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Series Preview #8: D-Backs vs. Phillies

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2 unexpectedly really good teams go head to head

MLB: San Diego Padres at Arizona Diamondbacks Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Don’t Look Now

You could be forgiven if you thought the Phillies were bad. It’s been some time since the Phillies have had much to cheer about (Pepperidge Farm remembers). But this year seems to be the revival that Philadelphia fans have been waiting for. They’re on a tear winning 11 of their last 13 including a 4 game sweep of the Pirates to tie it off. They’re also 9-1 at home, which is where the D-Backs are heading for this 3 game series. Despite the good start the Phillies are still a half game back of the Mets in the NL East.

Who are you, and what have you done with them!?!

The most defining characteristic of the Phillies upswing has been their pitching. They have some good well known names on their pitching roster like Jake Arrieta, Tommy Hunter, Aaron Nola, and Pat Neshek (injured). But you probably haven’t heard of guys like Nick Pivetta or Vince Velasquez. Let’s start with the knowns.

Jake Arrieta: So far Jake is as Jake does. With just 3 games pitched Jake has a 2.04 ERA and has given up only 1 home run with 16 strike outs. He’s inducing a lot of ground outs and most of them to the hitters pull side. His hard hit percentage is way down this year at just a mere 17.4%. Of course SSS should be taken into account.

Aaron Nola: This is just Aaron’s 3rd year at the bigs, and he’s off to a pretty good start. He has a 2-1 record with a 2.30 ERA over 31.1 innings pitched. A high strikeout guy last year, Aaron so far has been more of a pitch to contact guy this year. He has a low line drive rate of just 17.1% this year and a pretty even spread between grounders and fly balls.

Tommy Hunter: Tommy is remaining as the setup man despite Pat Neshek being on the DL. Tommy was put on the DL himself during Spring training with a right hamstring injury. So there’s not much to point out about this year, but last year he was terrific for the Rays. 2.61 ERA with an 80% LOB percentage and 9.82 K rate per 9.

About those unknowns....

Nick Pivetta: Last year was Nick’s rookie year and he only went 8-10. His ERA of 6.02 last year would have suggested he might go back down to the minors this year but his spring training showed signs of big improvement expanding the zone both up and down. It’s worked out well for him in the 5 games his pitched. A solid 2.57 ERA over 28 innings hasn’t earned him a lot of wins, but he still has yet to lose a game. Batters are just hitting .231 against him and a pretty even split of ground to flyball (1.38).

Vince Velasquez: Velasquez is a serious strikeout pitcher who so far this year has a 10.13 K/9 rate. Granted, he’s not in the Robbie Ray category, he’s still formidable and currently has a 3.80 ERA which is a whole point below Robbies. Velasquez gets a lot of fly ball outs, but not many are leaving the yard (4.5%).

Chink in the Armor

The other story line so far for the Philies has been their offense. Carlos Santana is batting a lowly .151 and Aaron Altherr isn’t much better at .157. Carlos was acquired in the off season and is their second highest payed player behind Arrietta, so the team is expecting much more out of him. Altherr didn’t have an All-Star year last year, but he was a pretty big part of their offense with a .515 SLG and .856 OPS.

But don’t let that fool you, they have still managed to win a lot of games with a team BA of .230 which is 5 points higher than the D-Backs.

So the offense, despite some sputtering, is not their weakness. No, the Philies only real weakness right now seems to be their team defense. A team URZ of -5.3, .977 Fld%, and -4.3 Defensive Rating according to Fangraphs. They’re also not the best in terms of caught stealing with only catching 25% of runners.

Pitching Matchups

Game 1: Robbie Ray (LHP) vs Vince Velasquez (RHP)

This looks to be a high strikeout game with not a lot of balls put in play. Numbers wise Velasquez seems to have the advantage, though Robbie seems to be coming around. Robbie has a 3.24 ERA over his last 3 which has helped his ERA come down. But Velasquez has been doing well as of late as well striking out 7 over 6 innings of work in his last outing against Atlanta. For the last 3 starts Velasquez has gone over 6 innings of work where as Robbie only last 6 innings twice this year.

Game 2: Zack Greinke (RHP) vs Jake Arrieta (RHP)

This game could be the linchpin game of the series for both teams. Ace vs Ace. I don’t know that there’s much to be said about this game other than, we’re in for a treat. In Greinke’s last outing he held the Giants to just 3 hits over 7 innings. Arrieta held the Pirates to 1 hit over 7 innings. I mean, come on (insert non-copywrited image of Jimmy from South Park)... That game’s going to be sick.

Game 3: Matt Koch (RHP) vs Ben Lively (RHP)

Koch was impressive in his first start going 6 innings just allowing 1 run. His career numbers both in the minor and major league show he doesn’t give up a lot of line drives or hard hits. A pitch to contact guy with a good slider/curve (Fangraphs can’t tell the difference) who threw 50% first pitch strikes (that was actually low for him).

Lively will probably need some help from his offense to win this game. Lively gives up a fair amount of line drives (34.3%) and fly balls (35.8%) while batters are hitting .307 against him so far this year. This leaves him with a lot of runners on base which for the most part he leaves them stranded (75.3% LOB). But the timely hitting of the D-Backs may force him to leave the game early if the Phillies offense doesn’t rise to the occasion.

Prediction

Some people might call me a pessimist, but I’d prefer to think I’m a realist. I think the D-Backs lose their first series of the year by falling to Velasquez and Arrieta. They’ll avoid the sweep in game 3 on Thursday, and it will probably be a lopsided win for the D-Backs. The D-Backs will definitely be in games 1 and 2 with outstanding performances by Robbie and Zack. But ultimately this is a very strong Phillies team who will be playing at home and are hungry to prove themselves.