So what was that pitch Mike Pelfrey was throwing in today’s split-squad game against the Marlins?
Pelfrey was definitely throwing a good, hard sinker, on both sides of the plate. He might have thrown a changeup here and there but I couldn’t tell because the CW11 radar gun was way off.
And then there was that “breaking pitch”.
Supposedly, Pelfrey ditched his curveball last spring, per the wisdom of Rick Peterson. He’d concentrate on the slider instead. We haven’t heard anything contrary to that dictum since.
Yet, I saw overhand curves being thrown by Pelfrey today.
Maybe it was the wind. Maybe my eyes were deceiving me. Or maybe Pelfrey is throwing the curveball again. Or, maybe he thinks he’s throwing a slider but it’s actually a curve.
By definition, a slider should resemble a fastball in speed and appearance, but dart slightly down and sideways, and out of the strike zone at the last millisecond. The “break” of the ball — its change in path from a straight line — should be measurable in inches. Five to ten inches is about right. If it stays in the strikezone, then it’s called a “flat” slider because it goes only sideways and not down.
In contrast, a curveball is thrown from a higher plane and at a slower speed than a fastball. It should break down sharply from that higher plane and into the strike zone. The total break should be a foot (12″) or more. A “12-to-6” curve is the ideal, and is called that because if you imagined a clock face behind the path of the ball, you’d see it start at 12 and break straight down to 6. Aaron Sele threw such a curve, as did Dwight Gooden; you don’t see many pitchers throw them these days. Most curves are more “11-to-5” or “1-to-7”, though they’re never called that.
What I saw today from Pelfrey on occasion was a “breaking pitch” that was starting at a higher plane and dropping into the strike zone — and was significantly slower than his fastball. If he can do this on purpose, and more often, then this is good news, because to be successful at the Major League level he MUST change speeds and must be able to throw something other than the fastball for non-swinging strikes. A curveball, rather than a flat slider, is ideal (Jorge Sosa flattens his slider to get it into the strike zone, and as a result many of those pitches end up over fences).
To understand why it’s so important for Pelfrey to throw a curveball (or a changeup) for strikes, you need only have watched his outing today. His first time through the lineup, he pitched well, spotting the fastball all around the zone and mixing in that inconsistent breaking pitch. The second time through the lineup, however, the batters were sitting on the fastball — waiting for it, and jumping all over it. The batters knew that Pelfrey wasn’t throwing a changeup and were usually able to recognize and lay off the hard-breaking slider. So they timed his fastball and hacked at it. In other words, the batters had little to think or guess about.
If Pelfrey could have dropped a few more of those breaking pitches — the ones with the slower, downward break — into the strike zone early in counts, then the batters would have more to think about. They wouldn’t have the luxury of sitting on the fastball.
Over and over (and over) you probably heard Keith Hernandez saying Pelfrey’s fastball was up in the zone and/or getting too much of the plate. There was some credence to Keith’s analysis, but what Keith was pointing out is really a symptom and not the actual problem. If Pelfrey were able get a true curveball or a good changeup over the plate, then he’d be able to “get away” with occasional poor location. Watch Johan Santana or Pedro Martinez and you’ll see what I mean. With either of those pitchers, the batter has more to worry about — particularly with timing. If a pitcher can keep a batter “off balance”, he can be less perfect with location. It’s much easier for a batter to adjust to a change in location than a change in timing. Because Pelfrey is not able to abrupt the batter’s timing, his location has to be absolutely perfect.
Maybe Mike Pelfrey can “accidentally” throw more curveballs. If he did, he would not only win the fifth starter spot but likely win 10-12 games this year.