Mike Pelfrey's Pitching Woes are in The Best Shape of Their Life

Stop me if you've heard this before: Mike Pelfrey needs to keep his sinker down.

In case you missed it, the Mets avoided arbitration with Pelfrey earlier this week by coming to an agreement on a one-year. $5.675 million contract for the team's homegrown starter. And in case you've been living under a rock, Pelfrey's return on the Mets' investment has diminished enough in recent seasons to leave fans wondering if it's worth putting up with a seventh consecutive season of his growing pains at the Major League level.

That reality came to mind as I listened to Pelfrey's appearance on SNY's Mets Hot Stove on Thursday. In it, Captain Obvious concedes that he surrendered "way too many homers" in 2011 before admitting that he needs to reestablish his ability to remove the first "T" in his stinking fastball.

"I can't throw the ball waist high and expect the guy to hit the ball in the grass," said Pelfrey. "It doesn't work like that. I need to put the ball back down."

I realize the Hot Stove rhetoric helps beat writers file on a slow news day, but the chatter about his pitching repetoire can often feel like the Mets-centric version of the "The Best Shape of My Life" stories that signal the start of Spring Training. We get it. He lacks a second pitch. He needs to make his fastball sink. He needs to be better.

But why can't he just do it already? And why do the Mets still put up with it?

In my formative years playing sandlot baseball at the Dustbowl in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, my friends and I pretty much let anyone with a pulse join us if it meant we had enough for a game. One such pulse-bearer was a kid named Jim, who was as awkward a teenager as you'll ever meet and dabbled with drugs to add to the awkwardness but, at his heart, was an awkward guy like us who just wanted to play a little baseball.

And Jim wanted to pitch. We only had one regular pitcher in my friend Victor, who was our de facto Benny "The Jet" Rodriguez as he would later go on to play college ball as a pitcher and shortstop. Victor couldn't pitch every day as he played in multiple leagues in addition to our sandlot ball, so we let Jim toe the rubber from time to time as needed.

Finding a catcher for Jim was another matter. Jim's version of his own scouting report included an unstoppable arsenal of nine different pitches that he could throw endlessly and with impunity. Our version consisted of Jim chucking the same slow, flat offspeed pitch from nine different awkward grips. The catcher du jour had his work cut out for him in blocking balls in the dirt, but he could throw up any combination of hand signals to appease Jim into thinking his catcher was attempting to focus the pure talent of the next great phenom hurling fastballs, screwballs, and sliders with ease.

I thought of Jim as I stared at Mike Pelfrey's FanGraphs page following his new one-year deal being announced. It's maddening. If he could just collect one more strikeout per nine innings or walk one less batter per nine... If he could just concede a few less fly balls and coerce a few more grounders... If he could just find the strike zone a bit more, or get opposing batters to chase a few balls out of it...

If he could just normalize his pitch selection...

Season FB% SL% CT% CB% CH% SF%
2006 76.7% (94.0) 10.8% (80.4) 0.8% (90.3) 3.4% (77.8) 8.2% (85.1)
2007 72.8% (92.4) 13.5% (83.0) 13.7% (83.6)
2008 81.2% (92.7) 12.8% (84.3) 0.8% (73.9) 5.1% (83.2)
2009 78.3% (92.6) 13.6% (84.8) 3.9% (76.1) 4.2% (83.4)
2010 68.9% (92.0) 9.2% (83.8) 5.5% (75.5) 16.3% (84.5)
2011 64.4% (92.2) 14.1% (84.3) 3.1% (87.9) 5.6% (75.7) 12.8% (84.5)
Total 73.2% (92.4) 12.5% (84.2) 0.7% (87.9) 3.6% (75.7) 3.5% (83.5) 6.6% (84.5)

It always interested me that Pelfrey officially added his splitter in 2010 to basically counteract his inability to miss bats with his fastball in 2009. It even worked for a bit; Pelfrey pitched a bit better than average that year, only to once again plummet back to Earth in 2011. But what do you do? Add another pitch? Throw the pitch with the most sink more often? Every time there's a clue, it creates a false lead.

Despite all that frustration, I still want to root for Mike Pelfrey. His homegrown status isn't lost on me, nor is his work ethic and his stand-up attitude for the troubles he creates. Pelfrey's like the anti-Oliver Perez in that way; he's working hard to contribute, but hates his troubles coming at the club's expense. If his pitching capability matched his character, we'd be golden at the top of the starting rotation.

Unlike the mystery surrounding the inconsistent performance of David Wright, our long relationship with our 6-foot-7 righty has left little doubt in what he has to offer going forward (presuming that Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen can't summon the spirit of former Angels pitching coach Tom Morgan and turn Pelfrey into Nolan Ryan's heir apparent by teaching him a proper offspeed pitch) . If he can get the ball down, we'll have a meaningful starter. If he can't, we hope he lasts long enough on the mound to give the bullpen a break.

And like Jim, we just need to find a catcher in addition to Josh Thole that's willing to keep those balls out of the dirt while Pelfrey keeps chasing greatness.

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