David Phelps was not the reason why the Miami Marlins lost their rubber match against the San Francisco Giants yesterday afternoon. He threw five innings of one-run ball, with the only run allowed on a homer. In the meantime, he struck out five hitters and walked three. It was the second straight decent outing for starter Phelps, who was moved from his back-of-the-bullpen role he adapted early in the season to the rotation due to ongoing injury issues in Miami.
When the Phelps move was made, I argued that he may not fare well as a starter because velocity may be the only reason why he has missed enough bats and pitched well out of the pen, and you figure his velocity would go down trying to spare himself for more innings. It also weakened Miami’s bullpen by pulling one of its best members out. Well, the latter may still be happening, especially with A.J. Ramos out injured and Fernando Rodney taking over as the closer for now, but as for any velocity concerns from Phelps, he seems to be quieting them for now.
|Phelps, 2016||4-seam MPH||2-seam MPH||Cutter MPH|
As you can see, Phelps has kept up with his velocity in the move from one inning to several. In his brief 9 1/3 innings pitched, the fastballs and cutter have all remained at right around the same speeds as the work he was doing out of the pen, and that has to be impressive for the Marlins. Phelps was a more valuable pitcher this year when we saw him throwing the ball significantly harder to start the year, but we were uncertain whether that would continue. Also, given the fact that he was working strictly out of the pen, it figured that maybe he was throwing harder knowing he was going just an inning or so. It was hard to imagine that Phelps had done something drastically different to garner velocity.
However, there were signs of this being a “real” change rather than one strictly caused by a shift to the bullpen. Phelps did not spend much time out of the pen last year, but he did throw 16 1/3 innings in total out of the bullpen with the New York Yankees before arriving here. Back then, he was still averaging 91.7 mph on his fastball, a distinclty lower number than he was putting up this year, while knowing his role was in a relief capacity. He had time to be a reliever before and he never threw this hard. Why would we think it would be any different in 2016?
There is one thing different about this season potentially that was not present before. Phelps had been dealing with “forearm strains” and “right elbow inflammation” that had been keeping him out of action for two previous seasons in New York, and last year things came to a head when he suffered a stress fracture in the radius of his right forearm, ending his 2015 season. While there was no surgical intervention and casting was likely used to help heal, perhaps this stress fracture had been the sort of problem that had been building during his early years in New York as well. It is unlikely he had that, but it is possible that more rigid immobilization that would come with recovery from a fracture allowed for better healing for Phelps than time spent doing steroid injections and physical therapy alone. Maybe that extra time to heal from the start of August in 2015 stretching into the offseason was exactly what Phelps needed to get his full strength in his arm, unlocking the velocity he did not show in New York.
Of course, this could just be two starts for Phelps, and that velocity could start dipping again. But if he keeps even 50 percent of these gains, a jump of one mile per hour on that fastball would likely make him a better pitcher than he was last season. In those two starts, he is showing that he has retained what has made him a good reliever in 2016. He has struck out a reasonable 23.1 percent of batters faced, while the walk rate has remained at 10.3 percent. He is still throwing the ball in the strike zone a huge amount, at 54 percent of the time, just as he did in the bullpen. Hitters are still swinging at pitches in and out of the strike zone at the same rates as well.
It is only two starts, but it is a promising set of starts for a guy who had plenty of question marks around him. Phelps has retained some of his fastball velocity, and even if he still does not miss a lot of bats, it could be enough if he is throwing harder to be a decent option in the back of the rotation.