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Pelfrey Looks Strong

Mike SteffanosFriday, March 20, 2009
By Mike Steffanos


Sorry for being a little sporadic on the posting this week. I'm buried in work.

I had a chance after dinner tonight to sit down in front of the TV and spend some quality time with this afternoon's game that I had DVR'ed. I was particularly interested in a chance to watch Mike Pelfrey pitch some substantial innings, as he is undoubtedly one of the keys to the 2009 season.

Pelfrey is decidedly not a darling of the number crunching crowd, and I could understand why. He doesn't have elite quality strikeout numbers, and although he gets his share of groundballs he doesn't have a groundball percentage in the 60s like a Derek Lowe.

What he does have now is a commitment to pound the strike zone with both his sinking and straight fastballs. Whatever side you're on with Pelfrey, one thing that became clear last year is that he really needs to pitch aggressively to succeed, and he seems to bring that attitude to the mound with him every time out now.

Pelfrey unveiled a new weapon in today's game -- using a front door* sinker on the inside part of the plate to lefties. It's the pitch that Greg Maddux used so effectively for so long, using the natural break of the sinker to start it at the batters hip and bringing it back over the inside corner for a strike. It was fairly effective today, especially considering that it was the first actual game Pelfrey used it in.

[*Correction: Several of you sent me e-mails correctly pointing out that what I had originally labeled as a "back door" sinker is actually called a front door sinker. Thanks for pointing out my error, it's been corrected above.]

In an interview with Gary and Ron after his successful 6 inning stint, Pelfrey said he got the idea for trying the pitch a couple of weeks ago watching Livan Hernandez. If Hernandez contributes nothing much else this year, that could still count as a major factor if Pelfrey finds some more success with this pitch -- particularly since getting lefties out more consistently would play a big factor in Pelfrey taking another step up.

He threw a lot of changeups today, too. While I wouldn't characterize it as a truly plus pitch right now, he doesn't seem to be tipping it like he did a lot last year. Some of them were pretty good.

There were a few curves mixed in, too, and he did seem to be able to throw it with more consistency than the slider he scrapped. The main thing is that Pelfrey seems to have more confidence in his off-speed stuff than he did last year, and that could only help his game.

Most projections I've seen for Pelfrey seem to be looking for him to take a step back this season. It could happen. We've seen that happen to kids before. I myself feel fairly optimistic about the big right-hander, as I have all along. To me the big question isn't whether Pelf will be a solid major league pitcher, but rather how much of his upside he will fulfill. With the back-door sinker and the improved off-speed stuff, he could only get better as long as he continues to pitch aggressively.

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Comments (3)

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I'm another guy who expected Mike Pelfrey to experience a slight regression -- until yesterday that is. I loved the way Pelf went about his job, and I loved the new weapons. I am more than ready to see him unleash his bad stuff on the National League in games that count.

Two thoughts: was Rick Peterson doing his charges a favor in convincing them to streamline their arsinals of pitches? Pelf and Maine both seem happy with more options to confront the hitters, and I bet you Aaron Heilman feels the same. Peterson was a smart guy, and especially smart in selling the notion that he was smart, but that doesn't always translate into results.

And then there is this: Pelf wouldn't turn off ALL the stat guys. By which I mean, Scott Erickson, back when he was an elite pitcher, was correctly seen as an exception to the K's per inning rule by ol' Bill James, who recognized that a stream of ground balls can be as effective as a string of K's. K's are great; no one has to make a play to record an out. But a ground out can occur in fewer pitches; that is good too.

But of course most stat guys aren't Bill James.

I think that it would help Pelfrey a good deal if he could average just a couple of more Ks per game than he did last year. I think he averaged around 4 or so Ks per game. The problem with that is twofold, as far as I am concerned. One, when the great majority of your pitches are that sinker, albeit one of the better sinkers in the game, bowling ball heavy as they say, the fact remains, there is far more grass out there in fair territory than ground that fielders can cover. In Pelfrey's start, he ran into trouble in only one inning, giving up a single followed by a double after he got the first out. According to Keith, both hits were on good pitches. This just shows that hitters are still going to be able to get their hits. Hitters, just by sheer probability, will find holes and gaps and so forth. The more you allow major league hitters to make contact, the more there's a chance something can happen, especially as Pelfrey gets tired, or his stuff isn't as good as it normally is. Plus errors can happen. On top of this, when you focus most of your gameplan on: sinker, sinker, sinker, sinker.... and so on, you're giving hitters too much of an opportunity to make adjustments within the game. And there are other teams, like the Marlins, who will be aggressive and perhaps find a way to hurt Pelfrey. It seemed to me that when Pelfrey ran into trouble, it was usually either within a single inning, as balls put into play just seemed to find holes and gaps, and then with men on, Pelfrey would give up that hit, even on a good pitch, but the ball still found a nice place to go, something that just wouldn't matter with the bases empty. Or, Pelf would seem to tire a bit, and perhaps his sinker just wouldn't have as much bite on it, and the hitters would take advantage.

Of course his sinker is still his best pitch, and I wouldn't bet against Big Pelf winning 15 games while throwing nothing but the sinker all year long. But why tempt fate? That's why I think Pelf could stand to strike out a few more batters a game. That means less balls in play, PLUS, it means making the hitters in more of a guessing position. I rewatched Pelf's start, paying attention to each of his pitches. The first thing that I noticed was his command/control of these other pitches. At one point, it seemed like he got each changeup, curveball, and front door sinker over for strikes (if Pelf is going to make that pitch a big part of his arsenal, then someone needs to come up with a name for that pitch- perhaps reverse sinker? Or the rinker? Or perhaps the Maddux sinker? Or what about just the Maddux?), only missing on one of those pitches, a curve called low, although I thought it was a strike. He threw a change to Berkman during one AB for the first pitch, which he swung right through. A later AB, he threw Berkman another change that totally threw him off, causing him to awkwardly check swing for contact and yet still managed to hit the ball in a good spot to shallow left center, but Sullivan managed to track it down and make a great diving catch. Despite the near base hit, Berkman was definitely caught off guard. Two other changes I saw went over for called strikes to get Pelf ahead 0-1. So, I was impressed with Pelfrey's control of the pitch and I'd love to see him work on it and use it even more. With Pelf's size and easy delivery, his sinker must feel like it's coming at 95 mph, and his four seamer, at 100, so throw in a changeup, and he could really mess up some swings, and it's a great way to get strikeouts. His curveball seemed more like a get me over curve, but the ones I saw were still called for strikes. It's another pitch to use to make hitters unsure, especially if Pelf continues to throw it with good command. I don't know if it's a swing a miss curve yet, but I'd love to find out. Again, with Pelf's size, I can see him using it to offset his fourseamer, in the same way that Warthen wants Maine to. And I imagine the curve could also help make his sinker look tougher, with both pitches going south, but that could just be me overthinking that a bit. And then there was Pelf's darling pitch (no, not Ron)- the front door sinker. That pitch was sweet. Of he gets two strikes on a lefty, then boom, lay off it, and strike three, you're out, especially if he sets it up with an inside pitch first to both back off the batter, and to make the batter think Pelfrey is simply throwing another ball inside, except this time, it runs back over the plate and it's strike three. I can see Pelf getting a couple Ks per game on this pitch alone. It's a great pitch to throw when you've gotten to a quick 2 strike count on the hitter. And it's one les ball put into play, and one more batter with more doubt the next time he faces Pelf.

So, in the end, I can see the curve being used as a get me over pitch to help Pelf get ahead in the count. Again, I'm not sure if it's a swing and miss pitch yet for Pelf. And then there's the potential swing and miss changeup and the no swing but called strike reverse sinker. All in all, it's a nice little quiver of pitches that Pelf has put together, one that I think can help him average perhaps 6 Ks a game. And if he can do that, I think he can be even more dangerous than he already is. And I greatly look forward to finding out.

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