Before the season started, there really wasn’t a lot to be excited about in regards to Philadelphia’s baseball team. They had sold off most of the exciting offensive pieces and were prepared for a tank towards a high draft pick.
Now through April and part way into May, their front three has been one of the best in the majors. The staff is led by hot prospects Vincent Velasquez and Aaron Nola, and they’ve also been having surprising success from little known Jerad Eickhoff. Eickoff has come out of almost nowhere, and although his ERA isn’t sparkly, his underlying numbers suggest that he has been fantastic – just a bit unlucky. Overall, these three have been excellent so far.
So we’re left to wonder how legit this is. The Phillies obviously have some talent, and even the surprises have some substance behind them. But can they keep this up?
Let’s start with Vincent Velasquez. He has been an easy top 10 pitcher in baseball so far, helped by a great three pitch mix of his fastball, curve and changeup. His 30% strikeout rate is almost sure to come down a little, but it’s still insane. He’s able to ramp up his fastball to the high 90s when needed, and helps him open up the change – although he has yet to feature it prominently.
He’s been allowing a large amount of fly balls, which is worrisome long-term because of the bandbox that Citizen’s Bank Park can play like. He could start to run into homer problems, especially since he likes to live up in the zone. But once he starts working his changeup into his repertoire more often he is going to be able to cut down on the flies and get more grounders. Velasquez has been elite so far, and although he has some areas to work in, he’s going to be great for years to come.
The seventh overall pick of the 2014 draft, Aaron Nola, has been just as impressive as Velasquez. His strikeout rate of 28% is fantastic as well, although he’s gone about it in a different way. Instead of relying so heavy on the fastball, he’s splitting its usage with his sinker. This has allowed him to get a high groundball rate along with his good fastball. Off-speed wise, he’s using his curve exceptionally well. It comes in pretty slow, around mid 70’s, but it has a sharp bite where it drops almost 11 inches on average. This allows him to get 19% whiffs on it,which ends up being one of the best marks in the majors for curves.
Nola’s ability to pound the zone (just 1.57 BB/9) with filth has forced hitters to swing at pitches they can’t do much damage to. This has driven his 54% groundball rate – a crucial part of a pitcher’s makeup when pitching in Citizens Bank Park. Everything about him screams stud, and he’s polished already. Nola is a more finished product than Velasquez, although with less of a ceiling. If you like safe bets then Nola is your guy, but Velasquez has the kind of stuff to make any team have a bad day against him.
Jerad Eickhoff, despite having a funky name, has slid pretty much under the radar to date. He’s been getting some talk alongside the previously mentioned pair of hot prospects, although much less so. Thanks to a late debut and a fastball that barely averages 90, it’s perhaps easy to see why he has been the less heralded of the bunch. And although his ceiling nor his floor come close to the others, he’s still a potentially dominant pitcher in his own right. Eickhoff strikes out about 23% of the batters he faces (around average), but walks only 4% which is elite.
He’s also begun to get rid of his slider in favor of his curve, a good move since the curve gets more whiffs as well as movement. Both pitches are positive in terms of weighted run values, so it’s wise to not get rid of either, but it’s nice to see a pitcher be self-aware enough to start shading towards his better pitches. Eickhoff may not be anything more than a solid number three or fringe number two starter, but for the Phillies that’s all they need of him. He will get decent strikeouts and suppress walks; a good pickup in deep leagues.
In the end all three of these pitchers are fantasy relevant, although there is a clear difference in talent and ceilings. Vince Velasquez has some areas to work on, but he could be a frontline starter on a contending team if he hits his stride correctly. Aaron Nola is currently a more safe pick and more valuable than Velasquez, but he doesn’t have the elite makeup to truly blow the league away in the same way. He’s an awesome number two, and perhaps a number one if everything works out. Eickhoff is the worst of the bunch, but even he is still a very tough pitcher to go against. Anytime you have someone with strikeout stuff who doesn’t walk anyone, that has to be acknowledged.
The Phillies have had some tough times over the past few years, but thanks to a front three that is major league ready and dominant, more glory days may lie ahead.
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