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Series Preview # 37 : D-backs vs Phillies

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“...anytime you lose your best pitcher, and you say your rotation got better, that’s interesting and rare.” — Derrick Hall

This series will include Mike Leake’s first start as a D-back
This series will include Mike Leake’s first start as a D-back
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The Phillies were active in July as the trade deadline approached.

Matt Klentak, GM for Phillies, said it was an organizational imperative “to preserve young talent” and avoid the need “to tackle another rebuild at some point.”

With confidence, I can say the D-back farm system is better than the Phillies farm system. Therefore, trading away young talent would have gutted their farm system. This season, the Phillies are contending for a wild card berth, and it may be years in the future before the Phillies are again contending. What did they do?

In the last two weeks of July, the Phillies acquired 7 players while trading away only 2 minor players. By focusing on purchasing players and signing released players, they improved their odds without trading away any significant “young talent.”

An impact bat was acquired: outfielder Corey Dickerson.

Rotation additions were needed because Jerad Eickhoff is on the IL with bicept tendonitis, and Zach Eflin was moved to the bullpen. The following starters were acquired:

  • Drew Smyly
  • Jason Vargas

Two bullpen pitchers were acquired:

  • Blake Parker
  • Mike Morin

And as depth, two players were added in AAA:

  • Logan Morrison, utility player
  • Jose Pirela, utility player

The D-backs were active at the trade deadline.

After his trades at the deadline, Mike Hazen, GM for D-backs, said “We needed to build up underneath [build the farm system]. That was pretty direct marching orders when I took the job. … We understand what it is going to take.”

In 2017, the D-back farm system was ranked last. In light of not doing a total tear-down, it was remarkable that prior to the trade deadline the D-back farm system was ranked 7th or 8th (sources: Keith Law and Fangraphs).

I am stunned that on 2 August, a Bleacher Report ranked the D-back farm system as 3rd. I should not have been too stunned because Michael McDermott ranked the farm as “top 5.”

The Bleacher report evaluation conservatively ranked only 5 prospects as top 100 in baseball. It may have under-rated some top prospects:

  • Surprisingly, it ranked Daulton Varsho and Zac Gallen as prospects outside the top 100. I would place both as solidly top-100.
  • It’s top ten D-back prospects did not include JB Bukaukas, Taylor Widener, or Alek Thomas. Many would rank these three players as top-100 prospects in baseball. MLB.com ranked Alek Thomas as 63rd in baseball. Also, in July Fangraphs upgraded him from 45+ FV to 50 FV.

“We’ve built on today with the future in mind. I think, anytime you lose your best pitcher, and you say your rotation got better, that’s interesting and rare. And I think that’s certainly the case here today.” – Derrick Hall

At a high level, it doesn’t add up.

As of 31 July, let’s compare the D-backs and the Phillies.

  • The D-backs had the better runs scored per game (5.12 vs 4.78).
  • The D-backs had the better runs allowed per game (4.54 vs 4.97).
  • The D-backs had the better 83 DRS (83 vs 1).

Despite the D-backs being better in all three high-level categories, the Phillies had the better win-loss record, and were 3-games closer to a wild card berth. Go figure!

Although the reason for the puzzle eluded me, an explanation is that the Phillies had a better win-loss record in games decided by 1-run (14-10 vs 13-20).

As of 1 August, the Nationals and the Phillies were tied for the second wild card in the NL with identical 57-51 records. Back-to-back, the D-backs played the Nationals and are about to play Phillies. The D-backs could impact the wild-card race. If the D-backs win both series, it would make a statement that the D-backs continue to be contenders!

Who will pitch in this series?

Zack Greinke is gone – he would have pitched in this series. Newly acquired Mike Leake and Zac Gallen will pitch in this series. Will Mike Leake and Zac Gallen hit the ground running, or will they need time to hit their stride?

Monday. Vince Velasquez (103 ERA+, 10.7 SO/9, 3.6 BB/9) vs Merrill Kelly (97 ERA+, 7.2 SO/9, 2.4 BB/9)

Prior to this season, Vince Velasquez was a starter. This season, he was a starter through 6 May, then he was a reliever through 14 June, and then he was a starter. His ERA as starter is nearly exactly the same as a reliever (4.40 vs 4.35).

In each of his last two starts, against the Orioles and the Marlins, Merrill Kelly allowed 7 runs. His season ERA rose from 3.77 to 4.52. Despite those two games, he is clearly the favorite in this match-up.

Tuesday. Jake Arrieta (102 ERA+, 7.0 SO/9, 3.4 BB/9) vs Mike Leake (102 ERA+, 6.6 SO/9, 1.2 BB/9)

Eight years ago, Jake Arrieta had a bone spur removed. It grew back. This season, it has greatly bothered him. In his last six starts, he reduced the frequency of his slider to less than 5%.

“But there are days where I can get through the majority of the start without much issue. That’s what we’re looking for. Hopefully we can have more of those than the other way around.” — Jake Arrieta

For six seasons, Mike Leake has ranked top-10 in least walks per-nine-innings. This season, he ranks first with 1.248 walks per-nine-innings.

This season, his ERA and HRs allowed improved every month.

  • 4.98 ERA, 10 HRs April
  • 4.46 ERA, 8 HRs May
  • 4.46 ERA, 5 HRs June
  • 3.00 ERA, 3 HRs July

In a dugout Q&A, GM Hazen said Mike Leake brings “...consistency, pitchability, strike throwing, durability...” What makes his consistency remarkable is that Mike Leake said, “I try to be different every day, to be honest.” It will be fun to see Mike Leake’s first start as a D-back!

Wednesday. Jason Vargas (102 ERA+, 7.7 SO/9, 3.7 BB/9) vs Zac Gallen (153 ERA+, 10.7 SO/9, 4.5 BB/9)

After Jason Vargas’s ERA rose in July, the Phillies acquired him from the Mets. If he pitches like May and June, he will be a bargain.

His monthly ERA as a starter (excluding one relief appearance):

  • 4.19 April
  • 2.81 May
  • 2.70 June
  • 4.82 July

Rookie Zac Gallen has started 7 games for the Marlins. This game will be his first as a D-back. Let’s look at what he said on his way to reaching the D-backs.

He left University of North Carolina to play professional baseball. “ It’s kinda crazy how much it separates once you are out of there...”

June 2017. “That is the thing I try to concentrate on most - not giving free base-runners. Usually free base-runners are going to hurt you.”

Spring training 2018. “...unsure what to expect, had just been traded. I worried about things other than baseball.” — Zac Gallen

Secrets of Zac Gallen’s success:

“Losing my cutter last year [2018], struggling to find a feel for it really helped my other pitches - really had to learn how to use my other pitches in spots I would tend to shy away from them.”

“The biggest thing I said before is mixing all my pitches. Throw all four pitches at different counts, being able to throw those for strikes.”

“A collection of things:...confidence is huge. ...unbelievable defense behind me...had catchers call great games.” — Zac Gallen