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It's been just short of 3 weeks since David Phelps re-entered the starting rotation as Ivan Nova's replacement. He's pitched better in each of the 4 starts he's made in that time period, the best outing coming this past Saturday in the form of a 7-inning, 1-run, 8-K shutdown of the hapless Blue Jays. That start marked Phelps' 15th of his professional career, by no means enough to definitively predict what he'll do going forward but enough to make some reasonable observations. Phelps is the latest homegrown pitcher to break into the rotation semi-full time, after Ivan Nova in 2010/2011 and Phil Hughes in 2007/2008, and he's all but earned the right to stay there with the way he's pitched. Without getting back into the "the Yankees suck at developing starting pitching" argument, let's just see how Phelps' first 15 career starts stack up against Nova's and Phil's.
Phelps- 2012/2013: 15 GS, 82.2 IP, 70 H, 32 ER, 33 BB, 78 K
Nova- 2010/2011: 15 GS, 79.2 IP, 80 H, 40 ER, 34 BB, 48 K
Hughes- 2007/2008: 15 GS, 81.2 IP, 74 H, 41 ER, 34 BB, 64 K
Taking into account nothing more than the numbers you see above, that comparison speaks pretty favorably to what Phelps has done in his early starting career. He's allowed fewer earned runs and hits in more innings pitcher than either Nova or Hughes, and he's done it while walking fewer batters and striking out more. His ERA in his first 15 starts (3.48) is a full run plus lower than that of Nova and Hughes, and his performance this season (2.84 ERA, 24 K in 25.1 IP) has been his best stretch to date.
What does this mean? Hard to say. I did this exercise with Nova a few years ago, going as far as comparing his first starting sample size to Andy Pettitte, and we've all seen how Ivan's career path has gone since the start of last season. All I know is David Phelps was a lesser heralded prospect than Nova, both before and after he was called up to the show, and Nova was a much less heralded prospect than Hughes. Phelps has thoroughly outpitched both of them in his first starting sample, showcasing an ability to make the necessary adjustments to his game that Nova and Hughes struggle with, and that positive comparison has to say something about his future.
There were times that both Nova and Hughes were talked about as #3 or better starters, and now those talks have ended. Phelps has proven himself to be a better pitcher at this early stage of his starting career than they were, and continues to strengthen his position in this year's rotation and possibly future rotation plans. While there's little chance he eventually becomes a #3 or better starter in his career, Phelps certainly looks like a better #4 or #5 than Hughes and Nova have been.