David Phelps, D.J. Mitchell, and Adam Warren were considered long shots to make the team at the beginning of camp. This year we found out why teams bring in so many players to compete for what appears to be so few spots. Just like that, two injuries put Phelps, Mitchell, and Warren at the forefront of a battle for long man duties. Phelps ended up the winner, and to the victor goes the spoils. In this case the spoils are major league innings in blowout or losing efforts, with occasional close game in a swing man role.
This all may seem insignificant, since his role will be more of an innings eater than anything else. I assure you it is a huge deal to David Phelps and his people though. It would also be foolish to deny that these innings can be extremely important. Alfredo Aceves won 10 games for the Yankees in 2009 in that role, and another 10 games for the Red Sox last year. Make no mistake about it this was an important decision for the front office, and they made the right choice.
Let’s look at the obvious first. Statistics in Spring Training, as meaningless as they are, have to be a consideration. The bottom line is if someone is performing well it is still likely to show up in the numbers. In this case, David Phelps had an ERA of 2.08 with 14 K in 17.1 IP. He had a .239 BAA and had just four walks. DJ Mitchell was equally as impressive, with a 2.6 ERA and 13 K in 17.1 IP. He held batters to a .200 average, but did walk nine people. As impressive as Warren looked early on, he finished with a few rough outings that took him out of the competition. His final statistics were a 4.8 ERA, and 8 K in 15 IP. He had a .305 BAA, and surprisingly only walked one.
From the data above, it is obvious this was a two horse race by the end of camp. The statistics were close enough that the coaches could have justifiably chosen either one. Going back to Triple-A last year, Mitchell and Phelps’ stats were just as uniform.
This decision ended up coming down to a few factors. The first and most obvious is stuff. DJ does have a sinking fastball with a ton of movement, with a nasty curve ball and a great changeup to boot. For a bullpen pitcher, however, he hasn’t yet shown the velocity that you hope for. There are plenty of relief pitchers who have success without velocity, but there is less margin for error. Compared to DJ Mitchell’s 90 mph fastball, Phelps has been sitting in the 92-94 range with some 95’s mixed in. His secondary stuff has been great, and he’s striking guys out. It was in his 5th inning against the Orioles that I believe David Phelps earned his right to don the pinstripes. Two ground balls snuck by the infielders to start the inning, putting a man on second and third. At least one of those ground balls shouldn’t have been a hit, but this didn’t phase Phelps. He proceeded to strike out the next three batters, all major leaguers. That’s the type of guy you want in your bullpen.
Another huge consideration in this decision was control. Phelps showed better control both in Spring Training and last year in Triple-A. Mitchell struggled with control in Spring Training, which is uncharacteristic of him. Given his lower velocity he does have a lower margin of error, as discussed above. Low margin for error and missing control raises a red flag. I’m not saying DJ Mitchell wouldn’t have been good in this role, but that’s why Phelps will be better. The long man in the bullpen has to attack batters and eat innings. Phelps fits that profile.
There is someone in the Yankees bullpen already who is very similar to DJ Mitchell. Mitchell has drawn many comparisons to Cory Wade, and for good reason. Both have low 90’s velocity, and both have found success with movement on the fastball and excellent secondary pitches they are able to locate. In other words, we already have a Cory Wade. Having two pitchers like this on your roster at the same time could present problems. It is questionable whether you’d be able to use them in the same game. In the role that Mitchell would be playing on this team, they would be vying for innings in the same types of games, putting Wade at a disadvantage when he comes in after a team has faced a pitcher just like him. Finally, Wade is having a rough Spring. If that Spring spills into the regular season, then Mitchell could serve as a perfect replacement for Wade, who still has options. He’d fill the same role, except hopefully more effectively.
It’s also pertinent to discuss factors that were working in DJ Mitchell’s favor. One of the things that had to be weighing on Cashman’s mind is that Phelps has more future starting potential, while DJ Mitchell is more likely to end up in the bullpen. It’s possible, although unlikely that those roles have switched in the eyes of the Yankees brass. Knowing the Yankees, they simply chose the man who they felt would excel the most at this job and Phelps rightfully won out.
The most important decision making factor for the Yankees had to be who helps the team the most right now. Phelps fits the bill better than any of the other Triple-A starters. This is a great opportunity for him to prove he can get major league hitters out. Reinforcements are on their way, as Pettitte will be in the Bronx as soon as he is ready, so he may not have much time to show what he can do. If he proves he can get major league hitters out, his value increases exponentially.
Phelps has the experience, poise, and stuff that has earned him a slot in the New York Yankees bullpen. He deserves this chance more than any of his competitors, and appears ready to make a splash this year. Hopefully he proves in a short amount of time that he is indispensable to the team, and remains on the major league roster permanently.