You could make a pretty strong argument that last night was the best start of David Phelps‘ young career, but I think we can all agree that it was his biggest start as a big leaguer. The Yankees need to win as many games as possible from here on out, and the 25-year-old right-hander shook off two miserable outings against the Orioles to give the team 5.2 innings of one-run ball in Fenway Park. That’s not easy to do, and all it took was getting ahead in the count.
“The last two starts prior to this one I was behind in a lot of counts and I wasn’t pounding the strike zone early,” said Phelps after the game. “I told myself I wanted to come out and if they were going to swing first pitch, I was going to make them hit it. I just went out there and tried to get ahead in the count. I can attack a lot more when it’s 0-1 vs. 1-0.”
Phelps threw first pitch strikes to 14 of the 21 batters he faced (66.7%), far better than the 53.7% first pitch strikes (22-of-41) he threw against the Orioles these last two times out. His season average is 62.8% first pitch strikes, a bit better than the 59.9% league average. They say strike one is the best pitch in baseball, but here’s the crazy part: batters have actually hit Phelps harder (relative to the league average) after he’s jumped ahead to a 0-1 count than when he falls behind 1-0. That’s the exact opposite of what you’d expect, but look…
Now there are clearly sample size issues here, which is inevitable when a guy has only thrown 84.1 innings and faced 349 batters on the season (the missing 50 batters put the ball in play on the first pitch). Opponents have hit 28% better than the league average after falling behind 0-1 to Phelps compared to 24% worse when getting ahead 1-0. Although Phelps deserves some credit for being able to battle back to retire hitters following a first pitch ball (he’s also gotten some BABIP love in those spots as well), the big problem is that he’s giving up way too many extra-base hits after getting ahead. He’ll often follow up that first pitch strike with a second and third pitch ball, putting the hitter back in control.
The season numbers don’t bear it right now, but Phelps is the exactly the kind of guy who needs to throw a lot of first pitch strikes to be successful. He doesn’t have blow-you-away type stuff, but he does throw four pitches and jumping ahead in the count opens a lot of doors for him. He didn’t get ahead in the count enough in his last two starts against the Orioles and he paid dearly for it, allowing eight runs in 8.2 innings in two important games. David got back to throwing strike one last night and both he and the club reaped the rewards.