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Pelfrey On The Road To Recovery

Despite a late-season collapse that, for the second straight year, removed them from the playoffs, the Mets had reason to be excited after the 2008 season. Their 2005 first-round draft pick, Mike Pelfrey, had just completed 200.2 innings of quality work, the first time he had done so in the majors. He left room for improvement, too. His 4.93 K/9 ranked near the bottom of the NL among qualified starters, something he could certainly build on in his sophomore year.

While Pelfrey did increase his strikeout rate, it was’t by much, just to 5.22 per nine. In fact, this shows why strikeouts per nine might not be the best analytical tool. In 2008 Pelfrey struck out 12.93 percent of the batters he faced. In 2009 he struck out 13 percent. An improvement it was not. As expected his minuscule 0.54 HR/9 rate from 2008 rose, though only to 0.88, while his walk rate also increased, though not by much. These small changes, along with a nearly 20-point jump in BABIP, led to a poor season for Pelfrey, a 5.03 ERA. Both FIP, 4.39, and xFIP, 4.52, rated him better, so there was reason for some optimism.

In 2010 Pelfrey has jumped out to a tremendous start. In 21 innings of work he has allowed just two runs, none of which have come via the home run. He has even earned a save. Encouragingly, he has struck out hitters at a greater rate than last year, 19.75 percent. While Pelfrey has a few more starts before this number becomes reliable — K/PA stabilizes at about 150 batters faced — it’s a good start. Then again, his swinging strike percentage ranks right around where it did in 2007 and 2008, so perhaps his K rate will drop with it.

One of the biggest differences Pelfrey has shown in these 21 innings is the frequency with which he achieves a first-pitch strike. Of the 81 batters he has faced, 48 have seen an 0-1 count while five have put the ball in play, only one of which has fallen for a hit. The batters facing an 0-1 count have not fared well, going just 9 for 45 with a double. Ten of them have struck out. The 48 0-1 counts might not be the sole key to Pelfrey’s success, but they surely play a role.

Another quirk from Pelfrey’s early performance: he has gone to the fastball less often. According to his PitchFX page, Pelfrey has thrown 45.2 percent four-seamers, down from 70.9 percent. That might be an algorithmic issue, though, as his two-seam percentage is up to 24.4 percent from 6.2 percent. Still, the combined total, 69.6 percent, falls below his fastball totals from last year, 77.1 percent, and in 2008, 81.5 percent. He has compensated by going to his changeup far more often 11.5 percent, which is more than double the rate he has used it over the past two years.

Next time one of us writes about Pelfrey, his numbers certainly will not look this pretty. He will surrender home runs, and hitters will produce better than a .231 BABIP against him. His strand rate, 90.5 percent right now, will also dip. There are indicators, though, that he might have made the necessary adjustments this season. He’s going to his secondary pitches more often, and is putting himself in favorable counts. He still has to do it for 30 more starts, but if Pelfrey continues his current trends he just might fulfill the hopes the Mets had for him in 2005.