Pelfrey’s Curveball

Mike Pelfrey pitching for the MetsSo 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.

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.
  1. isuzudude March 8, 2008 at 4:09 pm
    I can tell the shalacking the Mets are taking against the Marlins today is messing with your head, Joe. In a previous post, you all but wrote off Mike Pelfrey for 2008 (“Pelfrey certainly isn’t the answer”), but minutes later claimed he could win in upwards of 12 games this year. Then to hear you mention Schoeneweis as a possible candidate to fill the #5 rotation spot – well, that’s when I knew this just wasn’t your day.

    All in good fun, my friend.

    Seriously, you’re dead right about Pefrey. We’ve known since last year that he needs to A) work more on his delivery working out of the stretch, and B) develop a tertiary pitch to complement his fastball and slider. And that’s why it’s been harped on at length to leave El Duque in the rotation in ’08 (as long as he’s healthy) as to give Pelfrey maximum time to further develop himself in the friendly confines of AAA. I still firmly believe Pelfrey’s future will be bright, but it may take him another year or two to put it all together.

    But about the Show in the rotation…you’re on your own with this one. I know not all LHPs succeed against batters of their same ilk, but in Show’s case it applies (.292 vs righties, .229 vs. lefties lifetime). Plus, with Feliciano the only lefty middle reliever besides Show who’s capable of pitching at the major league level (sorry, Rincon, Collazo, Cullen, and Camacho haven’t shown me enough, yet), Show’s spot in the bullpen is more important, IMHO, than filling the hole at #5. I’d rather see Figueroa, Joselo Diaz, Vargas, or Armas (whenever he decides to show up) temporarily fill the #5 until either Duque is ready or Pelfrey is mature. Perhaps even throw Sosa’s name in the mix. 3 scoreless innings today against Baltimore can’t hurt his chances.

  2. joe March 8, 2008 at 4:32 pm
    Again, I’m going to provide some more support for my theory that platoon splits are overblown.

    Yes, Show is .292 career vs. RH and .229 vs. LH. Total is .273.

    Moyer, career: .265 vs. RH and .273 vs. LH. Total is .267

    Rogers, career: .275 vs. RH and .241 vs. LH. Total is .268

    I pick Moyer and Rogers because they are similar types of pitchers to Shoeneweis: junkballing lefties. While the .292 vs. RH is high, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be a complete disaster as a starter. That .229 line vs. LH is nice to have against the LH-heavy Phils and Braves. The Mets need at best a spot starter to hold the fort for Pelfrey / Duque / Vargas, at worst they need a full-time fifth starter. I’m not saying Show is definitely the guy to put there, but throwing it out there for consideration.

    As for an extra lefty in the bullpen, I liked what I saw of Rincon when I was in PSL — he was throwing much harder than I expected. As a strict LOOGY, I’ll put him as even with Show or better right now. I don’t think either should be used for more than a few batters.

  3. Micalpalyn March 10, 2008 at 12:09 pm
    Sorry joe, I totally agree with Isuzu.

    1. Omar has in place the best potential pitching staff he has ever assembled. The unsung hero is John Maine who I agree is the 2nd starter. Then Pedro and Ollie sit with a few question marks. BUT the post you wrote is golden and really has helped me turn the Pelfrey corner. I can see why bannister was allowed to leave. Pelfrey just needed more time. We knew he had a curve and I am glad he is showing it. Projection. Yes I see Pelfrey taking his spot in the rotation.

    2. Isuzu is right. Vargas, Figuroa, Niese are FAR better options to start than Sho. Last yr Sho was a LOOGY based on splits. Not a Darren Oliver clone. As Isu puts it sho is needed as support with Feliciano as a lefty middle man.