David Phelps had another fantastic outing over the weekend, helping the Miami Marlins take the second of a three-game set against the Pittsburgh Pirates by going six strong innings on Saturday, striking out nine batters with two walks allowed and no runs through. In that start, he continued his hard-throwing ways, as it seems clear that a move at this point from the bullpen to the rotation is not going to take out his fastball velocity.
|Phelps, 2016||4-seam MPH||2-seam MPH||Cutter MPH|
Phelps has pitched 20 2⁄3 innings as a starter and has only lost about half a mile per hour on his fastball on average. Meanwhile, he is still confusing hitters badly with the pitch, earning a 28.8 percent whiff rate with the fastball. This is some strong stuff from a guy who previously was an add-on long reliever / spot starter in a trade.
In fact, interestingly enough, Phelps pitched a lot like the guy he was replacing in Miami, Nathan Eovaldi. Eovaldi also experienced a boost in fastball velocity, putting him among the hardest-throwing righties in baseball. He also pounded the strike zone in Miami as well, throwing it inside the strike zone (like Marlins pitchers are wont to do) 54.5 percent of the time from 2013 to 2014. Phelps has done the same; as a starter, he has thrown 127 1⁄3 innings since 2014, and he owns a 55.8 percent in-zone rate that is third in baseball behind only Rich Hill and Bartolo Colon among guys with at least 100 innings as a starter. Phelps, however, has added that elite command of his fastball and decent movement that eluded Eovaldi.
Over the last two years, Phelps has established his archetype. He uses a variety of fastball-type pitches, uses pinpoint command to locate them, and pounds the strike zone while somehow fooling hitters to not swing. Do any other pitchers follow this philosophy of throwing in the zone and confusing hitters with their location? Let’s take a look at a subset of guys who throw inside the strike zone more than 50 percent of the time since 2014 and selected a cohort of guys with some comparable figures of interest.
|David Phelps (2016 starter)||42||23||75||55|
The aspirations of having Phelps be someone like David Price or Max Scherzer is absurd. As much as Marlins fans want to have accidentally found someone that good, Phelps just is not either one of those guys. Price and Scherzer do throw in the strike zone often, but they induce swings, which is an important difference between them and him. Those swings, especially the ones outside the strike zone, are what differentiates strike zone pounders with elite starters with fantastic secondary stuff.
The remaining four pitchers may be a better comparison, and it is notable that not many of them were good pitchers since 2014.
|Jered Weaver||510 2/3||15.2||6.3||4.42||4.84|
|Hector Santiago||434 1/3||20.2||9.7||4.25||4.89|
Three of the pitchers essentially became what we classically think of as zone pounders. Because they throw heavily in the zone, batters miss some of the time, but they make up for it with a lot of in-zone contact. Because they do not induce out-of-zone swings that are far more likely to result in whiffs, they do not get many strikeouts. Those four players averaged a strikeout rate of 20 percent with a walk rate of 7.3 percent. Those by no means are terrible numbers, but they spell out middle-rotation starter. If you take out Rich Hill’s absurd 2015-2016 run as a starting pitcher, Fister, Weaver, and Santiago average a 16.7 percent strikeout rate, a 6.8 percent walk rate, and a 4.02 ERA with a 4.68 FIP to go along with it. Those numbers are not terribly far from what Phelps did in 2015 primarily as a starter.
However, none of those guys have a fastball velocity like Phelps’s. Phelps throws closer to 94 mph, which is around where Scherzer and Price throw. So Phelps is a blend of these two types of guys in terms of stuff. On one hand, he has the velocity that matches the swing-and-miss guys, and that gives us hope that he can continue to induce whiffs on that fastball. On the other hand, he still has a lack of swing-inducing secondary stuff, meaning hitters are going to take balls and called strikes in the zone and not offer as much.
Of the listed players, the most interesting names as best comparisons are Hill and Santiago. Santiago’s fastball is only at around 92 mph, but it has gotten whiffs on 21.5 percent of swings this season, which is close to where Phelps has been. He also throws in the zone at around the same rate and gets fewer than average swings. The problem with his fastball is that he does not locate it well command-wise, as he is all over the place against right-handers.
You can see that he is primarily in the center of the zone against right-handers with his fastball this season, and that poor location may play a role in why he seems to consistently allow fly balls. Santiago’s career fly ball rate is at 48 percent, and that alone explains his bad home run problem. Phelps is up to a 45 percent grounder rate this year and owns a 36 percent fly ball rate for his career, meaning he has just enough good command and downward movement on his pitches to avoid the homer problem that has otherwise defined Santiago’s struggles.
In fact, the command is better displayed by a guy like Hill, who has a specific area where he attacks right-handers.
Unlike Phelps, Hill primarily hits the outer upper half of the zone, but the premise is the same. Hill’s success hitting the strike zone consistently and the reason why he can get whiffs on 33 percent of his fastballs is that he locates well within the strike zone. Phelps has done a similar thing, attacking hitters on the outer half and forcing them to risk weak contact. With that added velocity, that may be just enough to force whiffs.
Overall, these comparisons may be somewhat encouraging. On the one hand, it is unlikely that Phelps pulls a continuing Hill impersonation and is a dominant starter. Hill has a dangerous 12-6 curveball, and while Phelps’s curve has been better, just last season it only got whiffs 14 percent of the time with just average location. He still does not have an elite second pitch, and he still has problems against left-handers. But if the average expectation going forward is a duplicate of Hector Santiago’s strikeout-walk ratios without the home run issues, this is an above-average starting pitcher. The small Rich Hill command upside makes Phelps a pretty intriguing player for 2016 and beyond, especially with two more seasons under team control. Miami may just have found themselves an unexpected diamond in the rough from that Yankees trade.