Phillies’ roadmap for pitching success in the 2023 Postseason

Phillies Nationals
Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Michael Lorenzen celebrates after pitching a no-hitter during a baseball game against the Washington Nationals, Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The Philadelphia Phillies came into the month of September riding high. The historic summer month came with a 17-10 record and a strong hold on the top spot in the National League Wild Card race.

However, as the first week of September passed, it was clear there were some struggles. The pitching staff that Philadelphia put together to dominate the majority of the season had started to falter. A rough stretch of over-using the Phillies bullpen and having to move to a six-man rotation led to many fans over-analyzing every move manager Rob Thomson makes.

Phillies fans jeer at Sandy Alcantara after he was pulled during the eighth inning of a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Phillies Fans wave to Miami Marlins pitcher Sandy Alcantara after he was pulled during the eighth inning of a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Monday Morning Managers

While fans may yell about why the Phillies manager took out a starting pitcher after five innings until they are blue in the face, Thomson has remained steadfast in his approach. He needs to manage his pitchers – both starters and relievers – to ensure his entire staff is healthy for the postseason. Fans were especially livid after Friday’s contest where Christopher Sánchez was pulled after five innings and just 82 pitches. Thomson spoke to his philosophy of protecting Sánchez based on workload after the game:

“If we would have added on in the fifth, I probably would have sent him back out,” Thomson said. “I’m not concerned but I’m monitoring (his workload) because I don’t want to put him in harm’s way.”

– From Corey Seidman, NBC Sports Philadelphia
Phillies manager Rob Thomson
Philadelphia Phillies interim manager Rob Thomson celebrates after the Phillies won a baseball game against the Houston Astros to clinch a wild-card playoff spot, Monday, Oct. 3, 2022, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
The Phillies have their eyes on the Postseason

While it is easy to over analyze each game as independent of each other, when you dive in it is easy to see why the All-Star manager is hesitant to overwork his pitchers if he feels he doesn’t have to. Sadly, his bullpen has begun to falter as of late. And this late in the season is the time you need everyone to start settling in to prepare for the postseason. Whether you look at the rotation or the bullpen, everyone is reaching their theoretical limits – Everyone on the roster who pitched for the Phillies in 2022 threw deeper into a season than they ever have before.

Let’s take the starters for example – Aaron Nola is a work horse, throwing over 200 innings three times in his career including 230.2 in 2022 (playoffs included). He has mostly struggled this season, including yesterday, and fans have seen what a long World Series run can do to an ace starter (see Cole Hamels in 2009). Zack Wheeler threw a career high number of innings in 2021, and followed that up with a stretch of pitching more and longer into a season than he has in any three year span of his career.

Furthermore, Taijuan Walker is on pace for his most innings since 2015 and the most starts of his career. Christopher Sánchez has already thrown more innings and longer into a season than he ever has and still has more pitching in front of him. Ranger Suárez threw more than he ever had in his career last season, pitched in a hybrid role, and after injuries this season still threw over 100 innings.

And finally, trade deadline acquisition Michael Lorenzen has thrown 143.2 innings so far this season – his most in a season by a long shot and his first season over 100 innings since his rookie year back in 2015. Additionally, his first two starts in a Phillies uniform he threw more pitches than he had since returning to a starting role last year.

As you can see, the starting rotation has had a lot of pressure put on it. But that doesn’t mean the bullpen hasn’t. Domínguez, Kimbrel, and Soto have all struggled as of late, Alvarado has dealt with injuries, Hoffman has already thrown more innings than ever before, and Strahm has thrown more innings than the last three seasons combined.

Philadelphia Phillies’ Johan Camargo, left, and catcher J.T. Realmuto stand on the mound as starting pitcher Kyle Gibson turns the ball over to interim manager Rob Thomson, front, in the seventh inning of a baseball game against the Texas Rangers, Tuesday, June 21, 2022, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
How should the Phillies proceed?

Needless to say, the Phillies manager has a lot to, well, manage. When the postseason arrives, he will have even more decisions to make. Deciding what changes to make moving back to a five-man rotation is already tough, but when you go to either a three or four man rotation for the postseason it becomes even more difficult.

Aaron Nola’s struggles have not helped with this matter, but piggy backing him with someone else in an effort to limit the number of times he faces a lineup might be the solution. Herein lies the beauty of the Phillies pitching staff. Philadelphia has six starters at the moment – three of whom (Lorenzen, Sánchez, Suárez) have extensive experience throwing out of the bullpen. Not to mention that Strahm also has experience as both a starter and a reliever.

There is a move that is simple on paper – keep Wheeler, Nola, and Walker in the rotation and then have the other starters go into hybrid roles. They can either be partnered together or piggy back off of the starting pitchers to avoid over exposing them (when necessary). For example, if you go this route you can have Aaron Nola start a game. If his change up is on, it is almost unhittable and keeps hitters off balance, but his issue this season has been the breaking ball. If he leaves one hanging in a pivotal spot, you can bring in Lorenzen who also primarily uses his changeup to continue to keep hitters off balance.

Another idea is to start Lorenzen in the fourth rotation spot and have Sánchez or Suárez come in at a set time (# of pitches or innings, certain number of times through the lineup, etc.). Defining that time ahead of time and using traditional relievers in between in case something goes wrong will allow both men to go in prepared and know exactly what is expected of them.

It may be frustrating to see moves that you cannot explain as a fan, and concerning to see the once dominant bullpen struggle this late in the season – but the Phillies are still in good shape. Fans can look at how Thomson has handled the lineup’s various changes as a guide for how he may approach the pitchers’ roles come the postseason. The fact is, the Phillies may have a convenient solution to some of their recent problems when the calendar flips to October – flexibility.

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)