Mike Pelfrey Is Out Of Control
by, 04-24-2014 at 11:52 AM (481 Views)
Mike Pelfrey was far from the most popular Twins free agent signing this offseason, between the subpar 2013 numbers and the feeling that his signing prevented the Twins from pursuing other, higher upside free agents - it was tough to spin the return of Pelfrey as a net positive. Factor in the notion that the Twins bid against themselves and effectively overpaid Pelfrey with a 2 year, $11 million contract and the sour taste from Twins fan's was understandable.
From an outside perspective, you can (sort of) see what the Twins were trying to do in signing Pelfrey back into the fold. After three seasons of rotating AAAA caliber starters and residing at or near the bottom of the AL in ERA, innings pitched and strikeouts, the Twins were looking for a veteran innings eater to provide a bit a stability.
The consensus was, now a full year off of Tommy John surgery, Mike Pelfrey would be primed to return to his career averages. From 2008 – 2011, Pelfrey had averaged just over 195 innings per season while posting an average ERA of 4.24. Pelfrey had shown flashes of a return to that consistency during the later months of 2013. Pelfrey made 16 starts from May 31st through September 6th. During which time he posted a 7-9 record while totaling 93.1 innings (averaging nearly 6 innings per start) with an ERA of 4.05. Those numbers aren’t going to excite anyone, but as a 4th or 5th starter, they’d be perfectly serviceable.
While Pelfrey did fade in his final 3 starts of 2013, the middle of the season seemed to mark a return to form for Pelfrey. Armed with this information and the assumption that another year of recovery from Tommy John surgery would allow for better control and velocity from Peflrey, the Twins re-upped the righty, hoping he and Kevin Correia could anchor the back of their newly improved rotation.
That was the plan. Unfortunately, something has gone awry.
Pelfrey has been underwhelming through his first 4 starts of 2014, posting an ERA of 7.32 over 19.1 innings of work. He’s frequently found himself with elevated pitch counts early in games and has yet to throw more than 5.1 innings in any start. That’s hardly the results the Twins were expecting from the big right hander when they signed him to a two year deal this offseason. So, the obvious question is, what happened?
In short, Pelfrey’s control seems to be lacking in the early season. Through 4 starts, he is walking batters at a rate of 6.86 / 9 innings (15.3% BB) that’s more than double 2013’s walk rate of 3.12 / 9 innings (7.8% BB). In addition, Pelfrey is striking out batters at reduced pace from his career average of 5.09 K/9 – his rate of 3.66 K/9 is currently a career low.
It’s logical to assume that a decrease in control could correspond with an increase in Pelfrey throwing more off speed or breaking pitches. Perhaps he’s working on his secondary pitches early in the season and just hasn’t quite ‘fine tuned’ the offerings? Unfortunately, the opposite seems to be true. Per FanGraphs, Pelfrey is throwing his fastball an astounding 81% this season, up considerably from 72.6% in 2013 and 62.6% in 2012. Making matters worse, this season opponents are hitting .296 against the pitch Pelfrey is throwing 80% of the time.
Interestingly, Pelfrey’s groundball to fly ball rate is a bit off from his career averages (he currently has a GB/FB rate of .93 while his career average is 1.49) while opponents are hitting flyballs 42.3%, up from his career average of 32%. Naturally, an increased fly ball rate has decreased his groundball percentage to 39.4%, down from a career average of 47.7%. When throwing a sinking fastball nearly 80% of the time, you simply should not have fly ball rates as high as Pelfrey does - this ties back into the earlier observation of Pelfrey’s control issues. He’s leaving his sinker up and over the plate, which is allowing opponents to put the ball in the air, rather than generate a groundout as planned.
In fact, a quick look at Pelfrey’s pitch locations from his last start against the Rays illustrates this point quite nicely:
As with all evaluations done this early in the season, small sample sizes could be clouding the bigger picture. Given Pelfrey’s reliance on his sinker, he should see his fly ball rates begin to normalize, which should help lower his numbers overall.
I emphasize "should" above as any improvement is dependent on Pelfrey returning to some form of consistent control. If he continues to struggle with walking batters and locating his sinker, Pelfrey’s current role with the Twins could be short lived.