J.T. Realmuto offers a behind-the-plate view of the Phillies rotation’s dominant 7-game run

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J.T. Realmuto offers a behind-the-plate view of the Phillies rotation’s dominant 7-game run

CINCINNATI — Rob Thomson delivered a message to Ranger Suárez when he arrived at Great American Ball Park: He was capping his starting pitcher Monday night at 80 pitches. The Phillies wanted to pull back because the 28-year-old lefty threw a 112-pitch shutout last week. “We’re just trying to take care of you,” the manager told him, “because it’s a long year.” Fine, Suárez said. He would pitch as deep into the game as he could.

This is how good the Phillies’ rotation is right now.

“I was actually thinking about taking him out after the sixth,” Thomson said following a 7-0 win over the Reds, “but he had so few pitches … it was just … it’d be ridiculous. So I sent him back out.”

“We were joking in the dugout,” catcher J.T. Realmuto said. “He’s going to go nine innings on 80 pitches.”

Suárez settled for seven scoreless on 88 pitches. He has not permitted a run in 25 consecutive innings. The Phillies’ rotation, as a whole, owns a 0.70 ERA in its last seven games. This is the last week for Suárez (two starts), Aaron Nola (two), Zack Wheeler (one), Spencer Turnbull (one) and Cristopher Sánchez (one):

51 2/3 IP, 24 H, 4 ER, 9 BB, 53 K, 2 HR

It is absurd. It is not sustainable. It has exhausted every superlative.

“Pretty much,” Thomson said. “I don’t have the vocabulary to really explain it properly.”

Maybe Realmuto does. He’s been behind the plate for every inning in the last week. Yes, greater tests await. The Phillies will not be able to bully the Rockies and White Sox every week. But the Reds can hit, and for one night, Suárez silenced them. This is only the third time in the last 29 years the Phillies have started 15-8 or better. The rotation has a 2.14 ERA in those 23 games. They are banking wins. “It’s not going to be sunshine and rainbows the entire season,” Realmuto said. No. But some elements can fuel the rotation through the summer.

Realmuto sees them.

“Right now, they’re just kind of on another level,” Realmuto said. “Their stuff has been great. They’re commanding the strike zone. They’re doing everything they need to do to be able to pitch deep into games. But it’s no different than they’ve done their whole careers. Every one of them.”

They’re … pitching.

“Correct,” Realmuto said.

They all have good stuff, but it’s not how most think about stuff in 2024. Every pitch is not over-engineered. The Phillies starters, except for Zack Wheeler, do not overpower opponents. There is a method to this.

“They’re being unpredictable,” Realmuto said. “Each one of them. And that’s part of pitching. That’s why we like to have starters that can do multiple things. We have zero starters that are just, like, fastball-slider.

“There’s a lot of starters like that across the league who are two-pitch guys. If you’re a righty, you’re getting fastball or slider. Our righties throw four or five different pitches to both sides of the plate to both hitters. Same with our lefties. It’s just pitchability. Hitting is much easier when you have an idea of what’s coming. When you can eliminate things and know, ‘Hey, I’ve got to choose between these two pitchers. I can sit on one.’

“But when you’ve got Ranger throwing against you, and he can throw literally five, six pitches on both sides of the plate, you’re basically just up there hacking. You have no idea. It’s hard to have an approach when guys are that unpredictable and they can do that many things to you.”

It sounds like fun.

“It’s so much fun,” Realmuto said.

J.T. Realmuto and Ranger Suárez hug after the left-hander shut out the Rockies last Tuesday. (Mitchell Leff / Getty Images)

Suárez topped out at 93 mph. He averaged 92 mph on his four-seam fastball and 91 mph with his sinker. His most-used pitches over seven innings were curveballs and changeups.

“He probably didn’t feel like he had his good fastball coming off the complete game,” Thomson said.

“I’ve never had a really good fastball,” Suárez said through a team interpreter. “Today I felt like I’ve always felt before.”

So, he mixed. “He pitched tonight,” Thomson said. “Like, it was old school. You know?” The Phillies, led by pitching coach Caleb Cotham, have embraced modern ideas about pitching. They optimize pitch mixes and shapes. They track every bullpen session. They obsess over the tiniest details.

But, along the way, the Phillies have achieved a balance with their starters. It’s a novel concept. Suárez, always on the cusp of a breakout season and perhaps authoring one now, might epitomize this. He has not allowed a run in 25 innings. It’s the longest scoreless streak by a Phillies pitcher since Cliff Lee’s 30 2/3-inning stretch from Aug. 17 to Sept. 10, 2011.

“I mean, he’s got a good mix of pitches,” Reds outfielder Stuart Fairchild said of Suárez. “He throws the sinker and he’s locating it down, and then he’s got the cutter off of that to get in on your hands as a righty and off as a lefty. He’s got a good changeup and a breaking ball just as a change-of-pace pitch. So, yeah, he just makes a lot of different looks. A lot of different angles and shapes and isn’t missing over the middle much. That’s a pretty good combination for getting outs.”

It sounds easy.

“It’s not,” Fairchild said, “but he’s doing a really good job of it this year, that’s for sure.”

This is Realmuto’s point.

“The plan is to always be unpredictable,” Realmuto said. “The execution doesn’t always allow you to be. If Ranger goes out there and doesn’t have his curveball — if he spikes the first few, or he’s hanging it and they’re hitting it — our unpredictableness is gone. You have to execute all these pitches to stay unpredictable.”

Ranger Suárez has made a splash to start the season. He has a 1.36 ERA over five starts (33 innings). (Mitchell Leff / Getty Images)

The Phillies’ pitchers have executed to begin 2024. Suárez has enjoyed the strategy behind his scoreless streak — the constant mixing he discusses with Realmuto and the pitching coaches before every start.

“The more experience I gain, I know what pitch to choose to go after a hitter,” Suárez said. “What to throw him, what he’s thinking. So I think that’s because of the experience that I have.”

None of this is a secret or some big reveal. This is how pitchers navigated lineups for decades. The Phillies are not reinventing anything. An exceptional week is just that. But maybe the Phillies have discovered the formula for successful starting pitching in 2024:

Throw strikes. Create the right secondary mix. Hunt for weak contact, then chase a strikeout when required.

The task, now, is to keep the pitchers healthy — and remain unpredictable.

“You think about somebody like Wheeler,” Realmuto said. “Wheeler in the past could get a little predictable with lefties because it was mostly hard fastball, a breaking ball coming into you, a hard cutter coming into you. Now he’s got the split that goes the other way. That’s just another thing that a lefty has to think about the whole at-bat. That type of unpredictability — they’re doing that more now than they have in the past.”

It’s not being unpredictable as a gimmick; the Phillies starters have legitimate arsenals with strong characteristics. They possess secondary pitches that grade well on certain models. They can bottle this feeling for later, whenever it’s tougher, and know there is always a path.

Right now, from Realmuto’s view, it’s a beautiful thing.

“It just makes my job so much easier when you can mix like that,” Realmuto said. “You can mess with hitters’ heads.”

(Top photo of Ranger Suárez: Kareem Elgazzar / The Enquirer / USA Today)