Mike Pelfrey is a lot of things. A pitcher, a Met and tall are three characteristics of Big Pelf. But despite playing baseball professionally for the past six seasons, Pelfrey remains undefined as a pitcher. Which begs the question: who is Mike Pelfrey?
In certain ways, Pelfrey is a conundrum. His 6’7 250 frame suggests that he would be a power pitcher, as does the velocity on his fastball, which sits between 92-93 mph and can be cranked up to 96 or 97. And for the first part of his minor league career, he was just that, posting a 10.2 K/9 in 2006, prompting Baseball America to name him the 20th best prospect in baseball. But following that season, Pelfrey’s strikeout rate dropped dramatically, down to a 6.5 K/9 in the minors in ’07 and to 5.1 over the course of his Major League career. Nor is Pelfrey a control pitcher, posting a 3.2 BB/9 during his career (not an awful figure, but low for a pitcher who doesn’t strike out a lot of batters).
So Pelfrey has had adjust and figure out other ways to retire hitters. He stuck to the sinker early on, posting a 49.6% ground ball rate in 2008 and a 51.3% mark in 2009 (with mixed results). In 2010, he added a splitter/change hybrid and 2011 he mixed in a cutter, both in an attempt to increase his success against lefties (also with mixed results). Meanwhile, his ground ball rate dropped to 47.8% in ’10 and 45.6% in ’11. Not surprisingly, his home run rate jumped from .5 HR/9 in 2010 to 1.0 HR/9 in 2011.
Now Pelfrey is going back to the sinker, which he worked on during the offseason and was pleased with during yesterday’s intra-squad game. The move makes sense for Mike because it gives him the best chance to succeed. By now, everyone knows he is not going to rack up the strikeouts, and his newest secondary offerings haven’t been that successful. In fact, according to FanGraphs, all of Pelfrey’s secondary pitches (slider, curve, splitter/change and cutter) have negative run values. Last year, Pelfrey threw each one of those pitches, along with his sinker, a four-seamer and a two-seamer; that is seven different pitches, entirely two many for someone not named Cliff Lee (who might not throw seven pitches, but he has a mastery of every pitch in his arsenal).
It seems that Pelfrey realizes he needs to be a pitcher who keeps the ball in the yard, specifically on the ground, and the sinker is the best way to do that. But there is more that Pelfrey needs to do. In addition to commanding his sinker and getting good movement on it, he needs to eliminate some pitches in his arsenal. Get rid of either the slider or the curve (my vote is for the slider which has had a negative run value in every season except one) and the cutter. That way, Pelfrey can simplify the game for himself and focus on a handful of pitches, hopefully improving them. If Pelfrey can once again generate ground balls and keep hitters off balance with a couple of secondary pitches, he may be able to develop some consistent success.