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David Phelps combining velocity and command for success

Marlins starter David Phelps got his bump in velocity, and combined with his strong command inside the strike zone, this has led to surprising success even as a starter.

Miami Marlins v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

The Miami Marlins were forced to move David Phelps, who had been excelling in his bullpen role all season long, into the starting lineup thanks to various injuries to their staff. Phelps had been looking good in large part due to an increase in fastball velocity up almost three miles per hour from last season. A few days ago in advance of his Monday start against the Cincinnati Reds, we looked at the early returns and saw that Phelps retained that velocity as a starting pitcher thus far. That makes for a more intriguing option as a starter as opposed to a guy who would be limited only in a relief situation.

That did not change after Monday. Now three starts into a new 2016 season, David Phelps looks like the same guy through a 5 13 inning start as he did throwing one inning in relief.

Phelps, 2016 4-seam MPH 2-seam MPH Cutter MPH
Reliever 94.8 94.2 90.8
Starter 94.5 93.9 91.0

That is good news for the Marlins and great news for Phelps, who struck out eight batters in those 5 13 innings with only one walk and one homer allowed. Thus far in three starts, Phelps has gone an abbreviated 14 23 innings but put up a surprising 28.8 percent strikeout rate to go with an 8.5 percent walk rate. His 1.84 ERA looks great, and his 3.61 FIP looks pretty good in the context of a decimated rotation behind ace Jose Fernandez. Phelps through three starts has brought some much-needed rotation relief.

But the question once again becomes just how he is doing this?

Phelps may have increased his velocity, but a 93-94 mph fastball as a starting pitcher is not necessarily a special thing. Looking at his velocities by Pitch F/X in his starts, he would rank 16th to 20th in all of baseball in average fastball velocity were he to keep it up over a long haul. This is, of course, compared to guys who can also reach past the fifth inning more regularly than Phelps has thus far. While that kind of velocity would be in the upper third of guys who throw hard (a factor that had to be surprising for fans who watched Phelps last year), you have a feeling like velocity alone should not explain Phelps’s success. Edinson Volquez throws 93-94 mph and he is nowhere close to Phelps’s three-game run of performance.

It does not help that, unlike many starters who have hard-hitting fastballs, he does not complement that pitch with a great out-pitch to get hitters swinging and missing. Even the best fastballs do not do great jobs getting whiffs. Jose Fernandez’s 96 mph four-seamer averages whiffs on 21 percent of swings in 2016. Ditto for Stephen Strasburg. Max Scherzer, who has the hardest-breaking fastball into right-hander’s hands, has just a 25.7 percent whiff rate on swings against his fastball. Each of those guys depends on killer secondary breaking pitches, elite offspeed stuff, or both to garner their strikeouts.

Phelps does not have that kind of offering. He does, however, have a fastball that, through these three starts, has induced a whiff on 26.8 percent of swings.

How is that fastball doing this? Phelps is not the type of guy who dives his pitches out of the zone often. He follows the path of strikeout artists like Scherzer and David Price, who have a variety of unhittable offerings and the ability to get ahead with strikes by pounding the zone. Scherzer does his zone-pounding by working high fastballs in the strike zone; elevating the fastball gets guys to swing through it, and it can be used as a complement to his devastating slider to leave hitters confused. But Phelps does not have that luxury, as he does not have a fantastic curveball to buckle knees or keep hitters guessing. His out-pitch in 2016 has been the fastball, and he takes an approach opposite of Scherzer and many other pitchers: he throws fastballs away from hitters. This is his heat map for the season against right-handed hitters (all graphs courtesy of StatCast and showing catcher’s/hitter’s viewpoint):

Phelps relies not on tricky extreme movement but elite command on his fastball to always place it in a difficult location for hitters. He has spotted the fastball away from right handers and, in the most populous location, right on the border of the strike zone. If you are going to pound the zone, the best place to put it to induce weaker contact or perhaps bad swings is away from hitters, providing them less opportunity to turn on those pitches. Subsequently, Phelps completely ignores the inner half of the plate against righties with his fastball offerings. He cedes the inner half and, now armed with new velocity, has been challenging hitters to connect on low and away fastballs consistently.

At the same time, this is a prime example of both control and command, because not only is Phelps consistently placing his fastball low and away from righties, but he is rarely spraying it too far low and away to cause a ball. The location of those fastballs is highly centralized around the outer edges of the plate, and the darker colors do not expand much further beyond that. Compare that to someone who hits the zone less in Jose Fernandez.

You can see that Fernandez works in both areas of the plate, primarily high in the zone, but the use of the fastball extends to different areas. This may be a lack of command, something about which we were concerned earlier in the season, or it may be intentional, but either way, Fernandez’s approach takes him all over the place with the fastball. With Phelps, you know that 94 mph heat is going right to the outer corners.

It appears as though this has always been something that Phelps has done. He displayed a similar heatmap for his fastball last year when it was only traveling 90-91 mph on average. It is likely that Phelps learned to live on the edges and nibble with his fastball because when you throw that softly as a righty, there is little mystique in what you do. At a lower velocity, hitters were far more likely to turn on pitches, so Phelps had to avoid punishment by working consistently away. Now that he has velocity, he has retained enough command to keep nibbling, but he is now doing so with a faster weapon that is getting whiffs now instead of just fouled off pitches. If you look at Phelps’s use of the fastball last year versus this year, he is garnering four percent more swings and a similar number of balls and called strikes, but the largest difference has been in the number of balls put into play. The difference in balls in play against the fastball from last year to this year is about eight percentage points, and the increase in raw whiffs is at around seven percentage points.

It looks as though Phelps has gotten away by getting ahead inside the strike zone and continuing his approach of pounding the corners away from hitters in order to get whiffs on his rejuvenated fastball. None of this is a possibility without the added velocity, but it is very likely a lot of this success is due to the approach Phelps honed when he was a lesser pitcher nibbling at the corners as a control artist.