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December 13, 2006

Player Profile

Josh Phelps

by Marc Normandin

With all of the discussion in 2006 about the Tigers needing more offensive output from first base, it's somewhat surprising that Josh Phelps was not promoted from Toledo to the major league club. Chris Shelton's struggles at the position prompted the team to trade for Sean Casey, who performed even worse than the player he was replacing. Meanwhile, Phelps finished up at Triple-A Toledo hitting .308/.370/.532 without so much as a sniff of the majors, even during September call-ups. Now the Yankees have selected him in the Rule 5 draft, meaning he will have to stay on their major league roster or be offered back to the Orioles, who signed him this November.

Josh Phelps graduated from Lakeland High School in Idaho in 1996, finishing fourth in his class and earning Most Valuable Player honors for his baseball achievements there. The Toronto Blue Jays made him selection number 279 overall in the 1996 amateur draft, and his professional debut came at Medicine Hat at age 18. Phelps did not display much in the way of offensive ability during his first three professional seasons:

           AB   AVG/OBP/SLG  SecA  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B  BB%   K%
Med.(Rk)  191 .241/.351/.335 .246  17%  .094    3   11.9%  28.6%
Hag.(A)   233 .210/.258/.348 .206  37%  .138   10    6.0%  29.0%
Hag.(A)   385 .265/.334/.395 .239  32%  .130   25    9.4%  18.8%
The walk rates were fine, but his batting averages were low, keeping his on-base percentage down. Likewise with his slugging percentages, considering his Isolated Power numbers weren't half bad for a catcher. The positive aspects from these early career numbers are the dip in strikeout rate coupled with the increase in power during his time in Hagerstown. Phelps would earn a promotion to High-A Dunedin for the 1999 season, and would break out there in a big way, hitting .328/.371/.562. His walk rate dropped back to roughly 6 percent, and his strikeout rate jumped back up to 24 percent, but his Isolated Power increased by around 100 points. His .562 slugging percentage led the Florida State League, and Phelps was named the fifth best prospect in the Jays organization following the campaign.

He would start the 2000 season on the disabled list due to right elbow surgery, but squeezed in 297 at-bats between Dunedin and Double-A Tennessee:

           AB   AVG/OBP/SLG  SecA  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B  BB%   K%
Dun.(A+)  113 .319/.386/.699 .487  53%  .380    7    9.4%  26.8%
Ten.(AA)  184 .228/.308/.435 .293  45%  .207   10    7.2%  31.6%
Phelps had mastered Dunedin, slugging just shy of .700 and walking in over 9 percent of his plate appearances, which helped to earn him a promotion to Double-A. On the surface, his debut there looks disappointing, but in reality his Isolated Power was still over .200 and his walk rate did not crater, although his strikeouts did cross the 30 percent threshold. Baseball Prospectus 2001 was not exactly enamored with Phelps' 2000 season above A Ball:

He has a very small window of opportunity now that Joe Lawrence has shown he can catch. Josh Phelps has performed best at the plate when he's not above A ball and when he's not catching, two things that will have to change if he's going to have a career.

As I said, if you look at his numbers, the power and patience remained, but his batting average bottomed out in a sample smaller than 200 at-bats. 2001 helped to allay any fears about his performance above A Ball:

           AB   AVG/OBP/SLG  SecA  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B  BB%   K%
Ten.(AA)  486 .292/.406/.562 .434  68%  .270   37   13.6%  21.6%
Seems he adjusted to the pitching. Sixty-eight extra-base hits from a catcher is more than fantastic in this league; combine that with the tasty walk rate and you've got yourself quite the player. Baseball America rated him the #1 prospect in the Jays organization heading into the 2002 season, emphasizing his injury trouble and long swing - a swing that would keep his batting averages low and strikeout totals high - along with his power potential. Baseball Prospectus 2002 was excited about Phelps heading into the year as well:

By laying off pitches out of the strike zone, Phelps turned his power into a weapon last year, doubling his career walk rate and almost taking home the Southern League triple crown. Unfortunately, Phelps threw out just 18% of the runners who tried to steal on him, reinforcing anxieties about his defense behind the plate and drawing comparisons to the Pirates' Craig Wilson. Fortunately, the Blue Jays are in the right league if those concerns are valid. Phelps usually struggles when first exposed to a new level, so he'll be spending most of this season solving Triple-A pitching.

Concerns about figuring out Triple-A pitchers were apparently not necessary, as Phelps hit .292/.380/.658 against them in 257 at-bats to start the season, topping an OPS of 1.000 for the second time in his career. This earned him a promotion to Toronto, where the hits continued to fall, this time at .309/.362/.562 in 265 at-bats. One thing to note was Phelps' .399 Batting Average on Balls in Play, which was about .030 higher than expected given his 25 percent line drive rate. The line drive figure itself is a tad higher than you normally see - among qualifiers in 2006, only four players matched or surpassed that mark − leading one to believe Phelps would regress somewhat in that regard.

Baseball Prospectus 2003 had a very optimistic comment for Phelps' future, and even put him on the cover of the book:

While the Blue Jays were sifting through the contents of their 25-man roster the first half of the season, Phelps was honing his horsehide-mashing skills in Triple-A. After being recalled in early July, he wowed the coaching staff with his ability to make adjustments at the plate. Phelps' days of donning the tools of ignorance are over because of past surgery on both knees and a balky back, but his time as an imposing big league hitter has just begun. Over the next two years he'll be groomed to succeed Delgado at first base.

Make a mental note of the part about his ability to make adjustments at the plate, and how pleased the coaching staff was with that. His 2003 season at age 25 did not go quite as well as his major league debut did thanks to a more realistic BABIP of .330, but it was still a positive showing. His 2004 season was a bit more of a disappointment though, and Phelps eventually found his way into the Cleveland organization:

     Team  AB   AVG/OBP/SLG  SecA  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B  BB%   K%
2003 Tor. 396 .268/.358/.470 .298  38%  .202   19    8.6%  25.4%
2004 Tor. 295 .237/.296/.417 .241  39%  .180   15    5.6%  22.7%
2004 Cle.  76 .303/.338/.579 .329  49%  .276    6    5.0%  25.0%
2003 was not quite what the Jays were looking for, but it was still productive. 2004 was a bit more of a puzzle; his walk rate dropped down to around 5 percent, which is that level where your OBP becomes very batting average dependent. His power had dipped as well, with his Isolated Power dropping under .200 for the first time since Single-A in 1998. His Cleveland time was limited to fewer than 100 plate appearances, and his walk rate remained much lower than it had been in the recent past. He was only averaging 3.7 pitches per plate appearance between Toronto and Cleveland, which is a bit worrisome considering his past patience. His BABIP with Toronto was only .276 when his expected BABIP was .317, so a great chunk of the lost performance can be attributed to that, but even when you add that back in to his line Phelps was not exactly progressing.

Baseball Prospectus 2005 seemed to vent some frustration at Phelps' performance:

He has more power than your local utility but has no clue what to do with it, swinging indiscriminately at pitches, relay throws from the outfield, low-hanging clouds. As his time in Toronto went on, Phelps crossed the line dividing productive aggression and diminishing returns, so this positionless player was sent south for nothing more than Eric Crozier. Working with Eddie Murray, he cut his strikeouts just slightly, but that sample is so small as to be nearly meaningless. Signed by Tampa, Phelps will meet Lou Piniella at the same age that the somewhat similar Jay Buhner did. Buhner blossomed at that point; Phelps will need to follow instruction a lot better than he did with the Jays to have a chance to do the same.

Unlike Buhner, Phelps was never really given the chance to shine under Piniella, getting only 177 plate appearances for the season. He hit .266/.328/.424 in this limited time, a sample somewhat difficult to study due to its small size, but the 3.9 P/PA was somewhat encouraging. With Triple-A Durham the same year Phelps hit .270/.329/.550 and brought his walk rate back up close to 7 percent.

Phelps latched on with the Tigers organization in 2006, and hit very well in the minors. His .308/.370/.532 line gave him a .306/.356/.516 major league equivalent line with a .295 EqA, numbers the Tigers sorely needed in their lineup down the stretch. Whether or not Phelps actually would have delivered numbers such as those is a bit more up for debate:

Year Team  P/PA  FB%   LINERD%  GB%   IF/F%  HR/F%  BABIP eBABIP
2004 Tor.  3.6  25.6%  19.7%  54.7%   N/A   19.6%  .276   .317
2004 Cle.  3.7  35.7%  17.9%  46.4%   N/A   27.2%  .353   .299
2005 Tam.  3.9  31.9%  21.2%  46.9%   5.6%  14.9%  .352   .332
2006 Tol.  N/A  39.5%  20.3%  40.1%  19.6%  17.4%  .374   .323
The estimate of .12 + LINERD% for estimated BABIP most likely does not hold as true in the minor leagues due to the poorer defenses and pitching, but Phelps shot past the estimate just the same. He has consistently outperformed his expected BABIP in the past, most likely due to his power. The only year where he dipped below his expected total was in 2004 with Toronto, when his groundball rate spiked to Juan Pierre levels − not a good thing for a former catcher with knee and back problems.

The Yankees more than likely did not pick up a player who is going to slug .500 in the majors over the course of a full season, but Phelps can still contribute. He seems to have regained some of his plate patience, walking in 7.2 percent of all plate appearances for Toledo, and he mashed left-handers to the tune of .322/.382/.638 in 152 at-bats this past year − .294/.358/.502 in his major league career − something Jason Giambi has not been able to do exceptionally well from 2004-2006. Andy Phillips will be 30 in 2007, and has a career EqA of .218 in 294 at-bats; granted, it's a small sample size, but given the history of the two players and the fact that Phelps is a Rule 5 guy, chances are good that Phelps will win a battle between the two unless he craters in the spring. Phelps is most likely never going to turn into the power threat that he was once envisioned to be. If given enough at bats to win a little of Joe Torre's stingy confidence, he should be far from a disappointment.

Marc Normandin is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can reach Marc by clicking here or click here to see Marc's other articles. You can find some of Marc's other work here.

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