Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
July 14, 2008
BASEBALL: Going To Ground
The national ESPN audience got to see last night what Mets fans have been seeing for a few weeks now: Mike Pelfrey has become a major league pitcher, and the Mets' insistence on keeping him in the rotation this season has paid off. In his last nine starts through last night, Pelfrey is 6-0 with a 2.26 ERA.
To start with the obvious problem he still has: Pelfrey still needs a strikeout pitch. Pelfrey is averaging 5.3 K/9 on the season; even in his eight "quality starts," in which he has a 1.29 ERA in 55.2 IP, he's averaging a pedestrian 5.98 K/9. Strikeouts are a pitcher's most potent weapon for keeping men off the bases without the assistance of his defense, and Chien-Ming Wang aside, few pitchers get to the front of the rotation if they can't get past 6 K/9 or so. That said, Pelfrey's K rate has been going up lately, a positive sign.
But when the Ks aren't there, you have to max out in other areas, and a guy with Pelfrey's hard, heavy sinker and good control has the weapons to do that. First, he has cut his already low HR rate to microscopic levels - at 0.33 HR/9 he's second in the majors to Dana Eveland. Opposing batters are slugging .381 against Pelfrey on the season, compared to .374 against Scott Kazmir, .376 against Johan Santana, .380 against Cole Hamels. Second, cut off the running game - with the help of Brian Schneider, Pelfrey has allowed one stolen base all year (in five attempts). That helps set up the DP - Pelfrey's induced 14 GIDP on the season (the MLB leader, Mark Buehrle, has 23, but Pelfrey is among the leaders if not that close to the top), and 9 in his last 8 starts. Durability helps too - Pelfrey's averaging 104 pitches per start and has thrown at least 95 pitches in every start this year. It helps to be big, young, strong and have good mechanics (this is also a byproduct of not throwing a lot of breaking balls). And the more times a guy like Pelfrey throws a full game's worth of pitches to major league hitters, the more he learns about how to command those pitches and what works and doesn't work in getting hitters out.
Command is key. Pelfrey's always around the strike zone; he never struggles to find the plate. But he gets in trouble when he nibbles or just can't place his pitches exactly where he wants them. His 3.56 BB/9 and opposing OBP of .359 are way too high for a control pitcher. Even in the last 9 starts, Pelfrey's walk rate is 2.87 BB/9, decent but not where you want a low-K ground ball pitcher to be.
Again: Pelfrey still has his weaknesses. He's been reliant on Shea Stadium - his ERA is 2.35 at home, 5.56 on the road. Lefties are batting .317/.398/.457 against him on the season, sitting on his sinker; his K/BB ratio is 45/15 against righthanded hitters, but an unsightly 19/28 against lefties. All of which explains why, for now, he's still a fifth starter. But what you ask of your fifth starter is to go out there, eat innings, and keep his ERA around the league average, and Pelfrey has gotten good at the first and, for the moment at least, now exceeded the second. He's still got more to learn, but he has rewarded the Mets' preference for starting him rather than sending him back to AAA while they start the likes of Claudio Vargas or Tony Armas in his stead. And if Pelfrey can give us more in the second half of what we have seen in the last 9 starts, he may find himself ahead of Oliver Perez on the depth chart before the season is over (maybe Pedro too, but that will be all about what Pedro does, not about Pelfrey).
Welcome to the big leagues, kid.
UPDATE: I checked, and Justin Verlander has the largest number of consecutive starts this season (20) throwing at least 95 pitches; Pelfrey is third behind Verlander and Ervin Santana. Since 1988 - as far back as there seems to be reliable data - the longest such streak is 44 starts by Jake Peavy from September 2006 to May 2008; three of the top 6 are by Randy Johnson. Across seasons, Verlander's streak of 24 is rthe tops, and Pelfrey's current streak is tied with Ervin Santana at 19.