Due to all the injuries that have plagued the Yankees pitching staff this season, David Phelps quickly found himself yanked out of the bullpen and inserted into the starting rotation in early May. Luckily for the Yankees, Phelps has largely carried his own weight. For the month of May, he has posted a 2.82 ERA and a 4.06 xFIP. While his xFIP suggests he's been a bit lucky, it's still not a bad number by any means. Phelps is never going to blow hitters away (something his May K/9, a mediocre 6.85, shows clearly) but his ability to keep the Yankees within striking distance is certainly nothing to scoff at.
He's only had one really bad start - he was tagged for four earned runs in five innings in a loss to the Milwaukee Brewers a couple weeks back - and, since then, he's given up just two runs over his next 12 innings. While he has struggled to get into the latter stages of games (never getting out of the sixth in his first three starts), Phelps did manage to throw seven great innings on Thursday night against the Chicago White Sox. He looked terrific out there in Chicago, and while he couldn't beat Chris Sale (few can), if he can provide a few more performances like that, he'd be an even bigger help than he's already been.
Much of Phelps' success stems from his ability to limit home runs, and therefore limit big innings. He's done a great job of avoiding giving up the long ball this season (he hasn't allowed a home run in May), which isn't anything new - Phelps has done this throughout his career (1.02 HR/9 career wise, and 0.83 HR/9 in 86 innings in 2013). If he can continue this trend, he should continue to keep the Yankees close and give the offense plenty of chances to win games.
Still, while Phelps has been good (but certainly not great) in his newfound starting role, there is certainly room for improvement. As previously mentioned, his strikeout rates have been low as a starter, and he walks a few too many hitters (3.97 BB/9 overall, and 3.22 as a starter in May). His inability to go deep into games is also problematic, especially when Vidal Nuno and Chase Whitley also average only about five innings per start, as it certainly taxes the bullpen. If Phelps can start getting into the sixth and seventh innings consistently, and keep his walks down, he could prove extremely valuable for this team, especially since he'll probably be in the rotation for much of the season.
While Phelps will probably never be an ace in the major leagues, he deserves a decent bit of credit for pitching as well as he has. He was really impressive when he went toe-to-toe with Sale on Thursday, and while he did pick up the loss, throwing seven innings of two run ball will be enough to pick up the win against most pitchers in the league. If Phelps can make a few improvements, he'll be a good back-end of the rotation guy. Let's hope he does make these improvements, as, with Ivan Nova done for the year and CC Sabathia's status up in the air, we'll be seeing a lot of Phelps in 2014.
Looking to the future, Phelps isn't exactly a favorite for the Opening Day rotation in 2015. Still, as this season is showing a lot of teams, having pitching depth is a great problem to have. If Phelps improves as the season goes along, he'll at least make the Yankees' roster decisions a little more difficult (in a good way).