Why Cord Phelps is Better Than You Think

Last night’s baserunning heroics aside, it’s safe to say that Cord Phelps has been a disappointment for the Cleveland Indians this season.

Phelps, 24, had looked intriguing at times since the Indians took him in the third round of the 2008 draft, but he started making real waves in the organization last year, when he hit .317 with an .892 OPS in 66 games at Triple-A Columbus. He’s followed that up by putting up similar numbers with the Clippers again this year.

In the majors, though, it’s been a whole different story. He hit just .196 in 19 games after his first call-up in June, and he’s yet to reach base after his first four games since being brought up again last week. All told, he’s hitting a meager .155/.258/.259 with one home run, 5 RBI, and -0.7 wins above replacement in 23 games.

But take heed, O Tribe fans, for I come bearing good news: Phelps is much, much better than he’s looked so far.

First, we should note that Phelps’ peripherals actually look quite good. He owns an impressive 12% walk rate in the bigs. His batted-ball profile also shows reason for optimism: he’s hitting line drives at a 23% clip. It’s a small sample size and batted-ball definitions can be subjective, but his .667 Power Factor supports the idea that he’s hitting the ball hard.

That’s why Phelps’ .190 BABIP is so puzzling; that he has an extremely low hit rate despite profiling as a potentially high-BABIP guy (he always played like one in the minors) suggests that there’s some foul luck in play here. His struggles aren’t all luck—his 22% strikeout rate is on the high side, and he may just be having trouble adjusting to MLB pitching—but that can certainly play a big role in it.

ZIPS projects Phelps to post a .315 BABIP over the rest of the season. Plugging that in for his actual .190 hit rate, his triple-slash jumps from .155/.258/.259 to .245/.348/.409. Right now he has a 45 OPS+; change his BABIP and that shoots up to 111.

The Hardball Times’ Simple xBABIP Calculator sees Phelps as a .320 true-talent BABIPer. Plug that in for his hit rate instead and his numbers jump to .249/.352/.415, good for a 114 OPS+. Not bad for a second baseman.

Finally, consider that Phelps had a .341 career BABIP in the minors: plug that in and his slashline jumps to .264/.367/.440—an OPS+ of 125. Given that pitching and defense are weaker in the lower levels you can’t expect him to maintain that same rate in The Show, but it further reinforces that Phelps’ low hit rate so far is mostly bad luck.

Want another way of looking at it? Jeff Sackmann’s Minor League Equivalency Calculator translates Phelps’ .294/.376/.492 triple-slash at Columbus this year to a .262/.332/.426 line with Cleveland. Over 162 games, he’d be on pace to hit 20 homers with 85 RBI to go along with his 110 OPS+.

Phelps is no Jason Kipnis or Asdrubal Cabrera, and once Kipnis comes back he doesn’t have a clear place on the Tribe’s roster, this year or in the future. But has tremendous value as a utility infielder and an injury replacement, so don’t dismiss him based on his lack of success at the big-league level so far.

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