The cavalry isn’t coming, so the Phillies will have to ride the horses they have. Those horses have to get stronger.
When the Phillies resumed play after the All-Star break, team president Andy MacPhail indicated that if they didn’t surge they probably wouldn’t upgrade their rotation.
The Phillies then lost two of three games to the visiting Nationals. The shaky third, fourth, and fifth starters now will face the Dodgers, baseball’s best team, in the next three games. The Phillies occupy the second National League wild-card slot, but if they hope to remain in playoff hunt hunt for the final 69 games of the season -- with their bullpen battered and with Jake Arrieta pitching through a painful injury -- their not-so-big-three must pitch bigger.
How? We asked. They answered.
1. Nick Pivetta: 4-4, 5.81 ERA, .887 OPS against
After his promising second season, the Phillies cast Pivetta as their No. 2 starter. But four starts into the 2019 season, Pivetta had an 8.35 earned-run average and a 1.101 OPS against, so they demoted him to triple A. He returned six weeks later and was strong through his first three starts, but he’s been nearly as bad in his last five starts as he was in April (6.99 ERA, .954 OPS against). He’s ineffective early in games.
Batters are hitting .327 with a .970 OPS he first time Pivetta faces a lineup, more than 30 percent better than the second time he faces them. Tom Glavine, the left-handed Hall of Fame artiste, had a similar issue early in his career. Glavine’s fix: During his pregame warmup, he simulated facing the opposition’s lineup the first time through.
“That could be something that might be useful for Nick,” said manager Gabe Kapler.
It might be more useful if Pivetta would just embrace Uncle Charlie. Pivetta adores his fastball, which averages 94.1 mph and which he throws about 50 percent of the time, but hitters have a .366 batting average and a .723 slugging percentage off it, all according to baseballsavant.com. They hit .224 and they slug .383 against the curve, which he throws about 30 percent of the time.
“What’s become very clear is that his curveball is a very effective pitch that he can lean on more frequently. One of the things we talk about a lot around here is limiting 'slug’ -- limiting damage,” Kapler said.
When does throw the fastball, fire it high and hard.
“The other thing is, he’s incredibly effective up and out of the zone with his fastball,” said Kapler. Doesn’t that invite walks? They’ll take the risk: "There’s less damage against Nick at the very top of the zone, and when he’s 94-96, he’s really good. When his stuff is a little bit lighter, he’s been banged around a little bit.”
Does this mean Pivetta is shaking off curveballs? Bingo.
“It’s ... it’s gotten better,” said Kapler, sighing at the challenge of channeling a player’s talent, desire, and stubbornness. “We’re trying various ways to help the monster that is inside of Nick emerge. And, frankly, that’s been a work in progress. We’ve been working at it for the better part of a year-and-a-half. We’re trying to help it emerge more consistently.”
Pivetta starts Wednesday against Kenta Maeda (7-6, 3.82).
2. Zach Eflin: 7-8, 3.78 ERA, .769 OPS against
At Atlanta on July 4, Eflin needed 13 pitches to strike out leadoff hitter Ronald Acuna. This apparently was exhausting: “It definitely kind of knocked me back a little bit,” he admitted after he gave up seven runs in three innings.
Granted, it was about 90 degrees at game time, and Acuna is an All-Star, and Atlanta is the class of the National League East, but Eflin is 25 and in excellent shape. However, he’d never pitched more than 64 ⅓ major-league innings before last season. He began to sputter at around 97 innings, or 17 starts, in 2018, and finished with 128.
He’s hitting the wall again. In his first 14 starts and 86 innings this season he compiled the best ERA in the rotation, at 2.83, with a .676 OPS against, and logged two complete games and an eight-inning outing. In his last three starts his ERA was 9.64 and his OPS against was 1.237. Can the All-Star break reset Eflin’s energy level?
“When a guy gets to a certain threshold in any athletic endeavor, they can handle a little bit more volume,” Kapler said. “My expectation is that Zach is positioned to handle more volume this year successfully than he did last year.”
When Eflin starts Monday night against lefty All-Star Clayton Kershaw (7-2, 3.09) he will not have pitched in 11 days. “I just kind of laid around, to be honest with you,” Eflin said.
That should refresh his legs, which have always been his hindrance. He needed double knee surgery in 2016. He said he didn’t regain full strength in his legs until this spring, and they’re back: He threw an “awesome” bullpen session Saturday in which he said he regained the rhythm and looseness that had constricted his mechanics and deadened the bite on his pitches.
“His stuff has to be somewhat crisp,” Kapler said. If it’s not, he gets rocked. He’s not afraid to hit bats, and he’s only walked 26 batters, but he surrendered six homers in his last three starts after giving up seven in his previous 11.
“He’s a strike-thrower," Kapler said. “One of the things that allows him to go deep into games is he’s not scared to have a couple of balls go in the gaps or even into the seats.”
Just not so many.
3. Vince Velasquez: 2-5, 4.63 ERA, .835 OPS against
“Vinny Velo” starts games in a lather, then gets shelled the third time through a lineup. He’s given up one-third of his hits and 40 percent of his home runs when he’s faced a lineup for the third time. Teams’ batting averages (.583) and OPS’s (1.824) more than double the third time they see him in a game. As a result, he’s averaging only about 4⅔ innings per start. It takes five innings to earn a win.
This inefficiency is mainly why the Phillies moved him to the bullpen. He’d still be there if the Phillies had a better option for their rotation. As it is, they’ll keep things simple for VV: sliders down in the strike zone, fastballs at the letters, the faster the better.
“Vince is velocity-dependent,” Kapler said. “When his velocity is up and he’s up in the zone, nobody touches him. When he’s in the middle or down, or his velocity is down, he gets whacked.”
The Dodgers are in town. They entered Sunday night with 61 wins. On Tuesday, Velasquez faces 24-year-old right-hander Walker Buehler, whose 8-1 record and 3.46 ERA record sent him to the All-Star Game.
Getting whacked might be unavoidable.