At the beginning of the season, Gary Cohen posed the question to his broadcast partners, Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling, can Mike Pelfrey be an elite pitcher if he doesn’t raise his strikeout numbers? It was a proficient moment for Cohen, and I couldn’t help but smile at the objectivity of the lifelong Mets fan. Then either Keith or Ron chimed in, “absolutely,” and I fell off my chair.
The guy at Wichita State throwing 99 mph, the guy Rick Peterson once called a formula-one race car is Major League Baseball’s equivalent of a Toyota Camry. Pelfrey has had two or three excellent stretches of 10 or so starts where he was forcing consistently weak contact and getting lucky with balls put in play finding a lot of leather. But his inability to put hitters away has kept him from being anywhere near an elite pitcher.
Pelfrey has given up more hits than innings pitched in every season of his career. Elite pitchers don’t do that. Pelfrey adds pedestrian walk totals to all those hits allowed leading to a 1.46 career WHIP. He’s consistent. His 2011 WHIP is also 1.46. Or it was before he faced the vaunted Pirates lineup this afternoon. So we’re not talking about a Mark Buehrle who gives up a lot of hits because he’s a strike throwing machine. Pelfrey gives up hits and walks. And when he’s got all those baserunners on, and he really needs a strikeout, he better hope the ball finds a defender because, more often than not, he’s not getting out of the jam with a strikeout. Pelfrey’s 422 k’s in 746 career innings is his most telling stat.
Broadcasters can’t call Texas leaguers or Baltimore chops unlucky when they occur against Pelfrey. Balls put in play will find holes in the defense. All the great pitchers strikeout enough batters to make weak contact a marginal factor in the statistical likelihood that they’ll get beat.
Not creating swings and misses isn’t just a problem when balls are put in play. It’s a problem when at bats that should be over are prolonged by foul balls. Pitch counts are driven up, and if well executed pitches aren’t finishing a hitter off, the next one thrown may not be so well executed.
On Opening Day, Pelfrey made it to the 4th without being scored upon. The crucial at bat of the game was against Marlins catcher John Buck, a free swinger. Two outs, bases loaded, and Pelfrey can’t put Buck away. The Toyota Camry repertoire wasn’t good enough, and finally the clutch jams. I’m a little in over my head with this car analogy. Buck finally deposits a grand slam over the right center field fence.
We all know baseball is a game of inches, and more accurately fractions of an inch. The time when Mike Pelfrey threw in the upper-90s is a thing of the past, and really a thing of legend as far as Mets fans are concerned.
About a month ago, my buddy, Greg, asked me if I could think of any reason why Dillon Gee doesn’t have more promise than Pelfrey. I told Greg that Gee is younger, he has better command, he has better mound presence, and here’s the shocker: Gee has better stuff. Mike Pelfrey has a fastball that sometimes hits the mid-90s. When she’s warmed up, my wife throws in the mid-90s. Every other pitch in Gee’s arsenal is superior, and even his fastball is superior because he can locate it.
Every time I look up, the Pirates have scored again off of Pelfrey. He’s pitched 3 innings and given up 10 hits and 7 earned runs. As my father would say, “not exactly fooling them.”