Don’t worry, the Philadelphia Phillies aren’t going to break out into a capella version of Dancing On My Own. Or maybe they should, fans would love it.
Instead, the All-Star Break is upon us and marks the (unofficial) halfway point in the 2023 MLB season. As baseball writers are keen to do every year, it’s time to look at the midseason grades for each part of the team. For the Phillies, looking at the starting pitchers and bullpen requires a microscope and patience.
President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski added to the bullpen when he traded for All-Star Gregory Soto, Matt Strahm, and signed future Hall of Famer Craig Kimbrel. And it’s unusual to say as fans, the bullpen is doing better than the starting rotation.
But don’t make a mistake, the starting rotation was and is stable. The top four in the starting rotation of Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola, Taijuan Walker, and Ranger Suárez have held decent stats. And good news for the Phillies, they have the number one pitching staff ranked by WAR with a WAR of 12.8. If the team can keep pitching like this, a postseason run- a deep one at- that isn’t out of the question.
Ranger Suárez– Grade A
To describe the left-handed Ranger Suárez in a few words we’re going to use the letter “C”: cool, consistent, and calm. From a writing perspective, these are the exact states that you want your pitcher to be in.
But 2023 for Suárez didn’t start off with the three C’s. He started on the injured list with an elbow strain. The southpaw had left forearm tightness that prematurely ended his time with Venezuela during the World Baseball Classic. It was a rough May for the 27-year-old as well, finishing the month with a 7.19 ERA. Not very “cool, consistent, and calm” of him.
Now? Other than a blip against the Washington Nationals, he’s one of (if not better) than the aces of Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler. His ERA sits at 3.44 but he looks comfortable and he’s going to be a solid third starter for the rest of the season.
Aaron Nola- Grade B-/C+
Oh, Aaron Nola. Sunday against the Miami Marlins was not a good day for him. There’s been an ongoing debate if Nola is actually an ace or not and after the Miami game, it’s only going to continue. Should the Phillies move him at the trade deadline? Or do they need an arm like his to make another push for the World Series?
The latter is the answer but what a roller coaster ride it’s been. He ends the first half with a 4.51 era but pitched at least six innings in 13 starts. Nola’s not done well lately, giving up at least four runs in three of his last four starts.
He’s also struggled with adjusting to the pitch clock. Yet there have been flashes of brilliance, one of them being six-shutout innings against the Atlanta Braves. Consistency has to be better from Nola and with him hitting free agency at the end of this season, if he wants to stay in Philly, he’s got to step up to the plate.
Zack Wheeler- Grade B+
The name that DOES come to mind when the Phillies want consistency is right-hander Zack Wheeler. Where Nola is a roller coaster ride, Wheeler is the Tilt-A-Whirl. Every fifth game, he takes the mound and shows why he’s the only ace on the squad (at times). Funny enough, he and Nola are very similar.
Except Wheeler doesn’t allow a slew of home runs when he pitches.
In his first three seasons with Philadelphia, he posted a 2.82 ERA. Compare that with a 4.05 ERA he has in 18 starts and he’s got some work to do in the second half of the season. To the credit of the 33-year-old, over his 98.3 innings pitched, he’s got a 3.3 WAR. That’s only behind Toronto Blue Jays’ Kevin Gausman. Wheeler isn’t happy with where he’s at but that drive is going to propel him to get better.
Taijuan Walker- Grade B or B-
June might need to be right-hander Taijuan Walker‘s new favorite month. But to get to the joys of June, Walker had a rough start to the season. In his first nine starts of 2023, he gave up 30 earned runs amounting to a 6.53 ERA. Fans and media were ready to write him off as a bust.
Enter June and Walker showed that not only was he not a bust, he was on the rise. He only gave up six earned runs across his six starts. To say he’s a big reason why the Phillies sit with a 48-41 record in the NL East and just a half-a-game out of the final NL Wild Card Spot is factual. He’s a solid fourth starter for the Phils and with the lack of a certified fifth guy, he’s giving them the mental security that he can be relied upon.
Bullpen- Grade A+
It would take two whole articles on their own to cover how excellent Philadelphia’s bullpen has been for the team. Manager Rob Thomson knows that these are the men who are covering his rotation for the fifth game. These men have been the saving grace for the Phillies and would not be within barking distance of a Wild Card spot.
A big part of that has been closer Craig Kimbrel. When José Alvarado went down, Kimbrel stepped into the role with ease. The former Atlanta Braves closer has 13 saves and zero blown saves. He brings a killer curveball with a bite that the Phillies need in late games.
Speaking of Alvarado, he has been one of the league’s best relievers ever since his short stint in AAA in 2022. The lefty only gave up one earned run across 14 starts in the 2023 season. Alvarado is an arm for the Phils that can throw a sinker and confuse batters no matter what side of the plate they’re hitting from. May was rough as he suffered from elbow inflammation and its reared its head again. Alvarado hasn’t pitched since July 6th and might be headed for the injured list. But when he’s fully healthy, it’s lights out.
Bringing in Gregory Soto has paid off for the Phillies as he’s been a reliever as promised. In his 36 appearances, 30 of those times he’s given up zero runs. But when he’s bad, it’s BAD. Those other six starts? Soto surrendered runs of three, one, four, three, three, and one. He shines in innings six through eight and that’s what is needed to get out of tough spots.
Other guys like Matt Strahm and Jeff Hoffman are utility pitchers and the Phillies need those. Strahm made nine starts and 15 relief appearances. Three of those starts were as the “starter” for the Phillies since there’s no fifth guy in the rotation. He’s a middle reliever with a 3.74 ERA this far in the season.
Hoffman essentially forced the Phillies to release him or call him up to the big-league team on May 4th. He exercised the opt-out clause in his minor league contract and Philly had 48 hours to add him to the MLB roster or let him go. Thankfully, they made the right choice. Hoffman has a 2.53 ERA and is just a solid arm and reliever for Philadelphia.
Pitching is the biggest bright spot for Philadelphia and it’s likely going to be what carries them into the postseason. But as in anything, baseball can be won or lost by the smallest of margins. For the Phillies, if they can get the bats going in the second half, thank goodness they have their arms.
Photo Credit: AP Photo/Marta Lavandier