Of course, the latter never happened for Pelfrey; instead he struggled to find a semblance of a swing-and-miss pitcher, became the embodied disappointment of Mets fans, had his elbow ligament snap and wound up in Minnesota. Quite the different career path than was envisioned for him eight years ago.
Now, a free agent coming off a middling season (5-13, 5.19 ERA), CBSsports.com’s Jon Heyman, who has a close relationship with agent Scott Boras, reports that the Twins have extended a multi-year offer:
[Slams laptop closed. Goes for a long walk.]
This is all confusing. The Twins recognize they have a serious problem with their starting rotation - a rotation that has failed to miss bats at a historic rate in the modern era - but continue to pursue the same type of starting pitcher that has created the problem to begin with. As mentioned before, due to his lack of secondary offerings, even a fully healthy Mike Pelfrey fails to miss bats at even the league average rate. Over his career, he has a swinging strike rate of 5.9% while the rest of the game has been closer to 9%.
I thought we had an understanding here. I thought Jack Goin, the Twins’ manager of Major League Administration and Baseball Research, had sat Terry Ryan down and explained that strikeouts were not only NOT fascist, they were good and that having a lot of them made your starting rotation better. So, why Pelfrey again? The objective should be to look at your 2013 starting rotation real closely then target all the pitchers whose skill sets are the exact opposite.
Ok, that may be a large overcorrection but, still, why Pelfrey again?
It is entirely possible that Pelfrey’s agent is using Heyman and the Twins to drum up additional interest in his client. After all, the Twins have not confirmed that there is a two-year offer out to Pelfrey right now. That being said, at the end of last year the Twins coaching staff and Terry Ryan lauded Pelfrey’s second-half improvements. Manager Ron Gardenhire said in September that he believed a lot of Pelfrey’s problems in the later part of the year, such has too many 3-2 counts and long delays between pitches, were easily fixable.
The Twins said they liked seeing Pelfrey’s velocity increase, which it did from 91.9 in the first-half to 92.7 in the second-half. Gardenhire mentioned specifically that Pelfrey’s secondary pitches improved over the course of the year as his elbow healed, which was true in that opponents had a .700 OPS against his secondary pitches in the first-half while they had a .588 OPS in the second.
The biggest thing that may be the key as to why the Twins would entertain the notion of bringing Pelfrey back is the huge swing in a statistic that hides behind paywalls called “well-hit average”. This statistic tries to add description to a pitcher’s (or hitter’s) batted balls that goes beyond just the line drive, ground ball and fly ball categories. Video scouts from various companies such as Inside Edge or BIS log whether that ground ball out was smoked to second or a harmless chopper. In theory, when used in conjunction with a regularly distributed stat like batting average on balls in play (BABIP), it should provide insight as to whether a pitcher’s inflated/deflated BABIP was truly unlucky or not.
In Pelfrey’s case, consider the difference on balls in play between the first half of the year and the second half.
During the first stretch, Pelfrey was banged around to the tune of .313/.359/.478 over 16 games. According to ESPN’s Stats & Info Department, he carried a well-hit average of .222 -- the highest among all starters with the exception of Joe Blanton (.235). That’s a straight-up beating by hitters. Taking the well-hit average into account, there is no risk of miscategorizing his first-half as “unlucky”.
Several things played a factor in these results but a recovering rebuilt elbow was likely the most significant hindrance. Admittedly, Pelfrey lacks the necessary secondary offerings to be a truly effective top-of-the-rotation starter, but his strong assortment of fastballs lacked command post-surgery which should be an expected side effect in Tommy John recoveries. So, after 16 starts and a back strain that took him down for two weeks, Pelfrey actually rebounded quite well over the second half. Over his last 13 games, hitters posted a much improved .284/.356/.374 batting line that was built on a well-hit average of .134, one of the league’s best in the latter portion of the season.
I know. That doesn’t feel right, right? I triple-checked to make sure I had the stats sorted correctly. Did hitters really not hit the ball as well off Pelfrey as they did against such pitching dignitaries as Ricky Nolasco (.137), Hasashi Iwakuma (.140) or Francisco Liriano (.143) in the second-half of the season, as the aforementioned well-hit statistic suggests?
Several things to mention here:
(1) Because this statistic resides mainly behind paywalls, the well-hit average has not been vetted thoroughly by sabr-minded people. This means studies have not been conducted to determine how the well-hit average fluctuates from year-to-year. Is Pelfrey’s second-half decrease a true indication that he was pitching better and that this performance will continue?
(2) Even with the significantly improved well-hit average, the end product was an ugly 1-6 record with a rotund 4.76 ERA and a near .300 batting average in the second-half that contributed to the overall blah year.
(3) Who knows if the Twins have examined him from this perspective. The organization clearly has access to these reports so they should put this into consideration if thinking about r-signing him. If they have broken it down to this level, I would be more accepting of an eventual Mike Pelfrey re-signing.
In the end, going through this exercise reassured me that there is some small, faint glimmer of hope that the notion of bringing back Mike Pelfrey is not a completely bonehead move. If he signs for a two-year, $8M per deal similar to the average annual value of Jason Vargas, Pelfrey has proven in the past that he can be a mid-rotation guy (albeit one without the sexy strikeouts) and the second-half numbers could be indications that he will be that again in 2014.
But that’s it, that’s the ceiling: a mid-rotation guy. The Twins rotation and fans need more than that.