Pelfrey & Baker: A Study in Arm Resilience
by, 12-20-2013 at 09:12 AM (491 Views)
Last offseason, the Twins faced a decision with a player who had been part of their organization for nearly a decade. Scott Baker, coming off Tommy John surgery, was a free agent, and the Twins, direly in need of pitching help, were among the teams discussing a contract with him.
Ultimately, they backed off and let him sign with the Cubs. According to reports, the biggest stumbling block was Baker's unwillingness to include an option for a second year. But of course, the Twins went on to sign Mike Pelfrey to a straight one-year deal at a similar price, so there must have been more to it than that.
I felt at the time that one of the biggest factors in the club's preference for Pelfrey was a history of far greater arm durability, and one year later, the decision looks smart.
In comparing Baker and Pelfrey last year, there were many situational similarities. Both were former high draft picks with MLB success in their histories, both were around 30 years old and both would be a little under a year removed from Tommy John at the outset of the 2013 season. Both ended up signing one-year contracts for around $5 million, with no added option years.
So essentially, in committing a fairly significant chunk of guaranteed money to one of these pitchers, the choice came down to which one was going to bounce back and deliver production right away in 2013 to make good on that investment. The Twins ultimately passed up Baker and signed Pelfrey in late December.
It seemed clear that Baker had the greater upside. He was the guy who could miss bats, and the one who had been truly exceptional in his best years. He also had familiarity within the organization. But through that familiarity, the Twins knew that his pitching arm hadn't always held up especially well.
Even before learning in spring of 2012 that he had a torn ligament, Baker had a long history of pesky elbow issues. He had reached 200 innings only once in his career, in 2009, and hadn't eclipsed 172 innings in a season outside of that. A glance at Baker's injury history on Baseball Prospectus reveals a lengthy record of arm ailments dating back to 2009:
Pelfrey, on the other hand, had a relatively clean bill of health prior to his May 2012 surgery. From 2008 through 2011, he made 31-plus starts every year and averaged 196 innings. In fact, prior to going down with the ligament tear, he never even made one trip to the disabled list. As a well built specimen at 6'7" and 250 lbs, Pelf had been the definition of durability.
He only enhanced that reputation by returning last year, just 11 months from Tommy John surgery, and logging 152 innings over 29 starts. His overall results weren't very good, but the accomplishment alone is quite noteworthy. Based on my research, there has never been another starting pitcher to return from reconstructive elbow surgery in such a short span and complete a full season. Pelfrey even ratcheted his fastball back up to 93 MPH on average and posted the highest strikeout rate of his career.
Meanwhile, Baker missed almost the entire season as he dealt with rehab complications. He didn't make his first appearance until September 8th and wound up pitching 15 innings over three starts. That's what the Cubs got for their $5.5 million. Say what you will about Pelfrey's performance -- at least he gave the Twins innings.
That his arm was able to rebound so well is not wholly surprising considering his history, and bodes well for his new two-year deal. The Twins are chiefly interested in getting quality innings at the back end of the rotation from Pelfrey, and based on his past he seems like a strong bet to at least hold up well enough to deliver the innings.
Whether those innings will be of the quality variety is unclear to say the least, but if you look closely you can find some positive signs to that end.