What can the Yankees reasonably expect out of David Phelps?

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(Beverly Schaefer / For the Times)

Note: This post was initially written prior to the Big Trade. With the Yankee rotation depth chart now seven deep at the Major League level, the likelihood of seeing David Phelps starting for the big league club at any point in 2012 has probably shrunk to nonexistent. Though in Phelps’ favor, with the recent departure of Hector Noesi he and rotationmate Adam Warren have become the de facto “next in line” at AAA should the Yankees indeed simultaneously lose three starting pitchers to injury.

Last winter, most of the non-“Killer Bs” buzz regarding Yankee prospects surrounded Ivan Nova and Hector Noesi, both of whom acquitted themselves rather well during their first full seasons in the big leagues. With Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances both expected to need further seasoning in AAA before getting the call to contribute at the MLB level full time, the two pitchers that we started hearing a fair amount about last offseason and who now appear to be next in line in the rotation pecking order when one of the Yankees’ presumed starting five inevitably goes down with an injury are David Phelps (who Mike profiled a little over a year ago) and Adam Warren (Axisa profile). Today I’m going to take a look at what the Yankees might reasonably expect out of the former.

I found myself intrigued by the now-24-year-old right-hander — who most prospect mavens have pegged as a back-end-of-the-rotation guy at best — after seeing John Sickels recently rank him aggressively at #7 on his list of top 20 Yankee prospects, saying the following:

“I like (Phelps) more than most people do. Has developed the secondary pitches needed to off-set the fastball, and was one of the few pitchers who didn’t get killed in the Arizona Fall League. Could be a fourth starter if given a chance.”

While “fourth-starter-upside” isn’t anything to get terribly excited over — and from what I gather, I get the sense that people aren’t terribly enamored of Sickels’ evaluations as it is — I don’t know that I’d automatically thumb my nose at a guy who could hypothetically settle in as a #4 starter in an MLB rotation.

Phelps was drafted by the Yankees out of Notre Dame in the 14th round of the 2008 draft, and was immediately put to work in short season Staten Island. Here’s a chart of his progression:

While I don’t think Phelps is expected to generate an overwhelming number of strikeouts should he make it to the bigs, it’s still decently impressive that he’s managed to sustain a 7.00+ K/9 ever since moving up to Charleston, while never allowing his walk rate to rise above 3 men per nine. Reasonable strikeout and walk rates combined with a HR/9 that’s never eclipsed 1.0 — even this past fall in the notoriously hitter-friendly Arizona Fall League — has helped Phelps keep his FIP below 4.00 every season. Based solely on his raw numbers, there’s a fair amount to like from this picture.

The other reason I wanted to examine Phelps is that, by virtue of playing in the aforementioned AzFL, we have access (albeit limited) to PITCHf/x data, which is installed in two of the league’s six parks. Poring through the data, I found the two games on the Phoenix Dirt Dogs’ schedule that had them playing in Peoria and Surprise and also coincided with two of Phelps’ eight starts.

On November 7 Phelps threw 5 innings of two-run, three-hit ball with three strikeouts, one walk and one home run. On November 17 Phelps threw 5 innings of two-run, five-hit ball with six strikeouts, no walks and no home runs.

Here’s a breakdown of the 134 pitches he threw:

So based on this data Phelps is a fastball-slider righty, who also won’t shy away from throwing a changeup ~8mph slower than his fastball, or dropping in a curve. In Mike’s profile from December 2010, he noted the following about Phelps:

“Once a scrawny kid that would sit in the low-90’s on a good day, Phelps has filled out his 6-foot-3 frame (190 lbs.) and now throws his fastball at 93-95 mph consistently. Minor league pitching coordinator Nardi Contreras made some minor adjustments soon after Phelps signed, leading to the improved velocity. He also throws a two-seam fastball right around 90 mph, a good curveball, and both a below average slider and changeup. The curve is the closest thing Phelps has to a strikeout pitch, but it still needs some more improvement. At the moment he’s a ground ball pitcher, but that can change if one of the offspeed pitches takes that step forward.”

I saw a lot of 89-91mph fastballs in the PITCHf/x data, and so I’m guessing Phelps’ arm was somewhat tired by the time he got to the AFL after throwing roughly 114 innings in 2011 in both rehab and Scranton (Ed. Note: Phelps missed close to three months this summer with shoulder fatigue, so that could have contributed to the diminished velocity as well). If Phelps actually does usually sit at ~93mph with his fastball, a strong early showing at AAA could make him a valuable trade chip come July. Ultimately, I don’t know that anything about Phelps screams dominance, but it also doesn’t seem crazy to think that he could contribute as a starting pitcher at a league-average level in MLB.

For more on Phelps, be sure to check out TYA’s Brad Vietrogoski’s Top 30 Yankee Prospects capsules over at An A-Blog for A-Rod. Phelps checks in at #8.

Mailbag: Hughes, Dunn, Lee(s), 2014, Scouts
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  • JohnC

    Is Phelps rated higher than Adam Warren?

  • vin

    A guy like Phelps definitely has value somewhere. He’s too good to just rot in SWB forever. As Larry noted, all he does is pitch well despite less than stellar reports about his stuff.

    It’s funny how the older I get, the more I hope these guys just get a shot somewhere, even if it means the Yanks have less depth. A few years ago, I’d be in favor of Cashman just stockpiling arms in AAA. Now? Give him every chance to earn a call-up, and if he doesn’t get it, look to trade him.

    • http://musicaldaddy.blogspot.com Chuck M

      Free Colter Bean!

      I agree with you – would love to see him get 30 starts somewhere, maybe here in Pittsburgh with the Buccos…

      • bucs

        No kidding, I think he would kill it in the Burgh. He’s definitely earned at least a shot.

  • Monterowasdinero

    I like that pitch distribution. A touch of IPK repertoire? Love a homegrown changeup. They have been rare.

  • Rich in NJ

    From a Piliere chat yesterday:

    Comment From Matt S
    Could you rank Phelps, Warren and DJ Mitchell? Seems like Mitchell gets forgotten about but PP is still pretty high on him.

    Frankie Piliere: Warren, Phelps, Mitchell. Mitchell is going to be a big leaguer.

    • pat

      I know it’s worth about as much as a free cup of coffee, but the PPlus guy is very, very, high on Mitchell. His old coaches are too. After he passed through Charleston Torre Tyson was interviewed and said he caught a BP from Mitchell and said his 2 seam (and other pitches) has silly movement, almost like a slider from a lefty. Obviously the stats don’t match what they’re saying but he could be a big time sleeper/ late bloomer.

      And just for fun here’s a vid of him striking out a pretty good bigleaguer..


      • pat

        Wow, I didn’t know posting a youtube link would auto-embed the vid. My bad.

        • MidlandTX

          Dude, that’s awesome! How did you do that?

      • Andy in Sunny Daytona

        pat and I are both members at PP, and they’ve been saying for a long time that Mitchell was hesitant throwing his slider and curve to LHers with Montero catching him. It will interesting to see how his numbers look with a better defensive catcher catching him.

        • vin

          Hmmm… very interesting indeed.

        • Monterowasdinero

          I simply cannot believe this. Not throwing 2 quality pitches because you’re afraid your catcher can’t catch the pitch.

          What a joke.

          Have you seen Montero catch? I’ve seen plenty.

          I like DJ-have seen him pitch to Montero and throw his whole repertoire. He has good stuff but has a slight frame and can run out of gas in the 5th-6th inning. Good bend on his curve.

          • Andy in Sunny Daytona

            I guess we’ll see this year if that has any truth to it.

            • Monterowasdinero

              Nice piece on Montero on http://www.mariners.com where he speaks about being influenced by ARod and Edgar Martinez. He also states that although he couldn’t catch DJ Mitchell’s stuff, he hopes he can be good enough to catch King Felix’s stuff.


              • pat

                This doesn’t even make any sense.

                • pat

                  Actually, I don’t even care. Never mind.

            • Ted Nelson

              Guy threw mostly to Romine in 2010… just look there. That’s who he’s throwing to in 2012. If he throws the pitches more this season it’s going to be pretty hard to determine the causation.

              I also think coaches usually call MiLB games. If he’s constantly shaking off his coach or half-assing his pitches… you’d think the coach would address it with him. Maybe there was an organizational directive to make Montero look good defensively… but I doubt they’d sacrifice the development of their Ps for that. I would imagine his coach would tell him to suck it up and worry about himself.

          • viridiana

            I see Mitchell in long relief.

  • Ray R

    I like Phelps, but arm fatigue is an issue that needs monitoring. While I can’t see him getting a legit shot this year, there are teams in pitcher-friendly parks where he could settle in as a number 3 or 4 guy. I suspect he’ll be in a mid-season trade to one of those budget-minded clubs for a DH-type.

  • Steve (different one)

    A legit 4th starter is a pretty great return on a 14th round pick…

  • CJ

    I’m surprised Cashman hasn’t traded 2 of phelps, Warren, Mitchell. It sounds like they could make/help several big league clubs right now. Trade them for dh, AAA position player prospects of equal value or single A prospects.

    • vin

      Well he did say that he was looking to move some of the excess pitching for a bat. So either he’s including the minor leaguers in “excess pitching,” or he’ll want them to hang around if he does move AJ or Phil.

      • CJ

        Good point. There is definitely an excess of #5 AJ Hughes Freddy. And an excess if #6 in Phelps, Warren, DJ. At least 4 of them should be dealt. With 2 true prospects in Banuelos & Betances.

    • Cris Pengiucci

      Yeah, seems like he’s waiting for the right deal to come along. Hopefully he’s got his eyes on a close to big league-ready outfielder. There should be some team willing to take on a back of the rotation, cost controlled arm. Having the minor league depth with pitchers certainly allows the Yankees a lot of flexibility, but it seems they do need to start considering some moves.

  • Jon

    Why are we holding out hope for Phil Hughes when we have this guy down at AAA? If he really does average 93~ on his fastball, christ if he can hit 91 he beats out Hughes. Add to that the fact that he has a more advanced 5 pitch mix as opposed to 2-pitch Hughes. Trade the hype (Hughes)!!!

    • Monterowasdinero

      Sshhh-don’t ruin the narrative. It’s Phil Hughes you’re messin’ with.

    • Jd

      Good point. Is Phelps now what Kennedy was when we traded him. Why isn’t that the comp?

      • Mike HC

        I thought Kennedy was a first rounder who ripped up the minors and was very highly thought of. He struggled for the Yanks in very limited time, but I don’t think Phelps in his class.

        • CJ

          Well said. I dont think his success in Arizona is a surprise. I think he either wasn’t ready or the dreaded but unfortunately common “couldn’t handle new York.”

  • craig

    I am wondering if the FO has any interest in Hughes as the closer after Mo retires? Phil has good control and has been better in short bursts.


    • Monterowasdinero

      His stuff isn’t as good as DRob’s-so no & soriano…

      • craig

        D-Rob walks too many people to be a closer and is not likely to repeat last year’s success. Soriano is likely gone in another year.

        I think it has some merit, although I think it will be a tough spot for whoever gets that role.

      • RetroRob

        He throws more consistent strikes, and for just one inning at a clip, it’s possible the Yankees are still better off with D-Rob pitching an inning-plus, and Hughes going one to close it out.

        What I’d really like to see is the Yankees breaking the current mold and create a bullpen of arms that can be interchanged in high-leverage situations. In other words, do something that hasn’t been done in a generation. D-Rob, Hughes and Joba, for example could all rotate in situations to end the game, but pitching more than one inning at a clip. As said, it’s never going to happen, but I hope one day the horrid saves rule is done away with. It’s ruined a part of the game.

        • Wayne Tolleson

          The Red Sox tried this several years ago, and it didn’t work for them. That’s not to say it couldn’t work for the Yankees, and in fact it makes sense to use your best RP’s in the most high leverage situations, which certainly isn’t always the 9th inning. However, your statement that it hasn’t been tried in a generation is not accurate.

    • Ted Nelson

      I think Hughes has a long way to go to even regain his form as an effective reliever. He was just not right last season. My 2013 it’s certainly possible, but with the level of uncertainty I can’t imagine the Yankees are thinking too hard about it.

      People keep talking about how he was effective in relief last season… but it was 3 appearances. His September ERA is shiny due in large part to a BABIP and LOB% that are probably unsustainable. His FIP and WHIP were both higher than in August.

  • http://www.yankeeanalysts.com Eric

    “This post was initially written prior to the Big Trade.”

    That’s what you get for writing your posts weeks in advance Larry!

  • j

    Phelps, Warren and Mitchell are all great wins for the Yankee scouting department. These are guys that weren’t thought of well by the consensus, but its probable all three will pitch in the show. Particularly Warren – the level of hate on that pick was amazing.

  • RetroRob

    Why do I keep thinking Phelps is going to be traded to the NL and will contend for the Cy Young Award one season?! : -)

    • Monterowasdinero

      Because he has 5 pitches and a darn good changeup?

  • Bavarian Yankee

    good read. I’ve always been a fan of Phelps and I really hope the Yanks give him a chance in the bigs. Even if he’s just a 5th starter: young pitchers with team control are very valuable these days and if he’s anything more than an average 5th starter then he might be a valuable rotation piece for years.