The Phillies Bulk up the Back of Their Rotation

After sitting idly by for most of the winter, the Phillies suddenly sprung into action last week. They finally got their long-term deal done with J.T. Realmuto, emphatically answering one the biggest lingering questions of their offseason. They re-signed Didi Gregorius, addressing another major area of need at shortstop. But those moves overshadowed two smaller ones aimed at shoring up the back of their starting rotation, with Philadelphia signing Matt Moore to a one-year, $3 million deal with additional performance bonuses last Friday, then adding Chase Anderson on Thursday on a one-year contract worth a guaranteed $4 million. It’s no secret that many teams are worried about the workload of their pitching staffs after the abbreviated season last year, and a number have already committed to using six-man rotations to lighten the load on their starters. It appears the Phillies could be pursuing a similar strategy.

With Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler leading the way, the Phillies’ rotation was actually a strength in 2020. That duo accumulated a combined four WAR last year, and both are returning for 2021. Zach Eflin’s revamped curveball, meanwhile, translated into a breakout season for the 26-year-old, making him a solid mid-rotation starter if those adjustments hold.

But the rest of the starting five is filled with question marks. Jake Arrieta’s three-year deal expired this offseason, so he’s out of the picture. Vince Velasquez continued to be an unpredictable enigma, posting an ugly 5.56 ERA that far outpaced his 4.16 FIP. Top pitching prospect Spencer Howard made his MLB debut in 2020, but it was an experience he’d like to forget. Poor conditioning and the delayed start to the year sapped him of his stamina during the season, with his fastball velocity noticeably dropping as the innings wore on in each of his starts. With two shoulder injuries in his recent past, it’s hard to say what to expect from Howard in 2021.

So while neither Moore or Anderson are projected to be better than back-end starters at best, they do give the Phillies some options when filling out their rotation.

Phillies Rotation, 2020 stats
Player IP K% BB% ERA FIP
Aaron Nola 71 1/3 33.2% 8.0% 3.28 3.19
Zack Wheeler 71 18.4% 5.6% 2.92 3.22
Zach Eflin 59 28.6% 6.1% 3.97 3.39
Vince Velasquez 34 29.9% 11.0% 5.56 4.16
Matt Moore 78 27.8% 6.9% 2.65 3.08
Chase Anderson 33 2/3 24.7% 6.5% 7.22 6.16
Spencer Howard 24 1/3 20.4% 8.8% 5.92 5.86
Moore pitched in Japan in 2020.

Moore threw the highest number of innings out of that entire group in 2020, spending it in Japan with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. The lefty began his career as one of baseball’s best prospects and made a splashy debut for the Rays during their 2011 postseason campaign. But a long list of injuries prevented him from staying effective, and he bounced from the Rays to three different teams in four seasons before making the trek overseas last year.

Moore had a nice bounce-back year with the SoftBank Hawks, making 13 starts and posting a 2.65 ERA with a 3.08 FIP, and during their championship run, he pitched a seven-inning shutout in Game 3 of the Japan Series. The most encouraging development was a huge uptick in his strikeout rate. In his last season in America, Moore pitched ten innings for the Tigers before a knee injury wiped out the rest of his year, but in that tiny sample, he struck out 27.3% of the 33 batters he faced. It’s hard to divine any firm conclusions from those 10 innings, but he did increase the usage of his cutter by eight points and posted a 50% whiff rate with the pitch. He may have continued to tinker with that pitch and his overall mix in Japan. For just $3 million, it’s a worthwhile gamble for the Phillies to make to see if Moore can sustain his success in his return.

Moore also gives the Phillies a left-handed option for their rotation — something they’ve lacked for the past five years. Ever since Cole Hamels left in 2015, the Phillies have the second fewest innings pitched by left-handed starters in the majors at just 259.1 innings, or 6.7% of their total. If Moore is able to stick in the rotation, whether by health or by performance, he’ll be the first regular left-handed starter since Hamels was a mainstay half a decade ago.

Anderson, meanwhile, had an odd year for the Blue Jays in 2020. He posted the highest strikeout rate of his career and the second-lowest walk rate of his career but simply couldn’t stop opposing batters from launching his offerings when they made contact, with a 16.2% barrel rate that was the worst among all pitchers who allowed at least 100 batted ball events. With a four-seam fastball that possesses a good amount of carry, he’s consistently located his heater up in the zone to great effect. But batters teed off on those fastballs, hitting eight of them out of the park.

Anderson’s game log from last year reveals a particularly bad stretch in early September: Across three appearances against Boston and both teams from New York, he allowed 17 runs and a whopping nine homers in just 9.1 innings. His fastball velocity dipped pretty significantly in the last two of those appearances, so that could possibly explain some of the problem.

Anderson did decrease the overall usage of his four-seam fastball last year, from 43.4% to just 34.4%. In its place, he turned to two of his secondary pitches more often: his cutter and curveball. Back in November 2019, Michael Augustine detailed the improvements Anderson made to his cutter when he joined the Blue Jays:

“Anderson’s cutter isn’t dominant but it’s a valuable asset in his arsenal. It helps pick up the slack on his changeup and curveball, and can create a nice pitch-shape change when subbed in for his fastball.”

Anderson continued tinkering with the pitch in 2020, and it returned even better results. He upped the spin rate again but tweaked the spin axis; instead of generating carry with the pitch, it acted more like a hard slider, with three and half inches of additional horizontal movement. With that new shape, the pitch’s whiff rate increased from 22.6% to 32.1%, the 15th-highest rate for a cutter thrown at least 100 times in 2020.

Along with his changeup and curveball, both effective pitches in their own right, Anderson’s improved cutter gives him a third pitch with a whiff rate near 30%. That’s a solid foundation for a good arsenal. If the Phillies can figure out how to help his fastball stay in the yard — or just convince him to stop throwing it altogether — he has the upside to build on his career-high strikeout rate.

Between the options already present on their roster and the new additions made recently, the Phillies have filled out the back of their rotation with plenty of interesting arms, and if nothing else, the increased depth makes a six-man rotation possible if they want to go that route. Any one of those starters could take a big step forward in 2021 and provide solid innings for a team with their eyes on competing for the playoffs. But there are enough warts for each that the likelihood of all of them popping is rather low. Still, with the Braves looking just as dangerous and the Mets one of the few teams willing to spend money this offseason, Philadelphia needs all the reinforcements it can get. By adding Moore and Anderson, the team has addressed the last lingering question about its 2021 roster.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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Shirtless Bartolo Colon
3 years ago

If you want to really bulk up the back of your rotation, give my agent a call.