When the Tigers contacted the Phillies in the first week of January to see if they were still interested in Gregory Soto, it was tempting to imagine Soto pairing with Jose Alvarado to form a tandem of the two toughest lefties in the sport. But the Phillies Pioneers were keen on Soto because they believed he could throw a lower fastball.
“It’s really exciting,” Soto said through a team interpreter earlier this month.
Soto threw 22 pitches in consecutive games Tuesday and Wednesday. 13 were sliders. He scored all five of his honors with the slider. Four of these were strikes. He throws a higher rate of sliders — 47 percent — than ever before. He bought into the idea.
The Phillies wanted more time in spring training to convince Soto, whose arrival was delayed due to visa issues, of the plan. His slider was really bad last season in Detroit. He lost confidence in it. But Soto has been thinking about his slider over the winter. He tried a new grip. Coincidentally, the Phillies suggested the same grip after trading for him. And when selling the plan, they pointed to Alvarado as a guide. His career changed last season when he started to throw his fastball less and slash more.
Alvarado and Soto combined to allow two earned runs in 16 2/3 innings pitched with 30 strikeouts and four walks since April 1. The formula the Phillies imagined in the winter came to fruition in a series win against the White Sox because the Phillies were leading and could let left relievers protect them.
It’s a long way to go to consider this tandem a success. But it is tempting. Alvarado, for now, looks about as dominant as a savior can look. He still has to walk a hitter. Soto did not retire on Opening Day. He has since found his niche, but those leadership issues will always loom large. Alvarado will face tough stretches this season, but now he has plenty of reasons to know he can make it to the other side. Velez hopes Soto will reach that state of mind, too.
Both pitchers would continue to throw their fastballs into the ’90s, but they’re picking up steam when it’s a coin flip as to what a batter will see. It’s not a bad view of where the Phillies stand.
Turner’s power outage
Before Trea Turner hit his first home run as a Phillie in Wednesday’s 5-2 win, he composed an unsubscribed start. He carried an average out speed of 86.6 mph over the team’s first 18 games—a number that would have ranked as his second-lowest in a month since his rookie season. (Only August 2022, 85.6 mph, was worse.) It’s ironic because all Turner did in the spring was shoot balls for both Team USA and the Phillies.
But, even as Turner has improved in strength over the years, he’s prone to being cut off like he did in the first three weeks.
The Phillies entered Wednesday with the second-most extra base hits in baseball. Remarkably, that came with Turner 114th out of 184 eligible batters in slugging percentage. JT Realmuto ranked 65th; Kyle Schwarber was 76th and Nick Castellanos 89th.
Even if the Phillies expect some descent into mediocrity from smaller hitters to hot starts — Alec Baum, Brandon Marsh and Bryson Stott — there should be some slow improvement from the mainstays of the lineup.
And there probably won’t be much steeper than Bohm or Stott in their power fluctuations. Going into Wednesday, Bohm ranked 12th in the majors with 29 hits hit at 95 mph or more. Stott ranked 16th. This is a decent indicator of the energy potential of the batter. Look at the company they’re involved with.
The right to stumble
Billy Walther was the first Phillies player to hit a pitch in the seventh inning of the season. naturally. Walther made his home run as the fifth starter — five innings in three of his four innings — but he’s essentially the fourth man in the rotation now. That should not change the evaluation of his presentation.
There will always be limitations to what Walter can do because he lacks a pitch against right-handed hitters and almost everyone knows that. Consider this: Walther has faced 88 batters this season and 80 of them have been right-handers.
So, it’s interesting to track how the Phillies tried to get around this. They spoke in the spring about Falter developing a changeup to show right-handed hitters. He threw a bunch in his start last week in Cincinnati and it didn’t go well. He threw exactly one in seven innings against the White Sox.
Right now, the right-wing attacking plan looks like four-seam fastballs at the top of the area and curve balls down. The scroll bar was effective, if rarely used on the right. The four-seam fastball averages just 90 mph and right-handers bat . 302 against it. Jake Burger threw a fastball at 92 mph and Burger knocked it down. That was the difference in a 3-0 loss. Walther’s outing was not disrupted.
When he spots a fastball over the area, even at 89 mph, it’s a play. Generate weak contact and few whiffs.
It’s never pretty for Walter when the teams are stacked against him. But, against a struggling White Sox, he proved that there are ways to survive.
This and that
• Zach Wheeler told reporters after his start on Tuesday that he felt tightness in his lower back during the match. If the Phillies stay in the rotation, he can play Sunday against Colorado. But it’s easy to make his next start on Tuesday against Seattle and have Valtier at home on Sunday on regular rest. (The Phillies are off Mondays).
• In the first 15 games of the season, the Phillies batted .218 / .283 / .345 in the first inning. They scored four runs in the first inning. Only Detroit had fewer. They were 28 in the first half OPS.
They’ve scored first runs in three of their past four games including that nine-game outburst at the end of the series in Cincinnati. Not a bad heart.
• Stott has hit 20 two-hit hits this season. That’s six more than anyone else in baseball. He had 38 two-hit strikeouts in all of 2022. The most two-hit hits of any Phillies batter dates back to 1988, when data was first recorded: Jason Wirth with 85 in 2010.
• Another sign that Marsh’s streamlined approach is helping him be more timely: He hits . 357 with a . 643 percentage against fastballs at 95 mph or stronger. Last season, he hit . 179 with a . 393 slugging percentage against those pitches.
• Christopher Sanchez will start on Saturday, manager Rob Thompson told reporters, and it will be interesting to see if the Phillies keep him in the majors as an assistant long after that immediate start. Luis Ortiz would be the odd man out; He’s thrown hits in his shortstop with the Phillies.
(Top photo by Gregory Soto: Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire/Associated Press)
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