David Phelps: Starting Pitcher?

Phelps has been unphased by big league hitters.

With CC Sabathia’s elbow injury, David Phelps returns to the rotation tonight and will get at least two turns in the rotation. Phelps has been very good for the Yankees this year working mostly in relief. In 52 innings, he possesses a sparkling 2.52 ERA which is not too far off of his SIERA of 3.16. He has been an asset in the bullpen, often throwing multiple innings in his appearances.  However, it remains to be seen how he will fare as a major league starter.

Phelps was never considered an elite prospect, but pitched well throughout his minor league career. His strong performance in AAA last year as well as in the AFL prompted John Sickels to rate him as the Yankees’ 7th best prospect in the pre-season. Heading into the season, he was essentially minor league depth as he was buried behind Sabathia, Kuroda, Hughes, Nova, Pineda, Garcia, and Pettitte. He was also overshadowed by Banuelos and Betances who he were slated to join him in AAA. However, injuries and ineffectiveness opened the door for Phelps in the Bronx.

Phelps has been jerked around quite a bit this season. Despite an impressive spring performance which featured an uptick in velocity, he was ticketed for AAA due to the Yankees’ starting pitching surplus. When Michael Pineda went down, a spot opened up for him as a long reliever and Phelps got the nod. After working effectively out of the pen in April, he was slotted into the rotation to replace the struggling Freddy Garcia until Andy Pettitte arrived. Phelps was solid in his 2 start stint. However, he failed to make it through 5 innings in both starts partly due to his being on a pitch count. With Pettitte’s return, Phelps was sent back to the bullpen which was already getting crowded due to Freddy Garcia’s revival as well as the emergence of Cody Eppley. In mid-June, he was on his way to class A Tampa to be stretched back out as a starter. However, that plan was short-lived as Phelps was once again assigned to bullpen duties with Pettitte’s injury. Soon after, he was sent back to the minors to start only to be called up again to work out of the ‘pen. In total, Phelps has made 3 starts and 19 relief appearances with the Yanks and 4 starts in the minors.

Clearly, the Yankees see him as a starter in the long run as they attempted to stretch him out in the minors whenever there wasn’t an immediate need for him in the Bronx. However, his effectiveness has made it difficult for the Yankees to keep him stashed in the minors when he could be pitching meaningful innings. For at least the next couple of weeks, he’ll get a chance to showcase himself as a starter at the major league level and possibly strengthen his case for a rotation spot in 2013. But, what can we realistically expect from Phelps given most of his work has been in relief?

First off, he probably won’t provide much length. Considering he hasn’t started a game since his last AAA start on July 14th, he will certainly be on a strict pitch count. The Yankees will also want to be cautious since he will be expected to play a role in the playoffs. His pitch count was kept below 90 for his three spot starts this year. Since he was probably a little more stretched out for those starts, it’s doubtful he’ll throw much more than 75 pitches in a start again this season. Phelps hasn’t been particularly efficient this year, averaging a little over 17 pitches per inning. On a 70 pitch count, that works out to about 4 IP. This is in line with his other starts in which he lasted 4, 4.2, and 4.1 innings. This means there’s a decent chance we’ll be seeing Derek Lowe make his Yankees debut in relief tonight.

The fact that he hasn’t made any starts in a while makes it hard to predict how Phelps will fare. We’re also dealing with some small sample sizes here. However, Phelps hasn’t given us any reason to think he won’t succeed in a starting role. In his 3 spot starts, he posted a 2.08 ERA with 16 K’s and 8 BB’s in 13 innings. In addition, he dominated in the few starts he made in the minors this year. While he may not be able to provide much length, Phelps should at least be effective.

Given the sample size, Phelps’ pitch velocity is probably more meaningful than his stats. Luck plays a role in a pitcher’s performance; but, a pitcher can’t really luck into throwing hard.  Based on what we’ve seen of him so far, Phelps doesn’t seem to exhibit any drop in velocity when switching to a starting role. In fact, he threw his fastest pitch of the year (94.4 MPH) during his May 3rd start:

Red Dots=Starts, Green Dots=Relief Appearances

Generally, pitchers throw harder in a relief role than they do as a starter. This doesn’t seem to be the case for Phelps as his velocities have been pretty consistent. Due to the amount of innings thrown, a good starter is much more valuable than a good reliever. Since his stuff doesn’t appear to improve drastically when working in relief, Phelps should be given every opportunity to start in 2013 and beyond.

For the short term, Phelps isn’t going to continue pitching with an ERA below 3.  This is especially true if he’s a starter. Nonetheless, he should at least be better than Derek Lowe or Adam Warren would be. ZiPS projects a mediocre 4.78 ERA for the rest of the season for Phelps. While that’s a disappointing mark given his performance this year, it might be selling him a bit short since it fails to take into account the velocity increase Phelps has experienced. Phelps should at least be able to give the Yankees 4-5 solid innings of work per outing until Sabathia comes back. Derek Lowe should be able to soak up some of the extra innings to avoid taxing the bullpen too much. More than likely, Phelps will be used exclusively out of the bullpen in September and in the post season. However, given his minor league track record and what he’s done this year, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be strongly considered for a rotation spot next spring.

Photo by Marianne O’Leary [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

About Chris

Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights thinking about baseball. He writes for Pinstripe Pundits, and is an occasional user of the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell
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