Friday, March 6, 2009

Go Big Time Pelf!

This is #3b of 5 Key Mets Players for the 2009 season.It's no great secret around here how much I enjoyed the coming of age of Mike Pelfrey during the 2008 season. It's always nice to see one of your own home-grown players mature and become successful in front of your eyes. And it was particularly true for Pelfrey, who had been so highly touted since being drafted in 2005, and had, by the beginning of the 2008 season, justified absolutely none of that hype. In fact, throughout much of the early part of 2008, Pelfrey appeared destined for journeyman status.

I've written about it in depth many times. But it's worth reiterating one more time. On May 26th, 2008, Pelfrey's record was 2-6 and his ERA was 5.33. These turns have a habit of starting quietly, happening in a way that you don't really notice it. But in a victory over LA and a loss in San Diego, Pelfrey turned in a pair of solid outings, allowing 2 and 1 run, respectively. He followed that up with the game that really turned my head, his brilliant performance against Arizona where he threw shutout ball into the 9th inning, outdueling Brandon Webb. All three of those games would end up in no-decisions for Pelfrey, but by then, a corner had been turned, and it was only a matter of time before these strong outings started turning into wins, and before we knew it, Pelfrey's 2-6 record suddenly became 6-6, and then came a pair of outings against San Francisco and Colorado where he was truly dominant, and 6-6 became 9-6 by late July.

Pelfrey came back to earth a little bit in August, after getting beaten a couple of times by the Marlins, but he continued to look better as a pitcher. Working studiously with Dan Warthen, Pelfrey started to work more on pitching to contact, using his hard sinker as an out pitch, the kind of pitch that, when it's on, batters will repeatedly pound it into the ground. Where, previously, Pelfrey would muscle up and start to use his fastball as an out pitch, driving up his pitch count, he began using the fastball as a setup for the sinker, thus making him a more economical pitcher, lowering his pitch count, and allowing him to go deeper into games. The end result of this is that in late August, Pelfrey accomplished something that became a rarity among Met pitchers: a Complete Game. And Pelfrey did it in back-to-back starts, no less.
Though Pelfrey went winless in September, he never pitched especially poorly, or at least not as poorly as he had been pitching earlier in the season. Given that Pelfrey was asked to shoulder a workload he wasn't yet accustomed to, with Maine hurt and the Bullpen being a disaster, he could have been forgiven for a poor outing. But he really didn't have one (or when he had a bad outing, his offense bailed him out). In the end, you have to consider Pelfrey's 2008 season nothing short of a rousing success, at 13-11 with a 3.72 ERA, 209 hits, 110 strikeouts and 64 walks in 200 2/3 innings pitched.

The high inning total has drawn a bit of concern. It's been proven that when a young pitcher passes a certain threshold in throwing more innings than he had the previous season, the consequences can often be bad, whether it means a poor season or an injury. And it's a justifiable argument as to why Pelfrey might not be as good as he was in 2008.

That doesn't mean that I have to agree with it. In fact, I'm pretty convinced that Pelfrey is the kind of pitcher who can be the exception to the rule. As I've mentioned in the past, most of the time (See: Verlander, Carmona, Jimenez, McGowan) you're dealing with a pitcher who is of a moderate build and often a non-fluid, sometimes violent motion towards the plate. Pelfrey, at 6'7", 230lbs is far from slight, and his motion towards the plate is easy and fluid. Plus, he's learned to conserve his pitches enough that by the end of the season, his pitch counts were manageable, falling generally in the 108-113 pitch per game range. Basically, my point is that Pelfrey is a horse. I think he can be the kind of pitcher who will eat innings with gusto, consistently be able to work through 7 innings, and be successful. I don't think it's outlandish to expect Pelfrey to continue to evolve, and be able to pitch well over a full season. If this is the case, we could expect 15-18 wins, and an ERA in the 3.25-3.50 range, firmly cementing himself as the #2 starter in this rotation behind Santana.
Of course, I've been wrong before. None of this is guaranteed. But few people seem to want to give Pelfrey any kind of credit. Again, I'll reiterate a point: If, at the beginning of the 2008 season, someone asked who would have the best season, out of Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Mike Pelfrey, your answer wouldn't have been Pelfrey. But he was the answer, and it wasn't debateable. And if Pelfrey were on the Yankees, he'd be getting the kind of hype Joba gets. But Joba spent much of the season injured or bounced around, and his role still hasn't been clearly defined. Pelfrey's role is defined. His expectations are clear. He's just got to go out there and do it.

I wouldn't bet against him.

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