The Phillies defeated the Toronto Blue Jays 9-4 Wednesday to earn a split in a quick two-game series in Canada and snap a three-game losing streak.

Bryce Harper hit a pair of homers, Jake Cave went yard and had two hits, and Nick Castellanos had a pair of doubles while the bullpen pitched four shutout innings.

We are going to skip the positive stuff for now, because we have to address what didn’t go well for the Phillies in this game and what everyone is focused on despite the win:

Kyle Schwarber and Aaron Nola.

It was a rough couple of games in Toronto for Schwarber and it was another rocky start for Nola in a season chockfull of them.

And it has a lot of people wondering out loud if the Phillies can, in fact, get where they want to go with Schwarber continuing to lead off and Nola continuing to be so unreliable.

The short answer is, they’re going to have to, because there aren’t better alternatives.

Now, the argument is easier to make for Nola than it is for Schwarber, and mostly because, if I were in charge of the Phillies on a daily basis, I wouldn’t lead off Schwarber either. But I can at least understand why the Phillies do it and why it’s not as ridiculous a notion as so many seem to think it is.

It’s just that when he gets into a funk like he’s in right now, it magnifies the negatives and buries the positives.

So, lets break both down and try to identify why what’s happening is happening, if it can be fixed still, and why both are still going to be relied upon to do some heavy lifting for the Phillies.

The Case for Schwarber

Most fans will argue that the Phillies have a better option for the leadoff position in Bryson Stott. Some will argue that now that they fixed him, Trea Turner should be back in that spot since that’s where everyone envisioned him when he was signed to an 11-year, $300 million contract last offseason.

And both arguments absolutely have merit.

But, both also have flaws as well.

Let’s start with Stott.

On the surface, Stott has numbers that are more akin to what you would want to see out of a traditional leadoff hitter. He’s slashed .297/.342/.438 for a .780 OPS. His 131 hits are second only to Nick Castellanos on the team, he leads the team in stolen bases (23) and he leads the team in total WAR (3.9).

It sounds like an ideal catalyst.

But when you look closer, it isn’t as ideal as you might think.

Believe it or not, Stott has led off more games this season than in any other spot in the lineup, but the three spots in the order he has batted with any regularity are leadoff, 6th, and 5th, where he’s been hitting recently.

Here’s how Stott breaks down in each spot in the order this season:

  • Batting 1st: 182 PA; .259/.297/.353; .650 OPS, 10 BB, 3 HR, 13 RBI; tOPS+ 67; sOPS+ 71
  • Batting 5th: 130PA; .254/.323/.430; .753 OPS, 10 BB, 4 HR, 15 RBI; tOPS+ 93; sOPS+ 103
  • Batting 6th: 139PA; .357/.389/.512; .900 OPS, 7 BB, 2 HR, 12 RBI; tOPS+ 130; sOPS+ 153

(NOTE: tOPS+ is a player’s OPS within a split – in this case where they bat in the lineup – relative to their total OPS, with 100 being average. sOPS+ is a player’s OPS within a split relative to the league-wide OPS in the same split, with 100 being average.)

As you can see, Stott is clearly better this season when he’s not leading off. He’s 29% below average compared to other leadoff hitters in baseball, but he’s 3% above average compared to other No. 5 hitters and a whopping 53% above average when compared to other No. 6 hitters.

In the first at bat of a game, Stott slashed .229/.290/.343 with a .632 OPS for an sOPS+ of 64. If the goal is to be an offensive threat in the first inning, those aren’t ideal numbers either.

Additionally, Stott doesn’t walk a lot. I know fans grow weary of this conversation, but it is important, especially for guys at the top of a lineup. In fact, Stott walked more times in fewer plate appearances in 2022 (36) than he has so far in 2023 (30).

There are attributes to Stott that make you excited at the possibility of him leading off – the fact that he works pitchers and sees a lot of pitches and fouls off a lot of pitches and doesn’t strike out a lot are all redeeming qualities. He’s arguably the best two-strike hitter in baseball this season, hitting .262 with two strikes and having 71 two-strike hits, but those attributes are equally valuable in other spots in the lineup as they are at the top. Being a leadoff hitter in today’s game requires not just on base skills and getting hits, but also being more productive, and a .650 OPS out of the leadoff spot, isn’t going to cut it.

As for Turner, his struggles this season have been covered ad nauseam. Until August he was having as dreadful a season as could ever have been imagined.

Since August 1, he has been much better, slashing .310/.355/.517 for an .872 OPS, which are more in line with what expectations were for Turner. However, if he keeps that up for the rest of the season, those are the kinds of numbers you want out of your No. 2 hitter, which is where the Phillies have had Turner bat most of the season, and likely will put him back there if he stays consistent. And that’s mostly because Turner is another guy who doesn’t walk a lot, having walked just 35 times in 529 plate appearances so far this season.

Also, keep in mind, Harper is starting to look more like Harper, from a power perspective, and if he’s your No. 3 hitter, ideally you want a righty batting both in front of him and behind him. Ultimately, having Turner and Castellanos on either side is what’s best for the Phillies this season.

So, that brings us back to Schwarber.

This is where things get really weird. In the last 25 games, Schwarber has registered a hit in just six of them. His batting average in those 25 games is a dreadful .134. He’s led off every one of those games.

But, in those same 25 games, he has a .360 on base percentage – which is the best on the team. In that same time he’s tied for second on the team in runs scored with 15 (one behind Harper) and he’s third on the team in both home runs (four) and RBI (15).

(Castellanos leads in both categories in that span with six homers and 17 RBI). 

Imagine that for a second. Here’s a guy hitting .134 in a good chunk of games, who leads the team in on base percentage and is top three in runs, home runs and RBI. You’d hear that and think the team is terrible. And yet, they’re three games over .500 in that span.

And it’s not just this small sample of games. If you look at what he’s done as a leadoff hitter, the numbers don’t wow you, and yes, they are below average compared to the rest of the league, but they are better than the other internal options:

Schwarber batting first: .181/.310/.411; .722 OPS, 17 HR, 47RBI

In the first inning they’re actually even better: .220/.324/.576; .900 OPS; 6HR; sOPS+ 127

Yes, he’s 27% better than the average leadoff hitter in the league in the first inning.

Keep in mind last season that he only had 94 RBI while amassing 46 homers. This season, he’s got 74 RBI already, which is on pace for 99 RBI – 72% of which will likely come from the leadoff spot in the lineup, and likely with about six fewer home runs.

That’s because Schwarber has an .849 OPS with RISP and guys at the bottom of the Phillies lineup have been getting on base. His sOPS+ with RISP is 123. So, he’s 23% better than the average hitter in the league with RISP – and he’s hitting just .202.

It doesn’t make sense, but it does – because the Phillies are 40-28 when he leads off, 40-24 since June 2.

Does Schwarber need to be better than he has been in recent games? Absolutely. The number of fastballs right down the middle that he watches go by for a strike are both substantial and unconscionable. That can’t continue. But is there a better option on this team than him for the job in 2023? No, there isn’t.

The Case for Nola

Aaron Nola has not been himself in 2023. Even his biggest detractors have to admit that this season is different than previous seasons. His home runs allowed are way up. His walk rate is up. His strikeouts are down. And, in recent starts, he has even struggled to provide the length in games that was always his staple.

It’s been concerning enough that there is conversation on talk radio about not having him in a playoff rotation.

To which, I ask, who would you replace him with? And where do you put Nola? In the bullpen? In his nine-year career Nola has never pitched in relief. Not once. So, it’s not something you can just do and think it’ll be fine. It doesn’t work that way. Pitchers are creatures of habit. They have a routine and suddenly, if that routine is altered, it’s not always going to yield the best results.

But I understand the Nola conundrum. You can’t feel as confident in him as you may have in the past because he’s 25 starts into 2023 and things actually aren’t getting any better.

He’s still inducing swings and misses, but it takes him longer to get there. Teams are fouling off a ton of pitches against Nola, running up his pitch count, leading to shorter outings and more mistakes in the zone that he gets punished for when he throws them.

The foul balls are indicative of a pitcher who is just a bit off stuff-wise. He’s not as sharp as he usually is and that allows batters to hang in at bats against him longer.

So, what do the Phillies do? They need to treat Nola as a 6-and-3 pitcher. They have to go into his starts believing he is going to throw six innings and yield three runs and be prepared to have the bullpen ready to roll with that outcome in mind. That usually means, you might need someone to provide multiple innings, if he has a shorter outing – like they did Matt Strahm on Wednesday.

Now, it’s possible Nola has some starts where he’s better than a 6-and-3 pitcher – and that’s fine. If he does that, consider it a bonus in 2023. But it shouldn’t be the expectation. Not this season.

That said, he’s still one of your guys. He’s still a slam dunk starter in a playoff game. While last season there was more of a toss up between he and Wheeler as a Game 1 starter, because Nola was having a very good season and Wheeler was coming off an in-season injury, this year, there’s no such debate. Wheeler is your Game 1 guy.

But should Nola still be the Game 2 guy?

Believe it or not, yes.

As sketchy as his starts have been, Nola still ranks seventh in the NL in WHIP. This is important because WHIP represents baserunners allowed, and he’s still among the best in the sport in limiting baserunners.

Note#1: That graphic does not include Wednesday’s games. Nola is still ranked in the same spot, the WHIP just went up to 1.15). 

(Note #2: If you count his time in the A.L., Michael Lorenzen would be No.1 on the list). 

And when there are no runners on base, Nola has pitched like a Cy Young candidate this season. Out of the windup his numbers are off the charts excellent.

Batters facing Nola with nobody on base are slashing just .216/.257/.398 against him with an OPS of .655 and an sOPS+ of just 80, meaning Nola is 20% better than the average pitcher when no one is on base.

But put a runner on base, and Nola turns into a below average pitcher.

Batters are slashing .274/.332/.483 with an OPS of .814 against him when he pitches out of the stretch. Their sOPS+ is 115, meaning Nola is 15% worse than the average pitcher with runners on base.

Another weird stat is Nola is very good in his first 25 pitches and superb between pitches 76 and 100. It’s pitches 26-75 that cause him trouble.

Batters vs. Aaron Nola in 2023

  • Pitches 1-25: .199/.245/.384; .629 OPS; sOPS+ 71
  • Pitches 26-75: .260/.300/.487; .787 OPS; sOPS+ 109
  • Pitches 76-100: .211/.276/.293; .569 OPS; sOPS+ 54

So, Nola is good early, (29% above league average); struggles in the middle (9% below league average), and then is pretty dominant in the end of his starts (46% above league average).

It’s hard to explain why that is. Normally once a pitcher starts to lose command of their pitches, they’re gone for the game, but in this case, Nola is able to find it again with regularity.

Another thing with Nola has been his lack of consistency. He has had a decision in 18 of his 25 starts. If you combine his wins with his no decisions (17 games) those numbers are ones you are mostly confident in for a top of the rotation starting pitcher in 2023:

  • 106 1/3 IP; 3.64 ERA, 1.016 WHIP, 113 strikeouts

But, in the eight losses… yikes:

  • 47IP; 6.70 ERA, 1.468 WHIP, 47 strikeouts

So, why then is this kind of pitcher still a good option for the Phillies in the postseason?

Well, Lorenzen is the wild card here. He was acquired because the Phillies viewed him as a guy who could give them some starts in August and September but could be switched into a jack-of-all-trades role in the postseason because of his experience pitching out of the pen in his career.

However, if Lorenzen keeps giving you big start after big start, one has to wonder if he’s not better suited to remain a starter in the rotation for the playoffs. That can become a question for next month.

But for now, with Seranthony Dominguez continuing to struggle as he has, Lorenzen might be a guy the Phillies will need more in a later-inning role from the right side, which could make him not an option to start, no matter how good he’s been as the Phillies are truly lacking any late-inning reliability from the right side except for Craig Kimbrel.

Ranger Suarez is another guy who has fit that role before as well. We saw it in the playoffs last season where he both started and relieved. In 2021, even though the Phillies didn’t make the playoffs, Suarez closed, pitched multiple innings in relief and also started all in the same season.

There’s less of a need for that this season in the bullpen assuming Jose Alvarado returns healthy and able to pitch like his nasty self, and with Strahm pitching really well from the left side in that multi-inning role. Additionally, if Gregory Soto can find some consistency, the Phillies are in good shape in the bullpen from the left side.

They need to keep the option open though in case Alvarado isn’t Alvarado and Soto proves more unreliable.

All that said, Suarez still doesn’t match Nola in numbers as a starter this season. Suarez is giving up A LOT of baserunners (1.428 WHIP). The difference is, he’s only given up 10 homers in 17 starts compared to Nola’s 27 in 25 starts.

But, you can’t just assume he’s the better starter purely on the fact that he gives up fewer home runs. That means that the runs Suarez is giving up is more directly related to the baserunners he’s allowing with more regularity than Nola.

Then there’s Taijuan Walker, who has truly struggled worse than Nola in the early innings. He has mostly had an ability to find his stuff as games progress, but even he said you can’t rely on a sinker that tops out at 90 MPH and the other team is going to feast on a pitcher who is over-reliant on breaking balls.

Unless we see a new Walker in the final six weeks of the season, he’s no better than a Game 4 option.

And then there’s Cristopher Sanchez, who has been good for the Phillies, but is starting to show signs of tapering off in his last two starts. Those could be a blip, but he certainly doesn’t have Nola’s track record, which, is something you also have to lean on.

Since 2018, here are your top starting pitchers in baseball based on pitching WAR:

  1. Max Scherzer 29.4
  2. Gerrit Cole 27.3
  3. Jacob deGrom 27.0
  4. Zack Wheeler 25.1
  5. Aaron Nola 25.0

And the last thing is this – even when Nola doesn’t pitch well, he keeps the Phillies in games. The Phillies are 13-12 in games Nola has started this season. Here was the score of each game they lost when Nola left the game and what the eventual final score was:

  1. March 30 @ Texas, tied 5-5 (lost 11-7)
  2. April 5 @ NY Yankees, trailing 2-1 (lost 4-2)
  3. April 11 vs. Miami, trailing 4-0 (lost 8-4)
  4. May 3 @ LA Dodgers, leading 5-3 (lost 10-6)
  5. May 14 @ Colorado, trailing 4-0 (lost 4-0)
  6. May 25 @ Atlanta, trailing 5-4 (lost 8-5)
  7. May 31 @ NY Mets, trailing 4-1 (lost 4-1)
  8. June 10 vs. LA Dodgers, trailing 4-0 (lost 9-0)
  9. June 22 vs. Atlanta, tied 0-0 (lost 5-1)
  10. July 9 @ Miami, trailing 5-2 (lost 7-3)
  11. July 29 @Pittsburgh, trailing 7-4 (lost 7-6)
  12. August 4 vs. Kansas City, leading 4-3 (lost 7-5)

That means in half the losses, Nola left the game with the team either ahead, tied or trailing by only one run. This isn’t a defense of how he pitched in those games, because in most of them, he wasn’t great, but it’s indicative that as down a year as he’s having, he’s still able to keep his team in most of the games he is starting.

So, by default, Nola needs to be your guy in Game 2. It’s not ideal. You cross your fingers and hope you get good Nola on that given day, but the Phillies should be able to identify which version they are getting once he’s into those middle 50 pitches and can counter to a bullpen option early, if necessary.

The difference this year is, with a guy like Sanchez who will be available out of the pen, you won’t need to hope Nola figures it out in the middle-to-later innings. If it’s not going well, you can make a quicker hook.

But the possibility of Nola being one of your guys still exists, and you need to ride that wave as long as you can. Not doing so would be detrimental to the team, because there is no better option right now.