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Another turn for Erlin as Braves take aim at a weird Wheeler

Atlanta will try to extend the Phillies’ misery, and their losing streak to five games

Atlanta Braves v Miami Marlins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Braves did not appear to be missing any beats on Friday night, as they emerged from two consecutive off days (one scheduled, one due to rain) to deliver a righteous beatdown on an elite-to-date Aaron Nola and the Phillies. They’ll try to keep it going in what seems like an appropriately-oddball matchup for what’s been a bizarre season to date.

Let’s start with Robbie Erlin, who’s gone from departing from the Padres, to being waived by the Pirates, to giving up a grand slam on his first pitch as a Brave, to apparently a rotation fixture in Atlanta’s decimated rotation. Erlin’s first start, which came Sunday in Miami, was about as much as you could expect from the 29-year-old lefthander: four innings of one-hit, zero-walk, zero-run ball. It was also very weird for one specific reason: while Erlin hasn’t been specifically a “groundball pitcher” in his career, he’s still gotten the ball to the infield at basically a league-average rate. Yet, in his four innings versus the Marlins, he got a grand total of zero wormkillers, The lowest launch angle against him on a ball in play that day was 14 degrees, and the average was 43.5 degrees. No starter so far this season has given up eight or more balls in play in an outing with a higher average launch angle, though Lance Lynn has come very close. That probably won’t happen again, but it was suitably weird for 2020.

Speaking of weird, let’s go on to the real meat of this matchup in that regard: the Phillies’ big offseason acquisition, Zack Wheeler. (Also, my kingdom for an ability to cover an Erlin-Eflin matchup. Alas, Eflin apparently pitches for the Phils tomorrow.) Signed to five-year, $118 million deal in the offseson, Wheeler’s topline stats through four starts look fine if not downright pleasing for his new employers: 62 ERA- (yay), 77 FIP- (yay), 99 xFIP- (maybe a tiny bit little disappointing, but in line with a 97 career mark and it’s only been four starts).

But, if you look even a teeny bit deeper... the maw of madness opens up. In those four starts, Wheeler has struck out just 12 batters, exhibiting a strikeout rate that’s been pretty much halved relative to his prior performance. Of the 92 pitchers that have thrown at least 20 innings so far this season, only Ryan Weber and Mike Fiers have a lower strikeout rate, only seven pitchers have a lower K%-BB% (Wheeler’s is at 6.0%, given 12 strikeouts and six walks.) In fact, Wheeler looks to have made it his personal mission to add more ball-in-play action into baseball: of all the pitchers to have thrown 20 or more innings, he has the lowest three-true-outcome percentage (i.e., percent of PAs that end in a homer, walk, or strikeout) in baseball, at just 13 percent.

None of this is normal for Wheeler — that hasn’t been who he is. Aside from a five-start stretch with 14 strikeouts in August-September 2019, he’s only tallied 12 strikeouts or fewer in a four-start stretch twice, both coming all the way back in 2013. Even weirder is that his plate discipline stats are basically the same in 2020. Relative to 2019, the only plate discipline metrics for Wheeler in 2020 that aren’t even within a percent of his prior mark are z-swing (up by nearly three percent), o-contact (up by just over three percent), and overall contact (up by around two percent). The zone rates and whiff rates are basically the same. (Note that under different strike zone formulations, e.g., Statcast’s versus the BIS one, this isn’t necessarily the case, but it’s still weird.)

Anyway, the Phillies probably can’t complain about this too much, as they’ve won three of Wheeler’s four starts. Stay tuned, and we’ll find out together whether Erlin can keep up what he did against the Marlins (both in terms of no grounders, and in terms of no runs), and whether Wheeler will keep up whatever ball-in-play magnetism he’s exhibited so far.

The Phillies attempted to bolster their relief corps yesterday, acquiring former Brave David Hale from the Yankees, as well as Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree from the Red Sox. Both Hale and Workman were very good last year (Workman was elite), while Hembree is more of a last-roster-spot guy. We’ll see if it makes a difference for a relief corps that’s been quite bad, but looks much worse due to luck and random variation.

Game Info

Philadelphia Phillies @ Atlanta Braves

7:10 pm EDT, August 22, 2020

Truist Park (sigh), Atlanta, GA

TV: Fox Sports South

Radio: 680 AM/93.7 FM The Fan, La Mejor 1600/1460/1130 AM, WNNX 100.5, Braves Radio Network

XM Radio: XM 186 (Streaming 841)

P.S. In every game featuring Zack Wheeler, I am obligated to mention that the Giants once traded him for half a season of Carlos Beltran in a season in which they didn’t even make the playoffs. Let’s all point and laugh at the Giants.

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