Should Mike Pelfrey Be Demoted?


About a week ago, I wondered if Dillon Gee would stay in the majors, and if so, who from the rotation would be demoted.  Somewhat surprisingly, the Mets sent D.J. Carrasco to Buffalo and stuck Gee in the bullpen, leaving the rotation pretty much intact.  However, after Mike Pelfrey’s latest debacle last night in Philadelphia (4.1 IP, 8 H, 4 ER, 1 BB, 3 K-yes he was dealing with the after effects of illness but he was sick in his last start) and Gee’s unsuccessful outing from the bullpen, is it time to consider sending Big Pelf to the minors?

As I mentioned last week, the Mets have a history of sending down established starting pitchers to work on their stuff.  After a rough start in 2000, the Mets demoted Bobby Jones along with his 10.19 ERA and 1.929 WHIP.  When he returned a couple of weeks later, he pitched much better, posting a 3.69 ERA and 1.287 WHIP for the remainder of the season in addition to a one-hitter against the San Francisco Giants in the clincher of the NLDS.  The very next season, the Mets sent Steve Trachsel to the minors in mid-May after a poor start (8.24 ERA and 1.754 WHIP).  Once he returned to the major leagues a few weeks later (after he threw a seven inning no hitter at triple A), Trachsel’s pitching improved for the rest of the season to the tune of a  3.35 ERA and 1.087 WHIP.  It’s no secret that Pelfrey has used a sports psychologist in in the past and sometimes appears to lack mental toughness on the mound, which is one reason he tends to have long stretches of failure, even if he’s had long stretches of success.  So why not have him work on his stuff at triple A to become more consistent?

Save for one seven inning, five hit, one run performance against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Pelfrey has been ineffective in 2011.  In six starts, he’s pitched only 28 innings, allowing 23 earned runs (a 7.39 ERA) on 42 hits and 13 walks (a 1.964 WHIP) with only 16 strikeouts.  Opponents are batting .341/.410/.528 against the big righty and at no time has he resembled the starter he was for three-quarters of last season.  But what’s the difference?  There are a few.

First, he’s walking over a batter per inning more than he was last year (3.0 in 2010 vs. 4.2 in 2011).  But what’s interesting is that his the percentage of first pitch strikes he’s throwing is greater so far this year (66.7%) than last year (62.0%).  Furthermore, his swing and miss rate this season so far is 6.9%, compared to 6.0% last season.  There is also some evidence to suggest that Pelfrey has been a little unlucky.  His BABIP this season is .364, well above the MLB average of around .300 over the past five seasons.  His FIP is also 4.87, which isn’t great, but much lower than his ERA, suggesting his results should perhaps be a little better.

There has been some talks that Pelfrey hasn’t been as successful since his splitter is no longer a new pitch and hitters have adjusted.  Actually, his splitter last year was worth -0.72 runs per 100 splitters thrown, whereas this year it is worth -0.28 runs per 100 splitters thrown, according to FanGraphs. The big difference has been his fastball, which has been crucial to his success.  Last season, his heater was worth 0.40 runs above average per 100 pitches, while this year it’s worth 2.26 runs below average per 100 pitches.  Although FanGraphs doesn’t distinguish between four and two-seamers, it’s safe to say that Pelfrey’s two-seam fastball, his bread and butter pitch, has been less effective this year than last, as evidenced by his ground ball rate.

In 2010, Big Pelf induced grounders 47.8% of the time; this year, it’s only been 40.2% of the time.  Similarly, his fly ball rate has jumped from 32.0% to 43.9%.  More balls in the air means fewer opportunities for double plays, something which Pelfrey was masterful at.  Between 2008-10, Pelfrey generated double plays 15% of the time when there was such an opportunity.  So far this season, he’s only produced one ground ball double play in 28 chances.  Fewer double plays means more baserunners who stay on base and come around to score, and since Pelfrey  isn’t going to strike out a lot of batters, he has been greatly hurt by this fact.

So is it time for a demotion?  I don’t think so just yet, and hope that Sandy Alderson is willing to give him a few more starts to regain his prior form.  If not though, Pelfrey needs to be sent to the minors for both the team’s and his own benefit.  As Terry Collins said yesterday, “It’s not just about you…If you get your [butt] beat, it affects 24 other guys, too. Think about that.”  If Pelfrey’s struggles continue, he would be wise to accept a minor league assignment (if Alderson and company go in that direction, which would be the only alternative since his trade value is very low right now) to better himself and the team.