Phillies Upgrade Battered Bullpen with Phelps

The Phillies’ bullpen has been lit for an astronomical 7.01 ERA thus far, and over the past two weeks, general manager Matt Klentak has been busy trying to bolster it. On Monday, as the trade deadline approached, the team made another move, acquiring righty David Phelps from the Brewers in exchange for a trio of players to be named later. The move reunites Phelps with manager Joe Girardi, under whom he pitched for the Yankees from 2012-14 while earning the exceptionally creative nickname “Phelpsie.”

The 33-year-old Phelps, who signed a $1.5 million one-year deal in January, put up a 2.77 ERA and 2.75 FIP in 13 innings while posting eye-opening strikeout and walk rates (41.7% and 4.2%, respectively). Per Pitch Info, Phelps’ four-seam fastball has ticked upwards in velocity, and he’s been emboldened to work upstairs with it.

After averaging 92.8 mph with his four-seamer last year, which he split between the Blue Jays and Cubs while posting a 3.41 ERA and 4.58 FIP in 34.1 innings, Phelps is averaging 94.6 mph this year. He’s actually throwing it less, and using his sinker and cutter more frequently, with the former picking up steam as well:

David Phelps Pitch Type and Velocity
Year FA% vFA FC% vFC SI% vSI CU% vCU
2017 35.1% 94.7 28.2% 91.2 16.9% 92.6 27.8% 80.2
2019 25.9% 92.8 28.7% 89.6 22.2% 94.3 21.7% 81.8
2020 18.7% 94.6 37.4% 90.5 27.0% 91.6 17.0% 80.6

Some of those gains actually constitute a reclaiming of ground Phelps lost after undergoing Tommy John surgery in March 2018; he didn’t return until June 17, 2019. His remixed arsenal has helped boost his overall swinging strike rate from 7.8% in 2019 to 12.4% this year. Via Statcast, he’s getting a staggering 30.8% swinging strike rate on his four-seamer (up from 6.7% last year), including a major league-high 28.2% in the upper third of the strike zone or higher (up from 5.5% last year). Likewise, his swinging strike rate on his curve has risen from 10.7% to 19.6%.

Phelps joins a bullpen that has been dreadful, owning not only the major’s worst ERA but its worst homer rate (1.96 per nine), fourth-worst FIP (5.43), fifth-worst strikeout rate (21.6%), and seventh-worst K-BB% (11.8%). Injuries have been a big part of the problem. The team expected to have both David Robertson and Seranthony Domínguez at some point this season, but instead both are out due to Tommy John surgery. Robertson, who made just seven appearances last year before suffering what was believed to be an injured flexor tendon, had the surgery last August and recently experienced a setback that will rule out a 2020 return, while Domínguez, who sprained his UCL in June 2019, was hoping to rehab without surgery, which he finally underwent on July 30 of this year.

Of the 18 pitchers (not including position player Neil Walker) who have made a relief appearance for the Phillies thus far, six have ERAs in the double digits, and 12 have ERAs of 5.00 or higher, with 13 posting FIPs of 5.00 or higher — obviously all in small sample sizes, but yeesh. Newcomer Brandon Workman, who has taken over the closer role since being acquired from the Red Sox on August 21, has been somewhat effective, but his fellow ex-Red Sox, Heath Hembree, has not, and righty David Hale, who was acquired from the Yankees on the same day, has already been designated for assignment.

With the Phillies, Phelps should instantly move into a late-inning role, likely setting up for Workman alongside Héctor Neris. He has appearance-based incentives that can add to his base salary of $1.25 million, and a $4.5 million club option with a $250,000 buyout for 2021. This is the third time in four seasons that Phelps has been traded at or near the deadline. On July 20, 2017, he was sent from the Marlins to the Mariners for four prospects, including current Marlins reliever Pablo López, while last year, he was traded from the Blue Jays to the Cubs for Thomas Hatch.

At this writing, the identities of any of the players in the return are unknown, meaning that in all likelihood, they aren’t part of the Phillies’ 60-man pool. The team did announce that it will receive three players from the Brewers; call it a fistful of lottery tickets. Milwaukee’s bullpen currently ranks third in the National League in FIP (4.16) and fourth in ERA (4.14) while showing considerable depth. Four other Brewers relievers besides Phelps have thrown at least 10 innings with ERAs and FIPs below 4.00, and Josh Hader is one out shy of joining that count.

[Update:’s Adam McCalvy reports that the Brewers will get three young righties, namely 19-year-olds Juan Geraldo and Israel Puello, and 20-year-old Brandon Ramey, the last of whose birthday is today. All of them struck out more than 30% of the hitters they faced in Rookie ball in 2019; Ramey and Geraldo in the Gulf Coast League, Puello in the Dominican Summer League. In February, Eric Longenhagen wrote that Ramey, a 30th-round pick in 2018, “is a very tall young righty with a lower arm slot. His changeup has a chance to be very good.”]

Without knowing the prospects it’s impossible to fully evaluate this trade, but from a present-day standpoint, it’s an interesting one given that both the Phillies (14-15) and Brewers (15-18) are scrambling for playoff spots; by winning percentage, the former’s .483 ranks seventh, the latter’s .455 10th. It seems unlikely that one move could swing a playoff spot one way or another between them, but in 2020, stranger things have already happened.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
3 years ago

There are at least reports that the players are Brandon Ramey, Israel Puello, Juan Geraldo.

Also in the second to last paragraph, the article mentions the Brewers 60-man pool and getting 3 players from the Brewers, when surely it should say Phillies there.