The Milwaukee Brewers made another low risk/high reward signing recently in the form of David Phelps. Not surprisingly the Brewers signed the reliever to a one year contract with an inclusion of a club option for 2021. Specifically, Phelps will make $1.5 million guaranteed with $1.25 million coming in 2020 and a $250,000 buyout in 2021 unless his $4.5 million option is picked up. He can make more if he hits certain performance benchmarks.
Phelps was once a high leverage reliever that demonstrated really good numbers in 2016 and 2017. In 2016 he posted his best season, pitching to a 2.28 ERA and a 2.80 FIP. He was able to strike out 11.84 per nine in that season. While not as strong as 2016, 2017 was also a good year. Phelps pitched to a 3.40 ERA and a 3.55 FIP while striking out more than 10 per nine.
Unfortunately he missed the entire 2018 season because of Tommy John surgery. Phelps came back in 2019 and pitched reasonably well. Splitting time between the Blue Jays and Cubs, Phelps pitched to a solid 3.41 ERA and 4.58 FIP across 34.1 innings pitched.
While his fastball did show a drop in velocity in 2019, it was his first year back from Tommy John. In fact he did not return to game action until the middle of June last season. It would be reasonable to surmise that Phelps’ velocity should uptick in 2020. A look at how his fastball velocity increased as 2019 progressed is cause for optimism.
His pitch distribution has also evolved between seasons starting in 2017. In 2016, Phelps threw his four-seam fastball quite a bit more (about 42%) than he did in 2017 (about 35%) and 2019 (about 25%). Obviously he might have been throwing less four-seam fastballs in 2019 because of the dip in fastball velocity. However there does seem to be more behind the change than that.
He also stopped using his two-seam sinking fastball as much. In 2017 Phelps threw his two-seamer about 22% of the time. He threw the same pitch about 17% of the time in 2017 and 2019. The difference was made up in the form of the cutter to a lesser extent (about a 6% increase in usage) and the curve ball to a greater extent (about 8% increase in usage in 2017 vs. 2016 and another 8.5% in usage in 2019 vs. 2017).
The reason for this is likely based as much on what he was no longer able to execute as the quality of his curveball. In 2016 he threw his four-seam fastball at wFA grade of +13.1 runs above average. With no drop in the pitch’s velocity between 2016 and 2017, he was only able to execute the pitch at a wFA grade of +2.4 runs above average. That is still good, but not very good like before. His cutter has been consistent year-over-year, but his curve did make up somewhat for the decline in four-seam fastball quality as he was able to execute the pitch at a wCU grade of +4.2 runs above average in 2017. Not surprisingly, all of his pitch values took a hit in 2019, and yet he was able to be solid coming back from injury.
With all of this in mind, I would argue that David Phelps is apt to replicate something like his 2017 for the Milwaukee Brewers. His velocity was increasing as the 2019 season wore on. Because of the uptick in velocity towards the end of the season, I would expect Phelps to return his 94-95 mph average in 2020. He also possesses quality spin rates on both his fastball and curve. With the right tweak here and nudge there, he might be able to replicate something that resembles the 2016 version of David Phelps. The Brewers have certainly done the same thing for other pitchers like Drew Pomeranz, Wade Miley, and Jordan Lyles.
There is something else that might bring optimism regarding Phelps. His exit velocity, xSLG, xBA, and xwOBA percentiles were not as effective in 2017 as 2016. In 2017 a record number of home runs were hit. In 2018 things went back to the norm in terms of home runs hit. Of course 2019 broke the 2017 mark for home runs hit in a season. In both seasons the baseball was cited as a contributing factor in the number of home runs hit. If we look at Phelps’ exit velocity, xSLG, xBA, and xwOBA percentiles in 2017 vs. 2016, we see a difference.
Might have the baseball in 2017 affected Phelps adversely as it is purported to have done to a number of pitchers in 2019? Supposing that the ball returns to something normal, might Phelps utilize his four-seam fastball more often? As a result, could Phelps become that high leverage, high end reliever at the back of the bullpen that would make the Brewers relief squad a force to be reckoned with? That is the most optimistic possibility.
A return to this level of velocity should allow his cutter and curve ball to play up. If that is the case, the Brewers have at the very least a solid reliever. If slight pitching modifications take hold, his fastball velocity returns to 2016-17 levels, his secondary pitches play up, and the baseball comes closer to the 2018 version as opposed to the 2017 or 2019 version then David Phelps just might have another elite season for the Milwaukee Brewers. Yet even if things do not work out optimally, the Brewers have likely found solid relief arm in the least.
On one more optimistic note about David Phelps, he is fully healthy coming into the 2020 season, and it seems like he will be another good clubhouse presence. Plus he and Christian Yelich go back. Speaking with Matt Slocum of the Associated Press, Phelps talked about reaching out to Christian Yelich, Craig Counsell’s utilization of his bullpen, and his health. All come off as encouraging for Brew Crew Nation.
”I reached out to him (Christian Yelich) when we were in negotiations, getting a feel for what the clubhouse was like and what it’s like playing in Milwaukee. Obviously, he had glowing reports and he’s one of those guys who’s opinion carries a lot of weight, for sure...I know Craig uses guys in a variety of ways. He seems to want to put his arm in a position to have success and that’s obviously incredibly attractive to a reliever...This offseason has been huge because I haven’t had a fully healthy offseason in a number of years. From a weight-room standpoint, from my throwing progression, everything is the best it’s felt in a long while.”
Baseball statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Savant