We’ve already taken a look at the biggest surprises so far this season from teams that figured themselves contenders going into 2016, with the White Sox off to a great start and the Astros, well, not so much. The award for Biggest Surprise in the category of Non-Contending Teams of 2016 goes to… The Philadelphia Phillies.
Despite their 15-11 current record and current possession of a Wild Card spot, you would have to a person of the most optimistic sort to believe that the Phillies are headed to the playoffs this year. Even if you forget about the fact that they still play in the same division as the Mets and Nationals, they’ve currently got a -23 run differential, due to the fact that they’ve scored only 85 runs on the season, good for fifth worst in baseball. But we’re not here to talk about the lack of runs on offense, we want to talk about the what’s going on when the Phillies are on the mound.
First, some team numbers to show just how great the rotation has been: 10.20 K/9 (1st in MLB), 2.27 BB/9 (3rd in MLB), 2.89 FIP (3rd in MLB) 1.06 WHIP (2nd in MLB) and 4.0 WAR (3rd in MLB). The best part about these numbers is where they are coming from.
With Charlie Morton out due to hamstring surgery, Jeremy Hellickson is now the “grizzled veteran” on the staff at the ancient age of 29. After following up his Rookie of the Year performance in 2011 with another solid performance in 2012, Hellickson has struggled to stay healthy and to be effective when he is healthy. In his 31 innings so far this season, that continues (4.88 ERA, 4.92 FIP). Hellickson is on his final year of arbitration, so the only hope here would be that Hellickson could put up decent enough numbers to attract some attention come the trade deadline.
Adam Morgan, 26, who has taken Morton’s spot in the rotation, has never been a highly touted prospect, but he’s off to a great start in his one start so far this season. He showed increased velocity and struck out 7 in his 5 innings of work. Not much else to say there until Morgan makes some more starts, but from here on out, things in the rotation look mighty good.
Leading the youth brigade is Vincent Velasquez, who was one of the players who changed hands in the Ken Giles blockbuster with Houston. Velasquez has been absolutely unreal, striking out almost a third of the hitters he’s faced (32%). Before spring training, it wasn’t even 100% clear whether Velasquez would be starting or pitching in relief (less than half of his appearance with Houston last season were starts) or when he would get called up. His dominant spring settled that and, so far in the regular season, his 1.44 ERA puts him in the top ten among qualified pitchers in MLB. He was arguably responsible for the most dominant start of April when he shutout the Padres. While his 2.47 FIP and .229 BABIP suggest that he might not be quite as good as that ERA suggests, his FIP is still good enough to land him 8th in the league. Velasquez appears to have figured out his fastball and, while the “it’s still early” caveat obviously applies, it certainly looks like he’s going to be sticking around.
Aaron Nola, the Phillies’ 2014 1st round, 7th overall pick, may not have the sterling ERA that Velasquez does, but Nola’s underlying numbers suggest that he’s been nearly as good as Velasquez. With 10.09 K/9, 1.64 BB/9 and a 2.56 FIP to go along with his 3.55 ERA, Nola is only 22 and appears to be figuring out how to succeed at the major league level, despite not being a highly touted prospect. While his average fastball velocity barely cracks 90, he’s been relying heavily on his curve and excellent command and it’s been helping him generate a ridiculous number of called strikes.
Jerad Eickhoff came over midseason from Texas in the Cole Hamels trade last season and immediately looked impressive. His 2.65 ERA in his eight starts was one of the few bright spots in the Phillies’ 99-loss season. While Eickhoff may only have one win and a 4.15 ERA, the difference between his ERA and FIP (2.84) is the tenth largest in baseball. Eickhoff is the biggest slouch of the Phillies youth movement, as he is “only” striking out 9.49 hitters per 9.
Obviously, a lot can change quickly with an injury and it’s unlikely that all three of these pitchers are going to go on to have illustrious careers. However, it’s not even as if the Phillies are done calling up their top pitching prospects. Mark Appel, Jake Thompson and Zach Eflin could all three be contributors later this year. Even if there’s a little bit of early-season mirage going on somewhere here, and, of course, there most likely is, we’ve seen the upside of the Phillies young rotation now and it looks like they could be around for their next competitive team thanks to how young they are. And, heck, even if it doesn’t work out, at least the it’s a rebuild that’s enjoyable to watch right now.