With all of the injury news surrounding the Yankees, it stands to reason that this would be the most popular topic among the fan base. Currently, the team is missing their starting centerfielder, third baseman and first baseman. When a team is missing three key players, it can be easy to forget about other aspects that also deserve attention.
Over the weekend, I read a short piece that discussed the competition for fifth starter. In short, things are going pretty well for David Phelps and Ivan Nova in Spring Training. They've both had chances to show that they deserve the spot, with Phelps outshining Nova so far.
However, I don't really like the idea of a Spring Training competition. It's an extremely small sample size and for the most part, the competition is much weaker while teams give other players chances. While it is important to evaluate how players are currently performing, it is wiser to use regular season statistics to make decisions such as this one.
So, I decided to take a look at last season's numbers in order to compare the two pitchers.
How did batters fare against them?
Phelps has the clear advantage in the triple slash against category. Batters hit .288/.349/.511 against Ivan Nova last season, good for an OPS-against of .860. For comparison's sake, the batters who had an OPS in that range were Joe Mauer, Albert Pujols, and Yoenis Cespedes. All three were among the top-25 players in all of baseball on the OPS leader board. Nova obviously got roughed up a bit.
Batters simply didn't fare as well against Phelps as they did against Nova. Granted, due to pitching out of the bullpen where his stuff plays up and he doesn't have to worry about energy conservation, his numbers see some inflation (or deflation, depending on how you want to look at it). However, that doesn't change the fact that opposing batters only hit .223/.305/.377 against him, leading to an OPS-against of .682. For comparison's sake here, Michael Young had an OPS of .682, where he ranked 125th on the OPS leader board.
Pitcher's Triple Slash
In the pitcher's triple slash department, where we look at ERA, FIP, and xFIP, Phelps again comes out ahead. Nova posted an ERA just north of five last season, while Phelps sat comfortably in the mid-to-low three range. ERA doesn't always tell the whole story, but Phelps was clearly better at preventing runs. A difference of over a run and a half illustrates that.
Despite such a wide discrepancy in ERA, their FIPs were close. For those who don't know, FIP is a measure that uses innings, strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed in order to determine what a pitcher's ERA probably should have looked like given that they are only in control of the stats that FIP uses. Since Phelps struck out more batters, walked slightly more, and allowed less home runs, it shouldn't come as a surprise that he beat Nova out in this category.
Meanwhile, Nova slightly bested Phelps in xFIP. However, this should be taken with a grain of salt. xFIP replaces a pitcher's home runs allowed with the league average home run rate, indicating what a pitcher's ERA should look like if he allowed home runs at a league average pace. Nova gave up more home runs that Phelps last season, which is why his xFIP is lower. It should also be noted that xFIP has the highest correlation toward predicting future ERA, which gives Nova some hope. I'm not sure what led to Nova getting as roughed up as he did last season. Maybe he had a mechanical issue, or maybe he simply left too many hittable pitches up in the zone. Either way, he needs to figure out how to allow less dingers because it was clearly one of his biggest issues in 2012.
Also of note is that Phelps wasn't the greatest at avoiding home runs, either. Both of them have work to do in that category.
Strikeouts and Walks
I already discussed the home run aspect of FIP right above, so now it's time to look at strikeouts and walks. Phelps struck out 23.2% of the batters he faced, ahead of the league average of 19.8%. Nova wasn't far behind at 20.5%. This was a significant improvement for Nova compared to 2011, when he struck out just 13.9% of the batters he faced. Nova also saw improvement in his BB%, reducing it below the league average of 8% to 7.5%.
I'd call this a wash. Phelps could just as easily make similar improvements in his sophomore campaign as Nova did in his. However, to watch a pitcher make progress as Nova did leads to some optimism. He got better at controlling two of the three things he is in control of. It remains to be seen if Phelps can do the same, or if he'll even get the chance.
Batted Ball Types
When it comes to batted ball types, there isn't really a right or wrong answer. Both have their advantages and disadvantages and plenty of pitchers have had success on either side of the spectrum. If a pitcher focuses on getting ground balls, it will lead to less strikeouts and a higher batting average against, with the advantage being, usually, less home runs or hard hit fly balls. On the other side, pitchers who focus on inducing fly balls will generally allow more home runs or extra base hits, but will have a lower batting average against and strike out more batters. I tend to prefer pitchers who focus on grounders because it leads to less damage. The guys who induce grounders and still strike out a good percentage batters (think Felix, Kershaw and Price) are the elites.
The line drive percentages stick out to me the most. I know there are classification issues that surround line drive percentage, but we're just using it as one tool in the evaluation process. Given what Nova's triple slash against looked like, it should come as no surprise that he had a high line drive percentage. The fact of the matter is that a lot of the contact he allowed last season was hit hard, evidenced by his inclusion at the top of the extra base hits allowed category. Meanwhile, Phelps did a nice job in avoiding hard hit balls. This also makes sense given his triple slash against.
So what to make of all of this?
I'm not really sure. I'm a big fan of Nova's upside. He throws hard, has a pretty good breaking ball, and made improvements in striking batters out and issuing less walks. There's obviously a lot to like about a pitcher who excels at things like that. His problems surrounded the contact he allowed, whether that means he gave up too many extra base hits or allowed too many homers, both of which are true. It is worth noting that his HR/FB% essentially doubled from '11 to '12. If he can find a way to get that back down to league average while also keeping the improvements in his strikeouts and walks, we'd be looking at an excellent pitcher. However, that's a big if right now.
I have an intuition to gamble on Nova's upside, but Phelps was simply better than Nova was last season. He had a lower ERA, lower FIP, allowed less homers, struck out more batters, and had a far better triple slash against. However, his numbers received a boost from a large chunk of his playing time coming out of the bullpen. Can he maintain effectiveness in the rotation over a full season?
There are plenty of questions to ask, and both pitchers deserve a chance to answer those questions. From a pure statistical standpoint, it is obvious that Phelps should be the choice. However, Phelps doesn't have anything about him that he truly excels at - really, he's pretty average. Meanwhile, we've seen what Nova can do. His rookie season was excellent, and last season, he made improvements in the categories I most wanted to see improvements in (more strikeouts, less walks). However, he simply took a few large steps backwards in some other departments.
I guess the question is, do you gamble on Nova's upside, or choose Phelps and his safer floor? In a season already riddled with injuries, that question becomes even harder to answer.