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May 13, 2019

How the Phillies pitching staff has been so (quietly) good this season

Most Phillies fans tune in, or drive to Citizens Bank Park for a big, key reason: offense.

Rhys Hoskins is playing like an MVP candidate, Phillies hitters are getting on base at a breakneck pace, and Bryce Harper continues to anchor one of the most exciting lineups in all of baseball. 

But something perhaps even more special is brewing on the pitcher's mound nearly every night.  It's seemingly came out of nowhere, but the Phillies pitching staff is really, really good.

The Phillies are the only team in Major League Baseball with two complete games. The starting staff has a WAR of 3.6, the highest of any of the league's 30 teams. Even their bullpen, once the bane of their existence has been among the better units in the game, as they are one of just ten teams with relievers posting a WAR above zero.

Where exactly did this success come from?

To start, the Phillies' dynamic offense, during their fast start way back in April, sort of bailed out a slow start from their pitchers. And, as mainstays in the rotation like Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin rounded into midseason form, the Phillies have gotten an other-worldly boost from some minor league reinforcements.

Jerad Eickhoff swapped roles with a struggling Nick Pivetta and it's paid off, as the curveball specialist has a 1.50 ERA in four starts spanning 30 innings. Cole Irvin (the first left-hander to start a game for Philly this season) won his debut in impressive fashion Sunday, allowing a single run over seven innings.

Philadelphia's starters have been innings eaters, as the starting five has tossed 225 innings this season, the sixth most in baseball. And this obviously allows the 'pen to rest, stay sharp, and remain in familiar roles, like Seranthony Dominguez throwing a scoreless eighth frame in Kansas City in the team's series-winning 6-1 victory.

The Phillies don't have the best pitching in baseball, but they have more than enough to sustain a consistently stout march to an NL East crown. Here's a look at some numbers for both the starters and the entire pitching staff as a whole:

PhilliesMLB Rank
SP IP/start5.82nd
SP pitches/start942nd
SP wins183rd
 SP IP225.06th
Total Ks3347th

Though they pitch to contact more than most teams, they avoid walks and throw lots of strikes. It seems to be a successful strategy as the Phillies pitchers go deep into games, throw lots of pitches and make things easier on Kapler and the bullpen.

The Phils' staff doesn't lead baseball, really, in any key categories, but even just the eyeball test, or a glance at the team's box scores reveals that the high-powered offense (7th in baseball in on base percentage, 8th in runs scored per game) isn't the real reason the team continues to expand its division lead. 

The pitching success has an interestingly helpful corollary — really good catching.

J.T. Realmuto has thrown out 16 potential base stealers and Andrew Knapp has gunned down one, giving Philadelphia the most CS in baseball by a pretty wide margin. Realmuto also has 27 assists, seven more than the second best catcher in that category. 

Phillies hurlers have just eight wild pitches this season, the second fewest in the league and batterymen have surrendered only five passed balls. 

With rumors continuing to circulate about a potential Dallas Keuchel or Craig Kimbrel signing — or a trade for an elite starter like Madison Bumgarner, one shouldn't overlook the strides the team has taken in a month and a half from the hill.

Not that adding a Cy Young award winner would hurt any.

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