May 8, 2008
Mike Pelfrey: How Ya Doin’ There, Big Guy?
by: Jeff Mathews on May 8, 2008 1:28 AM | Filed under: Articles

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.

8 Responses to “Mike Pelfrey: How Ya Doin’ There, Big Guy?”

  1. Comment posted by Chaucer on May 8, 2008 at 5:26 am (#686001)

    I really love this post. It’s just the sort of thing that first brought me to metsgeek years ago, now.

    I’m 1) insanely busy and 2) incompetent, so I can’t check for myself: how does this compare with last year?

  2. Comment posted by madisonmetsfan on May 8, 2008 at 9:30 am (#686011)

    So Pelfrey’s below league average on most metrics. On the other hand, he’s a 5th starter, or at least he should be evaluated as one notwithstanding Pedro’s absence and Figueroa’s temporary presence in the rotation. To me, logic dictates that 5th starters should be below league average by definition, since this isn’t Lake Woebegon and everyone can’t be above average. So my question is, how do Pelfrey’s peripherals compare with those of other #5 starters?

  3. Comment posted by Danny on May 8, 2008 at 9:58 am (#686032)

    The statistics certainly support many of the criticisms that I and many others have had regarding Pelfrey and his readiness right now to be a quality major league pitcher.

    It also really emphasizes how profoundly the Mets rushed Pelfrey to the big leagues. He has a fastball with sink, not a Webb-like sinking fastball. There is some downward plane but it’s not exceptional. Yet, the Mets decided to hand him the 5th starter’s spot on account of this one pitch, with the feeling that as long as he threw it knee-high every time, the league would pound the ball into the ground (not really a lot of wiggle room there). On top of that, they asked him to take velocity off of it, so that he could command it better (which is clear from his dip in velocity from when he was called up in 2006 to what he was throwing in 2007).

    What is the best course for Pelfrey? Is he mentally tough enough to continue getting abused by major league hitters while refining his secondary stuff and improving his fastball command? I think it’s a tall order. Once the Mets are happy with Armas or Vargas, I would prefer that Pelfrey get sent down to AAA to work on his arsenal of pitches, allow him to let the fastball go again at top velocity, and work on using all of his pitches in every count. Results be damned. Who cares if the AAA team wins or loses? He needs to learn how to pitch.

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  5. Comment posted by Dep on May 8, 2008 at 10:00 am (#686033)

    Great post. Loving the pitch F/X data.

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  7. Comment posted by John Peterson on May 8, 2008 at 1:14 pm (#686188)

    I counsel patience. He’ll learn.

  8. Comment posted by SoCal Metfan on May 8, 2008 at 2:03 pm (#686191)

    Love the article, it’s a great look at why Pelf is struggling. Sure he’s a 5th starter, but I think everyone wants him to be more.

  9. Comment posted by cp on May 8, 2008 at 3:32 pm (#686329)

    So my question is, how do Pelfrey’s peripherals compare with those of other #5 starters?

    This is a very crude stab at putting NL 5th starters into some sort of context. I looked at the guys who ranked 81-98 in number of starts in 2007. So for those 18 pitchers here are some numbers:

    Combined 194 starts, 5.42 ERA, 1.65:1 k/bb, 6.13 k/9ip, 3.72 bb/9ip, 1.54 whip, 70-82

    The most striking thing is that these guys only averaged about 10 starts. Since the 5th spot in the rotation comes up 25-30 times that means a lot of other guys need to be included to get a true look at fifth starters.

    The next 22 guys made 149 starts with a 5.70 ERA, 1.41:1 k:bb, 5.7 k/9ip, 4.1 bb/9ip, 1.62 whip, 48-79

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  11. Comment posted by Peter H on May 8, 2008 at 5:33 pm (#686560)

    Great post, Jeff. And I agree with Danny that the best way for Pelfrey to develop would be to go to AAA to work on his secondary stuff & fastball. Getting pounded every start in the majors is not going to help his confidence.