In many ways, the really talented guys in the system are easy to judge. Jesus Montero has a great scouting report, hits well, and meets expectations, or hits poorly and fails to meet expectations. The really fringy guys are easy to judge as well. Eric Wordekemper does not have major league stuff, so his performance doesn’t really matter. The guys in between are the hard part. David Phelps is an experienced, mostly talented starting pitcher whom the Yankees drafted out of Notre Damn in 2008.
After thinking about Phelps, the content of this post has changed. I originally wanted to sit down and write a “David Phelps, meet Pittsburgh Pirates”, but I think that I may be wrong. If I apply the criteria for a good prospect laid out in this post, I think Phelps actually stacks up pretty well. To review: those criteria are fastball velocity, innings pitched, strikeout rate and walk rate. In all of those departments, Phelps has made key improvements over 2009. Before I go into the criteria, here are his statistics:
Fastball Velocity – We’ve heard reports that Phelps throws between 89 and 95 mph with a two seem fastball. In reality, he’s probably a 90-93 mph thrower with a little bit of sink. That’s pretty strong, and he compliments it with a newly-improved slider. The sinker-slider combination is a pretty classic recipe for pitching, but also tends to produce misleading minor league numbers. For whatever reason, minor leaguers can’t handle the sinker-slider combination in any way proportional to how major leaguers handle it. I can’t count the number of sinker-slider guys who put up great numbers (but, and we’ll get to this, usually strikeout-light numbers) in High-A and Double-A before being knocked out in Triple-A or the majors. Hockey fans might know this as the “Alexander Daigle” effect. Luckily, the Yankees understand this, and it hasn’t seemed to ruin their confidence in Phelps.
Innings Pitched - Since being drafted, Phelps has been a healthy, reliable innings eater. He has yet to miss a start, and has put up a pretty consistent 5.8-6.0 innings per start rate all the way through the minor leagues. This means that he is fairly economical with his pitch counts, and consistent week to week. His healthiness is another big plus.
Strikeout Rate – Here’s the big improvement. Sinker-slider pitchers tend to dominate the low minors, but peter out as they rise through the minor leagues. Phelps has actually done the opposite. His K rate has risen as he has rises. Much of this can be owed to an improved slider. Phelps has also been knowing as more of a pitcher than a thrower, so there could be a little bit of added pitching aptitude in there too. His K rate dipped a bit in a half-season of Triple-A ball, but it still remained elevated from previous levels. The Yankees have been promoting him out of pure confidence.
Walk rate – Phelps has excellent control. He has enough stuff to throw strikes, and enough command to not throw balls. His walk rate has been pretty consistent. If nothing else, Phelps will be a major league starter somewhere just on the basis of being able to throw low 90s strikes.
The big question? Will Phelps be throwing his strikes out a first-division team like the Yankees, or will he join the ranks of interesting Yankee prospects throwing for the Pittsburgh Pirates. After thinking about it for a little bit, and sticking with my chosen criteria, I think that Phelps is going to be good enough to pitch for the Yankees. He has fewer warning signs than Ivan Nova, even if his ceiling is lower. The Yankees can probably rely on Phelps to be their first man out of the minors next season, and I could even see them give him an outside shot to earn the job in spring training. A 3.32 ERA at Triple-A is nothing to sniff at, and its made even better by his consistent K/BB ratio. He’s changed my opinion is six short months, and I hope the Yankees have noticed too.