The Atlanta Braves are set for a rematch with the Philadelphia Phillies in the NLDS. The Braves have had an historically potent offense this season, which would pose a challenge for any pitching staff in baseball, but the Phillies are relatively well equipped to try to contain this generational offense.
The Phillies staff has accumulated the most fWAR of any pitching staff in baseball, which is a surprise. Their 4.02 ERA ranks 12th in baseball, but Philadelphia’s 4.00 FIP ranks them fifth. Park adjustments, a compensating adjustment for J.T. Realmuto’s surprisingly horrible framing this year, and pop-ups take care of the rest. It is a solid, well-rounded pitching staff with a well-constructed starting rotation to go with an assortment of quality arms in the bullpen. We will take a look at some of the key arms that will decide this series.
While the Phillies rotation ranks 15th in baseball for starter ERA at 4.30, but they have underperformed their underlying numbers. Phillies starters have a 4.07 FIP and a 4.00 xFIP, which are much more flattering numbers. This can be seen with their two aces Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola, who both vastly underperformed their expected numbers. Wheeler had a 3.61 ERA, but his FIP was 3.15 and his xERA was 3.18. Nola, who had a down year, posted an ERA of 4.46, but his FIP was 4.03 and his xERA was 3.74. Despite the pedestrian surface numbers, this Phillies rotation is quality and can’t be taken lightly.
Zack Wheeler is the undisputed ace of the Phillies and showed why in his 6 2⁄3 masterful innings against the Marlins. Wheeler gave up one run while striking out eight and walking nobody. The big adjustment Wheeler made this year was one that many pitchers across baseball also did, he added a sweeper. The oft-discussed cousin of the slider has been one of the major stories of the 2023 season, with pitchers across baseball adding the sweeping breaking ball to their arsenal. Wheeler was one of those pitchers, and the pitch was very effective, with batters hitting .198 against the pitch, with a 39.2 whiff rate, the highest of any pitch in his arsenal. He mostly throws it against right handed hitters, and he throws his old hard slider against lefties. Wheeler’s fastball is still his best pitch, with his four-seamer putting up monstrous whiff numbers (31.3 percent) and batters are hitting .199 against the pitch, something you rarely see for a fastball. Those are unbelievable numbers for a fastball, and that is the pitch that makes him an ace. Wheeler has actually been one of the few pitchers who has been good against the Braves, posting a 3.32 ERA in three starts over 19 innings. He will likely start game two and potentially a game five if it comes to that.
In his walk year, Aaron Nola had a down year, posting a 4.46 ERA, but as his start against the Marlins proved, he’s an arm that should not be taken lightly. Nola went seven shutout innings to close the door on the Marlins season and send the Phillies to the NLDS. Like Wheeler, he has also had success against the Braves this season, with a 3.50 ERA in three starts over 18 innings. Nola relies on a fastball, curveball, changeup combination, with the first two pitches carrying the majority of the load. Home runs have haunted Nola, with the veteran right-hander allowing 1.49 HR/9, a career high. This is a major issue when coming up against this slugging Braves team. He has allowed three in the 18 innings against the Braves this season. He will likely get the ball for game three.
Ranger Suarez is one of a couple Phillies starters in contention to get the ball in game one and potentially game four. Suarez had a mediocre season, posting a 4.18 ERA in 125 innings. However, like Wheeler and Nola, he underperformed his FIP, which was 3.90. He was also good in his one start against the Braves, going six innings of one run ball. Suarez’s best pitch this year has been a slow curveball, which he is throwing much more than in previous years. It has a 37.7 whiff rate and a .143 batting average against. In previous years, his changeup has been his money pitch, but it has regressed this season, which is why his curveball has taken over as his main secondary pitch. Suarez was the number three starter last postseason, but the emergence of Cristopher Sanchez and the offseason signing of Taijuan Walker has put that into question this season. It will be interesting to see who Rob Thompson gives the ball to in game one and how long of a leash that pitcher will have.
In his first season after signing a big money contract in the offseason, Taijuan Walker had a bumpy first season in Philly, with a 4.38 ERA and a 4.54 FIP. This has made his spot in the playoff rotation a question mark. He has also struggled in his two starts against the Braves, allowing eight runs in 12 innings. Walker relies heavily on his splitter, which is his best pitch, posting a .205 batting average against while throwing it a third of the time. He leans on the splitter, as well as a plethora of other breaking balls to keep hitters off his mediocre fastball. He could get the ball for game one and/or game four.
The Phillies bullpen was solid, posting a 3.56 ERA, which was sixth-best in baseball. The high leverage arms are likely to be Jose Alvarado, Jeff Hoffman, Craig Kimbrel and Orion Kerkering. Kerkering is particularly interesting because he just made his debut a couple weeks ago. His fastball-sweeper combination has rocketed him through the minors and has overwhelmed big league hitters in a very small sample size. Alvarado has also been dominant this season, with a 1.74 ERA and nearly 14 K/9. There was a stretch in at the beginning on the season where he was very uncharacteristically not walking people, and while the walks are coming back, he is still a dominant reliever who can overwhelm hitters with an effectively wild mix of 100 mph heaters and 95 mph cutters. Kimbrel is obviously not the same guy as he was in his prime, but he’s still an effective, experienced reliever who has plenty of playoff experience to lean on. This Phillies bullpen is good, but not bulletproof. They don't have the single dominant reliever that can dominate a series single-handedly like a prime Andrew Miller. However, they have a number of interesting pieces they can mix and match depending on the matchup.
The Phillies have a solid pitching staff, but it is not a dominant one. With the way the Braves have hit this year, they should be able to put runs on the board. However, they will have to be on their A game. The Phillies are a dangerous, well rounded team that is better on paper than the team that made the World Series last year. If the Braves aren't at their best, a repeat of last year is very much on the cards, but the Braves have a talent advantage, as well as home field advantage, so they will deservedly go into this series as favorites. It is a tough NLDS matchup, but they were likely to have to get through the Phillies if they wanted to win another championship.