It’s 7:13 PM. You finally made it home from work, after dealing with horrendous traffic on your commute, and you’re starving. As you pull open your refrigerator a feeling of dread washes over you; you forgot to go grocery shopping. There’s a partial stick of butter in the door, a half-full jug of orange juice of questionable age, and a tupperware container of something that you know has gone bad but that you can’t bring yourself to actually remove. The cupboards are similarly barren. With one final Hail Mary, you pull open the freezer and half-heartedly rummage around empty ice cube trays and an alarming number of bags of frozen peas. Just as you’ve given up all hope, your hand lands on something cylindrical. You pull it out from beneath the freezer detritus and lift it joyously into the air. A frozen burrito!
David Phelps is that burrito.
He was acquired from the Marlins on July 20th of 2017, in exchange for Brayan Hernandez, Brandon Miller, Lukas Schiraldi, and Pablo Lopez, none of whom had played above AA. It was simultaneously an intriguing move, because it signaled that the Mariners were going to make a push for the wildcard, and immensely uninteresting, because, let’s be real, reliever acquisitions are the least exciting acquisitions.
In Phelps’ defense, he wasn’t always a boring reliever. For much of his career he was a starter or a swingman, deployed for long outings out of the bullpen or for the occasional spot start. When the Marlins first acquired him, as part of the Martin Prado- Nathan Eovaldi trade, they used him primarily as a starter, until they moved him permanently to the bullpen in 2016. With that move came a relatively sizable uptick in velocity, that proved largely responsible for making that season a career year; he threw 86.2 innings and struck out 114 batters while allowing only 38 walks.
The rise in the velocity of his four seamer interestingly correlated with the seeming retirement of his changeup.
He used the changeup with mild success as a starter with the Yankees, but struggled with it in Miami. As he has transitioned into a reliever it was less necessary for him to maintain that fifth pitch in his repertoire, and from the bullpen he works primarily with his four-seamer, cutter (the main weapon against lefties), sinker and curveball. It’s a pitch assortment that profiles him as a pretty weird reliever, based purely on the number of pitches he can throw, but one with the flexibility to start without complete disaster.
2017 wasn’t quite as successful as the previous season, but Phelps still proved himself to be a solid reliever overall, striking out 51 batters in 47 innings of work and posting a 3.69 FIP/3.45 ERA prior to the mid-season trade.
Since the start of 2016, only 14 relievers have 100+ IP with an ERA < 2.70. David Phelps is one of them. He has 5th most Ks among those 14.— Mark Feinsand (@Feinsand) July 20, 2017
In the minuscule sample size 8.2 innings that David Phelps pitched for the Mariners he proved his worth, with an 11.42 K/9, 12.2 BB%, and a pleasantly round 2.70 FIP, but then he went down with an elbow impingement at the beginning of August, returned briefly, and was then placed on the 60-day DL for a flexor bundle strain. Over this offseason he underwent successful surgery to remove a bone spur from his right elbow, and is expected to be ready for Spring Training.
Phelps is 31 this season - far from a spring chicken in baseball’s eternal quest for youth - but has only recorded one full season exclusively as a reliever, in 2016. Jerry Dipoto has spoken about Phelps’ versatility in the past, it was one of the things he stressed when Phelps was first acquired, but at this point it seems both unwise and unlikely that they’ll try converting him back into a starter. He has a not-insignificant injury history, and the Mariners’ starting rotation is already shaky enough; rather than haphazardly nail another wobbly piece of plywood to that structure, it makes more sense to invest in some fancy adhesive to ensure that all the plywood sticks together. It’s nice to know, though, that if all of a sudden a tornado tears through and rips the roof off of the structure, that fancy glue can become a serviceable piece of plywood to temporarily prevent any major leaks.
Come tornadoes, or elbow impingements, if the Mariners are going to have success with the proposed “Wolf Pack” strategy, the continued health and success of David Phelps is going to be critical.