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  • Mike Pelfrey's Stuggles: Small Sample or Larger Concerns?

    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 or 5th 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.
    Comments 65 Comments
    1. Shane Wahl's Avatar
      Shane Wahl -
      I didn't realize that 2013 and most of his career constitutes a small sample.
    1. Brock Beauchamp's Avatar
      Brock Beauchamp -
      Quote Originally Posted by Shane Wahl View Post
      I didn't realize that 2013 and most of his career constitutes a small sample.
      His career ERA+ is 89 with a 5.2 K/9.

      His 2014 ERA+ is 53 with a 3.2 K/9.

      Oddly enough, his stats in April of 2014 closely mirror his stats from April of 2013.

      I've never liked Mike Pelfrey much but he's been worse than even his critics expected.
    1. Kirby_Waved_At_Me's Avatar
      Kirby_Waved_At_Me -
      I think the ceiling for a guy like Pelfrey would be a season like a poor-man's Carl Pavano, Kenny Rogers, or Rick Reed - lots of innings, with an ERA at or slightly above league average.
      The fear is that what you get is more like Sidney Ponson, Livan Hernandez, etc. etc. you know the guys I mean.
      Hope he gets on track today.
    1. stringer bell's Avatar
      stringer bell -
      Yes, the lower velocity and lack of command are a concern. However, numbers are skewed this early in the season. If relievers can get an out that when the starters leave with a couple runners on base, the ERA looks much better. Gibson yesterday being a very good example. I won't say the Pelfrey has been luckless--he's allowed far too many baserunners and hard hit balls--but things usually even out.
    1. mike wants wins's Avatar
      mike wants wins -
      1. Very nice writeup, thanks for doing the work!
      2. Not a fan, never was, never will be. I just hope that if he stays this bad, they pull the plug quickly.
      3. He has, somehow, been even worse than I feared, to Brock's point.
    1. Winston Smith's Avatar
      Winston Smith -
      2010 would be the last time you could really say he was good. Not sure how you can get a small sample size out of 4 years. Only 2 years in his career has he been "good" 2008 & 2010 a long way in the past at this point. Maybe if he gets back in the NL he could get back to mediocre and I think that's a long shot.
    1. Dman's Avatar
      Dman -
      Unfortunately I was a believer in the Pelfrey signing. I really believed that after TJ surgery and the recovery time that he would approach his career averages or better. I was Rah, Rah about him despite evidence to the contrary. Given how he has pitched in recent years I shouldn't be surprised by his performance, but I just had a feeling he was going to be better than this. I really am struggling to understand how he could be this bad. Even worse than last year?

      I am jumping on the Deduno bandwagon as I think he gives the team a better chance right now and into the future. Sorry big P but I am losing faith.
    1. Willihammer's Avatar
      Willihammer -
      In the 2nd half last year I saw a guy with a borderline overpowering fastball. I thought he was healed, and 2014 would start as 2013 ended, but instead his fastball has been slow and lifeless. That is not good when you throw 81% fastballs.

      Right now I would take Deduno, Meyer, or even May over Pelfrey.
    1. tobi0040's Avatar
      tobi0040 -
      Quote Originally Posted by Kirby_Waved_At_Me View Post
      I think the ceiling for a guy like Pelfrey would be a season like a poor-man's Carl Pavano, Kenny Rogers, or Rick Reed - lots of innings, with an ERA at or slightly above league average.
      The fear is that what you get is more like Sidney Ponson, Livan Hernandez, etc. etc. you know the guys I mean.
      Hope he gets on track today.
      I really don't think his ceiling is even slightly above league average. His ERA has been good-ish in 2 of 8 years (2008 and 2010). In 2008 he stranded 74.3% of his runners and in 2010 he stranded 73.7% versus his career 70.2%. His xFIP in those "good years" were 4.45 and 4.31 versus a career 4.55. BABIP was slightly better than average in both years as well. It was luck more than anything else, awful k rates of 4.93 and 4.99 per 9.

      He is frankly not a good pitcher. Ceiling maybe a bad #4 starter. Reality is he is a #5 starter at best. I agree he can be better than a 7.00 ERA guy and he will likely get better.

      But it is time to move on. He is not one of our 5 best starters. His contract should not have happened but it is a sunk cost. Nick Blackburn got 161 innings with a 5.42 ERA in 2010 and a staggering 98 IP at a 7.39 ERA in 2012. Can we skip this exercise please?
    1. jokin's Avatar
      jokin -
      Quote Originally Posted by tobi0040 View Post
      I really don't think his ceiling is an above average pitcher. His ERA has been good-ish in 2 of 8 years (2008 and 2010). In 2008 he stranded 74.3% of his runners and in 2010 he stranded 73.7% versus his career 70.2%. His xFIP in those "good years" were 4.45 and 4.31 versus a career 4.55. BABIP was slightly better than average in both years as well. It was luck more than anything else, awful k rates of 4.93 and 4.99 per 9.

      He is frankly not a good pitcher. Ceiling maybe a bad #4 starter. Reality is he is a #5 starter at best. I agree he can be better than a 7.00 ERA guy and he will likely get better.

      But it is time to move on. He is not one of our 5 best starters. His contract should not have happened but it is a sunk cost. Nick Blackburn got 161 innings with a 5.42 ERA in 2010 and a staggering 98 IP at a 7.39 ERA in 2012. Can we skip this exercise please?
      I appreciate your sentiments, but the Twins FO and manager are too financially, calendarically and emotionally invested in Pelfrey, on the mound and in the clubhouse.

      Hopefully, both sides can agree to a face-saving "exercise" and get Pelfrey moved to Florida on a long-term rehab assignment.
    1. Brock Beauchamp's Avatar
      Brock Beauchamp -
      Quote Originally Posted by jokin View Post
      Hopefully, both sides can agree to a face-saving exercise and get Pelfrey moved to Florida on a long-term rehab assignment.
      If he continues to throw 91mph no-movement fastballs at hitters, this is the best option for everyone.

      And that's really the crux of this. If Pelfrey is throwing 93mph, you can find a place for that guy. If not in the rotation, then in the bullpen where he can maybe even approach 95mph in short stints with two pitches.

      But he's essentially useless as a player at 91mph.
    1. tobi0040's Avatar
      tobi0040 -
      [QUOTE=jokin;221271]I appreciate your sentiments, but the Twins FO and manager are too financially, calendarically and emotionally invested in Pelfrey, on the mound and in the clubhouse. QUOTE]


      I love the clubhouse reference. I know you don't think we should keep him for that (the Twins suggest it at times). I have heard the Twins use this one before. If you need a good speech, hire a motivational speaker. Don't keep a guy that is going to get 20% of your starts around because people like him. Or he "gets after it" or "goes about it the right way" or whatever else Gardy likes to say. Alex Meyer would be more useful to this team, even if he didn't say a word all year.

      The team reference in baseball is in my opinion, one of the biggest mis-conceptions in sports. 95% of this game is batter versus pitcher. If you are in left field, the ball is hit at you. It is up to you to make the play. Sure you get some teamwork in double plays and you need to say "I got it" every once in awhile, but compare it to other sports, coaches, the X's and O's, etc. Baseball is a quasi individual sport. I know this is a tangent, but I cringe when I hear about how good a guy is in the club house. It is usually code for we really like this guy and we don't want to cut him. Or we really need to overpay this veteran.
    1. Kirby_Waved_At_Me's Avatar
      Kirby_Waved_At_Me -
      Quote Originally Posted by tobi0040 View Post
      I really don't think his ceiling is even slightly above league average. His ERA has been good-ish in 2 of 8 years (2008 and 2010). In 2008 he stranded 74.3% of his runners and in 2010 he stranded 73.7% versus his career 70.2%. His xFIP in those "good years" were 4.45 and 4.31 versus a career 4.55. BABIP was slightly better than average in both years as well. It was luck more than anything else, awful k rates of 4.93 and 4.99 per 9.

      He is frankly not a good pitcher. Ceiling maybe a bad #4 starter. Reality is he is a #5 starter at best. I agree he can be better than a 7.00 ERA guy and he will likely get better.

      But it is time to move on. He is not one of our 5 best starters. His contract should not have happened but it is a sunk cost. Nick Blackburn got 161 innings with a 5.42 ERA in 2010 and a staggering 98 IP at a 7.39 ERA in 2012. Can we skip this exercise please?
      Right - Pelfrey is not the guy the fans or the Twins wanted him to be - the point I was getting at is that kind of production (roughly 200 innings of league average pitching) is the reason the Twins offered that contract - their gamble was that Pelfrey could reach that level of production after Tommy John and the encouraging starts at the end of last year, but this month at least it doesn't seem to be the case.

      Someone else mentioned that he had a slow April last year as well - is that a career long trend, or just last year? If he gets better as the season goes on, does it change anything?
    1. Brock Beauchamp's Avatar
      Brock Beauchamp -
      Quote Originally Posted by Kirby_Waved_At_Me View Post
      Someone else mentioned that he had a slow April last year as well - is that a career long trend, or just last year? If he gets better as the season goes on, does it change anything?
      April looks to be his worst month by a considerable margin. Fewer Ks, higher ERA, more walks, more homers, less innings.

      April is his worst month in pretty much every statistical category.
    1. jokin's Avatar
      jokin -
      Quote Originally Posted by Kirby_Waved_At_Me View Post
      Right - Pelfrey is not the guy the fans or the Twins wanted him to be - the point I was getting at is that kind of production (roughly 200 innings of league average pitching) is the reason the Twins offered that contract - their gamble was that Pelfrey could reach that level of production after Tommy John and the encouraging starts at the end of last year, but this month at least it doesn't seem to be the case.

      Someone else mentioned that he had a slow April last year as well - is that a career long trend, or just last year? If he gets better as the season goes on, does it change anything?
      The slow April last year was TJ-related. Even Pelfrey has admitted that he came back too soon. The ironic thing is, is that he was a pretty effective pitcher in the final 3 months, sub 4.00 ERA/FIP. The irony lies in a pretty good theory that has been propounded on TD that Pelfrey might have done something to his shoulder by overcompensating for his weak elbow to start the season. (It never made sense to me that doctors signed off on Pelfrey returning to pitching just 9 months after his TJ surgery).
    1. mike wants wins's Avatar
      mike wants wins -
      Unfortunately, April counts, every single year......
    1. cmathewson's Avatar
      cmathewson -
      He doesn't look like the same pitcher this year. He's not throwing as hard, nor does his stuff have as much sink to it. If I were a pitching coach, I would say he's not finishing his pitches, which is why they're slower, straighter and higher than they were late last year. Is it s physical issue preventing him from having good mechanics? That's my suspicion.
    1. Brock Beauchamp's Avatar
      Brock Beauchamp -
      Quote Originally Posted by mike wants wins View Post
      Unfortunately, April counts, every single year......
      Absolutely. And a pitcher of Pelfrey's calibre simply cannot afford to punt on an entire month every season.
    1. troyhobbs's Avatar
      troyhobbs -
      Loved the Pelfrey signing last year...hated it this year. After a bad investment it's best to cut your losses and move on, not double down.
    1. Shane Wahl's Avatar
      Shane Wahl -
      At least he was good in 2008 and 2010. Getting excited about some handful of starts last season when looking at the career "sample size" indicating a below-average pitcher is an interesting view.
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