Pelfrey: Resist the Temptation

As spring training 1984 was about to break, manager Davey Johnson begged GM Frank Cashen to allow him to bring a young phenom hurler north. Cashen resisted, but eventually gave in to Johnson’s pleading.

From the New York Times:

Cashen was comparing this year’s spring phenomenon with the Mets’ prize pitcher of the 1981 camp. Leary, 22 at the time, made the team that year, over Cashen’s objections and pitched two major league innings before suffering an elbow injury that required three years of physical and emotional rehabilitation.

”Dwight Gooden does not have as good physical equipment as Tim Leary had in 1981,” Cashen said, ”but he’s a different kind of person. Adversity rolls off his back easier.”

(Ironically, Cashen believed Gooden had the proper emotional aptitude to handle the pressures of big league baseball. We know now that may have been the worst evaluation in Cashen’s otherwise brilliant career.)

This year, Mike Pelfrey is the phenom, and he is both similar to, and at the same time quite unlike, both Tim Leary and Dwight Gooden (and Tyler Yates, for that matter). Pelfrey has physical gifts and skills similar to those that Gooden and Leary exhibited in their early 20s, and he’s shown to have big-league-ready stuff. In contrast to Leary and Gooden, we assume Pelfrey is more stable and polished emotionally, based on four years of major college ball and a short stint with the Mets last year. In addition, he has the benefit of a strong support system instituted by the Mets after the gaffes of Gooden, Strawberry, and other youngsters rushed to the big stage. With Pelfrey’s outstanding performance this spring, and the Mets’ glaring need for frontline starting pitching, the temptation is great to bring Pelfrey north at the end of March — just as the Mets did with Gooden in ’84 and Leary in ’81.

My hope is that Willie Randolph, Omar Minaya, and the rest of the Mets’ brass resist the temptation.

The reason? Though the stuff is there, the head is there, and the Mets could really use a starter of his caliber, Mike Pelfrey is not ready for a 180-200 inning season. Last year, his first in pro ball, he pitched a grand total of 118 innings. In 2005, he threw 140 innings at Wichita State, the most he’d thrown in his life.

Compare those numbers to Dwight Gooden, who though only 19 years old in 1984, had already logged 191 innings at high-A Lynchburg the previous year. Leary had thrown 173 innings at AA Jackson the year before he was brought up — including 11 complete games. Back then, young pitchers weren’t coddled as much as they are today — and by young I’m talking from high school, on. In fact, quite the opposite; pitchers threw more, and as a result built up strength. Gooden, for example, probably threw somewhere around 50-90 innings as a high school senior in 1982, then another 80 in A ball after getting drafted. Coaches weren’t worried about pitch counts in those days, and it was acceptable — if not expected — for a 20-year-old to throw 180-220 innings without an issue.

In the past 10-15 years, however, things have changed drastically. Coaches and parents watch pitch counts from Little League on, and the best pitchers are limited most strictly, for fear of injury. This makes sense for growing boys, who could possibly damage their growth plates in the early teens. However, the result is that when they make it to the pros, pitchers are not ready for a professional season’s full load. The Mets organization is fully conscious of this fact, and limit their young pitchers to specific pitch counts — by game and by inning. For example, no pitcher in the Mets’ minor league system is allowed to throw more than 35 pitches in an inning. If they reach that point, they’re out of the game, regardless of the score. Similarly, there are limits for pitchers per game, depending on their age and experience.

Now, consider that a starting pitcher on a Major League team is expected to start at least 30 games, and average around 6 innings. In other words, a minimum of 180 innings. Again, Pelfrey threw 118 innings last year, mostly fastballs. In college, he threw 140 in 2005, 115 in 2004, and 105 in 2003. You don’t need to crunch the numbers to see that asking Mike Pelfrey to throw 180+ innings in 2007 is too much — but just for the record, a full 180-inning year would be 48% more load over last year, and 29% heavier than he’s ever executed in his life. Now add in another caveat: this year, Pelfrey will be throwing more breaking pitches — specifically a slider. It has been surmised by authorities such as the NPA, Baseball Prospectus, and Dr. James Andrews, that the slider takes more of a toll on the arm than a fastball or changeup. Also, add in the fact that all but 21 of Pelfrey’s innings were pitched in AA — where he might have had the ability to “let up” occasionally. In MLB, every pitch counts, so there is a higher stress factor (physically and mentally).

There’s no question the Mets need a pitcher like Pelfrey in 2007. At the same time, Mike Pelfrey should be a big part of what the Mets do in 2008 and well beyond. Can Pelfrey handle 48% more innings than he threw last year? Maybe. It’s quite possible he’ll have no problem pitching 175-190 innings this year — but will it affect what he does in 2008? Several young pitchers in the past have had awful second years after being overloaded in their rookie season. We’ll see what happens with Justin Verlander this year, who had a similar overload going from 2005-2006. Perhaps Mike Pelfrey has the biological make-up to easily handle an extra 60-70 innings, and won’t be affected at all. But is it worth the chance? All one has to do is peek into the Mets’ past, specifically the early 1990s, when Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher, and Paul Wilson were rushed to the big leagues, gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated as “Generation K”.

Assuming Mike Pelfrey continues to impress this spring, he’ll help the Mets in 2007. However, why does his 2007 have to start in New York? The Mets won’t need a fifth starter until mid-April, and can get by with fill-ins through the end of May. In the meantime, start Pelfrey in New Orleans — at the back end of the rotation. Skip him a few starts here and there, and limit his innings and pitch counts strictly in April, but then gradually work him up to 6-7 innings per start at the end of May. By mid June, he should have 10-12 starts under his belt, but only about 50-60 innings. At this point in the Mets’ season, they’ll be around the 60-70-game point, and involved in interleague play. Depending on what’s going on with the standings, maybe you bring him up for interleague, or maybe you wait until the end of the month, and start him against the Cardinals and/or the Phillies. He’ll be fresh, strong, and ready to take his turn every fifth day. This means he’d be available for about 16-20 starts and 90-120 innings. His total output for the year, then, would be somewhere between 140-180 innings (before the postseason!) — with a decent chunk of those at the lower-intensity, AAA level.

In a perfect world, that’s how I’d move Mike Pelfrey along — and Philip Humber as well. Of course, we know what happens to the best laid plans — they often fall astray. A stiff neck by El Duque, a string of bad outings by Oliver Perez, combined with a dogfight for first place, may make Pelfrey’s presence more urgent. But that’s why Chan Ho Park, Aaron Sele, Jorge Sosa, and Jason Vargas are around — to keep the seat warm for when Pelfrey and/or Humber are ready. Should all four of the stopgaps prove incompetent, and one of the top four falter (or suffer injury), then by all means Mike Pelfrey needs to be in a Met uniform. But until that urgency occurs, it may be best for the Mets to allow Pelfrey the time and patience to develop at a slower pace.

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.