JFtC Blue Jays Hot Stove

David Phelps: Blue Jays make an interesting buy-low relief signing

 

The Toronto Blue Jays buy low on a reliever that could prove to be a rather nice bit of business

 

 

 

 

Thursday night, Shi Davidi reported that the Blue Jays had signed relief pitcher David Phelps to a one-year contract with $2.5 million guaranteed and a club option. MLB Trade Rumours had the incentive and option details:

“The 2020 option price will start at just $1MM. It goes up to $3MM if he appears in 30 games and hits $5MM if he makes his 40th outing. If Phelps reaches fifty appearances the option will jump to $7MM; it can climb by another $1MM if he also finishes forty games, which obviously would not take place unless he earns and keeps the Jays’ closer job for much of the season.

In terms of incentives, Phelps can boost his 2019 pay quite a bit if he’s able to get on the hill early and often. He’ll get a quarter-million boost upon throwing his 25th, 30th, and 35th games, then take home successive $350K payouts if he can reach appearances 40, 45, 50, 55, and 60. The option year also has available incentive pay.”

 

The Blue Jays are making an interesting bet when it comes to signing Phelps, a pitcher who became a full-time reliever in 2016 with the Marlins and stuck in the role in 2017 with the Marlins and Mariners. On the one hand is his Tommy John surgery—there will always be an element of risk when a team signs a guy who missed the previous season with injury.

 

On the other hand is the question of Phelps’ true talent as a relief pitcher, given his somewhat divergent performances in 2016 and 2017. While his walk rate remained almost identical (10.8% and 10.9%), his strikeout rate fell from elite (32.3%, 90th percentile among qualified RP) to just above-average (26.1%, 60th percentile). A previously strong K-BB% (21.3%, 81st percentile) fell below average (15.1%, 44th percentile) as a result. Fewer strikeouts plus a few more home runs—his HR/9 went from 0.58 (79th percentile) to 0.81 (63rd percentile)—caused Phelps’ FIP to worsen—from 2.75 (86th percentile) to 3.55 (62nd percentile).

 

In 2016, in addition to striking out batters at a top ten percent rate, Phelps generated weak contact better than most pitchers, producing a .338 xwOBA on batted balls (63rd percentile). The combination of strikeouts and weak contact drove him to a .259 xwOBA overall (86th percentile). In 2017, his xwOBA on batted balls ballooned to .391 (19th percentile), driving his overall xwOBA to .318 xwOBA (23rd percentile).

 

While it’s worth highlighting the step back he took in 2017, it’s also important to assess his talent as a reliever with as much data as possible. He has made 164 relief appearances (203 IP) since his rookie season (2012), performing at a roughly league average level—3.61 FIP (52nd percentile), 3.33 ERA (52nd percentile), 3.73 xFIP (55th percentile) and 3.49 SIERA (44th percentile). He even rates as roughly average in terms of Statcast metrics, with a .288 xwOBA (62nd percentile) between 2015 and 2017.

 

The Blue Jays are making a $2.5 million bet on David Phelps’ true talent being closer to his 2016 season than his 2017 season, exactly the kind of thing they should be doing when filling the 2019 roster. It’s obviously not as fun or exciting to write about and applaud these kinds of moves as it is to get excited about the kinds of moves the Brewers have been doing the last two off-seasons or what the Blue Jays did in 2015, but this is where the team is right now. We can see the bright future that’s coming, perhaps something a lot like Milwaukee’s present, so we might as well enjoy the chess moves of signing reclamation projects for the purpose of trading for more prospects. I’m certainly in for another Chad Spanberger/ Forrest Wall-type of return in late July.

 

 

 


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Jeff Quattrociocchi

I'm an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.