes, either VV good or VV bad.

Zach EflinThe Eff. Sure. Why not.

Nick Pivetta: (Sigh). Yeah, I’m still sad about last pre-season too.

Ranger SuarezAragorn. He was a “Ranger” in Lord of the Rings.

Enyel De Los Santos: EDLS. It’s just easier.

Spencer HowardDouble First. He has two first names. For the record, I don’t trust people with two first names.

Adonis MedinaThe Mythos. Adonis is a famous character of Greek mythology.

Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

Michael Ajeto

Michael co-founded Sounding Off Blog, where he wrote about the Mariners. Now he writes Going Deep articles here. You can follow Michael on Twitter @mikeyajetoPL, or you can not.

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