It wasn’t long ago that the Phillies found themselves facing some serious allegations from folks who insisted that their rebuilding effort amounted to “tanking.” From the ESPN airwaves to the pages of the local papers, a small but vocal contingent of pundits and press insisted that what teams such as the Phillies were doing was little different from the “processes” of NBA teams that generated so much consternation in that sport. It’s an interesting conversation to revisit in light of recent events, specifically something that occurred late last week.
In back-to-back starts against the Mets and Orioles, Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta combined to allow just three runs in 12 1/3 innings, answering a challenge that had been issued by 22-year-old righty Enyel De Los Santos in his magnificent spot start of 6 1/3 innings earlier in the week. The two outings were part of a stretch of six straight games in which a Phillies starter logged at least six innings while holding an opponent to three or fewer runs, a fact that increases in significance when you consider that all but one of those games were pitched by a player age 26 or younger. In fact, 76 of the Phillies’ 95 games this season have been started by a pitcher younger than 27, the second most of any team in the majors, trailing only the Pirates. Last season, they finished second in the majors with 102 starts by pitchers younger than 26, and in 2016 they finished third with 70 starts by pitchers younger than 25.
Three years ago, figures such as that formed part of the evidence that people used to charge the Phillies with tanking. What those people missed was something that became increasingly clear as 24 became 25 and 25 became 26: The primary goal of the youth movement wasn’t to maximize their position in the draft by losing as many games as possible. It was to give their young players the opportunity to develop against major-league competition with the hope that the process would yield dividends not available to a team that stocks its lineup and rotation with veterans while prioritizing the winning of each game.
Velasquez’s six shutout innings against the Mets extended his best run of success since his early days with the Phillies. In his last 12 starts, he has a 3.78 ERA with an impressive 76 strikeouts and 26 walks in 64 1/3 innings, his best stretch of production since 2016, when he posted a 3.32 ERA with 93 strikeouts and 26 walks in 78 2/3 innings over 15 starts. After a miserable 2017 season in which he walked an ugly 4.3 batters per nine, Velasquez’s numbers are back where they were: 10.5 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, 1.2 HR/9 with a 4.39 ERA.
Whatever Velasquez’s eventual fate as a big-league starter, the Phillies’ insistence on keeping him in the rotation since acquiring him from the Astros in the December 2015 Ken Giles trade is getting some well-deserved justification. In different circumstances, under a different mandate from ownership, Velasquez may have ended up in the bullpen to make way for a more consistent option in the rotation. But rather than acquiring a veteran who represented a marginal improvement in the here and now, the Phillies decided that their odds of contending for a championship would be maximized by allotting their young talent every possible inch of rope before throwing in the towel.
It was a similar story for Pivetta after a rookie season in which his 6.02 ERA was the highest of any NL pitcher with at least 26 starts. The Phillies conducted their offseason with the adamant belief that the 25-year-old had shown enough potential to warrant another full season of regular outings, and they waited until February to make their lone upgrade to the rotation, signing Jake Arrieta to a three-year deal.
At the time, it was difficult to imagine the Phillies contending given the state of their rotation. But their decision to keep four of the five spots in the rotation open for in-house candidates has been validated by the improvement of those young hurlers. Pivetta has regressed since his dominant start to the season, but at 25 he has shown dramatic improvement over his freshman campaign. His strikeout rate has jumped from 24 percent to 27.5 percent, while his walk rate has fallen from 9.8 percent to a below-league-average 7.3 percent.
Maybe the most important exhibit in defense of the Phillies’ rebuilding strategy is Zach Eflin, whose time as a legitimate prospect seemed to have extinguished after starting 22 games with a 5.85 ERA while battling knee problems the past two seasons. Still only 24, the righthander has a 3.15 ERA with phenomenal strikeout, walk and home run numbers (8.8 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 0.8 HR/9) while averaging nearly six innings per outing in 12 starts.
The reality is that the Process is more of a process in baseball than in the NBA, where it is as much about achieving a short-term concrete end (a top draft pick) as it is about developing a roster. That’s not to say that the development side of things was insignificant for the Sixers and Sam Hinkie: indeed, the emergences of Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell would suggest something quite different. But the reality is the NBA is also a plug-and-play sport in which a team of first- and second-year pros can go from last place to the brink of the Eastern Conference finals.
Still, the same fundamental logic applies in both cases: Why waste playing time on a veteran who will not make a difference in winning a championship when that playing time can be given to a young player who might actually use the experience to develop into (or reveal himself to be) such a caliber player. Anybody who argued that what the Phillies were doing over the last few years was “bad for the sport” needed to turn their attention to the overall architecture of the sport. Within the framework of the CBA and the realities of individual development, what they were doing was exactly what they needed to do. In guys like Pivetta, Velasquez, Eflin, Cesar Hernandez and more, you can see the proof.
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