About six months back, I argued that the Mets wouldn’t miss Tom Glavine in 2008 all that much, at least partly because I thought we had a couple of in-house replacements—Philip Humber and Mike Pelfrey—who could contribute close to Glavine’s level of production for league-minimum salaries. Glavine has since gone on to pitch at his expected level of mediocrity for the Braves, and Humber of course was sent to Minnesota as part of the package that brought us The Best Pitcher In Baseball™, but what about Pelfrey? With injuries to Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez, Pelfrey’s got himself a spot in the rotation despite a poor spring, for at least a month-and-a-half, anyway. So how’s he done?
Short answer: terrible. Take a look at the following:
That’s a lot of red ink. Pelfrey is worse than league-average at striking batters out, preventing walks, and preventing homeruns. He’s striking out 3.6 batters per nine innings—unacceptable for a man whose fastball regularly clocks in at 93 mph. Though his walk rate is bad (4.6 BB/9), it isn’t terrible, except that he’s actually walked more batters than he’s struck out, giving him a benthic 0.8 K/BB ratio. On the plus side . . . he hasn’t been much worse than average at preventing home runs.
Last year when Pelfrey was compiling a 5.57 ERA in 15 games, his peripherals indicated that he had probably been a bit unlucky, which is why I thought he might make an adequate fifth starter (fifth starters generally being pretty terrible). So far in 2008, Mike’s rocking a .368 BABIP, which would make you think that he’s been unlucky again. But, having faced 570 batters in the major leagues, it might be time to consider that Pelfrey’s career .344 BABIP might not be a product of bad luck, but, rather, it indicates a poor ability to prevent hits on balls in play. If Santana can maintain a BABIP that’s 30 points better than league-average, we have to be prepared to think that Pelfrey might deserve a rate that’s 40 points worse.
In fact, Pelfrey’s high BABIP only looks unlucky until you also look at his absurdly high line-drive rate: nearly 29%. A good rule of thumb is that a pitcher’s BABIP should be his line-drive rate plus .120, which means that Mike should probably be sporting a BABIP north of .400. If anything, he’s been lucky.
So, what’s the problem, and how can we fix it? Anecdotally, it seems like Pelfrey has been pitching behind in the count a lot; but anecdotes don’t actually prove anything, so I decided to look at Pelfrey’s player card, created by Josh Kalk of the Hardball Times, and see if I could actually find something out. Josh has been doing the hard work of converting all of Sportvision’s Pitch-F/X data for 2008 from XML and putting it into these handy player cards. Go ahead and take a look. Pretty sweet, right?
The Pitch-F/X data shows that Pelfrey throws three pitches: a ton of fastballs, and an occasional slider or changeup. It also thinks he’s thrown a sinker twice, and a splitter and a cutter once each, but I’m going to ignore those as either errors in the classification system or just poorly-thrown versions of one of Pelfrey’s actual pitches.
Now, through the magic of spreadsheets, let’s combine Josh’s Pitch-F/X data with some splits off of Baseball-Reference. Take a look at the chart below:
You can see that Pelfrey has thrown 128 pitches on an 0-0 count He’s gotten credit for facing 129 batters, so we’re missing one—probably a pickoff or CS. Anyway, 52 times Big Pelf threw a strike to make the count 0-1, 51 times he missed the target and put himself in the hole at 1-0, and 23 times a batter swung at the pitch and put it in play for either a hit or an out. When batters put that first pitch in play, they only hit .300/.300/.450, which isn’t terrific but is a damn sight better than the .352/.427/.481 line he’s allowed overall.
That’s only 126 batters, plus the one CS or something, so we’re still a batter or two short of 129 but that’s close enough for government work. Anyway, you can see from the above chart, the counts on which Pelfrey is really getting hurt. Not surprisingly, they’re the hitter’s counts: 1-0, 2-0, 3-1, etc. Now, going back to Josh’s player card for Pelfrey, what pitches is he throwing in those counts? That’s right, fastballs.
Now, overall Pelfrey throws a lot of fastballs: more than 77% of the time, according to Pitch-F/X. Some pitchers can get away with throwing fastball after fastball; especially if their fastball is “heavy,” or has some sink to it (Brandon Webb comes to mind). But once Mike gets into the halfway-serious hitters’ counts, he almost totally abandons his other pitches and relies exclusively on the heater.
This shows me two things. One, Mike (or Schneider or whoever is calling the game) has absolutely zero faith in his ability to throw anything other than his fastball for a strike. And two, Mike’s real problem, even though his walk rate isn’t terrible, is his control. It looks to me like hitters are waiting for Pelfrey to dig himself into a hole, and then teeing off when they know his fastball is coming. It’s possible that, at this point, Mike is so terrified of walking yet another hitter that he grooves that fastball a little bit.
Now, I think Pelfrey’s got a be-yoo-tiful fastball, don’t get me wrong. And even though it’s more of a sinker than the average fastball, it isn’t heavy enough that batters can’t hit it for line drives, especially when they know its coming. So what’s the solution to all this?
Well, there you got me. If there was an easy solution, I have no doubt that somebody on the Mets staff would have thought of it already. And I’m sure Rick Peterson is waiting anxiously for my input, but . . . the first thing is, try pitching backwards.
Right now, Pelfrey is throwing a first-pitch fastball more than 80% of the time. Instead, maybe he should try to get ahead of the hitters with a get-me-over slider, and then finish the ‘em off with that moving fastball. I mean, why not? Whatever he’s doing now isn’t working, so why not try something different?
My one other, less-happy suggestion is that Pelfrey still needs to work on his other pitches in the minor leagues. If Pedro comes back sometime soon and Figueroa continues to pitch okay, maybe Pelfrey should be sent down to Triple-A. Or, forget the other pitches entirely and move him to the bullpen.
Special thanks to Josh Kalk and the Hardball Times, as well as Baseball-Reference. They know what they done.