Playing with fire: David Phelps

At this juncture, it’s hard to complain about the Yankees’ bullpen. Despite Mariano Rivera‘s retirement and David Robertson‘s early stint on the disabled list, the previous concerns about the relievers have been quieted for now. As a whole, the bullpen has posted a 2.95 ERA and 3.83 FIP in just under 40 innings. There is some indication of luck with FIP being higher than ERA, but I think everyone would have signed up for this performance before opening day. One contributor gaining Joe Girardi‘s trust has been David Phelps, who has seemed to take over the “seventh-inning role” after Robertson was put on the shelf. Should Phelps be trusted?

The Notre Dame alum has been the benefactor of good fortune in recent stints, notably this past Sunday against the Red Sox. After coming in with two outs and nobody on, Phelps promptly loaded the bases on a double, walk, and hit by pitch. He then struck out Mike Carp on a 3-2 curveball to escape his self-created pickle. At the moment, his strand rate is a perfect 100%. The small sample size (7.2 innings) explains much of this, but there is a bigger reason why I’d shy away from Phelps in tight spots.

Oh, those base on balls. Phelps’ career 3.57 BB/9 and 9.3% walk-rate are unimpressive, to say the least. His walk numbers in the minors were very good, but 194 innings into his Major-League career, it’s hard to imagine him suddenly honing his command. If his stuff was better, he might be able to get away with below-average command, similar to the way David Robertson did earlier in his career. To be fair, Phelps has generated high strikeout numbers as a reliever (10.01 K/9, 26.3 K% career in the bullpen), which would point to him being overpowering. Yet, since Phelps debuted in 2012, 6.7% of his pitches are swinging strikes, while league average has hovered around 9%. It makes me wonder why he gets so many strikeouts with a mediocre arsenal, and further question how sustainable it may be.

Unfortunately, it’s not as if Girardi has an array of alternatives to Phelps right now. Adam Warren and Shawn Kelley are deservedly ahead of him in the pecking order, leaving Dellin Betances as the only other choice for Phelps’ role. Personally, I think Betances has earned the opportunity to receive the high leverage opportunities that Phelps has obtained thus far. Like Phelps, Betances’ control isn’t great, but there’s no question that his knockout fastball-curveball combination could overshadow that flaw.

When Robertson returns from the disabled list, Phelps will likely return to a long-relief role as everyone drops down a rung. That doesn’t mean he’ll be there for good — any future injury in the bullpen could put him back in the position to pitch close late game situations. We should hope for otherwise, as Phelps is a ticking time bomb anytime he’s on the mound.

Statistics via Fangraphs

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