2009 Analysis: Mike Pelfrey

mike-pelfrey-legliftIt seemed that Mike Pelfrey turned a corner the moment Dan Warthen became pitching coach in late June of 2008. When that fallacy is combined with his final numbers — a 13-11 record and 3.72 ERA — many believed Big Pelf had finally matured, and was on the verge of a “breakout season”. Indeed, some pundits penciled him in as the Mets #2 starter when the 2009 season began.

So it appeared that Pelf fell flat on his face when he posted a 10-12 record and an unsightly 5.03 ERA by the time 2009 ended. Did he go backward? Was 2008 a mirage? Or was he simply the victim of bad luck?

The truth lies somewhere in between, and to find it, one needs to begin looking at his 2008 season objectively.

The more astute Mets fans are aware that Dan Warthen had little or nothing to do with Pelfrey’s “turnaround” in 2008. Rick Peterson was the pitching coach when Big Pelf beat the Phillies in his first start of the season, and when he threw 7 shutout innings in his second start. Pelfrey was wildly inconsistent over his next 7 starts, two of which could be graded as excellent. The “roll” began on May 31 with a 7-inning, 2-run performance against the Dodgers, and continued with a stretch of excellence in 8 of his next 10 starts — during which Warthen took over in the middle.

You may be surprised to find out that Mike Pelfrey had a lower ERA and a better won-loss record in the first half than the second half of 2008 (though his WHIP and batting average against both improved). Much of that was due to a mild setback in September, when he was 0-3 with a 4.06 ERA.

Nonetheless, Pelfrey did absolutely improve dramatically in 2008 compared to 2007. But did he really go backward in 2009?

A harder look at the final numbers, as well as the game logs, suggest that Pelfrey was a similar pitcher in 2009: inconsistent, with equal bouts of dominance and disasters, balanced by outings that could be described as “average’. The main difference between the two seasons was that he had a few more stellar outings in ’08.

Looking at the final stats for both seasons, two things jump out: double plays and batting average of righthanded hitters. Pelfrey induced exactly 337 ground balls in both ’08 and ’09, but only 15 were turned into double plays in ’09, compared to 29 in ’08. Considering that Pelfrey allowed a similar number of baserunners in both seasons (273 in ’08, 279 in ’09) — but pitched 16 fewer innings in ’09 — you can appreciate how much the double play can impact his performance. Fourteen less DPs means at least 14 more batters faced, and more pitches, and likely more runs, and so on. Add in the “yips” factor that affects Pelfrey from the stretch, and suddenly we have a theory for the rise in ERA. (Batters hit .325 against Pelfrey with runners on in 2009 — about 50 points higher than in 2008.)

Also hurting Pelfrey in ’09 was that righthanded hitters batted .293 against him — nearly 50 points higher than in ’08. I’m not sure of an explanation on that one, but if I had to guess I would say it was related to his throwing more four-seam fastballs in the middle of the strike zone and not enough bat-breaking sinkers that move down and in on the RH hitter’s hands (which would also help explain the downward trend in DPs) — but that’s only a theory.

Aside from those two eye-poppers, most of Pelfrey’s final stats are close to identical when comparing 2008 to 2009. I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing; I suppose it’s good in that he didn’t go as far backward as it appears on the the surface. Further, you can’t be too disappointed in a pitcher who goes 7+ innings 11 times and wins 10 games on a club that finished 70-92. Put Pelfrey on a 90-win team with a stronger offense and he might have pulled out a 12-14-win season.

But what about 2010? Will Pelfrey make a step forward, or has he hit a plateau? I sincerely believe he can make progress if he polish up one of his offspeed pitches, goes back to more frequent use of his heavy sinker, and learns to focus with runners on base. That’s not a whole lot to ask of a 26-year-old, and far from impossible. At the same time, it’s not fair to expect him to be a #2 starter in 2010 — though it wouldn’t be surprising if he evolved into that type of pitcher before the end of next season.

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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. Mike October 22, 2009 at 11:09 am
    The lack of DPs has to have something to do with bad defense behind him. David Wright certain seemed to have an off year in the field (I don’t have evidence to back that up) and with Jose Reyes out that cannot have had no effect. I was disappointed with Pelf’s lack of progress as a pitcher, getting less DPs should only have hurt him if he couldn’t get hitters out another way more effectively. This means swings and misses and this is something he has REGRESSED in since he was drafted.

    Joe something to consider if the Mets are serious about using Pelf as a capable 3rd starter is bringing in a veteran who specializes in sinker balls. Brandon Webb is most likely going to be retained through his option by the D-backs, otherwise he would be an obvious first choice. Webb is a very similar pitcher to what Pelf should be developing into. Other than him Erik Bedard might be available (I believe he is a Type B FA). My point is bringing in someone who can both be the #2 and benefit Pelfrey as a mentor should be considered strongly. Unfortunately I’m unsure such a pitcher is available.

  2. Harry Chiti October 22, 2009 at 12:49 pm
    Interesting suggestion Mike, however, a team in the largest market in the nation, with a payroll at or near the top in the league every year, should have the money to spend to find a pitching coach who could actually help the pitchers improve. Your suggestion is an indictment of Warthen and to me is right on target.
  3. Mike October 22, 2009 at 12:58 pm
    I’ve been pretty vocal about my lack of faith in Dan Warthen as a pitching coach. Other than fixing Ollie last year for the final few months he really has done nothing for any of the pitchers on this staff. In fact the opposite is likely true as he has overseen Ollie regressing significantly, Maine getting hurt twice, Pelfrey’s stunted growth, Santana’s injury and lack of velocity and finally Bobby Parnell’s lack of progress last season. I really can’t find anything redeemable about the work he’s done.

    I agree that this is the pitching coach’s job and find the idea of pitchers mentoring or helping other pitchers to be somewhat of a fan’s interpretation of what actually goes on in a clubhouse. However, unless your pitching coach is Dave Duncan there isn’t a pitching coach that can teach a pitcher to throw an effective sinker ball better than another pitcher who already has mastered it.

  4. joejanish October 22, 2009 at 1:14 pm
    Mike – the defense could be a consideration, good point. Such a factor would support the “bad luck” theory. The only way to know for sure would be to review all of his starts.

    However according to the stats, his ability to strike people out has been rather stable — in fact his lowest K/9 rate came in 2008, which is why my theory is he may want to try pitching to contact a little more. Don’t misconstrue, though — pitching to contact doesn’t mean laying the ball over the middle of the plate for people to whack; in his case it means putting more sinkers and changeups with movement into the bottom of the strike zone to induce more ground balls.

    I agree it could be helpful if Pelf had a sinkerballing mentor to watch and learn from. It’s one thing to trust a pitching coach’s theories, quite another to see someone like Webb (or Derek Lowe) zip through a 6-pitch, 3-groundball inning.

  5. joe October 23, 2009 at 12:41 pm
    First thing about Pelfrey is someone shattered his confidence. If you looked at him pitch this year he look as comfortable as a cat on a hot tin roof.
    Secondly they have to get rid of Santos and get a real catcher. It screws up the pitchers when the catcher has no target when the pitchers are in motion. Santos didn’t pick his spot until the pitcher was releasing the ball. Warthen was a waste. All of the pitchers regresed this year.