If there is one player on the Mets who symbolizes frustration, it is Mike Pelfrey. Since his big league debut in 2006, Pelfrey has tantalized, teased and tormented Mets fans, at times flashing dominance and at other times falling apart in the blink of an eye. In 2010, Pelfrey might’ve been the best pitcher on the staff, producing a 15-9 record with a 3.66 ERA (4.31 xFIP, 4.61 SIERA) and 1.377 WHIP, amounting to an fWAR of 2.8. Last season, Big Pelf was 7-13 with a 4.74 ERA (4.55 xFIP, 4.70 SIERA) and 1.472 WHIP, leading to an fWAR of 0.7. While it’s true that wins-loss record and ERA don’t accurately reflect a pitcher’s value, Pelfrey was certainly a better pitcher in 2010 than 2011. If he is tendered a contract this offseason (which he probably will), Pelfrey will need to regain his prior form. With that, here are five steps to “fix” Mike Pelfrey.
1. Slap him hard across the face
I think it’s safe to say that many Mets fans want to slap Pelfrey for all the suffering he has put them through recently. Pelf doesn’t need to be slapped for punitive reasons, but rather as a wake-up call. There has been some discussion that Pelfrey has a fragile psyche and that he falls apart on the mound for that reason. Well, it is time for Pelfrey to realize that he is a 6’7, 250 pound man who should be an intimidating force on the mound, rather than the timid adolescent which Mets fans have become too accustomed to seeing. It’s time to start pitching with more confidence and authority.
2. Keep the ball on the ground
Now that some sense has been slapped into him, Pelfrey needs to realize what kind of pitcher he is, and what kind of pitcher he isn’t. With a career K/9 of 5.1, Big Pelf is not a strikeout pitcher-and that’s OK, because not every pitcher needs to fit this mold. In order to succeed, however, Pelfrey needs to keep the ball on the ground. Mike’s ground ball rate dipped from 47.8% in 2010 to 45.6% in 2011, while his fly ball rate increased from 32.0% to 34.7%. The home run rate also increased, from 0.5 HR/9 in /10 to 1.0 HR/9 in ’11 (out of the 21 homers allowed last season, nine were to righties and seven were at home, compared to just one homer from a righty and four at home in 2010). Since Pelfrey isn’t going to strike out a lot of guys, he needs to keep the ball on the ground and allow fewer home runs.
3. Cut down on the pitch types
This step might be the most important for Pelfrey’s success. Traditionally a sinker ball pitcher, Pelfrey has thrown primarily sinkers, four-seamers and two-seamers for much of his career. For example, in 2008, 81.2% of his pitches were some type of fast ball (sinker included), according to FanGraphs. In 2010, he added a splitter to help him with lefties, and had various degrees of success. In 2011, however, Pelfrey also added a cutter, expanding to repertoire to five pitches (or more if you break down the fastball into its variations). Below is the distribution of Pelfrey’s pitches in 2011, along with their value in runs above or below average per 100 pitches thrown:
Fastball (all types): 64.4%; 0.04
Slider: 14.1%; -1.56
Curveball: 5.6%; -2.39
Splitter: 12.8%; -1.69
Cutter: 3.1%; -2.76
Notice a pattern? Not one of Pelfrey’s secondary pitches has a positive run value. In fact, none of his secondary pitches have a positive run value over the course of his career. So what is the solution? I believe Pelfrey will have more success if he concentrates on throwing a few pitches well as opposed to throwing a lot of pitches not so well. So which pitches? If I were Dan Warthen, I’d tell Pelfrey to keep his three fastballs (four-seam, two-seam and sinker), his curve and his splitter. Over the course of his career, Pelfrey’s curve has been better than his slider, worth 0.19 runs below average per 100 pitches as opposed 1.56 runs below average per 100 pitches. The cutter is relatively new and could easily be abandoned, while keeping and refining the splitter will give Pelfrey a weapon against lefties. Focusing on these pitches also would give Pelfrey three, distinct ranges of velocity in his repertoire; last season, his fastball averaged 92.2 mph, his splitter 84.5 mph and his curve 75.7 mph. Ideally, Pelfrey would get back to his ground ball routes by throwing lots of sinkers and two-seamers, mixing in curves and splitters.
4. Sometimes you just need a strikeout
It’s not always the number of strikeouts that matters, but when the strikeouts come that is important. In 2011, opposing hitters made contact 87.6% of the time, above the MLB average of 80.7%, and swung and missed just 5.5% of the time, well below the average of 8.6%. Those numbers mean a lot of foul balls, extended at bats, and balls in play. Improving the quality of his pitches should help Pelfrey increase his strikeout total a little, or at least give him the ability to generate strikeouts in important situations.
5. Slap him again
Just to make sure Pelfrey understands, slap him again.
Even though Pelfrey could be non-tendered, he will likely be retained and earn somewhere between $5-6 million through the arbitration process. Is he worth that much? Probably not, but unless the Mets are going to go out and acquire a free agent starter, Pelfey will be back in a Mets uniform next season. Beyond that is unlikely, especially if he continues to frustrate, but if he does return in 2012, it is in the best interest for Big Pelf to succeed, so that the team performs well and/or he gains trade value. Either way, an improved Mike Pelfrey in 2012 will at least temper the desire of Mets fans to slap him in the face.