Anxiety, uncertainty surround Halladay's first start

slideshow-040213-phillies-halladay-uspresswire.jpg

Anxiety, uncertainty surround Halladay's first start

ATLANTA -- There was a time when Roy Halladay’s starts were some of the most exciting, most eagerly anticipated events in a Phillies season.

Who knows? Maybe they will be again someday.

But for now, all that surrounds Halladay’s first start of 2013 Wednesday night at Turner Field is anxiety and uncertainty.

The classy, two-time Cy Young Award winner and perfect game author is a different pitcher than he was during his prime in Toronto, a different pitcher than he was his first two seasons in Philadelphia when he combined for 40 wins and a 2.40 ERA.

Halladay’s transition from pitching wizard to muggle began last season when he was plagued by injury, a flagging fastball and ineffectiveness.

He had hoped a winter of hard work and a return to good health would put the zip and bite back on his pitches this spring, but all a month’s worth of Grapefruit League starts did is raise more questions.

So nobody is quite sure what to expect from Halladay on Wednesday night.

Will he provide the hint of encouragement that team officials have been waiting for?

Or will he continue to look like a pitcher in serious decline?

On Monday, manager Charlie Manuel was asked about his expectations for Halladay and his hedging answer was indicative of the uncertainty surrounding this start in particular and Halladay’s future in general.

“I think he’s going to be OK,” Manuel said. “I think he’s going to be fine, and, of course, I’m hoping he’s going to be OK. I’m a little concerned about it, but I wouldn’t say I’m overly concerned because I think he’ll eventually get it going and have a big season.

“I think he’s ready to pitch and (pitching coach Rich) Dubee thinks he’s ready. Roy thinks he’s ready to pitch and the doctors think he’s ready. We’re going to see where he’s at. I don’t have a crystal ball. I can’t tell you how he’s going to do. If I could tell you, he’d throw a no-hitter and strike out 15.”

It’s important to note: Halladay says he is completely healthy. As a matter of fact, he says he feels better physically coming out of this spring training than he has any of the last five years. He says his back feels good. He says his shoulder feels good.

Despite this good health, Halladay had a brutal spring. His velocity lagged -- as it did last spring and season. His location -- control within control -- was poor. He appeared to have trouble keeping the ball down and was hit hard. In six official spring starts, he gave up 21 hits and 11 earned runs in 16 1/3 innings for a 6.06 ERA.

The pitcher’s struggles might just be as simple as this: He turns 36 in May and has thrown over 3,300 innings as a professional. Wear and tear might be just taking its toll.

Halladay acknowledged that he is not the same pitcher he was in his prime. He knows his velocity has dropped. He thinks he can win with good preparation, command, competitiveness and overall pitching knowledge.

Time will tell if he can.

Dubee remains Halladay’s biggest supporter and enforcer of positive vibes.

“This guy's still got plenty of ability, believe me, and he's got the utmost character on the mound,” Dubee said. “He's a winner. He may not have the same bullets, but he’s still going to be able to pitch us quality games and win ballgames for us."

Halladay will be going for his 200th regular-season win Wednesday night.

It won’t be easy -- and not just because of what we saw in spring training.

The opponent will be difficult.

The Atlanta Braves bruised Halladay for 30 hits, including six homers, and 22 runs in 17 2/3 innings (11.21 ER) over four starts last season. In their minds, Halladay is no longer invincible and that’s an important part of the equation because mental edge means a lot in the one-on-one, pitcher-hitter matchup.

Halladay’s waning velocity makes it imperative that he locate the ball with precision and keep it out of the heart of the plate without falling behind in counts. That was difficult for him in spring training and it was difficult for Cole Hamels against the Braves on Monday night. Hamels made mistakes over the plate and was tagged for three homers, two doubles and an opening day loss.

If Halladay makes similar mistakes over the plate against the Braves’ potent lineup, it could be a short night for him and a long night for the entire Phillies organization as questions about the pitcher’s long-term effectiveness rise anew.

If he’s precise with his location and gives the Phillies a chance to win, the concerns will dissipate, at least temporarily.

Jerad Eickhoff proved people wrong, changed expectations

Jerad Eickhoff proved people wrong, changed expectations

It feels appropriate with the season coming to an end and the recent struggles of the Phillies' entire pitching staff to again point out how consistent Jerad Eickhoff has been in 2016.

Tuesday's rain delay likely cost him a shot at reaching 200 innings — he's sitting on 191⅓ with one start left — but his season has obviously been a success whether or not he reaches that mark. 

Some may argue Odubel Herrera has been the Phillies' MVP this season, but I'd go Eickhoff. Maybe that's just based on the inconsistencies of his rotation mates, but there's real value in a guy who gives you six quality innings each time out. Eickhoff this season was basically John Lackey — a reliable mid-rotation workhorse with solid but unspectacular numbers.

ESPN's longtime prospect analyst Keith Law mentioned Eickhoff this week in an Insider post looking at players he judged incorrectly. Eickhoff and Cubs Cy Young candidate Kyle Hendricks were the first two pitchers mentioned.

In his assessment of what went wrong with his initial evaluation of Eickhoff, Law wrote:

"I hadn't seen Eickhoff in the minors and, based on what I'd heard about him, had him as a back-end starter, saying he had the repertoire to start but giving him a limited, back-end ceiling. Eickhoff had a good curveball with Texas. But the Phillies' staff has encouraged him to throw it more often, and it's been a difference-making pitch for him. His curve accounted for 40 percent of his swings and misses in 2016, and it's one of the most effective curveballs in MLB right now; that pitch alone has made him more than just a back-end starter, and he has been the Phillies' most valuable starter this year. He is probably a league-average, No. 3 starter going forward with the arsenal he has — average fastball, plus curveball, inconsistent slider that flashes plus but on which he makes too many mistakes — and with 4-WAR potential, given his durability."

Eickhoff's curveball was what made a lot of us take notice late last season. He used it to shut down some good lineups in September, and he finished 2015 with back-to-back seven-inning, 10-strikeout games against the Nationals and Mets.

This season, he grew up. He incorporated the slider more and that led him out of an early-season funk. Early in the year, hitters were laying off his curveball and swinging at any fastball near the zone because it's a hittable pitch. Once he started showing another breaking ball, the game plan for the opposition became more complicated.

There was nothing fluky about Eickhoff's 2016 season. He'll enter the final day of the season 11-14 with a 3.72 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. 

It's pretty startling to compare Eickhoff's numbers since joining the Phillies to Cole Hamels' with the Rangers. Have a look.

Hamels with the Rangers (44 starts): 3.42 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 2.8 K/BB ratio, .244 opponents' batting average

Eickhoff with the Phillies (40 starts): 3.49 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 3.9 K/BB ratio, .244 opponents' batting average

It's not an apples to apples comparison because Hamels has pitched about 40 more innings than Eickhoff in a tougher league and in a tougher ballpark. It doesn't mean that going forward they will be equals. It just means that over the last season and a half, their production has been close to equal.

Nobody would have expected a year ago that Eickhoff would be the best piece in that trade. But until Jorge Alfaro and Nick Williams graduate to the majors in full-time roles and produce, Eickhoff will be the unexpected centerpiece of that blockbuster deal with the Rangers.

He's a walking example of solid scouting and even better player development by the Phillies.

Phillies-Braves 5 things: Two teams trending in opposite directions

Phillies-Braves 5 things: Two teams trending in opposite directions

Phillies (70-88) at Braves (65-92)
7:10 p.m. on CSN

Another embarrassing Phillies loss led to a players-only meeting last night, and hopefully the message resonated with some of the young guys because this is not the way to end a season (see story).

Let's take a look at the Phils' series finale in Atlanta, their final road game of 2016 and final game ever at generic Turner Field.

1. Tripping over themselves
The last six games, the Phillies have looked like the 2015 version — a team that so often got lackluster starting pitching performances, found itself down by four or more runs early and didn't have the offense to overcome that hole.

In these last six games, the Phillies are 1-5 and have been outscored 63-31. That's more than 10 runs allowed per game, and even in the lone win they allowed eight.

Adam Morgan was awful last night, pushing the Phils' team ERA in September to 5.10. The Phils have played 20 games this month and 44 percent of the runs they've allowed have come in the last six.

2. Opposite directions
The Phillies were seven games over .500 after six weeks this season; the Braves lost 66 of their first 99 games.

But these two teams have traveled in different directions since the All-Star break, with the Braves' offense coming alive and leading them to the majors' best on-base percentage in the second half.

The Braves are averaging 4.83 runs per game since the break. They've scored 58 more than the Phillies, who've averaged 3.99. The addition of Matt Kemp has surely helped and Atlanta is 28-24 since acquiring him from San Diego.

The Kemp acquisition was an example of something Pete Mackanin has mentioned a lot lately: A young team's need to add a bat. The Braves were not positioned to contend in 2016 or even 2017 when they acquired Kemp, but they bought low on him in an attempt to lengthen the lineup and add power behind Freddie Freeman. It's worked offensively, even though Kemp has some well-documented deficiencies in the field.

The Braves won't catch the Phillies for fourth place in the NL East, but they also won't lose 100 games. One of these teams is finishing strong and building confidence for next year. The other is getting slaughtered and has seemed disinterested in playing this last week.

3. Hellickson's final start
Jeremy Hellickson makes his 32nd and final start of the season tonight. It could be his last with the Phillies.

Hellickson is 12-10 with a 3.78 ERA in 185⅔ innings. He's struck out 150 and walked 45. It's been his best year since 2012, his second full season in the majors. Even though he's walked three batters in three of his last five starts, this walk rate of 2.2 per nine innings is the best of his career.

Hellickson struggled his last time out at Citi Field against the Mets, allowing six runs in 4⅓ innings. That came after his best start in years, a three-hit shutout of the Marlins on Sept. 17. Perhaps you can chalk up the last start to a bad matchup with the Mets — Hellickson was 1-3 with a 7.77 ERA against them in five starts and they hit seven homers in 24⅓ innings.

Hellickson has been just OK against the Braves this season. He held them to one earned run in six innings on July 6, gave up three in 5⅔ on July 30 and allowed four in six innings on Sept. 2. 

Most Braves have modest career numbers vs. him, but Kemp is 7 for 18 (.389) with a double, triple, homer and six RBIs.

It will be interesting to see what happens with Hellickson this winter. He'll be a free agent in a weak starting pitching class coming off a rebound year. If the Phillies extend him the $17 million qualifying offer, he could be in position to decline it if he thinks an offer in the four-year, $60 million range could come. And it very well could materialize given the lack of options teams will have.

Whether Hellickson is around next year or not, this was a good trade by GM Andy MacPhail, buying low on Hellickson and parting only with Sam McWilliams, a former eighth-round pick who was just OK this season at Single A.

Hellickson is opposed tonight by veteran right-hander Josh Collmenter, an average overhand thrower who is prone to meltdowns but is coming off decent starts against the Nationals and Marlins.

4. Hail Cesar
Two more walks last night for Cesar Hernandez, who is up to .293 with a .372 OBP. He leads the National League with 49 walks since the All-Star break and is second in the majors to only Mike Trout (55).

Hernandez's .417 on-base percentage in the second half is sixth in the majors, behind Joey Votto, Trout, Freeman, D.J. LeMahieu and Miguel Cabrera. Four of those guys are MVP candidates, one leads the NL in hitting (LeMahieu, .349) and the other is Hernandez.

Interestingly, Fangraphs has Hernandez pegged at 4.2 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) this season. That's a very high number. It's also one I struggle to believe in, given it incorporates defense and baserunning. According to Fangraphs, Hernandez has been worth plus-14.9 runs defensively and plus-1.0 runs on the bases this season. Hard to figure, but it doesn't take away from his developing on-base skills.

5. This and that
• The Phillies are 2-7 against the Braves since the All-Star break.

• Freeman has a 30-game hitting streak. 

• Odubel Herrera's double was the Phillies' lone extra-base hit last night. He has eight extra-base hits in his last 13 games, as many as he had in his previous 44.