The Twins raised some eyebrows during the offseason after they signed Mike Pelfrey to a two year, $11 million deal. While there was little doubt the Twins needed to address their rotation questions, there was doubt whether the answer to those questions was Mike Pelfrey - not to mention the need to commit to 2 years of Pelfrey in order to get a deal done.
From an outside perspective, you can (sort of) see what the Twins were trying to do in signing Pelfrey back into the fold. After three seasons of rotating AAAA caliber starters and residing at or near the bottom of the AL in ERA, innings pitched and strikeouts, the Twins were looking for a veteran innings eater to provide a bit a stability.
The consensus was, now a full year plus after Tommy John surgery, Mike Pelfrey would be primed to return to his career averages. From 2008 – 2011, Pelfrey had averaged just over 195 innings per season while posting an average ERA of 4.24. Pelfrey had shown flashes of a return to that consistency during the latter months of 2013. Pelfrey made 16 starts from May 31st
through September 6th
. During this time he posted a 7-9 record while totaling 93.1 innings (averaging nearly 6 innings per start) with an ERA of 4.05. Those numbers aren’t going to excite anyone, but as a 4th
starter, they’d be perfectly serviceable.
While Pelfrey did fade in his final three starts of 2013, the middle of the season seemed to mark a return to form for Pelfrey. Armed with this information and the assumption that another year of recovery from Tommy John surgery would allow for better control and velocity from Peflrey, the Twins re-upped the righty, hoping he and Kevin Correia could anchor the back of their newly improved rotation.
That was the plan. Unfortunately, something has gone awry.
Pelfrey has been underwhelming through his first 4 starts of 2014, posting an ERA of 7.32 over 19.1 innings of work. He’s frequently found himself with elevated pitch counts early in games and has yet to throw more than 5.1 innings in any start. That’s hardly the result the Twins were expecting from the big right hander when they signed him to a two year deal this offseason. So, the obvious question is, what happened?
In short, Pelfrey’s control seems to be lacking in the early season. Through 4 starts, he is walking batters at a rate of 6.86 / 9 innings (15.3% BB) that’s more than double 2013’s walk rate of 3.12 / 9 innings (7.8% BB). In addition, Pelfrey is striking out batters at reduced pace from his career average of 5.09 K/9 – his rate of 3.66 K/9 is currently a career low.
It’s logical to assume that a decrease in control could correlate with an increase in Pelfrey throwing more off speed or breaking pitches. Perhaps he’s working on his secondary pitches early in the season and just hasn’t quite ‘fine tuned’ the offerings? Unfortunately, the opposite seems to be true. Per FanGraphs, Pelfrey is throwing his fastball an astounding 81% of the time this season, up considerably from 72.6% in 2013 and 62.6% in 2012. Making matters worse, this season opponents are hitting .296 against the pitch Pelfrey is throwing 80% of the time.
Interestingly, Pelfrey’s groundball to fly ball rate is a off quite a bit from his career average (he currently has a GB/FB rate of .93 while his career average is 1.49) while opponents are hitting flyballs 42.3%, up from his career average of 32%. Naturally, an increased fly ball rate has decreased his groundball percentage to 39.4%, down from a career average of 47.7%. When throwing a sinking fastball nearly 80% of the time, you simply should not have fly ball rates as high as Pelfrey does - this ties back into the earlier observation of Pelfrey’s control issues. He’s leaving his sinker up and over the plate, which is allowing opponents to put the ball in the air, rather than generating a groundout as planned.
In fact, a quick look at Pelfrey’s pitch locations from last night’s start against the Rays illustrates this point quite nicely:
The gray plots are Pelfrey’s sinker – that’s far too many sinkers up in the zone, especially for a pitcher who isn’t using many secondary pitches.
As with all evaluations done this early in the season, small sample size could be clouding the bigger picture. Given Pelfrey’s reliance on his sinker, he should
see his fly ball rates begin to normalize, which should
help lower his numbers overall.
I emphasize "should", as any improvement is dependent on Pelfrey returning to some form of consistent control. If he continues to struggle with walking batters and locating his sinker, Pelfrey’s current role with the Twins could be short-lived.