Young Phillies rotation dominating with speed, spin

31.1 percent strikeout rate and 5 percent walk rate both lead baseball

April 14th, 2016

The Phillies' rotation, in what everyone on earth knows is a rebuilding season with the associated conservative expectations, consists of a trio of inexperienced second-year pitchers and a pair of veteran placeholders. Career ERA of the quintet entering the season: 4.28.

That same Phillies rotation, after Vince Velasquez absolutely dismantled the Padres in a 3-0 win on Thursday afternoon: Pitching like Max Scherzer with a dash of Kenley Jansen .

OK, so it's early -- absurdly so. But those names weren't completely pulled out of a hat, either. After Velasquez struck out 16 Padres without walking any, the Phils' five starters have struck out 31.1 percent of their hitters against a 5.0 percent walk rate, both the best in baseball among starting rotations. Scherzer, in last year's magical season for Washington: 30.7 percent and 3.8 percent. Their ERA is 2.14, which is basically Clayton Kershaw's 2015.

But even Scherzer allowed a .205 batting average against, and the .171 the Phillies' starters have allowed lines up more with Jansen, arguably the closest thing baseball has to Mariano Rivera right now. Now, realize that's the case even though Charlie Morton got hit hard in his debut, allowing six runs in 3 2/3 innings to Cincinnati on April 7 -- everyone else has been that good. (As a team, the Phils' average exit velocity of 86.9 mph entering the day was the second lowest in baseball.)

It's probably appropriate that Scherzer's name comes up anyway. Velasquez began the game with 17 consecutive fastballs, striking out Jon Jay, Cory Spangenberg and Wil Myers in the first inning. By the time he was done, he'd picked up 20 swing-and-misses on his four-seamer, tying Scherzer for the record in the PITCHf/x era, which dates back to 2008 -- and just look how often Scherzer shows up on that list:

Most swinging strikes on four-seam fastball, 2008-present

20th (tie) -- Scherzer, Oct. 3, 2015 (during a no-hitter!)

20th (tie) -- Velasquez, Thursday

18th -- Scherzer, Aug. 9, 2015

17th (tie) -- Scherzer (twice) / Madison Bumgarner, Matt Harvey (once)

But this isn't just about Velasquez, the jewel of last offseason'sKen Giles trade, or his fastball, because the Phillies have been collecting high-spin curveballs, too. Entering the game, Jeremy Hellickson and Morton led all pitchers who had thrown at least 25 curves in Statcast™ spin rate, 2,976 rpm for Hellickson and 2,933 rpm for Morton. They were second to the Royals in overall curve spin rate, 2,636 rpm.

Meanwhile, Jerad Eickhoff (part of the Cole Hamels deal) and Aaron Nola (a 2014 first-round Draft pick) are out there with above-average spin of their own (2,512 rpm and 2,509 rpm for Nola, where the 2015 league average was 2,307), and making hitters look like this:

Gif: Jerad Eickhoff Curveball

All told, the Phillies led the big leagues entering the day with 29 swinging strikes on curveballs, and Velasquez added five more to that total on Thursday. Including his gem against the Padres, the Phils' five starters have allowed just a .154 batting average on the curve, in nearly 60 times it's been put in play. The fastball, as Velasquez showed against San Diego, is crucial -- but for this group, it's the curve that stands out.

The Phillies' rotation isn't going to pitch like Scherzer all season long. They can't, because no one could, and more than likely Hellickson and/or Morton will be traded or otherwise replaced by the Aug. 1 non-waiver Trade Deadline. If all three of the young starters make it through the season unscathed, it'll be borderline historic -- only four times in Phils history have three starters, 25 or under, pitched 150 innings apiece, and it hasn't happened since 1962.

But you take Nola, Eickhoff and Velasquez, and add them to Maikel Franco and Odubel Herrera, with J.P. Crawford, Jorge Alfaro, Nick Williams and others on the way ... suddenly this rebuild doesn't look so bad at all. It looks like the most exciting season the Phillies are set up for in five years, even if the wins and losses aren't there at the end. That young rotation certainly looks like it plans on competing well ahead of schedule.