I could probably just stop with the title of this post and most Mets fans would agree. Mike Pelfrey was ineffective again yesterday, and while his line (5 IP, 6 H, 4 ER, 2 K, BB, HR) isn’t the worst thing I’ve ever seen, it was not nearly good enough. The Amazins are in a must-win situation almost every day, and with the big offensive guns still out of the lineup, the starting pitching has to be pretty good day-in and day-out, which for the most part, it has been. Like I said, the title probably sums up almost everything that needs to be said about the team’s “ace,” but there are a few different reasons that Big Pelf is just so darn frustrating.
The first is that there were higher expectations for Pelfrey this year than in prior years due to his performance last season. With Johan Santana out, Pelfrey was named the Opening Day starter, and given how he performed for about two-thirds of 2010, I thought he could handle it. I didn’t expect him to be Johan, but I expected performances similar to last season, and who could blame me? Despite not fitting the traditional mold of a dominant pitcher, Pelfrey did generate ground balls at a 47.8% clip and keep the ball in the yard, surrendering only twelve long balls during the entire season. His K/9 was only 5.0 and his BB/9 was 3.0, but he got the job done and outside of a stretch of seven starts in the middle of the season, was the most consistent pitcher the Mets had. Now I cringe nearly every time he takes the mound, especially if the Mets are on the road. So what’s the difference?
Pelfrey’s K/9 is the same as last year, and his BB/9 is actually lower (2.7), while his WHIP this season (1.39) is just a touch higher than last season (1.38). In addition, his 2011 BABIP (.283) is actually lower than it was in 2010 (.300). The difference is really in his ground ball rate and inordinate number of ground balls allowed. Pelfrey ground ball rate has fallen to 43.3% while his fly ball rate has increased from 32.0% in 2010 to 39.0% in 2011. Fly ball pitchers can get away with that at Citi Field (unless you’re pitching to Michael Martinez), but on the road it catches up to you, as evidenced by the 16 homers Pelfrey has served up this year (eleven at home, five on the road; last year he allowed eight on the road and four at home). What’s also surprising is that six of the home runs this year have come from righties, compared to just one last year. Pelfrey was able to get out of jams last season by generating double plays (he had 25 in total). This season, he’s only induced eight twin-killings.
In addition to Pelfrey’s numbers not being up to snuff, it seems that some are just plain sick of Pelfrey’s inconsistency and inability to compete on a psychological level, so to speak. Prior to yesterday’s game, Gary, Keith and Ron were discussing how Jon Niese had sort of a mental toughness to him that has evolved as he’s gained more experience. I completely agree with that characterization, and it is something that Pelfrey has lacked this season and at several other points during his career. Here is a guy who stands at 6’7 and has the ability to dial the ball up to the mid-90s, yet he is not at all an intimidating force on the mound. Where is the guy who wanted the ball during last year’s twenty-inning marathon game against the Cardinals? The guy who could put the ball wherever he wanted to on the plate for the majority of 2010. At least to me, it seems like Pelfrey is always searching for something on the mound, even if he winds up with a good line at the end of the game.
Pelfrey, 28 years old, is now in his fourth, full big league season and seems like he is still struggling with his identity. As Ron Darling said at one point this season, it’s almost as if Pelfrey lost faith in his sinker, and has supplemented it with other pitches (such as his splitter and newly formed cutter) to try and get outs. A perfect example of this trend was during Michael Martinez’s at bat in the fourth inning. Down 2-0 in the count with runners on first and second and one out, Keith stated that in this situation, sinker ballers tend to go with their bread and butter-a sinker away, which would ideally generate a ground ball double play and end the inning. Instead, Pelfrey went with a fastball inside, which Martinez turned on for his first Major League homer. Citi Field was immediately deflated and the game was essentially lost right there.
I want to trust Pelfrey, I really do. But his lack of consitency and inability to clear certain mental hurdles is almost maddening at times. Without question, Pelfrey is no longer the ace of the staff, but he needs to return to his strengths: getting ground balls and significantly reducing the number of home runs allowed. Otherwise, Pelfrey could find himself on the chopping block sooner rather than later.