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May 19, 2021

Wasting brilliant starting pitching could be Phillies undoing

Prior to taking the hill in Thursday's win against the Marlins, Zack Wheeler was a clear Cy Young contender and pitching like a true ace for the Phillies with one of the best ERA's in baseball, a ton of strikeouts and among the most innings pitched.

However, for whatever reason, he was getting the cold shoulder from his teammates.

Over his first eight starts this season, Wheeler had received just over 3.2 runs of support per start —  a rate that was very close to the bottom compared to the 142 pitchers who have started at least five times this year. He was 3-2 in those starts, with the Phillies wasting his then 2.85 ERA.

He pitched seven more brilliant innings on Tuesday, allowing one run and leaving the game with things tied 1-1. When the Marlins struck for a pair of runs in the eighth, it seemed like Wheeler was doomed to get the cold shoulder yet again.

But then the Phillies rallied.

"We were both pumped up," Wheeler said after the win, telling reporters he and Jose Alvarado were in the clubhouse by themselves in the last innings. "I came out of the game with it 1-to-1 and then Jose gave up the home run, so he was happy to see that happen, we were excited in there watching it on TV just like everybody else."

It took an unlikely seven-run explosion in the Phillies half of the eighth to buck the trend, putting Philly over the .500 mark in games started by Wheeler, whose ERA continues to creep downward (he's at 2.52 now, a top 11 number in the NL). 

"It was great," Phillies manager Joe Girardi said. "He threw the ball extremely well tonight, he had a double as well. He did everything he could to help us win that game. He doesn't get the win but it was a huge part of it."

Wins and losses are not an overly important metric in baseball — heck, Jacob deGrom won two Cy Young awards with records of 10-9 and 11-10 respectively. But it's no coincidence that the Mets, as a team, finished 4th and 3rd in the standings those years and a combined 18 games below .500. Wheeler would likely gladly trade personal accolades for a World Series. 

The run support issue goes deeper for the Phillies, as Wheeler isn't the only player getting snubbed by the offense so far this season.

Aaron Nola too has found himself getting little support, just 3.5 runs per game, the 24th fewest of those 142 qualified pitchers. In nine starts of his own, Nola has allowed four or more runs only twice. And yet he has just three wins to his ledger. 

And it's not like they aren't getting chances to earn 'W's.' Nola and Wheeler have each thrown over 100 pitches four times this season, the fourth most of anyone in baseball. Wheeler's 60.2 innings pitched is the most in baseball, and Nola isn't far behind at 54.1 IP. 

In 42 games this season, 14 of them have seen the Phillies score two or fewer runs, putting pressure on the pitching staff in one third of their games to be nearly perfect. It's also worth noting that the two complete game shutouts the Phillies have this year came in these such low scoring games.

Zach Eflin, the Phillies third starter, has pitched 51.1 innings, among the leaders in the league this year (and he will get more when he starts Wednesday). But for some ridiculous reason, he has gotten 5.0 runs in support per game.

Overall, it's simply another byproduct of an inconsistent offense, one that has wasted half of the starts by their top trio this season. The Phillies produce on average 4.4 runs per game, a number that ranks 18th of all 30 teams. This while they lead the league in pitches per start and are toward the top in quality starts and "wins lost" by starters.

Perhaps there is a mental sense of complacency for Phillies hitters, knowing that their best pitchers require less offense to win. Maybe it's just bad luck. Whatever it is, clearly the Phillies starting staff (their fifth starter not withstanding) is the team's biggest strength and they cannot afford to waste their contributions if they hope to make the postseason.

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