Getting Pelfrey-ized

Things have been working out very nicely for the New York Mets over the last three months.  After salvaging a win last night against the Phillies, the Jerry Manuel gang has turned a seven and a half game deficit in early June into a two game lead in the NL East.  Realistically, the only way the Phillies or Mets make the playoffs is by virtue of winning their division, and the Mets are currently in the driver’s seat.  One of the biggest reasons for their resurgence is the firing of Willy Randolph the performance of Mike Pelfrey.  The 6’7″ righty started the season poorly, but, since May 26, has been arguably one of the best in the bigs.
In 28 starts, Pelfrey has toed the rubber in 176.2 innings, surrendering 180 hits, just 10 of which have left the yard.  The 24-year old Pelfrey has walked 55 and fanned 101, producing a K/BB of 1.84.  While he only had about a half-season’s worth of starts prior to this season, Pelfrey appeared to be capable of a 5.4-5.7 K/9, but his control was an issue, walking plenty of batters.  In fact, his current 1.84 K/BB might be below average, but is actually a career-high, regardless of how short that career may be.  The major reason is his reduced walk rate.
With a 5.15 K/9, Pelfrey has been able to control his repertoire to reduce his BB/9 to 2.80.  All told, his 3.62 ERA is supported by a 3.81 FIP, as his controllable skills have been solid.  A 1.84 K/BB could be better, so it’s safe to say the low FIP is due primarily to his very low home run rate.  A HR/FB of just 6% should regress, so Pelfrey might not be this adept at keeping balls in the park, but he is young and could conceivably continue improving in the walks and strikeouts departments to counteract this likely inevitable regression.
Other than the HR/FB red flag, however, his performance has been talent-driven.  His BABIP is .300 on the dot and his strand rate is a slightly above average 74%.
Pelfrey is a groundball pitcher.  Despite relatively few starts prior to this season, rates of balls in play tend to stabilize very quickly, and each year he has pitched has resulted in an LD/GB/FB of about 20%/49%/31%.  According to Jessica Bader of Take the 7 Train, while discussing purely scouting, confidence has been the key to Pelfrey’s turn-around.  Prior to perhaps May 31 of this year, he looked timid and unsure on the mound.  After his first nine starts this year, there was talk that Pedro Martinez’s impending return from the DL would result in Pelfrey being demoted.  Even after a solid 7-inning performance against the Marlins on May 31, his future was uncertain.
The Mets opted to stick with him, which proved to be a turning point in his season.  In those first nine starts, he posted a 4.41 BB/9, a 4.22 K/9, and a 5.33 ERA.  Since then, a 2.19 BB/9, a 5.50 K/9, and a 2.96 ERA.  He has also used his fastball more often in recent starts, upping his seasonal usage to right around 80%, which is a very, very high percentage for a starting pitcher.  Coming in at 93 mph with solid movement, however, Pelfrey has made it work, letting his natural sink hit the desired spots as opposed to pressing, aiming in an attempt to perfectly hit a spot.
The various projection systems did not peg Pelfrey for much playing time this season, but Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS system had him at exactly 28 starts, the amount he has currently made.  Here is a comparison of ZiPS vs. Actual Performance:

  • ZiPS: 150.0 IP, 163 H, 16 HR, 60 BB, 90 K, 4.86 ERA, 4.59 FIP
  • ACT: 176.2 IP, 180 H, 10 HR, 55 BB, 101 K, 3.62 ERA, 3.81 FIP

By all accounts, he has exceeded expectations, but we cannot say with 100% certainty that he is a true 3.60 ERA/3.80 FIP pitcher.  His true talent level has definitely changed, but we did not know much about what to expect entering this season.  It is not very likely he will sustain a 6% HR/FB, with the league average being around 11-12%, which will result in, well, more runs, a higher ERA, and a higher FIP.  The best way to counteract that would be, as previously mentioned, show improvements in both the walks and strikeouts departments.
If he can continue to throw 50% groundballs with a 93 mph fastball, fan a few more hitters, and reduce his walk rate a bit, any home run regression will not negatively effect his controllable skills or barometers too drastically.  He might not be a perennial 3.50 ERA pitcher, but he seems to be much better than a 4.80-5.20 ERA, back of the rotation hurler.  At the very least, Mets fans should be happy that this isn’t another Alay Soler situation.


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