Phillies MVP Jerad Eickhoff proved people wrong, changed expectations

Phillies MVP 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.