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Contrary to popular belief, David Phelps has good stuff
Baseball scouting reports are merely a snapshot in time and are extremely fluid, but a prospect can be permanently branded as one thing or another based on that one moment in time and it could take years to overcome that public perception. Such is the case with David Phelps who, despite another fantastic season, seems to remain underrated.
It wasn't all that long ago, back in 2007 as a matter of fact, that Phelps was considered one of the premium pitching prospects in the country. He had just come off a stellar season for the Fighting Irish where he went 8-5 with a 1.88 ERA and became just the second Notre Dame pitcher to post over 100 strikeouts and a sub-2.00 ERA in history [former first-round pick Aaron Heilman was the first].
"I think David Phelps was one of the most dominating pitchers his sophomore year in all of the Big East," Notre Dame coach Scott Lawler said. "I don't think there was one time on a Friday night that we didn't think we weren't winning the game because he had three pitches, his fastball had life, he had a breaking ball with a ton of command, and a changeup to go with all of that, and pinpoint control."
Phelps had garnered national attention and seemed to be one to watch in the ensuing Cape Cod League, a collegiate wood bat league that's heavily scouted, later that summer.
What should have continued his coming out party actually could have altered the way he was judged on the prospect scene and negatively affected his ultimate draft status.
He made just a pair of starts and gave up 21 hits in a little more than eight innings before shutting it down, but the damage had been done.
"I think that summer after his sophomore year – he logged a lot of innings for us that year – I think he got tired in the Cape Cod League and didn't have a lot of success that summer," Lawler continued. "I think people started asking if he was the guy who starred as a sophomore or is he the guy in the Cape. And then his junior year was a good year, but not a great year, and I think that's what made him go down in rounds."
As Lawler pointed out, Phelps' junior year was a far cry from his sophomore campaign. He went just 5-5 with a 4.65 ERA and his draft stock continued to plummet.
"My junior year, I don't know what it was, but my stuff wasn't there when I needed it," Phelps said. "It was obvious, too, because I didn't have the success that I had the year before.
"I don't know why but my sophomore year I was throwing normal, and then that next year everything kind of dropped off a little bit and it didn't come back until I got to pro ball."
Phelps admits he might have put too much pressure on himself to bounce back with another great year and started worrying too much about where he was going to be drafted. His coach, however, believes there was a more tangible reason.
"I believe [going into] his junior year we felt the same way, that we had one of the most dominating pitchers in the Big East, but his breaking ball wasn't as sharp as it was the year before," Lawler said. "I think that was the only thing he didn't have.
"I don't care where you're pitching, if you're a three-pitch guy, that guy is going to be successful. I think that was the only difference between the two years."
Whether it was his slider pulling a vanishing act in his junior year or if it was him trying to be too perfect on the mound, the harsh reality was that the former projected early round talent fell all the way to the Yankees in the 14th-round.
He then pitched for the Staten Island Yankees later that summer, and it was the first time he had pitched that much in one year. So despite going 8-2 with a 2.72 ERA as one of the better pitchers on the staff, his one-time, low-to-mid-90s fastball had dipped down to the 88-91 mph range, and he still hadn't found his once dominating slider.
He ended his 2008 season, part of which came at Notre Dame and the other half in his professional debut season at Staten Island, facing the stigma of being a later-round pick with average stuff when just one year earlier he was anything but that.
Phelps began the 2009 season as easily the most unheralded pitching prospect in the Charleston rotation, a staff that included the likes of Manny Banuelos, Andrew Brackman, D.J. Mitchell, and Brett Marshall, all of whom had thrown better stuff the year before and all of whom had signed for significantly more money.
So when he began the year going 10-3 with 2.80 ERA for the Charleston Riverdogs, he continued to receive little fanfare, as most dismissed his success once again to smoke-and-mirrors when in actuality his stuff had rebounded to its 2007 form.
"His stuff got much better this year," Yankees minor league pitching coordinator Nardi Contreras said. "He came to Instructional League last year and we worked on that slider. The slider came around real nice. He got stronger and the velo got better."
Phelps, who had consistently sat 89-92 mph and touched 93 with his fastball in college, bumped his average up to the 91-93 mph range this past season and started topping out at 95 mph pretty routinely.
And the slider that had disappeared on him during his junior year at Notre Dame all the way through his season in Staten Island had come back with a vengeance.
"Mechanically, he did a great job developing his curveball and then started locating his slider to lefties inside," Charleston manager Torre Tyson said. "That was just a huge change for him."
"We tightened up his slider quite a bit," Charleston pitching coach Jeff Ware added. "It went from the low-80s to the mid-to-upper-80s, which is a big jump in velo. That was a big asset for him.
"It's just a tight, short slider compared to a bigger, loopier slider without a whole lot of bite to it. He started getting some late action on it as the season progressed."
Tampa starting catcher Austin Romine thinks his slider is more than just 'tight'.
"He's got a slider and I've never seen anyone throw this hard of a slider, and it really slides," Romine chipped in. "I've never seen anyone have that much velocity on a slider."
Adding in his normal big league average changeup and decent curveball, Phelps had rediscovered his once top form and finished his first full minor league season going a combined 13-4 with a 2.34 ERA between Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa.
He also helped the Tampa Yankees to a Florida State League championship on the strength of his 3-1, 1.17 ERA performance in seven starts after being promoted from the South Atlantic League.
"I felt like I was able to go start to bullpen and bullpen to start with the same kind of intensity and the same mechanics," Phelps said of his season. "I felt that was the biggest thing.
"When I finished up in Charleston I really felt my mechanics were really ironed out. Jeff Ware really helped me with that.
"And then when I got to Tampa I felt that Pav [Tampa pitching coach Greg Pavlik] did a good job of pushing those points that Jeff was driving home. In those last couple of regular season starts everything was kind of locked in."
Phelps credits improved mechanics with his resurgent stuff this past season, including dropping his hands lower in his delivery so that they touched his leg during his leg-kick as a mental checkpoint to separate his hands, giving him better command of his pitches.
"I know without that I'd still be a little inconsistent with my mechanics," Phelps said. "I'm nowhere near perfect by any means, but I feel good where I'm at. I feel like ironing those points out helped me be consistent on a regular basis, whether it be in my game or my side session."
And looking back at his falling out year as a junior at Notre Dame, in hindsight, he believes that mechanics were the biggest culprit.
"Another reason why my junior year was bad – looking back on it, my mechanics in college weren't good," he added. "It got to a point in my sophomore year where things were going really well so we just left them alone. We didn't mess with them.
"But in my junior year when things started going badly, we didn't know how to fix them. That played a huge role as to why I was so inconsistent.
"That was one of the things I was so excited about going to the Yankees, going in there with such great minds and great coaches. They simplified it for me, and the moment they simplified it for me, it all started to click.
"I always thought pitching was this complex thing, but the fewer parts you have in your delivery and the fewer things you have going on, the more strikes you can throw and the easier it is to repeat. That was one of the reasons I was so relieved to be picked up by the Yankees."
Now 21-6 with a 2.50 ERA in his professional career thus far and showing first round kind of stuff, that feeling of relief must be a two-way street for the Yankees who now must feel proud of snagging him so low in the draft.
"He went in the 14th-round? What? Wow, I didn't know that," Romine said this offseason. "I thought he was much higher than that. I mean he's a kid who throws mid-90s, 94-95 mph on good days, he's got an outrageous slider and I still haven't caught one that's harder than that, with that kind of movement still.
"The kid blows me away. Fourteenth [round], for a guy who shows that kind of stuff and puts up those kinds of numbers? Good for him."
The simple fact of the matter is 14th-round picks don't usually have this kind of success nor do they show this kind of stuff and looking back at what happened in that draft, Phelps must have slipped through the cracks.
"In his junior year, when he wasn't commanding some of his stuff," Lawler reflected back, "I think the times he didn't have command of his breaking ball there just happened to be a lot of teams to see him those days.
"Then he'd show flashes of the pitcher he was the year before and there would be a few [scouts] to see him, but not a lot. I think it's a credit to Mike Givens, the scout who drafted him, recognizing that."
So while his doubters continue to overlook his success and his stuff, it appears more likely that the Yankees nabbed themselves a draft day steal on a could-have-been first round talent and it's starting to show.
"He kind of put himself on the map as far as the Yankee pitchers go," Ware said. "Probably towards the first month or two of the season his velocity increased a little bit, he started locating his pitches, he was throwing a sinker to both sides of the plate, and that was a big deal.
"If you can command your fastball to both sides of the plate, that's a pretty big advantage you're going to have right there as a pitcher. He can do that."
Walking exactly two batters per nine innings in his career so far, Phelps now has the stuff to go with his superb control, and he's not just some obscure pitching prospect anymore.
"No question, huge upgrade, huge leap forward for him," said Mark Newman, the Yankees senior vice president of baseball operations. "He's a legit guy, and, by the end of the year, he's pitching at 93 and touching 95, and throwing strikes. We really like how far he's come."
"David Phelps just improved immensely," Contreras added. "His slider went from a tick below average to above average, the velo just kept getting higher, the changeup is there, the curveball we keep working to give him that fourth pitch so he has the pitch to get over whenever he needs it at times, and he's just going to get better.
"The kid is just turning things around for himself and he's got power in that arm. He's got power sink, he's got that power fastball, the plus slider, and the changeup and curveball.
"He's coming along real nice. He throw strikes and challenges guys, he goes right at them. He just says, ‘here's the ball and hit it if you can.'"
With two plus pitches in his fastball and slider as well as a big league changeup, further development with his curveball remains the biggest hurdle in his development right now.
Shaking the stigma of an organizational filler, a label too quickly thrown on later round draft picks out of college, isn't easy. But it's time for the pundits to start recognizing what team insiders already realize - David Phelps is talented.
"His velocity was way plus at times and the slider is a plus pitch already," Tyson said. "He's not short on stuff. I guess he got the reputation being a later round pick, and I heard he wasn't throwing as hard in Staten Island last year.
"He's throwing a lot harder now with more confidence, more command, and he's pitching to both sides of the plate. There's no doubt in my mind he's going to the big leagues.
"A guy like Phelpsy, when you're grading him out, he does have big league stuff. People keep saying he's short on stuff. He's not at all short on stuff."