At the break, Mike Pelfrey was 10-4 and many thought he got a raw deal by not making the All-Star team. But the truth is that after a great April, Pelfrey is the same underachieving guy he has always been. The story line was how the former first-round draft pick had added a new pitch and was now ready to take his place as one of the elite pitchers in the game. But if you look at him objectively, he is a back-of-the-rotation starting pitcher whose stuff may still play best as a reliever.
Coming into this season, Pelfrey was 28-32 with a 4.58 ERA. He had 479 IP in the majors and recorded 275 Ks, for a 5.2 K/9 ratio. He did not have a pitch to put away batters when he got to two strikes and he had trouble versus LHB. Both of these were by-products of his pitching arsenal, where he threw two-seam fastballs the majority of the time.
Strikeout pitchers usually have a weapon that moves out of the strike zone that they get hitters to chase when they have two strikes. But Pelfrey did not have a big curve or sharp slider to expand the strike zone with when he got to two strikes against a hitter. Pelfrey did have a slider, but it was not a particularly good pitch and it is not one that traditionally fares good against LHB, as it breaks towards them instead of away from them.
This season, Pelfrey added a splitter to his repertoire. It seemed an odd choice, given that his two-seam fastball broke the same direction, but it was another pitch in his arsenal. And at first it was a great success. In April, he had a 6.6 K/9 and his splitter had a linear weights value of 3.13 runs above average per 100 pitches, the third-best mark in baseball.
In five games in April, Pelfrey was 4-0 (and a save!) with a 0.69 ERA.
But in 24 games since then, Pelfrey is 9-9 with a 4.55 ERA. Sure, he has been a bit unlucky in that stretch, as batters have a .334 BABIP against him in that span. His FIP in that period is 4.10 but as Pelfrey allowed only 11 HR in those 142.1 IP, if xFIP was available it would show a mark even higher than his ERA.
So, coming into 2010, Pelfrey had a sub-.500 record and a 4.58 ERA
Last year he was 10-12 with a 5.03 ERA
In his last 24 games, Pelfrey is 9-9 with a 4.55 ERA
Which do you think is more indicative of Pelfrey as a pitcher, April when he had a 0.69 ERA or May-September when his ERA almost perfectly matches his pre-2010 career mark?
Remember how his splitter was so effective in April? Now, linear weights show it as a below-average pitch, as it is -0.64 runs over 100 pitches. And LHB have a .280/.348/.448 line against him in 385 PA this season. That is a .796 OPS, which matches up fairly well with his .808 lifetime OPS against lefties. Despite the splitter, Pelfrey is the same pitcher he has always been.
Meanwhile, the Mets banished Hisanori Takahashi to the bullpen with much less of a chance to show he belonged. Takahashi has made 12 starts this season and is 4-4 with a 5.01 ERA thanks mostly to an unusually large HR rate. Takahashi allowed 11 HR in 64.2 IP. His other ratios as a SP are a 7.5 K/9 and a 2.57 K/BB ratio.
In Pelfrey’s last 12 starts, he is 3-7 with a 5.63 ERA. And his ERA is only that good thanks to an unusually small HR rate. Pelfrey has allowed only 5 HR in 64.1 IP. In those 12 games, Pelfrey has a 3.94 K/9 and a 1.2 K/BB.
Takahashi had 6 Quality Starts in 12 starts. In his last 12 outings, Pelfrey has had 4 QS.
Making the comparison even worse is that Takahashi’s numbers include a start in Puerto Rico in the bandbox known as Hiram Bithorn Stadium. Also, unlike Pelfrey, he did not have the benefit of pitching on a regular rotation. Twice he was moved to the bullpen and once went 13 days between starts. In his last two starts, Takahashi allowed 3 ER in 13 IP with 4 BB and 15 Ks. In Pelfrey’s last two starts, he’s allowed 10 ER in 8.2 IP and has 3 BB and 3 Ks.
I can hear people screaming "Small Sample Size" in regards to the last few paragraphs. Yet, no one has any qualms about using that same 12-game sample to determine that Takahashi is better in the bullpen. The most frequently trotted out stat for that purpose is Takahashi’s numbers the second and third time through the order. Here are his numbers by OPS:
1st PA - .598
2nd PA - .918
3rd PA - .990
Let’s take that game in Puerto Rico and see what happened to Takahashi the second time through the lineup:
BB, 1B, HR, 2B, HR, BB, out, 1B, SAC
In that one game batters were 5-6 with 2 BB and a SAC. If we subtract that from his numbers, Takahashi’s line the second time through the order becomes:
.256/.305/.465 for a .770 OPS
Here’s Pelfrey’s 2nd time through the lineup in all 28 games this year as a SP:
.319/.385/.481 for an .866 OPS
Obviously, this is a case of cherry-picking the data. Takahashi still has trouble the third time through the order (which may have something to do with his manager). But I do think it is instructive in showing how susceptible the numbers being used against Takahashi are to one bad game played in a ballpark not up to Major League Baseball standards situated outside of North America.
On the other hand, Pelfrey’s numbers over the vast majority of his career leave much to be desired. He outperformed his peripherals in 2008 and he had a great month of April in 2010. But the vast majority of his work shows a pitcher who is mediocre. Overall, Pelfrey has 647.1 IP in the majors and a 4.42 ERA, which is in the middle of his FIP (4.23) and xFIP (4.62). For the past four months, he has been equal to or worse than his career averages.
It is understandable why the Mets would prefer to keep Pelfrey in the rotation. As a former first-round pick, the club has a lot invested in him. What confuses me is why the fan base shows such a strong bias towards Pelfrey over Takahashi. What should matter to us are simply results. If 12 starts was enough to make a decision that Takahashi belonged in the pen, the club can make the same decision with Pelfrey.
Finally, let’s close with a remark about Pelfrey made yesterday by Keith Hernandez, as transcribed by Mets360.com
"I don’t like the fact that he’s cruising right along and he just walks two guys, Kev. It just seems like… It’s one start so I don’t want to beat up on him but Mike’s at the point in his career now and we still don’t know what he is.
"What is he? He’s had bursts of brilliance and then he’s had these lapses and it spells a .500 pitcher. What is he? He has this enormous potential to be the guy to win 18 games and he’s just basically a .500 pitcher. He hasn’t crossed the Rubicon yet."
A great mistake that people make, whether judging professionals or their own talents, is to confuse what they do on their best days as being what they are in general. I saw Bruce Berenyi pitch a one-hitter for the Mets back in the mid-80s. That one game didn’t make up for a career of mediocrity.
The same thing applies to Pelfrey. Yes, he was outstanding in April. But unless he adds something to his repertoire that gives him the ability to strike batters out, he’s a .500 pitcher, at best. Instead of waiting for him to cross the Rubicon, we should accept that this is who he is, the modern day Berenyi. Perhaps Takahashi is no better but I would rather give the guy with 12 MLB starts a chance to show what he has, rather than the guy who has already showed me in 108 MLB starts who he really is.