The Phils’ most dominant bullpen arm since Ken Giles is just getting started
The 2014 seasons was a strange one. Roy Halladay had been forced to retire following the 2013 season and the litany of injuries it bestowed upon him; Cliff Lee slogged through half a season before eventually succumbing to injuries himself; and reclamation projects like A.J. Burnett and Marlon Byrd and Grady Sizemore flopped about on the roster, trying to buoy the sinking ship. We didn’t know it then, but one member of that group of reclamation projects would arguably become one of the more pivotal players of the Phillies’ eventual turnaround. Not for actual, tangible contributions of his own to the 2018 team, mind you, but for the players now serving as his descendants.
Roberto Hernandez, previously known as Fausto Carmona, was signed by the Phillies prior to the 2014 season as a free agent, on the heels of a modest-at-best 2013 with the Tampa Bay Rays and six-or-so years removed from his finest work as a top-five Cy Young Award finalist in 2007 with Cleveland. With Halladay gone, and the mound littered with the bones of failed experiments like John Lannan, Tyler Cloyd, Ethan Martin and Zach Miner (good god), the Phils were in a rather desperate spot of need in the rotation. So Hernandez-née-Carmona signed a one-year, $4.5 million deal to help chew some innings for the Phillies.
Chew innings he did: 121 of them over 20 starts and three relief appearances, to be exact. And even though his underlying numbers were pedestrian – 75 strikeouts and 55 walks – the Phillies, amid all their other pitching misfortune that year, had inadvertently stumbled into a Goldilocks situation.
The Dodgers, firmly in competitive mode and looking to stay ahead of the Giants in the NL West, had suffered a significant blow. On August 3, Josh Beckett, who was in the midst of a solid season and had even no-hit the Phillies that May, had landed back on the disabled list with a hip injury that would eventually force him into retirement. The Dodgers needed a reinforcement. Enter the Phillies, who hadn’t found a willing trade partner for Hernandez prior to the non-waiver deadline in July, but suddenly had an opportunity land in their laps. On August 7, the Phils traded Hernandez to the Dodgers for two players-to-be-named; those players ended up being 20-year-old Jesmuel Valentin and 19-year-old Victor Arano.
While Valentin today remains teetering on the cusp of making his Major League debut – and likely will supplant Pedro Florimon or arrive as an injury replacement in due time – Arano has now made 15 relief appearances with the big club, and has shown the makings of being a relief stud the likes of which the Phillies haven’t had since Ken Giles.
Arano’s 15 relief appearances across 2017-18 have totaled 16 innings. He’s faced 58 batters, and of those, 21 have struck out. The combined offensive effort has yielded a .339 OPS, and none of the 58 batters has homered. So far in 2018, Arano has been perfect: Zero hits, zero walks, zero baserunners, 16 up and 16 down. And he’s doing it all without looking particularly fluky, to boot.
Now, he won’t have a perfect season. He’ll even probably have a night or two where he just doesn’t have it – or does have it! – and a few too many hits fall in and slap a crooked number on his ledger. That’s baseball. But what Arano seems to be making clear early on is that, when he does have it all working, he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with.
Arano throws three pitches: Both a four-seam and two-seam fastball, and a horizontal slider. The fastball sits 91-94, depending which version he throws, and the slider comes in at around 83-85. During Saturday’s appearance, he even mixed in an 87 MPH not-quite-changeup to Kevin Kiermaier, a plate appearance that featured a great bit of sequencing.
Kiermaier, not known as an exceptional hitter but already with two hits in the game, stepped in against Arano in the 8th with the bases empty and one out. Arano started him off with a 91 MPH two-seamer on the black that Kiermaier fouls off, but would have been a called strike anyway. 0-1.
The next pitch has the same basic idea behind it, but runs a bit too far off the plate at 93 MPH. Kiermaier’s eye level is set, and he holds off, leveling the count at 1-1.
Next comes the not-quite-changeup. Truly, I have no idea what this pitch is. A freeze frame of Arano’s grip as he releases the ball is inconclusive, and even the movement graph (which registers the pitch as a bit harder) places it squarely in the middle I-don’t-know-what-the-heck land.
Anyway, the Anomalyball is effective as a set-up pitch. Kiermaier misses it by just enough to get under it and possibly disrupt his timing by a hair. The next pitch misses its spot, but is still elevated enough to slip above Kiermaier’s bat – which may or may not be just a hair late after seeing a pitch roughly five MPH slower over the same part of the plate a moment ago – and get the whiff.
Four straight hard pitches to a hitter with the platoon advantage, all up, and Kiermaier can only manage two foul balls. All of this after Arano had dispatched the previous hitter, Carlos Gomez, by burying this slider low and off the plate.
Earlier in the same at-bat, Gomez had launched a hung slider out to left field with home run distance, but fairly comfortably foul. Undeterred, Arano and Jorge Alfaro came back with it up 1-2, and Arano spiked it beautifully. One of the 48 of Arano’s 242 Major League pitches (19.8%) that have resulted in swinging strikes.
Admittedly, 16 innings is still a regrettably small sample. Comparisons using 15 innings as a minimum since 2017 are rough, and will put Arano in company with, often times, far more established bodies of work across the last two seasons. So, keep that in mind as I proceed to tell you stuff that’s still really impressive anyway:
- Arano’s 36.2 K% is 11th among all relievers, just ahead of the likes of David Robertson and Aroldis Chapman
- His 29.3 K%-BB% is tied for 6th with Milwaukee’s Josh Hader, just ahead of the likes of Roberto Osuna
- His 8 outings of 0 runs allowed and multiple strikeouts are the most by any Phillies reliever in their first 15 appearances, ever
We’ll know soon enough how legitimate Arano will be, and how he’ll hold up to the rigors of a MLB season and the back-to-backs certain to come his way as Gabe Kapler leans on him more. For now, Arano looks primed to become a dominant force in a bullpen that’s turning the corner and evolving into a reliable gatekeeper for the rotation.