David Phelps and first pitch strikes

Mapping out the rotation for the rest of the year
The Yankees could use some relief
(Jared Wickerham/Getty)

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…

After 1-0 122 20 0 0 5 21 16 0.76 .204 .361 .357 .718 3 .195 76
After 0-1 177 41 8 0 7 8 63 7.88 .247 .282 .422 .704 1 .347 128
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/13/2012.

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.

Mapping out the rotation for the rest of the year
The Yankees could use some relief
  • jim p

    Waldman or Sterling had spoken with Schilling before the game, and he said Phelps had the makings of an outstanding starter.

  • RetroRob

    I’ve been a Phelps supporter going back a good year and a half, meaning I think he has the stuff to help the big league club. He’s probably no more than a total back-end starter in the AL East, but his best role is probably the swing man. Quality innings out of the pen, and serving as the 6th man for the rotation. With the return of Pettitte, it’ll be good to have him back in the pen to provide needed depth…and hopefully less Cody Eppley.

    • Robinson Tilapia

      I would love, LOVE, for this to the beginning of a solid career in the back of the rotation for him.

  • JAG

    I assume it goes along with the natural result of falling behind 1-0, but good lord look at the opponent’s OBP in 1-0 vs. 0-1. Obviously the SLG is the bigger issue, but holy crap.

  • http://www.twitter.com/vinnyscafuto Vinny S.

    I’m curious to see what Phelps’s role will be with the team next year assuming he doesn’t become trade bait. He’s obviously done enough to prove that he can be a good back-end starter and we’ve seen that his strikeout ability plays up in a relief role.

  • Dela G

    move nova to the bullpen, phelps is a definite starter

    • Will (the other one)

      Probable comment this time last year: “move XXXXX to the bullpen, Nova is a definite starter.”

      We know what Nova’s capable of when he’s at his best, and I hope we can all agree that it’s more impressive than what we’ve seen out of Phelps thus far. This isn’t in any way a knock on Phelps, who’s definitely exceeded my expectations thus far; it’s an expression of my belief that we shouldn’t judge Nova’s future as a big-league pitcher based solely on his performance this year.

      • Dela G

        i’m specifically talking about the rest of the season, not for the future

        • Jim Is Bored

          Phelps has one OK start after a few terrible starts and all of a sudden he’s a definite starter.

          If only people had this patience with other young pitchers…

  • Robert

    Starters CC,Hughes,Kuroda,Nova and Phelps,Pettite who goes and who stays in 2014???

    • Bobby two knives

      based on recent history, they all stay – somehow. And how much starting pitching is too much? See 2012 season.

  • Bobby two knives

    ooops; that’s for 2013, not 2014.

  • JU

    All it took was not having Russell Martin behind the plate doing his best Jorge Posada impression, and refusing to let Phelps throw more than two pitches… Phelps last two outing prior to last nights with Stewart made me wonder if Martin had recently cut off his ring and pinky fingers…