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August 31, 2023

What should Phillies' playoff starting rotation look like?

And how much does having a fourth starter really matter in the postseason?

After their trade deadline deal for Michael Lorenzen, the Phillies elected to go with a six-man starting rotation for the stretch run, and it seems to have worked.

In addition to the red hot offense, the pitching staff has been better across the board in the month of August, with a 3.81 ERA for their starters (after a 3.94 for the first four months). They've also won 12 of 17 decisions this month, (71%), in contrast to winning 49% of their decisions earlier this year.

But the Phils can't start six pitchers in the postseason. It's just not structured for that.

Assuming the Phillies hang on and make it as a Wild Card team — a fairly safe assumption based on their five-game lead and recent play — they will have a three-game series to start the playoffs, likely at home, before a couple days off and then a best-of-five divisional round, followed by a best of seven NLCS and World Series, respectively. 

If they're successful enough to make a run like last year, they'll probably be leaning on a four-man rotation. In 2022, they saw Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola, Ranger Suárez and Bailey Falter/Noah Syndergaard round out their playoff rotation. The team is much improved this year, with Taijuan Walker, Lorenzen and Cristopher Sánchez replacing the departed Falter and Syndergaard.

Which four should they lean on this time?

It seems like a pretty safe bet that the top three last October will once again assume roles as starters in the 2023 playoffs. But who should the fourth man be?

The team is going to likely have a short leash with starters, so having a deep bullpen is going to be key. Which implies that a starter who can pitch out of the bullpen might be prioritized there for the postseason. Experience in the playoffs also matters, but there isn't much to go around. Wheeler, Nola and Suárez return with only their 2022 experience to lean on (granted, it was quite an educational experience for sure).

Here's how Walker, Lorenzen and Sanchez stack up in these two categories:

PitcherIP in reliefPostseason
Taijuan Walker14 IP (3.21 ERA)1 IP (2017 NLDS)
Michael Lorenzen344.1 IP (3.74 ERA) 2.2 IP (2020 NLWC)
Cris Sanchez39.0 IP (5.31 ERA)None

Nothing really jumps out, aside from Lorenzen's impressive work as a reliever — which is a pretty convincing case that he might wind up being more valuable to the team in the bullpen.

In reality, the Phillies might not even need a fourth starter until they are deep into the division around, assuming they get that far. Our prediction for the playoff rotation would look something like this:

• Wild Card Game 1: Zack Wheeler
• Wild Card Game 2: Ranger Suárez*
• Wild Card Game 3 (If nec): Aaron Nola

• NLDS Game 1: Wheeler
• NLDS Game 2: Suárez
• NLDS Game 3: Nola
• NLDS Game 4: Walker/Lorenzen/Sánchez
• NLDS Game 5: Wheeler

• NLCS/WS Game 1: Wheeler
• NLCS/WS Game 2: Suárez
• NLCS/WS Game 3: Nola
• NLCS/WS Game 4: Walker/Lorenzen/Sánchez
• NLCS/WS Game 5: Wheeler
• NLCS/WS Game 6: Suárez
• NLCS/WS Game 7: Nola
*Might as well split up the righty starters with a lefty.

The off days built into the five- and seven-game series mean that the Phillies would in theory only need to reach into the fourth starter well three total times over a potential 22-game playoff maxed out run. We can argue whether the Phillies would really entrust Nola with a Game 7 another time. 

The probable correct answer is that manager Rob Thomson will lean on whoever the hot hand is and have the other starters ready if needed due to injury or for mop up/long relief duty. Thomson would also have the luxury of picking his fifth starter based on matchups — Sánchez is a lefty while Walker and Lorenzen are righties.

Either way, it's nice to have the options and depth the 2023 Phillies do in contrast to the team's lack of options last season. The staff literally ran out of gas against the Astros, which is one of the reasons they faltered in the Fall Classic. The six=man rotation and the depth of arms is by design, to avoid that same undoing if there is another run into November.

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