Battle for 5th Starter Heating Up
While everybody in Yankees camp has focused on what the Opening Day lineup will be with the injuries to Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson, a nice battle has been brewing for the fifth spot in the Yankees rotation. Ivan Nova and David Phelps have both been outstanding this spring. Nova threw four shutout innings yesterday against Tampa and has an ERA of 1.00 this spring. Meanwhile, Phelps has a minuscule ERA of .64 in 14 innings this spring.
If things continue to stay this way with both guys pitching well, Nova should and probably will get the job. Nova has more natural talent and potential than Phelps, so that should give him the edge if all things are equal like this. Especially, since Phelps has experience in the bullpen and Nova does not.
Last season, Phelps was the better pitcher, but that certainly does not mean that will happen again. Phelps pitched to a 3.34 ERA and a 4.32 FIP over 99.2 innings last season, while Nova pitched to a 5.02 ERA and a 4.60 FIP over 170 innings.
Phelps certainly performed better than Nova last season, but he may have had a little bit of luck on his side as well. Phelps got more strikeouts (8.67 K/9) then you would predict given his stuff last season. He got a lot of those strikeouts with good late movement with his fastball (27.06% called strike %) and his sinker (25.51 called strike %). It will probably be in the scouting report this year to look for that.
Also, Phelps was a fly ball pitcher in Yankee Stadium last season, as he had a 38.4 % FB% compared to a 42.9 GB%. That is a dangerous way to live at Yankee Stadium and you would have to think more of those fly balls will turn into home runs this season.
An advantage Phelps does have over Nova is his mental makeup. Phelps just seemed to have a great idea of what he was doing on the mound and he was not phased by anything. That is half the battle. Meanwhile, Nova got a little cocky last season, which might have affected his performance.
Meanwhile, Nova was probably a little unlucky in 2012. His FB% was 32.4%, but his HR/FB ratio was 16.6%, while Phelps’ was 13.6%. So, Nova was allowing a less percentage of fly balls, but a higher percentage of home runs, which is unlikely to repeat itself.
Nova gave up more home runs because he changed the style of pitching that made him successful in 2011. He went from a ground ball pitcher in 2011 to a strikeout pitcher last season. Nova went from 5.33 K/9 and 3.10 BB/9 in 2011 to 8.08 K/9 and 2.96 BB/9.
Normally, going from averaging about two more strikeouts than walks per nine innings to averaging about six more would lead to great improvement. However, it did not, because Nova started to pitch for those strikeouts instead of for the ground balls that he was successful with in 2011. While he did not walk many people last season, Nova was too wild in the zone, leading to a lot of the home runs that he gave up. He went from a 52.7% GB% in 2011 to a 45.2 GB% last season.
This is not meant to knock Phelps in anyway. I like his mental makeup and I think he can be a solid back end to middle of the rotation pitcher. I just think Nova has a bit more upside and that Phelps got a tad lucky last year. This is why self scouting is so important. With the Yankees in need of a bat, Phelps and Nova could be trade pieces. Which one do the Yankees believe has a brighter future? Is it smart to sell high on Phelps right now, or do they believe that he can keep this level of performance up? Those are two important questions that will need to be answered.