Exit Tanaka, Enter Phelps?

Phelps vs TOR
With Masahiro Tanaka on the DL, the pressure on the rest of the rotation has skyrocketed. It is crazy to think that David Phelps now has the second-most starts this season with the team of any Yankee in the current rotation. That would be fine if he was a consistent pitcher who could give the Yankees length and league-average-or-better run prevention on a regular basis.

The problem is that Phelps has been one of the more frustrating Yankee pitchers to watch this season. Just when you think he's about ready to break out (2 runs allowed over 12 innings on May 17 and 22), he throws another clunker (3 straight outings of 5-plus runs from May 27-June 7).

Perhaps his latest stretch of solid pitching -- 2-0 with a 3.16 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in his last five starts -- means that he has finally turned the corner and will be a reliable arm in the rotation for the rest of the season.

First 7 Starts .288 .360 .431 2 3.38 6.75 4.73
Last 5 Starts .205 .288 .357 5 3.16 7.18 3.16

Is this turnaround for real? Has Phelps made sustainable improvements over the last month and what does it mean for the final three months? Can he shut down the Indians tonight?

The Glass is Half-Full The good news is that Phelps has improved his peripherals, increasing his strikeout rate from 17 percent in his first seven starts to 20 percent in his last five games without sacrificing control.

Phelps is also locating more of his pitches down in the zone, where opponents have hit just .181 and slugged .259 against those low offerings for the season. Over the last month, 53 percent of his pitches have been been thrown at the mid-thigh level or below, compared to 41 percent in his first seven starts.

His breaking pitches have been dominant during his recent hot stretch. He has thrown 212 curves and sliders over his last five starts, netting him 40 outs and just six hits allowed. In his first seven starts, the 277 breaking pitches he threw produced an awful 46-to-21 outs-to-hits ratio.

Phelps curve-slider
Perhaps the biggest key to his recent success has been his commanding performance with men on base. During his first month and a half as a starter, he wilted under the pressure of pitching from the stretch, as opponents hit .303 and reached base in 37 percent of their plate appearances.

Over his last five starts, it's been a completely different story: batters have a .181/.239/.326 line against him with men on base. In his two most recent games, against the Twins and Rays, he allowed just one hit in 15 at-bats, and that lone single by James Loney merely advanced a runner to second with no damage done.

The Glass is Half-Empty Despite these tangible signs of improvement by Phelps, there are a few areas of concern.

He has allowed five home runs in 31 1/3 innings since June 13, after giving up only two in 40 innings over his first seven starts. Although some of this homer-itis is due to his luck evening out (4.4% homer-to-flyball ratio in first 7 starts; 15.2% in last 5), he is legitimately getting hit harder over the last month.

His hard-hit rate has gone up from 15 percent to 20 percent, and his average flyball distance has increased by more than 20 feet during this recent stretch.

Also, although he's doing a better job of getting righties out, left-handed batters are now pounding him. Four of the five homers allowed over his last five game have come against lefties, who are slugging .448 against him during this stretch, a 155-point increase compared to his first seven starts.

Hello, Cleveland There is no team that Phelps would rather be facing tonight than the Indians.

He has a 0.71 ERA in two starts against the Tribe, his lowest ERA against any team (min. 2 starts). He has allowed only one run on five hits with 14 strikeouts over 12 2/3 innings in those two outings, both coming last year.