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  • Who Is "This" Mike Pelfrey?


    Ted Schwerzler

    With just one week left to go down in Fort Myers, the Minnesota Twins' spring training campaign was winding down. First year manager Paul Molitor was faced with some tough decisions, and of those, the most important revolved around his starting pitching options. Choosing to send Mike Pelfrey to the bullpen, the veteran pitcher met the decision with anger, criticism, and some angst.

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    Fast forward a few hours, and the Twins had inserted Pelfrey back into the rotation due to a suspension handed down to free-agent signee Ervin Santana. It looked like a head-scratching move at the time, but a few weeks into the season, Pelfrey has only puzzled Twins fans with his surprising ability.

    After his first four starts in 2015, Pelfrey owns a 2.25 ERA (by a wide margin, the Twins best mark by a starter), and is 2-0 across his four contests. He owns a 15.3 K%, which ranks as his highest mark as a Twin, and is tied for the highest mark of his career (also had a 15.3 K% in 2012 with the Mets). He owns the lowest WHIP (1.13) of his career, and his 5.63 K/9 is the second highest mark of his career. Obviously all of those numbers are fun, but it's also fair to note the small sample size. Through just one month of the season, the question now for the Twins and Pelfrey is, can he keep this up?

    After making just five starts a season ago, and pitching just 23.2 innings, a mark he has already surpassed in 2014, injury concerns will always loom large for Pelfrey. Wondering whether the ineffectiveness Pelfrey displayed a year ago can be completely attributed to injury, or if he had slipped as a professional is also worth questioning. So far however, the Wichita State alum has had nothing but positive answers.

    Looking for regression, there are some definite warning signs for Pelfrey. Most glaring, an FIP (fielding independent pitching) totaling 4.47 suggest that a lackluster Twins defense is to be commended for keeping Big Pelf's ERA so low. On top of a concerning FIP number, Pelfrey has also experienced just a .232 BABIP (batting average on balls in play). That mark is the lowest of his career by a wide margin, with 2014 being the only other time Pelfrey has allowed a sub-.300 BABIP. Both of those statistics have the potential to return towards a mean, which in turn, would make Pelfrey's shiny start to the season take a downturn.

    It's not all doom and gloom however, as Pelfrey has some numbers in his corner this season as well. Having his splitter working well in the early going, Pelfrey has only allowed opposing hitters to bat .209 against him. That mark is the lowest in his career by a wide margin, owning a previous best of .268. Looking at batted ball percentages, Pelfrey has only surrendered 12.7% of his hits as line drives. Typically the easiest type of batted ball to fall in as a hit and create damage, the low line drive percentage is just the second time (excluding the five game 2014 season) in his career that he has held that percentage below 20%. Also, in allowing his defense to help him, Pelfrey has gotten opposing batters to hit ground balls 57.7% of the time, just his third time above 50% in his career. Again, although early, it appears that sustainability and regression are evening each other out in the early going.

    Knowing that the Twins have decisions to make with their rotation regarding Ricky Nolasco, Trevor May, and eventually Alex Meyer and Ervin Santana, Pelfrey has done well to take himself off of the hot seat. I'd still love to see him pitch out of the bullpen at some point if things fall apart, but at least in the early going, the Twins have to be ecstatic about his output. The two-year, $11 million contract hasn't worked out thus far, but the 2015 production has been a nice return for Minnesota.

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    I think the splitter is really making a difference.  He needed something to get batters off his fastball and he may have found it. I will take the great starts for as long as he can deliver them but I still think he could be really good in the pen.

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    Maybe he's found new life with the splitter. Or maybe as FIP suggests the Twins fielding will let him down just like the rest of the rotation. Or maybe it's dumb luck/SSS. Pelf's greatest accomplishment this season would be to hold this streak together long enough to be traded.

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    Pelfrey has a career ERA of 4.51 and career xFIP of 4.55, so he's not one of those guys that has a big difference between his peripherals and his ERA.

     

    His xFIP this year? 4.58

     

    So, yes, Pelfrey is pretty much the same as he's always been when healthy. Which is to say, not very good. This year he is 15% worse than average in xFIP, as opposed to his career mark of 11% worse.

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    I fully agree that 24 innings are not enough to know if Pelfrey is going to be an effective starter throughout the year. That said, there are a couple of statistics that I will be watching in his next outings:

     

    Pitch Performance (f/x data)

    Fastball vs. Sinker and Splitter %: 49.8/29.2 (Career) vs. 23.1/56.0 (Current)

    Splitter Velocity:  84.4/81.8 mph

    Pelf is using his 4-seam fastball less, relying more on pitches kept down in the zone. He's also added 3 mph of difference between FB and SF velocity. That may not sound like a big change but I suspect the stat has had an effect on recent results:

     

    Outcomes (Current/Career)

    Line Drive Percentage (LD%):     12.7% / 20.2%

    Ground Ball Percentage (GB%):   57.7% / 47.9%

     

    GB% is a rough indicator of effectiveness for pitchers who work down in the zone.

     

    Fangraphs always cautions that ball-in-play data contains a lot of "noise". However, they also state that BIP noise is not all "luck", especially for control pitchers.

     

    Finally, Pelfrey has changed both pitch selection and velocity difference. I'm interested to see if he "regresses to the mean" or if he has made actual improvements.

     

     

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    Prior to last season, Mike Pelfrey was pitching with known Sasquatch hunter/enthusiast, Anthony Swarzak. Pelfrey, as a sasquatch, was likely never able to relax and be himself knowing that Swarzak was hoping to hunt, kill and mount in his living room, Pelfrey or one of his close relatives.

     

    With Swarzak out of the picture and holding his own in Cleveland, Big Pelf is free to relax and let his true self come through more. Swarzak likely would have noticed those small things and shown up to the clubhouse with a small gauge shotgun or elephant gun. Thankfully Mike "Sasquatch" Pelfrey can relax and go take the mound and pitch his hairly little toosh off.

     

    Harry (formerly of the Hendersons), wherever he is, is proud of the work his son is doing for Minnesota.

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    Pelfrey's smoke and mirrors act seems like it will have an even shorter shelf life than I would have predicted. 

     

     

    You apparently believe in VERY small sample sizes.  Almost every pitcher has a bad outing on occasion.  I'll be interested in his next start.

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    You apparently believe in VERY small sample sizes.  Almost every pitcher has a bad outing on occasion.  I'll be interested in his next start.

     

    Maybe I'm missing something, but it seems like Pelfrey has had bad outings for the Twins more than just "on occasion." Unless by "on occasion" you mean "the majority of all starts he has made with the Twins."

     

    The last time he had a good season was 2010. You apparently believe in time machines...
     

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    I haven't given up on Pelf being a good starter.  However, there are factors that say it is unlikely that he is going to be an ace.  I don't expect Pelfrey to ever put together two starts as solid as he put up against the Royals and the Tigers.

     

    Top end, IMHO, is middle-of-the-rotation.  It is worth noting he had and 8-1 GB/FB ratio.  If he keeps that up, he's got a chance. 

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    Maybe I'm missing something, but it seems like Pelfrey has had bad outings for the Twins more than just "on occasion." Unless by "on occasion" you mean "the majority of all starts he has made with the Twins."

     

    The last time he had a good season was 2010. You apparently believe in time machines...
     

     

    Or alternatively, one could believe in a 100% healthy arm and a new forkball out pitch.

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    Or alternatively, one could believe in a 100% healthy arm and a new forkball out pitch.

     

    That 100% health and forkball have propelled him to an xFIP of 4.92 on the year. That's barely 5th starter level, if anything. 

     

    It's a wonder his career xFIP is 4.55 without the benefit of that newfound fork.

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    The last time he had a good season was 2010. You apparently believe in time machines...

     

    Or alternatively, one could believe in a 100% healthy arm and a new forkball out pitch.

     

    I like the time machine reference, although I'm on record as saying the health and new pitch means this could be sustainable. 

     

    I still think the most likely explanation is the fairy godmother, and when midnight strikes (soon; yesterday might have been the first chime) he will turn back into a pumpkin.  (Plus, nobody can make times machines with DeLorean out of business.)

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