Much of the talk during the 2016 MLB Postseason so far has been about relief pitching.
Buck Showalter’s decision to not use All-Star closer Zach Britton in the AL Wild Card game got the conversation started, and Terry Francona’s extended use of Andrew Miller along with Dave Roberts’ Kenley Jansen-to-Clayton Kershaw end-of-game combination has kept the talk going.
Miller has been dominant while bridging the gap between Cleveland’s starter and closer Cody Allen, while Jansen stepped out of his usual ninth-inning role and was still successful.
The 2016 postseason has shown that there is a better way to manage a bullpen, and Don Mattingly better be taking notes, because in David Phelps, he has a bullpen weapon that can work like Miller and Jansen have.
Now, it’s clear that Jansen and Miller can’t be used this heavily in the regular season, and that roles do sometimes change in the playoffs, but the point still stands that versatile relievers are key for contending teams throughout the season. The Marlins have the lineup to contend again in 2017, and David Phelps can be versatile reliever that Miami needs.
With Andrew Cashner’s likely departure in free agency and the tragic loss of young phenom Jose Fernandez, the Marlins will need starting pitching going into 2017. Wei-Yin Chen is coming off the worst season of his career, and the Marlins hope to have guys like Tom Koehler, Adam Conley and Jose Urena in the rotation behind him, but those guys just won’t cut it.
Conley’s 2016 3.85 ERA is the best of those guys returning to the rotation, and the pot of free agents pitchers this offseason does not look promising at all, with guys like Rich Hill and Jeremy Hellickson topping the list.
Many will call for David Phelps to be in the rotation next season, and rightfully so. He posted a 2.22 ERA in five starts in 2016 while the opposition only hit .184 off him in those five games. However, Phelps averaged less than five innings per start, and the Marlins had to tax the bullpen every time he took the mound. If the Marlins can sign at least one serviceable starting pitcher in the offseason, it should be a no-brainer to use Phelps out of the bullpen to eat up multiple innings in key situations.
For one, Phelps faired very well out of the ‘pen in 2016. In 62.1 innings pitched, he recorded a 2.31 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. His numbers were inflated in high-leverage situations, but his 2.63 and .381 BABIP shows he was incredibly unlucky late in close games in 2016, and his 10.09 strikeout to walk ratio in high-leverage spots shows he can avoid contact at crucial times.
With the lack of starting pitching in the free agent market this offseason, Miami should hold off on trying to sign pitching right now, which could make for a rough season from the starting staff in 2017. However, the Rangers and Orioles both made the postseason with staff ERAs that ranked in the bottom half of baseball because both teams used their bullpens well and relied on the bats. That formula of the offense and bullpen carrying the load could be what the Marlins have to adopt in 2017.
When the starters can only get through five or six innings, it will be up to the bullpen to finish the job, and Phelps’ ability to be stretched out can help the Marlins bridge the gap to closer A.J. Ramos.
Phelps was mostly used one inning at a time out of the bullpen this season, as most relievers are, but he was also extended multiple times. Seven times he appeared for longer than one inning, and twice he stayed in for longer than two. In those seven extended outings, the right-hander allowed only 12 baserunners and one run while striking out 16.
On April 7 against the Nationals, after a rain delay caused starter Adam Conley to leave the game, Phelps bridged the gap to the back end of the bullpen by tossing four scoreless innings of relief, allowing only four baserunners and striking out three.
David Phelps will most likely never pitch to the level of dominance that Andrew Miller does, but he could get close, and his ability to pitch multiple innings will give the Marlins versatility in the bullpen in a year where the starting pitching could be subpar. Hopefully this October Don Mattingly is watching how Roberts, Francona and Joe Maddon manipulate a bullpen, and hopefully he realizes that David Phelps can be the weapon that gets him to same the same place as those other managers: the postseason.