For the third straight year, David Phelps opened the season as part of the Yankee bullpen. For the third straight year, injuries to multiple starters have pushed him into the rotation. Phelps took a spot in the rotation on May 5th and has been a fixture there ever since. With Sabathia’s knee a mystery and Tanaka’s elbow a huge concern, the odds are good that Phelps will remain in this role for the rest of the season.
Phelps’ performance as a starter this time around has been pretty good. In 13 starts he’s pitched to a 3.96/4.08/4.22 slash line with 60 strikeouts and 29 walks in 77.1 innings pitched. It’s a sizable improvement from the near 5.00 ERA he posted in 12 starts in 2013, a performance that halted some of the momentum he’d made for himself in a strong rookie year and probably got him slotted behind Michael Pineda in this spring’s 5th starter competition. With new guys like McCarthy and Greene adjusting to their new environment, Phelps has become a much more important piece of the rotation along with fellow holdover Hiroki Kuroda.
Similarly to Chase Whitley and his recent regression, Phelps’ starting ledger can be broken up into 2 distinguishable parts. The first part, his first 7 starts from May 5th to June 7th, had Phelps at a 4.73 ERA in 40 IP. He was working on stretching himself out to a starter’s workload and readjusting his approach to facing a lineup multiple times though, so he gets a pass. Over his last 6 starts Phelps has been much better, pitching to a 3.13 ERA in 37.1 IP. The highlight outing was his 6.2 innings of shutout ball against the A’s in mid-June, and Phelps has given up 2 ER or less in 5 of those 6 starts.
On the surface it appears that Phelps has settled back into life as a starter and is once again making a case for a more permanent role in the rotation. A closer look at the numbers reveals that it may just be small sample size bias falling in Phelps’ favor. Phelps struck out 30 and walked 15 in that first 7-game sample and has gone 30/14 over the last 6. While the same number of strikeouts in fewer innings is a positive sign, the increased BB rate is not. Also of concern are the 5 home runs hit off Phelps in his last 5 starts compared to only 2 in his first 7. And his GB rate, down below 40% for the season after being over 42 in each of his first 2, has been hovering in the mid-30s in this latest 6-game stretch.
If anything, the counting number splits between Phelps’ first 7 starts and last 6 suggest that not much has really changed for him and he may be under-pitching his low-3’s ERA. The regular problem areas of finishing off hitters, working efficiently, and keeping the ball on the ground and in the ballpark are all present in Phelps’ last 6 starts, but he’s been lucky (good?) enough to not get hurt too badly by them. Phelps gets the ball on Friday night to open the second half of the season and he’ll have a week of rest working for him. Another solid start of 2 ER or less would help legitimize this stretch of good results.