Phillies: Innings per game is key for starting rotation

PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 14: Aaron Nola #27 of the Philadelphia Phillies in action against the Boston Red Sox during a game at Citizens Bank Park on September 14, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 14: Aaron Nola #27 of the Philadelphia Phillies in action against the Boston Red Sox during a game at Citizens Bank Park on September 14, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images) /

The Philadelphia Phillies starters have pitched less innings in recent years, but changing that trend can lead to improved pitching overall.

The Philadelphia Phillies’ bullpen has often been referred to as the team’s biggest pitching concern and an area in need of an overhaul. But, could the lack of length from the starting rotation be part of the bullpen’s troubles?

Let’s compare the 2019 Phillies to the 2008 World Series team.

In 2008, the bullpen was credited with 23 losses and provided the starters with 10 wins lost, or 10 games where the starter left in position to get a win, but where the game was blown by the bullpen.

In 2019, the bullpen was credited with 29 losses and provided the starters with 14 wins lost. That’s an increase of only six losses and four wins lost.

For the starters, they had 47 losses in 2008 compared to 52 losses in 2019, an increase of five, or about the same as the relievers. But, more notably are the innings pitched.

In 2008, the starters pitched a total of 966.2 innings, or 5.96 innings per game, which accounted for 66.67 percent of the team’s innings that season. In 2019, the starters pitched a total of 869.2 innings, or 5.37 innings per game, which accounted for 59.81 percent of innings.

While the innings per game doesn’t look like a huge difference, it adds up, as the difference in total innings and percentage shows. Also of note, Cole Hamels led the 2008 team with 227.1 innings pitched, while Aaron Nola led the 2019 team with 202.1 innings pitched.

Hamel’s 6.88 innings per game from 2008 compares to Nola’s 5.94 innings per game from last year.

Overall, the total number of innings has been on an upward trend in recent seasons for the Phillies, where the number of innings pitched for the relievers has increased as well. Perhaps extra innings are part of the reason, but the starters have seen their number of innings pitched drop each season since 2016.

If the starters spent more time in the game, the relievers would get more rest and the starters would have a chance to figure more heavily into the outcome. The overall ERA of starters has been up-and-down in recent seasons, so it’s not necessarily an issue of starters not producing the results needed to spend more time on the mound.

The good news for the 2020, or 2021, Phillies is that there are a few reasons to be optimistic that the starting pitchers can turn things around in the innings per game category.

Let’s take a closer look at the projected top three in the Phillies rotation, ace Aaron Nola, new addition Zack Wheeler and veteran Jake Arrieta.

Here’s a recap of the first five seasons of Nola’s major league career:

  • 2019: 3.87 ERA, 34 GS, 202.1 IP, 5.94 innings/game, 10 games with 7+ innings
  • 2018: 2.37 ERA, 33 GS, 212.1 IP, 6.43 innings/game, 15 games with 7+ innings
  • 2017: 3.54 ERA, 27 GS, 168 IP, 6.22 innings/game, 12 games with 7+ innings
  • 2016: 4.78 ERA, 20 GS, 111 IP, 5.55 innings/game, seven games with 7+ innings
  • 2015: 3.59 ERA, 13 GS, 77.2 IP, 5.94 innings/game, five games with 7+ innings

Nola’s innings per game and games pitching seven or more innings were both down from the previous two seasons. His improvements leading into 2018, where he was an All-Star and Cy Young finalist, show that he is capable of being a true ace for the Phillies. If we consider last year a bogey, Nola can be the catalyst for an improved rotation when baseball resumes.

Possibly the biggest off-season acquisition for the Phillies is former division rival Wheeler, signed in free agency from the New York Mets. Wheeler missed the 2015 and 2016 seasons recovering from Tommy John surgery and was limited by further injury in 2017. Like Nola, he has five major league years under his belt:

  • 2019: 3.96 ERA, 31 GS, 195.1 IP, 6.29 innings/game, 15 games with 7+ innings
  • 2018: 3.31 ERA, 29 GS, 182.1 IP, 6.28 innings/game, 14 games with 7+ innings
  • 2017: 5.21 ERA, 17 GS, 86.1 IP, 5.06 innings/game, two games with 7+ innings
  • 2014: 3.54 ERA, 32 GS, 185.1 IP, 5.78 innings/game, two games with 7+ innings
  • 2013: 3.42 ERA, 17 GS, 100 IP, 5.88 innings/game, three games with 7+ innings

Wheeler pitched in more innings per game in each of the last two seasons than any of the Phillies starters from last year. His number of games with seven or more innings is also impressive. Sure, his ERA saw a significant jump last season, but so did Nola’s. Wheeler’s 11-8 record is also similar to Nola’s 12-7 record.

While Wheeler and Nola had similar 2019 seasons, if Nola can return to his 2018 form, Wheeler would slot in well as the next man in the rotation. His last two seasons show that he can provide length in games, which would help the team’s starting rotation contribute more as a whole.

The veteran in the rotation is Arrieta, who will enter his third season with the Phillies and 11th in the majors. As for the last five years:

  • 2019: 4.64 ERA, 24 GS, 135.2 IP, 5.63 innings/game, 4 games with 7+ innings
  • 2018: 3.96 ERA, 31 GS, 172.2 IP, 5.55 innings/game, 9 games with 7+ innings
  • 2017: 3.53 ERA, 30 GS, 168.1 IP, 5.60 innings/game, 4 games with 7+ innings
  • 2016: 3.10 ERA, 31 GS, 197.1 IP, 6.36 innings/game, 14 games with 7+ innings
  • 2015: 1.77 ERA, 33 GS, 229 IP, 6.94 innings/game, 18 games with 7+ innings

The fact that Arrieta is an aging veteran whose best years are likely behind him is clearly visible in these stats. While his numbers have declined since his 2015 Cy Young award and 2016 World Series win with the Chicago Cubs, he is still a capable pitcher who would slot in well as the number three man in the rotation.

Keep in mind, Arrieta missed the end of last season due to injury. He still held his ground in 2019, with the fourth-best ERA (not counting Jose Alvarez’ two shutout innings in his only start), third-most wins (eight wins) and second-best innings per game (not counting Cole Irvin’s three starts) among Phillies starters.

If Arrieta can match last year’s innings per game and the remainder of 2018’s stat line, then he can be a significant contributor in the rotation when baseball resumes.

Another two reasons to be optimistic about an improved Phillies rotation are Cole Irvin and Ranger Suárez. The starting spots in the back of the rotation are still up for grabs and two pitchers who are new to the majors could provide a needed change.

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Irvin made only three starts last season, but that gave him a strong 5.73 innings per game. That’s in large part because of seven innings pitched with only one earned run in his major league debut. His following starts were shakier and he ultimately showed improvement later in the year with more experience out of the bullpen.

At AAA Lehigh Valley in 2018, Irvin recorded a 2.57 ERA, 14-4 record and 6.16 innings per game in 25 starts. Last season in AAA, Irvin recorded a 3.94 ERA, 6-1 record and 5.58 innings per game in 16 starts.

While his numbers were down in 2019, he had major league call-ups thrown into the mix. If his minor league success and major league improvement are any indicator, Irvin could provide solid pitching and length if given an opportunity to join the starting rotation.

Suárez spent 2019 in the bullpen, where he recorded a 3.14 ERA and 6-1 record. His MLB debut came as a starter in 2018, where he gave up four earned runs over five innings pitched. He made three starts that season, while pitching three shutout innings in one game out of the bullpen.

Suárez has shown the ability to pitch well and provide length in games during his quick ascent through the minors:

  • 2019 – AAA Lehigh Valley: 5.68 ERA, 38 IP, seven GS, 5.43 innings/game
  • 2018 – AAA Lehigh Valley: 2.74 ERA, 49.1 IP, nine GS, 5.46 innings/game
  • 2018 – AA Reading: 2.76 ERA, 75 IP, 12 GS, 6.25 innings/game
  • 2017 – A+ Clearwater: 3.82 ERA, 37.2 IP, eight GS, 4.65 innings/game
  • 2017 – A Lakewood: 1.59 ERA, 85 IP, 14 GS, 6.07 innings/game

For the most part, Suárez has adjusted well along his journey to the majors. Given the opportunity, he could play a significant role in the rotation’s improvement.

There’s reason to be optimistic that the next Phillies season can be different, with a larger impact by the starters leading to better pitching from both the rotation and the bullpen. While it seems like the team has been in a re-build forever, these changes to starting pitching would be a good next step in a return to success.