(The original version of this post was published at An A-Blog for A-Rod last week. This version has been updated to reflect Phelps’ most recent outing)
The late-spring injuries helped, but David Phelps definitely earned his spot on the Yankee 25-man roster with the job he did in Spring Training, and quickly made people take notice of him after his first few successful appearances out of the ‘pen. Since then, he’s had a couple of rough outings, made a pair of spot starts, and been used in a variety of different scenarios as the pitching portion of the Yankee roster continued to change due to injuries. The roster has been relatively stable since D-Rob hit the DL, and it seems like a good time to talk about just how, and where, Phelps fits in the bullpen hierarchy moving forward.
It’s been a bit of a mixed bag season for Phelps. In looking at his overall statistial profile, there are plenty of things that stand out both on the good side and the bad. His 2.70 ERA, 7.83 K/9, 88.9% strand rate, and 46.3% GB rate are all solid, but his 3.51 BB/9, 4.47 FIP, and 14.3% HR/FB rate aren’t as encouraging. With the majority of the damage done against him coming in back-to-back late-April appearances against Boston and Texas, Phelps’ xFIP of 4.01 is probably the most accurate representation of the job he has done this year. He’s eaten up a lot of innings in games where the Yankees have gotten poor starting pitching, saving the back end of the bullpen from overwork, and has almost always given his team a chance to win the game.
An overall good job like the one Phelps has done should theoretically have earned him a bigger role in this adjusted bullpen pecking order, but so far he hasn’t really been given more high-leverage work. After getting 2 days of rest following his 2 innings of work against the Reds on May 19th, Phelps remained on the bench Monday the 21st while Joe mixed and matched with Cody Eppley and Clay Rapada to get through the 8th inning in a 1-run game. Last Wednesday, with the Yankees up by 6, Girardi went to Phelps to relieve Andy Pettitte and close out the eventual 8-3 Yankee win. It seems to me that the pitchers used in those 2 situations should have been reversed, and I wonder if Joe only sees Phelps as his long man/garbage time game finisher or if he even knows how he sees Phelps.
Last night, in his first work since his mop-up outing last Wednesday, Girardi went to Phelps in a high-leverage fireman situation after Eppley loaded the bases in the 6th relieving Phil Hughes. While the runs didn’t get charged to his ledger, it was a very poorly-located curveball thrown to Kendrys Morales that led to 2 more runs being scored. As auditions go, it wasn’t the best first impression that Phelps could have made on his manager, but he rebounded after the Morales double to throw 2 scoreless innings, his outing punctuated by a swinging strikeout of Albert Pujols. It was another mixed bag outing for Phelps, but there were enough good signs to suggest that he could handle a higher-leverage role, and the outcome of that 6th inning could have been very different if Girardi went straight to Phelps instead of Eppley.
With the way the bullpen is currently constructed, I’d be reserving the Wednesday night mop-up roles for Eppley, Rapada, and Freddy Garcia, but that’s just me. Phelps is younger, and probably better, than his other back end bullpen mates, and this seems like the perfect opportunity to see what he’s capable of and exactly where his ceiling lies as a reliable Major League pitcher. When D-Rob does come off the DL, he’s going to bump everybody back down a slot. Before that happens, I’d like to see what Phelps can do pitching in the 6th or 7th inning of a close game and I’d like to see him get an opportunity to start those innings. He could be another late-inning weapon that the Yankees didn’t even know they had, but it will be difficult to find that out for sure if Joe continues to use Phelps in such a seemingly random manner.