The Hits Keep Coming as Phillies Lose Arrieta and Robertson for the Year

Despite last week’s home run heroics by Bryce Harper, the Phillies’ playoff hopes have faded in recent weeks, and it doesn’t appear as though things will get easier going forward. On Saturday, the team revealed that Jake Arrieta, who had landed on the injured list with a bone spur in his right elbow earlier in the week, will undergo season-ending surgery later this month, and that reliever David Robertson had undergone Tommy John surgery earlier in the week. While neither situation was entirely unexpected, together the injuries highlight the mix of misfortune and underperformance that have placed the Phillies — who at 64-60 are nine games out in the NL East, and 1 1/2 back in the Wild Card race — in this position.

The 33-year-old Arrieta hadn’t missed a single start before landing on the IL, but had been increasingly ineffective as the season worn on. Following a pretty good April (3.46 ERA, 4.32 FIP, 6.5 innings per start), he had pitched to a 5.12 ERA and 5.12 FIP the rest of the way while averaging just 5.37 innings per start; he hadn’t completed the sixth inning since June 30. On July 7, after an outing in which he’d been touched for 11 hits and hit three batters in 4.1 innings against the Mets, a team source told The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal and Matt Gelb that he was pitching through a bone spur. The spur, which is the size of a marble, has apparently bothered Arrieta for the past two seasons, and is the recurrence of a spur he had removed eight years ago, while a member of the Orioles.

The Phillies were aware of the bone spur — which raises the question of why they settled for Jason Vargas as their lone rotation addition at the July 31 deadline — and had monitored Arrieta, who had worked to find different grips to help alleviate the pain that particularly hampered him when throwing his curve and changeup. He had become much more reliant upon the latter pitch in recent years, and was using the former much more often as this season went on:

Per Pitch Info, Arrieta had thrown the changeup 18.3% of the time this year, up from 10.4% last year and 7.4% in 2017. The change has been fairly effective for him this year, with a 46.2% O-Swing rate, a 15.2% swinging strike rate, and a 64 wRC+ on plate appearances ending with the pitch. His swinging strike rate on the curve had dropped by half relative to last year, from 13.0% to 6.5%, even as his wRC+ on PAs ending with the pitch dropped from 141 to 51.

Arrieta’s final numbers — 4.64 ERA, 4.89 FIP, 9.9 K-BB%, and 1.0 WAR in 135.2 innings — mark the fourth straight season in which he’s declined in all of those categories, while his 18.5% strikeout rate marked his fifth straight season of decline. That’s an ominous trend for any pitcher, and it’s one likely to carry significant financial ramifications for Arrieta, who has one more year and $20 million remaining on a three-year, $75 million deal signed in March 2018. Arrieta could opt out of his contract this winter, but would hit the market on the heels of his worst season since breaking through with the Cubs in 2014. If he does opt out, the Phillies can override that by restoring his $20 million 2020 salary and exercising a two-year, $40 million option for 2021-22, one whose annual salaries would have escalated to $25 million or higher based on starts (beginning at 25 starts; he had 24 this year) and top-three Cy Young award finishes.

While the Phillies entered the season with a rotation that placed 12th in our Positional Power Rankings, the unit as a whole entered Sunday ranked 16th in the majors in ERA- (103, via a 4.57 ERA), 26th in FIP- (110, via a 4.98 FIP), and 24th in home run rate (1.64 per nine). Aaron Nola is the only starter who has been better than average in both ERA and FIP:

2019 Phillies Top Starters
Aaron Nola 26 154.1 26.6% 1.22 3.56 80 4.08 90 2.5
Jake Arrieta 24 135.2 18.5% 1.39 4.64 105 4.89 108 1.0
Zach Eflin 21 116.1 18.3% 1.55 4.72 107 4.81 106 1.2
Vince Velasquez 16 78.2 24.4% 1.94 4.35 98 5.19 114 0.5
Nick Pivetta 13 69 19.0% 2.09 5.74 130 5.72 126 0.0
Jerad Eickhoff 10 53.1 20.0% 2.70 5.4 122 6.53 144 -0.4
Drew Smyly 5 28.2 25.6% 1.88 4.71 106 4.89 108 0.2
Jason Vargas 3 17.1 9.7% 1.04 4.15 94 5.47 120 0.1
Statistics through August 17.

Arrieta’s loss for the remainder of the season returns Eflin to the starting five; he was ousted when Vargas was acquired. Velazquez and Smyly, the latter of whom was picked up after being released by the Rangers earlier this year, round out the unit right now, with Pivetta having been relegated to the bullpen.

Speaking of which… the 34-year-old Robertson, whom the Phillies signed to a two-year, $23-million deal in January, arrived from the Bronx with a reputation as one of the most durable and reliable relievers in the game — “about as steady as it gets,” as Jeff Sullivan illustrated at the time of the signing. He was one of only two pitchers to throw at least 60 major league innings every year from 2010 (his first full season in the majors) through 2018; Tyler Clippard was the other. During that span, only the well-traveled Clippard and the Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen threw more innings out of the bullpen than his 589.2, and only Aroldis Chapman, Jansen, and Craig Kimbrel delivered more value than his 13.4 WAR. He had evolved somewhat as a pitcher in that span, as Sullivan pointed out, using his breaking stuff with increasing frequency relative to his cut fastball with no loss of effectiveness. He had also shown a welcome flexibility, working as a closer, a setup man, and a fireman who might show up in the fifth or six inning  — or even the third — if the occasion merited it, all without complaint, making him an ideal addition for any aspiring contender.

Alas, Robertson struggled out of the gate for the Phillies, and after making seven appearances totaling 6.2 innings, hit the injured list in mid-April with a Grade 1 flexor strain. He began ramping up towards a return in late June, but his progress was slow, and he suffered setbacks. By the end of July, it appeared that he would need season-ending surgery for the flexor, with Tommy John surgery a possibility. After a consultation with Dr. James Andrews, he underwent the surgery last Thursday, which could cost him all of next season as well as the remainder of this one. The Phillies do hold a $12 million club option with a $2 million buyout for his services in 2021.

If Robertson’s injury were an isolated problem within the Phillies’ bullpen, they probably could have overcome it, but the unit that placed fourth in our preseason Positional Power Rankings has lost five of its six top forecast relievers to injuries, and all of them are still sidelined:

Phillies’ Bullpen Decimation
Pitcher Proj IP Proj WAR IP WAR Injury Days Dollars
David Robertson 65 1.6 6.2 -0.1 Flexor strain, TJS 126** $6,774,138
Seranthony Dominguez 65 1.1 24.2 0.2 UCL sprain 74* $224,368
Tommy Hunter 55 0.4 5.1 0.2 Flexor tendon surgery 129** $6,241,923
Pat Neshek 55 0.4 18.0 -0.3 rotator cuff infl, hamstring 83* $2,565,862
Adam Morgan 45 0.2 29.2 0.2 Flexor strain 42* $248,388
Hector Neris 40 0.2 50.2 0.6
James Pazos 40 0.1 0.0 0.0 Traded
Jose Alvarez 40 0.1 44.2 0.4
Juan Nicasio 40 0.1 45.2 0.4 Groin strain 13 $629,031
Victor Arano 25 0 4.2 0.0 Arthro elbow surgery 122* $364,048
Yacksel Rios 20 0 2.2 -0.2
Edubray Ramos 20 0 14.0 -0.2 Shoulder impingement 64* $197,312
Austin Davis 10 0 12.0 -0.3
Drew Anderson 10 0 6.0 -0.1
Edgar Garcia 10 0 26.1 -0.5
* = currently on injured list, ** = season-ending

Thus, the Phillies’ relief corps — which entered Sunday ranked ninth in the NL in bullpen ERA (4.65) and 12th in FIP (4.93) and WAR (0.0) — has lost more player-days and dollars to the injured list than that of any other team. Excluding position players, they’ve used 26 relievers. Via Spotrac:

Bullpen Injuries
Team Days Dollars
Phillies 715 $17,430,078
Nationals 573 $2,547,997
Padres 562 $2,932,124
Mariners 557 $4,647,259
Cardinals 530 $12,456,690
Cubs 528 $12,022,043
Yankees 518 $6,868,899
Pirates 414 $2,381,019
Rangers 413 $4,204,787
Marlins 339 $1,025,157
Mets 330 $3,718,352
Brewers 325 $5,289,850
Astros 323 $6,361,457
Rays 308 $957,584
Braves 278 $8,177,200
Angels 259 $861,323
Rockies 257 $5,481,040
White Sox 252 $1,825,978
Diamondbacks 220 $897,478
Red Sox 213 $962,804
Blue Jays 201 $1,462,770
Indians 178 $852,096
Dodgers 164 $813,120
Giants 118 $510,166
Tigers 108 $1,731,721
Twins 100 $3,186,466
Orioles 97 $293,262
Royals 92 $686,653
Reds 74 $318,369
Athletics 12 $412,908
All data through August 17.

Note that on the rankings page, the Mariners show up with a higher dollar figure than the Phillies; for some reason, the site has classified Félix Hernández as a reliever, though all eight of his appearances before hitting the IL with a shoulder strain were as a starter. I’ve removed his data from the above table, and likewise other misclassified pitches including Velazquez and the Nationals’ Jeremy Hellickson.

Dominguez, who received a platelet-rich plasma injection on June 14, began a throwing program in early August, and there’s still hope he can return this year. Neshek received a PRP injection for his Grade 2 hamstring strain in July and is hopeful for a September return. Morgan is set to be re-examined on Wednesday, at which point his timeline will be clarified.

While those returns would be helpful — particularly that of Dominguez — they’re not likely to change the trajectory of the team’s season. The Phillies held at least a share of first place in the NL East for nearly the entire season up through June 11, but they’ve gone just 27-30 since then as the injuries have caught up, and the Mets’ recent surge has left Philadelphia scrambling to hold on to third place in the division. This graph of their division playoff odds tells the sad story:

The Phillies aren’t out of contention yet, but if they do come up short, it won’t all be on Harper and the lineup’s other newcomers for their comparatively lukewarm performances. That hasn’t helped, but in the end, it will be the slew of pitching injuries that does them in.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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4 years ago

Weird question… is a flexor strain something the Yankees could have seen coming? It was quite peculiar for them to let Robertson walk in the offseason and trying to gauge if they were prescient or just lucky.

Chili Davis Eyes
4 years ago
Reply to  Scoreboard

I wouldn’t call it prescience to assume that a 34-year-old pitcher is going to get hurt.

CC AFCmember
4 years ago

Nor would one call it peculiar to let Robertson go from what was an already stacked bullpen that included Holder, Green, Betances, Chapman and then added Britton and Ottavino shortly after letting Robertson walk. You can argue about whether they should have signed him over the other two, but letting Robertson walk was not, in and of itself, a peculiar decision in the least.

4 years ago
Reply to  Scoreboard

Robertson may have left a bad impression with the Yankees on the way out with the “playoff share controversy”