Big Mike Pelfrey and His Soft Stuff

by Eno Sarris //

There’s a riddle taking the mound for the New York Mets every fifth game, and he could easily take the Shaq-like nickname of the Big Conundrum.

Though he has a mid-90s fastball, Mike Pelfrey has struggled through the beginning of his career – partially because he has used the fastball too often. Take a look at this Bloomberg Sports spider chart for PelfreyPelfreyGrab.jpg last year – not pretty. The secondary stats were just as ugly, as Pelfrey also sported a below-average strikeout rate (5.22) and walk rate (3.22). He was rescued from irrelevance by a decent groundball rate (49.9% career).

So far this season, though, Pelfrey is riding high. The theories for the newfound success have been multitude. Jerry Manuel said it was because Pelfrey kept his secondary pitches down. Bob Klapisch said it was because he maintained his fastball velocity. In this case, Mike Pelfrey actually knows best about Mike Pelfrey. After his last game, he said the following:

“I feel like I am different, being able to throw the secondary stuff
for strikes… I think it got the point where, in the seventh inning, I
didn’t throw any fastballs, I threw all off-speed pitches, and that’s
something I would never have done.”

As my creative writing teacher said, always show something rather than tell it. So let’s show Pelfrey’s new approach in some pictures, shall we? Since different systems classify cutters PelfreyMovement09.gifas different pitches, we’ll count them both as fastballs for the purposes of this analysis. Let’s take a look at his starts from late last year. All those red triangles? Fastballs – he threw them 77.1% of the time last year. He also added a sprinkling of sliders (14.4%), changeups (5.1%) and curveballs (2.5%). But the diet was mostly fastballs.

Fast forward to this year. You might notice immediately that Pelfrey has not been getting more sink on his secondary pitches this year (see the dispersed green and blue dots?), so Manuel’s idea is out. And Pelfrey’s averaged 91.5 MPH on his fastball this year compared to 92.7 MPH last year, so Klapisch doesn’t have it right. No, the biggest difference is merely in the color mix. Even adding those yellow triangles (cutters) to the red triangles (to get our combined ‘fastballs’),PelfreyMovement10.gif you get 67.7% fastballs – lower than last year. Look at all the non-red in there – he’s upped the changeup to 14.1% and the curveball to 6.0% while using the slider just about as much (12.2% this year). 

An added look at the groupings of each of the non-red pitches seems to suggest that Pelfrey is still working the kinks out when it comes to his feel for the secondary pitches. The plots are a little scattered when it comes to non-fastballs. But obviously the new mix is working for him, and the most important thing is that he’s actually throwing these non-fastballs. He has a 6.86 K/9 this year, which is finally close to average (7.06 so far this year), and is much better than his career rate. He’s still getting lucky – his .231 BABIP will rise (.294 across baseball this year), and his 90.5% strand rate will fall (71.5% across baseball). But his xFIP (expected fielding-independent pitching, a number that strips out luck. park effects, and aberrant home run-to-flyball rates) is 3.88, which would be a career-best.

In the end, the best news is that Pelfrey is throwing his secondary pitches. Period. Once the luck evens out a little, his ERA will probably regress closer to his xFIP. Fantasy owners are right to pick up Pelfrey off the waiver wire now.

For more about the new Mike Pelfrey, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools.  

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