Reliever Roundup: Strop to the Reds, Phelps to the Brewers

We’re not scraping the bottom of the free agent barrel quite yet. Yasiel Puig remains available, as do a number of lesser but still valuable big league types, like Collin McHugh, Brian Dozier, and Kevin Pillar. We are at the point in the winter, however, when we can start filing a few of the lesser signings in a joint roundup. The special on this particular menu is middle relievers fleeing the Cubs for big league deals with NL Central rivals — come for the Pedro Strop news, stay for the briefing on David Phelps. Or vice versa; do as you please.

Pedro Strop — Cincinnati, one year, $1.825 million, up to $3.5 million with incentives

Many moons ago, when Strop was toiling away in the Rockies farm system, he led the Northwest League in strikeouts. That’s not normally the kind of achievement that merits acknowledgement all these years later, except for the fact that he did so as a hitter (and to be fair, he was in good company; future All-Star Michael Saunders finished second in that category). Nonetheless, 86 strikeouts in 247 plate appearances marked the end of his time as an infielder. Colorado tried him on the bump the following spring, and after striking out 35 hitters in his first 26 minor league innings, he was on his way to bigger and better things.

Now 34, and with a ring and almost $30 million in the bank, Strop is coming off of his worst season in nearly a decade. Over 50 games and 41 innings, he posted a pedestrian 4.97 ERA with a 4.53 FIP, snapping a string of six consecutive sub-3.00 ERA campaigns. Never a control specialist, his 11.2% walk rate was the highest mark he’d permitted since 2012. The bigger problem, though, was the homers. He surrendered six of them, a career high, and more than double his career HR/9 rate. Alongside, Strop’s average fastball dropped a tick and a half relative to career norms and he enticed fewer whiffs with both his fastball and the slider that he’s long relied on as an out pitch.

A couple of injuries bear some of the blame here. Strop pulled his hamstring in late April, and the injury eventually flared up badly enough to require a trip to the IL in May. This now qualifies as a recurring problem for Strop, who first damaged it while running the bases back in 2018. Later in the season, a neck strain put him on the shelf for another 10 games during the dog days of summer.

There are a couple ways of looking at all this. On the one hand, at the very start and end of the season, Strop looked fine. In his first and last outings of the season, he was hitting 95 on the gun while missing bats and mostly getting people out. He was perhaps a little bit wilder than normal down the stretch, but by the end of the year he looked like his usual self: In September, hitters batted .103 with no power against him, as he struck out 13 and allowed two earned runs in nine innings of work. Vintage Strop, more or less.

On the other hand, there are red flags all over the place. Recurring injuries, even in the legs, aren’t good for a pitcher in his mid-30s. For a guy who has never been a true workhorse, they’re all the more concerning. Even worse, the strong results he notched down the stretch look suspicious under the microscope. Those 13 strikeouts in September? Simply the product of more foul balls and called strikes than usual. In fact, Strop’s whiff rate on the slider that month was a full 10 percentage points lower than it was over the rest of the season. And while he hit 95 here and there, he also had outings where he sat a full three ticks lower than that.

All of this explains why a guy with Strop’s pedigree is taking an incentive-laden deal with less than $2 million in guaranteed money. There’s a real chance that age and injuries have dimmed the hum on his fastball and softened the bite on his slider; if that’s the case, he’s more of a generic reliever than a seventh- or eighth-inning weapon.

Of course, with a winter of rest, he may show up this spring looking like the mid-decade version of himself. If so, the Reds will have themselves a steal, another solid reliever to compete for innings at the back of what should be a pretty good bullpen. Strop would then get a year to prove that he still has plenty in the tank, all the while pitching for a team that should be in the thick of a pennant race. This isn’t the deal of his wildest dreams, but it offers both player and team a nice blend of security and upside with a chance to regroup at the end of the season.

David Phelps — Milwaukee, one-year, $1.5 million guaranteed with a $4.5 million club option for 2021

Phelps missed all of 2018 after tearing his UCL during spring training. The subsequent Tommy John surgery kept him off the field until June of last season, when he appeared in Toronto’s bullpen with little fanfare. A tidy month and a half of work enticed the Cubs, who acquired him as they retooled their bullpen for the stretch run. In the Windy City, he outperformed his peripherals across 17 innings of work, walking an unusually high number of hitters and mostly getting away with it. More importantly for his future, he demonstrated that he could still strike guys out, and do so often enough to earn a seven-figure contract.

Still, it’s not clear that Milwaukee will be getting the pre-surgery version of Phelps. That pitcher was quietly one of the better middle relievers in baseball for a couple years. In 2016 and 2017, he had the 16th best whiff rate and 28th best FIP among all relievers in baseball — narrowly outpacing Strop, of all people, in both categories.

He didn’t quite reach the same heights in 2019:

Shaking off the Rust
2016-17 2.82 3.13 3.47 29.30% 11% 0.69
2019 3.41 4.58 5.01 24.50% 11.6% 1.31

What changed?

The obvious answer is that he had more trouble throwing strikes than usual, which is both true and not particularly worrisome for a pitcher returning from Tommy John.

But Phelps wasn’t throwing as hard last season as in previous years. His heater was down about two ticks from 2016 and 2017, with a corresponding dip across the rest of his arsenal. He never had a big bat-misser even at his best, a trend that was even more apparent last year, when none of his offerings enticed better than an 11% whiff rate.

As he has throughout his career, Phelps survived on the strength of his fastballs. He throws a sinker, cutter, and four-seamer, and the three offerings pair well with each other. Cumulatively, he threw nearly 300 four-seamers and sinkers and allowed one measly extra base hit — a double at that. The movement on the sinker in particular is dramatic and visually impressive:

Phelps earns his keep despite mediocre control and the lack of a notable swing-and-miss pitch. Running a not particularly fast nor notably spinny fastball off of barrels isn’t exactly how most pitchers draw it up in 2020, but there’s something kind of comforting and retrograde about a pitchability type like Phelps. He may not be the guy you want on the mound with the bases loaded in a one-run game in the ninth, but he’s not being asked to do that job. He’ll work middle relief for the Brewers, and if his velocity or control comes back a bit, he may even craft a larger role for himself. He’s a little weird and a little different. Sometimes that’s enough.

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4 years ago

This is something that was bound to happen sooner, sounds much good as of now.

Noel Smith

Ukranian to Vietnamese to French is back
4 years ago
Reply to  ponef