That’s A Pelf That Does Not Suck

If I was to tell you by mid-June a Mets’ starter would be an early Cy Young candidate, the first Met most people would automatically say is Johan Santana.  And of course they be wrong since the Mets never score a run for the man and have a tendency to blow his games, but that’s another story. No, the surprising answer was Mike Pelfrey, otherwise known as “Big Pelf”. In his first 14 starts Pelfrey was 9-1 and sporting a 2.39 ERA, good for Top 5 in the NL at the time. So what had happened to turn Pelfrey into The Next Big Thing? Did he rediscover the hammer of a curve he threw in college? Did he gain velocity in the offseason and start blowing it past people? Or maybe he matured past the rookie stage and simply just “got it”?

Sad Mike Pelfrey is sad

None of the above… in fact in many ways Pelfrey was who we all thought he was. While he was enjoying success the likes Met fans hadn’t seen him have since the 2nd half of 2008, it wasn’t really due to him mastering any of his previous secondary pitches. To this day his slider is pretty average, control of his sinker tends to vary, and despite throwing a 94-95 MPH fastball it doesn’t really miss many bats. Most of his early success can be attributed to him unveiling a split-fingered fastball he worked on in Spring Training. From his very first start Pelfrey shifted his pitching focus, going to his fastballs less (78.3 percent to 67) and throwing his mid-80′s split 19 percent of the time. With most teams slow to adapt to the new Pelfrey he was able to still keep the ball down and increase his K’s/9 innings to 6.53, his highest in his career. Start after start Pelfrey would throw his split ahead in the count and get a K or a grounder…

Then a funny thing happened… teams noticed that Pelfrey rarely ever threw the pitch for a strike. So of course opposing hitters started laying off it and tried to make him throw it up in the zone. Once that adjustment was made instead of countering it Pelfrey (and presumably Rod Barajas/Henry Blanco) stubbornly stuck to their gameplan instead of giving the hitters something else to think about. What followed then was quite possibly the worst stretch of his career: seven consecutive starts of not throwing six complete innings, including a four start stretch from June 30th to July 19th where he allowed 52 base runners in 14.2 innings. He went 1-5 and saw his ERA balloon from 2.39 to 4.16. His walk rate was up, his K rate was down, and even though his GB rate was still high as ever due to the walks his BABIP was well over .400 for most of the month of July. As the Mets started giving him more rest after the “dead arm” label floated over his head it was clear Pelfrey’s confidence was shot, and his mechanics inconsistent as his outings turned into glorified batting practice. So before Monday’s game vs. the Colorado Rockies Dan Warthen worked extensively with Mike Pelfrey on changing a few things… the result?

Mike Pelfrey’s line, August 10th:
7 IP
0 R/ER
4 H
1 BB
4 SO
122 pitches/(79 strikes)

What the heck changed so that Pelfrey got his first win in a month and a half? First off, between starts Warthen and Pelfrey worked on syncing his arm speed to correct a discrepancy between his fastball and off-speed pitches. After spending some time in the video room he found Mike noticeably slowed down his arm speed on off-speed pitches; considering his lack of control on them hitters could either look for the slower arm action and take it out of the zone, or look for the quicker arm action and sit fastball. The interesting thing is it’s not a recent thing, I’ve seen clips of his starts going back to the beginning of the year and he did it then too, however I’m guessing it wasn’t as apparent.

Second, Pelfrey had his delivery tweaked Monday as he now keeps the ball waist-high instead of bringing it to his chest. He also seems a bit more closed off at the beginning of his drive off the rubber and comes off the mound a bit harder. Not only is it visually different, the delivery and his tempo is better and faster (Insert Kanye West “Stronger” joke here). Pelfrey did have trouble repeating the mechanics early on, and more than a few times his front shoulder didn’t clear, causing pitches to sail into RHH/away from LHH. However he looked more and more comfortable repeating the delivery as the game wore on.

Third, rookie C Josh Thole talked with Warthen and after the game mentioned he watched video of Pelfrey earlier in the year when he was having success. After checking Mike’s PitchFX data methinks Thole might’ve also looked at some film from 2008.

Pitch Type              Avg Speed      Max Speed      Count      Strikes / %      Swinging Strikes / %
FF (FourSeam Fastball)    92.68           95           53        36 / 67.92%           5 / 9.43%
SI (Sinker)               92.54          94.7          49        32 / 65.31%           2 / 4.08%
SL (Slider)               84.28          85.6           6         2 / 33.33%           1 / 16.67%
CU (Curveball)            76.58          84.7           8         6 / 75.00%           2 / 25.00%
FS (Splitter)             85.82          89.6           6         3 / 50.00%           0 / 0.00%

What we see here is a dramatic change in approach. Of the 122 pitches thrown 102 are fastballs, with almost half of them being the sinker (the pitch that arguably made Pelfrey a top prospect). In many of Pelfrey’s starts he had a tendency to go away from the sinker and only throw a few with runners on-base, preferring to feature his 4-seamer/split combo and work everything else off that. Yet against Colorado he threw a mere 6 splitters all game, accounting for only 4.9 percent of his total pitches. Considering going into that start his percentage of splitters per game he threw was 19.3, it showed a return of the Mike Pelfrey who aggressively pounded the bottom of the strike zone a.k.a the gameplan Thole talked about on SNY after the game.

Now I’m not going to sit here and say Mike Pelfrey has turned the corner because quite simply, you never know with him. Until he masters a secondary pitch that can be thrown for a strike or learns to change speed on his pitches he’s still a 2.5-pitch pitcher who’s still learning as he goes. To paraphrase Dan Warthen, every time Pelfrey goes out there he has the stuff to throw a no-hitter, but right now it’s his head that needs the most work. Baseball fans tend to forget Mike is a talented but emotional kid who is less than a year removed from running 13 laps around the Coors Field parking lot after a dismal outing.  However in a year where the Mets’ playoff hopes are fading it would be nice to see Pelf finish the year strong and build up some much-needed confidence for the 2011 campaign.

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