Phillies 2016 Rotation: Don’t Overlook Oberholtzer


The Philadelphia Phillies recent trade with Houston yielded five interesting arms, the least of which is not lefty Brett Oberholtzer.

When the Phillies traded closer Ken Giles to the Astros, most commentators and fans were caught up in some of the higher profile names coming back to Philadelphia.

Vincent Velasquez was the top prospect in the deal, someone who should be able to post above average numbers at the big league level, whether in the rotation or the bullpen, in short order.

Mark Appel, a former #1 overall MLB Amateur Draft pick , is a piece that fans can dream on as a possible future leader of the rotation, even if he still may have a few kinks to be ironed out before he can reach that plateau.

Two more players in the deal, Harold Arauz and Thomas Eshelman, will at the very least provide more pitching depth to a minor league system that suddenly boasts several arms drafted, signed, acquired, or developed over the last year or so that should be contributors to the parent club at some point in the future.

The forgotten man of that Houston deal appears to be left-hander Brett Oberholtzer. An afterthought to many, Oberholtzer could end up being an important contributor to the 2016 Phillies starting rotation, as predicted just yesterday by our own Tyler DiSalle here at TBOH.

General manager Matt Klentak was very happy that Oberholtzer was included, calling him a “stabilizer” for that rotation:

"“I appreciate Oberholtzer,” Klentak said. “This is a guy who has made 42 starts and thrown 250 innings with a sub-4.00 ERA in his major-league career while pitching in a hitters’ park. We’re very happy to have him.”"

The first question that many Phillies’ fans might ask is “Brett who?” Justifiably so, as Oberholtzer is not exactly a household name. He’s not even a name that some of the most rabid of fantasy baseball players would know.

If fans were to look closely at his stats, history, and scouting reports, they might not come away overly impressed. Yet there are signs that he could be at least an effective back-end starting pitcher for a team such as the Phils, one that needs as many effective options as it can get.

Oberholtzer was dealt to Houston in 2011 as part of the Michael Bourn trade with the Atlanta Braves. He made his big league debut in 2013 to good results, going 4-5 with a 2.76 ERA in 71.2 innings pitched. He didn’t walk anyone, but also didn’t strike out very many people either.

In that rookie season, Oberholtzer kept his hits per nine low due to a low BABIP (.260) and a 2.1 bWAR in just ten starts. That freshman performance led to much optimism within the Houston organization that perhaps they had found a good mid-rotation starter on the cheap.

More from That Balls Outta Here

Yet that BABIP-fueled line, coupled with a reliance on the flyball for outs, led to a slightly disappointing season for Oberholtzer in 2014. Just about every statistic a pitcher wants to perform well in, got worse. In 143.2 innings, his ERA, BABIP, and H/9 all went up. His 5-13 record reflected this, and he finished the season with 1.1 bWAR.

Last season, Oberholtzer didn’t spend much time on the major league roster. He totaled just 38.1 innings at the big league level, with his statistics basically remaining the same as in 2014.

Judging from this brief synopsis, you would be excused for not getting too excited about the prospect of Oberholtzer toeing the rubber every fifth day. However, looking a little closer, there are some encouraging changes that he made which could yield more effective results.

In 2013, Oberholtzer wasn’t producing ground ball outs (35.6%) with enough frequency. That number has steadily increased over the last couple of seasons. Last year, nearly half of his outs were on the ground (48.8%), a nice bump from two seasons earlier. The small sample size alarm should be sounded here, but when we examine his “stuff”, there seems to be some explanation that shows he can sustain this success.

Oberholtzer is not a big strikeout pitcher. He has never gotten batters to swing and miss on a consistent basis. Statistically, no pitch of his has generated more than an 8% whiff percentage. So he’s gotten hit pretty hard, especially when utilizing his sinker, a pitch that’s inherently supposed to produce grounders. Take a look at this chart:

Oberholtzer relied mostly on four pitches at the start of his career: fastball, sinker, changeup, and curveball.

When hitters made contact with his sinker, they hit it – hard. His line drive percentage on balls in play started to go up on the pitch, so he adapted, and got rid of it.

While in the minors in 2015, Oberholtzer ditched the sinker and incorporated a slider into his repertoire, possibly hoping to develop a more “swing and miss”-type pitch.

While he didn’t produce more strikeouts, the change had some kind of effect in that he started to get more groundballs. Since his velocity on his pitches is barely average, it has to be location right? Well, not really. His pitch location was actually better in 2014 than in 2015 (small sample size applies.)

So, what exactly are we looking at that produced more ground balls? More than likely, the answer could be as simple as Oberholtzer has adapted and overcome. He realized that in order to continue to be a viable big league option, he needed something different. He got rid of the pitch that was beginning to cause him problems and began throwing something that could help. This change had the unintended consequence of getting more groundballs.

It’s possible also that due to the small sample size of his 2015 season, the GB% could easily revert back to his career norm in 2016. In that case, Oberholtzer could be in for a short stay here in Philly, as he is out of minor league options. He would need to be exposed to waivers before being sent to Lehigh Valley. Whatever the case may be, his margin for error remains very small.

It’s quite obvious that not much is expected of Oberholtzer. Bryan Grosnick at “Beyond the Box  Score” said that the Phillies are “looking at the upside of a competent No. 5 starter.” The thing is, the club simply didn’t have even that in 2015. At the very least, the team will now have a good, experienced swingman available in case of emergency.

With the amount of quality pitching depth that the Phillies have now accumulated in the organization, obtaining a competent 5th starter like Oberholtzer as a complementary piece in a trade for a relief pitcher, even one as talented as Giles is quite the good work, something that should increase fan confidence in the new front office.

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