2010 Comeback Candidate: Mike Pelfrey

The Mets endured an unfortunate 2009 season where injuries to the team’s superstars severely hampered their season. The injury bug stayed away from former first round pick Mike Pelfrey as he logged 31 starts and 184 innings. But Pelfrey finished the year with a sore 5.03 ERA.

There’s reason for optimism when Pelfrey’s season is placed under the microscope but there also appears room for possible adjustments as well. Pelfrey will be 26 at the outset of the 2010 season and the Mets need Pelfrey to step up and become a force in the middle of the rotation especially after Oliver Perez’s disastrous 2009 season.

In 2008 Pelfrey logged 201 innings with a 3.72 ERA accompanied with a 4.93 K/9 rate, 2.87 BB/9 rate, and an insanely low 0.54 HR/9 rate. His shockingly low HR/9 rate helped aid him to a solid 3.96 FIP. There was natural reason to expect his home run rate to increase in 2010 and it did to 0.88 home runs allowed per nine innings. Pelfrey’s strikeout rate increased to 5.22 per nine but his BB/9 unfortunately swelled to 3.22. All of this added up to a 4.39 FIP.

Pelfrey’s FIP looks much better than his 5.03 ERA and fantasy owners should also expect his .321 BABIP to regress closer to the league average around .300. His 66.7% LOB rate should also move closer to the league average of 72% (his 2008 LOB was 74%). Pelfrey is known for his sinker and in 2009 51% of his balls hit in play were of the ground ball variety. In 2008 he had a 49% ground ball rate. Pelfrey received no help from his defense in 2009 but it figures to improve if the Mets regulars can stay healthy and on the field though the potential addition of Jason Bay in left field wouldn’t improve the teams UZR prospects. The Mets had the leagues second lowest UZR at an astounding -47.3. Interestingly enough the Mets were without a doubt the National League’s worst team with the leather as the Nationals had the second lowest mark in the NL at -26.7 which is over 20 runs better than the Mets. In 2008 the Mets had a 27.1 UZR as a team.

Despite striking out more hitters Pelfrey’s contact rate on pitches he threw outside the strike zone leaped from 68% in 2008 to 77 percent in 2009. The league average during both years was 62%. This is an interesting mystery and no definite answer may lay in the data. But his run values per pitch certainly stand out. In 2008 Pelfrey tore hitters up with his fastball and it resulted in 21.9 runs above average on the season. But in 2009 his fastball was worth -8.2 runs below average. Something happened with Pelfrey’s fastball in 2009. Hitters were definitely doing more with it when they saw it.

Pelfrey’s fastball velocity during both years remained nearly the same at 92-93 mph. But his Pitch F/X data reveals something about his fastball. While Pelfrey’s horizontal movement on the pitch remained nearly static (-7.7 X in 2008 and -7.9 X in 2009) his vertical movement on the pitch tells another story.

Here’s his vertical movement on his fastball over his first three years in the league:

2007 (only 99 pitches): 7.8 Z
2008: 7.4 Z
2009: 6.5 Z

Pelfrey’s sinker was diving about an inch more than it had been in years past. Pelfrey’s sinker has always been his bread and butter and during his last season of prospect eligibility before the 2007 season Baseball America ranked him number one in the Mets system and raved about the pitch in the scouting report: “There are few pitchers in the minors whose fastball can rival Pelfrey’s. His two-seamer sits at 92-95 mph with fierce sink and late life and rates as a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale.”

The difference is small and we are only talking about nearly an inch here between the difference of vertical movement on Pelfrey’s fastball from 2008 compared to 2009. Baseball is said to be a game of inches and an inch is often times the difference between a sky high pop up and a home run in this game.

Pelfrey’s sinker had a bit more sink and/or late life but it seemed to negatively affect him and he paid dearly according to the run values we have available per pitch. Why? That is what we are not exactly sure of and extra movement on a pitch typically helps a pitcher and enhances his repertoire. This extra bite hurt him and it could be statistical noise over the course of the season but hitters handled the pitch very well and did make contact with it at a great rate when it found its way outside of the strike zone.

Either way, Pelfrey should improve upon his 2009 showing next season with a little more help from his defense and a normal increase in his left on base rate. Pelfrey’s proven to be durable early in his career and his FIP vindicates his poor 2009 ERA. Pelfrey should be a good source of wins next season with the Mets having many injured regulars returning to the line up.

If you see reports about Pelfrey working on his mechanics or trying to alter his sinker to return to prior form as spring training approaches try to remember his poor 2009 run value on his fastball. Perhaps if Pelfrey goes back to his old ways he’ll see more improvement or if he sticks with what he was doing last year he’ll enjoy the extra strikeouts and rely on his defense to help him out a bit more. 2010 will tell us a lot about Mike Pelfrey and his sinker but label him as a sleeper for your drafts. He could be had towards the middle rounds and he would offer your team some intriguing upside.

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q: Does that pitchF/X data not indicate that his sinker was diving more than it was in the past? Or am i reading that wrong?