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The Phillies Rotation Problem
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The Phillies Rotation Problem
by Asher B. Chancey, BaseballEvolution.com
August 6, 2009

The Philadelphia Phillies ended a three game slide in which they were outscored 17-6 Wednesday night in Philadelphia by beating the Colorado Rockies, one of baseball’s hottest teams, 7-0. The Phillies are 5-5 in their last 10 games, but have won only two out of their last seven and are only 1-4 in August after a 20-7 July.

The biggest story of last night’s game is without a doubt the performance of J.A. Happ. After Jamie Moyer gave up six earned runs in five innings on Tuesday night, Happ pitched a complete game shutout, allowing four hits, striking out 10 and walking two. It was the Phils’ third complete game shutout of the season, two of which have now been pitched by Happ. Happ is now one of three National Leaguers to pitch two shutouts this season, the others being Tim Lincecum and Joel Pineiro.

Happ’s performance comes at a time when the Phillies have suddenly found themselves with seven starting pitchers for five starting pitcher slots coming down the stretch in the National League East. Brett Myers, who has been injured, is already set to join the bullpen when he returns to the team, but that leaves Happ, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, Pedro Martinez, Joe Blanton, and Moyer, to fill the rotation the rest of the way. While a fantasy baseball manager would start the five best guys and put the sixth in the bullpen, real life baseball is unfortunately more complicated in these situations when veterans and rookies get involved.

No one questions the fact that Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, and Joe Blanton will be in the rotation the rest of the way. It is also generally accepted that Pedro Martinez didn’t sign with the Phillies to pitch out of the bullpen, and the Phillies may have even made a tacit promise to Pedro that he would be in the rotation. So, the straw-drawing would appear to come down to Moyer and Happ. But as between Moyer and Happ, there is no contest – Happ has been the Phillies’ best starter this season, the only one with an ERA under 4.00, while Moyer has been the Phillies’ worst, with an ERA of 5.55.

But here’s the rub – Jamie Moyer is a major league veteran, and Happ is a rookie. For whatever reason, major league baseball people have always been deferential to veterans over youngsters - it is the reason Matt Maloney gets traded for Kyle Lohse, the reason Chan Ho Park got the fifth spot in the Phillies rotation out of spring training over Happ, and the reason Jon Leiber once got the fifth spot over a young Cole Hamels.

The “Moyer is a veteran” factor is exacerbated by the fact that you don’t want a guy like Jamie Moyer coming out of the bullpen. His fastball tops out at 82 miles per hour. Moyer has the stuff of a guy who tries to get you six innings and keep you in the ballgame, not a guy who comes into a tight spot and gets you out of it.

Unfortunately, that is two strikes against Happ. The third is the fact that he already started the season in the bullpen, so he has some experience coming out of the bullpen effectively. Moyer hasn’t pitched out of the bullpen since 1996 (which is somehow 13 years ago!). As between Happ and Moyer, the Phillies could have a guy who is capable of giving the team quality starts and a guy who is a benefit to the bullpen, or a guy who can pitch very well as a starter and a guy who can’t be used at all. It isn’t actually that tough of a choice.

One potential problem, though, comes if Pedro Martinez does not pitch effectively as starter for the Phillies. Once the playoffs start, the Phillies will have a four man rotation regardless of what happens with Happ and Moyer in August, and the assumption is that those four men will be Lee, Hamels, Blanton, and Pedro. If Pedro is on, then having Happ come out of the bullpen makes sense. But if Pedro isn’t effective, or gets hurt, now the Phillies are forced into a situation where they have to move Happ back from the bullpen a second time. Maybe he’ll handle it, who knows? But it does seem like an odd way to handle a young guy.

The pity of it all is that other than Happ, Lee, and maybe Blanton, no current Phillies pitcher has pitched well enough to justify his place in a rotation at this point. In baseball, so often the role of “ace” has less to do with the pitcher that is pitching the best and more to do with the pitcher everyone expects to pitch the best. The Phillies “ace” right now is Cole Hamels, and he is probably the Phillies' fourth best pitcher before Pedro even shows up. Yet, no one is discussing the possibility of sending Hamels to the bullpen (even me, really).

Anyway, it seems to me that this issue is a no-brainer – you put your best guys forward, no matter what. That means Lee, Hamels, Blanton, and Happ. Going into the playoffs, can the Phillies really piece together a better four man rotation than that?

I think the Phillies need to think outside the box here – either have Moyer and Pedro split the starts in the fifth spot, or put Moyer in the bullpen for long relief, bringing him in only to start innings, not in tight jams. Another thought is this – Moyer’s home ERA is nearly twice his road ERA, 7.16 vs. 3.88. Maybe Moyer should only start on the road, and Pedro should only start at home?

The good news for the Phillies is that Charlie Manuel gave some indication last night that Happ’s demotion to the bullpen may not be automatic. Letting the guy go over 120 pitches and finish the job speaks a lot to Manuel’s opinion of Happ, and perhaps even the starting pitcher situation overall. Phillies’ fans, too, let their opinions be known as they went berserker when Happ came to the plate in the eighth inning, and then again when he finished the shutout by striking out Troy Tulowitski.

Of course, there is a bright side to all of this – not too long ago, the Phillies had no one at all to put into the rotation. As recently as two years ago Adam Eaton’s spot in the rotation was a forgone conclusion.

Indeed, the Phillies' rotation problems are actually kind of nice.



Questions? Concerns? Comments? Asher lives in Philadelphia, PA, and can be reached at asher@baseballevolution.com.

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