For the Phillies faithful, the signing of Zack Wheeler offers some hope for a pitching staff that desperately needed it. In 2018, the Phillies rotation ranked 23rd in the majors with 8.4 fWAR, 18th in SIERA, 23rd in FIP, 19th in K%, 16th in BB%, and 17th in ERA. Needless to say, there is a reason the Phillies pitching staff was under so much scrutiny from fans, and why they finished 4th in the NL East despite adding key free agents in last year’s offseason. However, the former Met, Wheeler, gives Phillie fans a good reason to be excited. Wheeler is a really good pitcher, and there is a reason that many teams actively pursued him. Boasting a fastball velocity in the 94th percentile for 2019, Wheeler will have more life on his fastball than any Phillie did last year. Each of the last two seasons, Wheeler has been great at inducing soft contact, as his Hard Hit percentage and Exit Velocity metrics have been elite. 2019 Wheeler had an opponents’ xwOBA in the 69th percentile, while 2018 Wheeler posted in the 84th percentile. This all bodes very well for him going into 2020. With a one-two punch of Aaron Nola and Zach Wheeler, the top of the Phillies rotation shows real promise, giving them a much better chance to win the NL East.
The one caveat to all this is that Nola and Wheeler both rely on their fair share of ground balls. Nola’s K% last year was in the 72nd percentile which is pretty good, but Wheeler’s was much lower in the 58th percentile. This is not a bad thing necessarily. Analytics tend to show us that the most valuable pitchers are the ones who strike out hitters at the highest rate and walk hitters at the lowest rate, but Wheeler (and to a lesser extent Nola), with his 43.2 % ground ball rate last year, is not a worse pitcher just because batters put the ball in play against him. The one condition to this is that if you’re going to induce a lot of ground balls, then you need to have a solid defense behind you. Herein lies the major problem for the Phillies, in years past, as well as projecting for 2020.
Using Baseball Savant’s brand new Infield Outs above Average metric, we can see that while Rhys Hoskins and Cesar Hernandez each had very respectable marks of 4 OAA each, but the left side of the infield left a lot to be desired. While Scott Kingery posted a serviceable 1 OAA in his time playing third, Maikel Franco and Jean Segura were both subpar, with -7 OAA and -4 OAA, respectively. This definitely didn’t help a Phillies pitching staff that needed all the help it could get. The good news is that Franco is no longer a member of the Phillies, and Kingery should be much better in his place. The bad news is that the Phillies signed Didi Gregorius, who was worse at shortstop last year than Segura was, posting an abysmal -13 OAA. Using this information, it would probably make the most sense for Segura to stay at short, Didi to move over to second base with the departure of Hernandez, and hope that Hoskins being a pretty good defensive first baseman will help mitigate Didi’s defensive shortcomings. Phillies manager, Joe Girardi, might very well think differently and leave Gregorius at short, but the point is that neither Segura or Gregorius have proved to be great at that position. Regardless of who plays short, the Didi signing is questionable from both an offensive and defensive standpoint, even factoring in the chance he can perform better than he did last year considering he was recovering from Tommy John surgery.
With the signing of Zack Wheeler, it is more important now than ever for the Phillies to try to improve what was a poor defensive team last year. Regaining Andrew McCutchen should provide a spark in the outfield, but the infield remains a huge question mark. Jean Segura’s signing last year has proven to be fine offensively, but defensively he has not helped as much as the Phillies front office had hoped. The Didi Gregorius signing this offseason is in danger of being the same way. A midseason move for a solid defensive infielder prior to the trade deadline would go a long way in helping the Phillies make a postseason push. With elite infielders like Francisco Lindor and Josh Donaldson on the market, the Phillies should not be afraid to give up some of their prospects in order to make a move that could place them as favorites in the NL East.