The Mets lost 6-5 yesterday to the Cardinals in Jupiter, with Mike Pelfrey turning in a rebound performance of sorts. Last time out -- Saturday -- Pelfrey allowed eleven baserunners and seven runs in 3.1 innings. After the game, Willie Randolph said that Pelfrey "didn't have a feel for the ball" on a windy day in Port St. Lucie. The tall righty only allowed two runs -- one earned -- yesterday, but if we dig a little deeper into the boxscore we see that he didn't really pitch all that well.
Big Pelf may have limited the damage in terms of runs allowed, but he also coughed up six hits and two walks in just 4.2 innings for a WHIP that nearly brushed two. Anything close to two baserunners per inning would land a pitcher square in the middle of Stinksville and, though the "ER" column looks pretty good, no pitcher, Pelfrey included, can afford to have so many guys clogging the bases and still expect to come away in decent shape more often than not.
Even worse than the glut of baserunners is that Pelfrey showed a general inability to keep the ball on the ground often enough. Pelfrey has the arm to get the ball near the mid-nineties and, though his secondary stuff isn't there yet, his fastball is a very, very good pitch when has has it working. On those good days, Pelfrey's heater has a very heavy sinking action, the result of which is ball after ball being hacked into the dirt. Pelfrey will develop into a successful pitcher as his off-speed stuff comes around as long as he can work that sinker. When the sinker is on, touching 94-95 with plenty of life, hitters will feel like they're swinging into sand. Pelfrey had that tough sinker working when he was at Wichita State, and he had it working that one fine day in Atlanta last September, but for most of his big league career that sinker has been pedestrian and Pelfrey has subsequently been knocked around.
Which brings us back around to yesterday's effort. Against a crummy St. Louis offense, Pelfrey recorded one out via the whiff, six outs on the ground and seven outs in the air. Quite simply, a groundball ratio like that isn't going to get it done for him. With his slider and changeup as mediocre as they are right now, and his overall control nothing to write home about, Pelfrey is going to get killed if he can't generate a copious supply of groundball outs. If the fastball isn't working, forget about it. He might have the occasional game like Thursday, but you can bank on an ERA in the high fives if he's going to insist on putting a couple of guys aboard every time he trots out to the mound.
Of course, it's just one spring training game. In his last game, the seven-run debacle, Pelfrey recorded three strikeouts, six groundouts and just one out in the air. The final results weren't good, but those numbers are more along the lines of what I would like to see from him. One report following that game said that Pelfrey "couldn't get his sinker down", but the reality appears to be quite the opposite. Now, it's easy to look at the final lines for has last two starts and conclude that Pelfrey might be better off keeping the ball in the air; clearly, he gets roughed up if he allows too many grounders. More often than not, though, anything resembling a 6-to-1 groundball-to-flyball ratio will be a good barometer for Pelfrey's success.
You'll find that it's especially tough to gauge overall pitching performances in spring, as team defense is often sub-standard and knowledge of opposing hitters is a total crapshoot. Add to that the revelation that Pelfrey might have been tipping his pitches last week, plus our customary trepidation about the reliability of small sample sizes, and that leaves us little of substance to go on in March. Still, I retain very high hopes for Pelfrey. There are no guarantees that he will ever develop into a semi-dominant starting pitcher, but I think he has the tools to get there eventually.
Orlando Hernandez appears to be getting better by the day, and the Mets probably won't need a fifth starter until the middle of April. If Hernandez is ready to go, he's going to be the guy; he has already said that he has no interest in going to the bullpen and, given his resume as a starter, I'm inclined to go with him until he inevitably lands on the disabled list at some point in the coming months. Pelfrey may start the year in Triple-A, or he may earn his way onto the big league roster as a long man, depending on what happens with Jorge Sosa in the final weeks of spring training. Pelfrey needs to get his work in and he needs to improve his secondary stuff, but I want so desperately to see him succeed with this team, and I think it's going to happen sooner than a lot of people think.