We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Programming
I was going to do Alex Escobar or Bill Pulispher. Really, I was. Probably Pulse, since I had done two position players in a row, and there are some interesting things to say about him as a prospect. Plus, I think it's cool that he is still trying to make a living playing in exotic locals like Arecibo, PR and Somerset, MA.
Then I suffered through last week's Mike Pelfrey starts. My exact thoughts after last Tuesday's start went something like this:
"This is the game footage that will greet you upon entry into the rotunda of the Museum of Pelfin'."
Now to be sure, Pelfrey is an incredibly frustrating pitcher. But he hasn't been bad this season. I mean, not B-A-D bad. He's basically been the same exact pitcher he was last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. Those K and BB rates are almost dead on the nose the same. His BABIP is .301, last year it was .300. The home runs are up, sure, but the same thing happened to him in 2009, and he 'bounced back' the following year. His xFIP the last four years are 4.45, 4.47, 4.31, 4.54. The Mets will, and probably should, tender him a contract for 2012. He will likely make his 32 starts, pitch around 200 innings, and post an ERA somewhere between 4.00 and 4.75. And on those 32 afternoons and evenings, I will likely want to gouge my eyes out with a pen knife. He is what he is, a durable 4th/5th starter whose relative success or failure is based on his batted ball profile and the defense behind him.
Of course, Pelfrey was a top ten draft pick, and thus had certain expectations placed upon him from the beginning. That's probably unfair, since the MLB Amateur Draft is a complete and utter crapshoot. To wit, there were six other pitchers selected in the first 20 picks of the 2005 draft. Here they are:
Ricky Romero (6)
Wade Townsend (8)
Lance Broadway (15)
Chris Volstad (16)
Cesar Carillo (18)
Mark Pawelek (20)
Here you have a broad range of outcomes, from potential front of the rotation guy (Romero) to fringy starter (Volstad) to org filller (Broadway), to total flameouts (Townsend, Pawelek). Pelfrey is somewhere in between Romero and Volstad, though probably closer to Volstad at this point. It's easy to say he is a bust or a headcase who can't pitch in NYC, but the truth is a bit more complicated.
So because you haven't read nearly enough about Pelfrey this season, and won't read nearly enough about him in the coming months, I give you Mets Prospect Graveyard: Mike Pelfrey?*
*read like "I'm Ron Burgundy?" in case you were wondering.
Big Pelf is Go
The Mets selected Mike Pelfrey with the ninth overall pick in the 2005 MLB Draft. Pelfrey was the third pitcher selected, but many scouts thought he was the best pitcher in the draft class. As a Boras client, he dropped a bit due to concerns about his price tag, but the Mets had no qualms, giving him a 3.55 million dollar bonus that is still the highest in club history. Pelfrey had been a star at Witchita State, posting better than a strikeout an inning and a near 5:1 K/BB rate in his junior season.
We all know the scouting report by now, durable strike thrower with a plus sinking fastball, big curveball that flashed plus, change-up that needed work. This is sort of the protoypical scouting report for a highly regarded college pitching prospect. There were some scouts that thought Pelfrey might end up in the pen as a closer, but you can basically say that about 95% of college pitching prospects. Rare is the draft pick who enters professional ball with three above-average major league offerings already in their repertoire, and they almost never last until the ninth pick.
Pelfrey signed too late to get any professional innings under his belt in 2005, but he nevertheless entered the 2006 season as one of the top prospects in baseball. Baseball America placed him on their top 100 prospects at #36, and John Sickels gave him an A-, rating him as the 15th best pitching prospect. Pelfrey began the 2006 season in the Florida State League, but he didn't even have time to fill up his punch card from the St. Lucie Quiznos before he was shipped off to Binghamton. He made four starts for the Advanced A-ball squad, striking out 26 and walking just 2 in 22 innings of work. Even for a highly regarded college arm, that is a very good performance in the Florida State League. It was also only four starts. He was just as good at Binghamton, making twelve starts there, and posting a 10.6 K/9 and a K/BB rate a hair under 3. That was good for a 2.63 FIP in 66 innings. Then he got promoted in July for a few major league starts.
Well, Pedro was having hip issues that summer, so the Mets needed someone to spot him for a month. Despite being copmfortably ahead in the division, and despite Pelfrey only having thrown 88 professional innings, the Mets elected to use him for a few spot starts in the major leagues. Pelfrey would make four starts in July and August, pitching about as well as expected for someone with his dearth of professional experience. He struggled with his command and control, and obviously couldn't just dominate major league hitters with his fastball the way he could Advanced A and AA batsmen. Pelfrey eventually ended up back in Norfolk where he made a pair of mediocre starts for the Tides. On the season, he pitched 96.1 innings in the minors, striking out 109 and walking 33. All in all a very successful campaign for Pelfrey.
Baseball America agreed, moving him up to #20 on their 2007 preseason prospect list. As did Sickels, who maintained his A-, again ranking him 2nd, this time behind the still teenaged hitting machine. Sickels did note that there were concerns about his breaking pitch, but he was confident Pelfrey would develop a good one. Confident enough to rank him as the eighth best pitching prospect in the game.
Things Fall Apart, the ERA cannot hold
Pelfrey split 2007 between New Orleans and Flushing, not pitching particularly well in either place. At the major league level, Pelfrey struggled with his control, issuing 39 free passes in 72 innings. His control was better in AAA, but his K rate fell under 7 per 9 as he struggled to develop a true out pitch. It probably didn't help that he was being bounced back and forth on Louis Armstong redeyes for much of the season as the Mets struggled with rotation stability. Pelfrey pitched better in the second half (relatively speaking), and that was enough for the Mets to give him a full time rotation spot in 2008.
We all know what has happened since. Pelfrey has been up and down, always posting K/9 rates around 5 and BB/9 rates around 3. He lives or dies on how well he can keep the ball in the park and how many plays the defense behind him makes. In four full seasons as a starter he has posted 8.5 fWAR, which would make him just about league average for those four years. Of course, that is off two years of above average performance and two years of fringy performance, but I have no problem calling him a League Average Innings Muncher, since that is basically what he is.
So we will spend the next few months debating whether or not to tender Pelfrey, and then the next six months after that covering our eyes when he inevitably takes the hill for 200 innings.
I do want to touch a bit on the Rick Peterson issue. Peterson reportedly had Pelfrey abandon his curveball for a slider and had him throw his sinker more than his harder four seam fastball. The results were clearly mixed, but really, Pelfrey should have not been making these adjustments on the major league level as a 23-24 year old. Since then he has basically thrown every pitch you can possibly think of, and thrived or failed based on the strength of his fastball, which has steadily lost velocity and sink since his debut. So I don't think Peterson is entirely to blame for what went wrong.
So What Did Go Wrong?
Peterson only got to really work with Pelfrey on the major league level, mind you. The problem is, he was working with Pelfrey entirely too soon. Take a look at those minor league numbers again. 82 whole innings above AA ball in his career! And only 66 at AA ball. Now close your eyes for a minute, and imagine that Matt Harvey was making starts in MLB this summer. Keep a paper bag nearby while you do this.
As I mentioned earlier, very few college pitchers come out of the draft with fully formed arsenals. That is what the minor leagues are for. Now if you have a great fastball, you can dominate at Advanced A ball as Pelfrey did. You can even probably beat up on most AA hitters, but sooner or later more advanced hitters are going to get to you. Matt Harvey went through the same process this year. His fastball allowed him to cruise through his starts at St. Lucie, but he struggled some at Binghamton and had to make adjustments. Pelfrey was never forced to make those adjustments or develop his secondary stuff at the minor league level, and it is far more difficult to do standing in front of major league hitters.
In fairness, although I do contend Pelfrey was severely rushed, there is of course no guarantee he would have developed a serviceable change-up or curveball. And although plenty of people hung an ace projection on Pelfrey coming out of college, his stats as a Shocker are not as mind blowing as you might expect. Now even at a top tier Division I school stats are not as important as stuff and scouting reports, but Pelfrey's college numbers weren't all that dissimilar from this year's 2nd round pick, Cory Mazzoni.
Now clearly Pelfrey was a better prospect than Mazzoni, but you would think a guy with three reported average->above average offerings would fair better than Pelf did against college hitters. But then, pitcher development curves can be unpredictable. Take Ricky Romero from that same 2005 draft. He was selected more for his polish than for his raw stuff, but he has turned into what I imagined Pelfrey would eventually be, a durable, above-average major league starter with the potential to be a #2 at his peak. Romero was given four full seasons in the minors to hone his craft, to struggle some and develop his stuff without the pressure of having to perform at the major league level.* Pelfrey may have ended up the same anyway, but the Mets did him no favors in that regard.
*Not saying Pelfrey is a headcase at all, just saying the stakes and atmosphere are different.
Go Big Harv
Let's cut right to the chase here. People were comparing Matt Harvey to Pelfrey right after he was drafted in 2010, and it's understandable. Both were big righties with strong fastballs, but came without eye-popping college numbers and with questions about their secondary stuff. I do think there was more of a feeling that Harvey might end up in the pen, but that is about the only difference. Harvey has gone a long way towards proving his starter bonafides this year with a strong campaign split between the Florida State League and the Eastern League. Of course, this is probably what Pelfrey's numbers would have looked like if he had spent a full year at the same levels in 2006. That said, the Mets have takena much more conservative approach with Harvey, and I wouldn't be surprised if he starts next year back at Binghamton for 6-8 starts. And frankly, his secondary stuff right now is much better than Pelfrey's was at the same point in his development. Now, Harvey is far from a lock to be a front of the rotation MLB starter, but I think his floor right now is, well, something around Mike Pelfrey.
Sometimes these top college arms do work out, after all.
Pelfrey was actually drafted out of high school by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, but did not sign.
Big Pelf hit .417/.462/.500 his first year of professional ball. Now granted, it was 14 plate appearances, but still.
I didn't really state it outright, but yes, I do think the Mets should tender Pelfrey a contract for 2012. A lot of teams could use a 4.50 FIP guy that can eat 200 innings. The Mets are one of them. His declining velocity and GB rate makes a "bounce back" to 2010 or 2008 Pelfrey less likely, but worth a five million dollar lotto ticket. Hey, you never know.
Probably Bill Pulsipher for real this time. And hey, offseason might actually mean a real biweekly schedule!