>“I think one day I’d like to become an actual pitcher,”
Being a major league pitcher has always seemed, to me, to be similar to being a rock band – and not just in terms of the constant travel and high attrition rates of both professions, but also in that both make their living in a continuous state of evolution. Rock bands must evolve their sound or risk slipping into what has happened to The Rolling Stones since they released Tattoo You – doing the same things over and over again and becoming stagnant, and then dull. On the other side, Bob Dylan has aged well – you know, in terms of his music, not in terms of voice and wrinkles – because he has always been unpredictable. Or crazy. I’m really not sure which, or if it even matters. Artists must always be tinkering with something – trying to grow, trying to get better – or they risk committing the mortal sin of being boring. I believe the same goes for pitchers, only replace the word “boring” with
”John Maine” “ineffective.” It’s either grow, or wither and die.*
*Two exceptions to this: Mariano Rivera has dominated like no other with just one pitch , and AC/DC has made an entire career out of releasing the same album of the basically the same song over and over again. If you do one thing well enough, you can get away with it doing it over and over and over – sort of like how sharks have remained the same for millions of years. Also, would you really want an acoustic AC/DC album?
Alternatively, how great would it be if Mariano Rivera threw a big, slow, Bugs Bunny curveball to strike someone out to end a game. Just one, just once, just because NO ONE would be expecting it.
So pitchers are always tinkering with something. Their delivery. A new cutter. Bring back their curveball. Their arm angle. Making sure they are not tipping their pitches. Throwing more fastballs. Throwing less fastballs. Throwing a different kind of fastball. Not throwing fastballs at all anymore and becoming a knuckleballer, and then writing a book about it. Pitchers do all this tinkering and toying not because they’re bored or exceptionally creative people, but because they must. Throwing a baseball with maximum effort to a small target, and then repeating it consistently hundreds of times is exceptionally difficult. It requires constant upkeep. Then you add in a batter whom you must find a way to trick each time, while he tries his best to smack the ball 400 feet – that too would require the precise tinkering of a watchmaker. On top of everything else is the 12-6 curve of age. Wild young pitchers struggle with the experienced major league hitters, and then when the pitcher’s experience finally catches up with their ability, their stuff starts to go. The mind grows as the body starts to fail, ability and experience moving in opposite directions. Like the Faces say, “I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger.” Only you can’t, because it doesn’t work like that. So, like the fish in Lake Springfield, pitchers are constantly evolving.
I sometimes wonder if a pitcher’s greatest asset is not his arm, but his willingness and ability to evolve. Barry Zito has quietly grown back into a useful pitcher in San Francisco. Jamie Moyer, the second-most famous baseball player to be cryogenically frozen, is preserved as the embodiment of the crafty lefty. And despite throwing wiffleball pitches, Livan Hernandez endures – maybe not succeeds, but endures. You win 300 games by continuing to win games well into your 30‘s and sometimes 40‘s, and you can’t do that without being willing to evolve (or, alternatively, use steroids). Your arm starts to release the ball a bit slower, so control needs become tighter, the pitches need to be more difficult to guess. You need to become a magician and a sniper. Pedro Martinez couldn’t hit his spots precise enough to compensate for lost velocity, and he’s not pitching right now. Greg Maddux could and pitched until he was 42. You need able to adapt – this may be the key to being a successful pitcher for a long, long time.
I think of all this because I do believe Mike Pelfrey may have just evolved, perhaps this time into “an actual pitcher.” He threw 106 pitches yesterday, including 30 or so off-speed pitches – like an actual pitcher would. He moved his pitches around both sides of the plate – like an actual pitcher would. He did not start jogging around the stadium after he balked – like an actual pitcher would. He struck out six batters in his seven innings, with the aid of his off-speed offerings.
That last part is huge – the strikeouts. Mike Pelfrey, over his first 80 major league starts, struck out just 5.2 batters per nine innings pitched. The general guideline is that if your K/9 falls below 5.0, you’re not long for the league, no matter how many ground balls you get.* Pitchers feed on strikeouts like flux capacitors feed on jiggawatts. As said in Bill James‘ 2010 Gold Mine, “In any season there will be a handful of pitchers who pitch very well despite low strikeout totals. . . these are, in general, ground ball pitchers. And, in general, all of them are going to implode sometime in the next two years.” Combining strikeouts with ground balls is good, but ground balls alone aren’t enough. Those pitchers tend to implode. Mike Pelfrey survived on ground balls in 2008, and he imploded in 2009 – and it’s not, nor can it be, all Luis Castillo’s range. No one knows why this happens, but it happens. Sorry, Joel Pineiro, but you’re probably going to implode, too.
*Many Bothans died to bring us this information.
But Mike Pelfrey is evolving. He’s throwing off-speed pitches for strikes and generating swings and misses, and thus more strikeouts. Through his early career, he’s shown a David Bowie-like willingness to reinvent himself, only without the jumpsuits. At least, I think without the jumpsuits.
When Pelfrey first surfaced, he initially struggled in the major leagues, nibbling around the zone, walking far too many batters. He walked 4.9 batters per nine innings pitched his first 17 starts in 2006 and 2007. He finally made his first evolution in the middle of 2008, when he started throwing his sinker for strikes, cutting the walks in half, and generating ground balls – though this came at the expense of his strikeouts totals, which were higher in the minor leagues. But it worked anyway, at least for a while.
And then 2009, and the balks and the licking and the falling off the mound and the mile-high aerobics caught up to his low K total. He was pretty awful. But ever willing to grow, he learned a splitter over the winter and started throwing his curveball more. And lost weight for some reason.
So far, in 2010, he’s relying less on his fastball, throwing curveballs for strikes, getting swings and misses on splitters, and striking out hitters. The early returns are looking good.
Not everyone can do this. Some pitchers are unable to change, for whatever reasons. Stubbornness, inability, too much Waffle House, injuries, whatever. Oliver Perez comes to mind. John Maine is trying, but apparently failing, and now changing back to whatever he was doing before. If you’re a pitcher, and you can’t adapt, you’re going to burn out or fade away. But if you can turn and face the strange and change . . . Johan Santana is adept at adapting within a single game, pitch to pitch. He’ll be around for as long as his small frame can hold up. He is, as Mike Pelfrey hopes to be someday, an actual pitcher.
This may be Mike Pelfrey’s greatest asset: he has shown that he is capable and willing to grow and to change. Of course, all that other stuff – arm strength, smooth mechanics, velocity, strikeouts, ground balls, control
– that’s all key too. Obviously, Mike Pelfrey would not be a major league pitcher if he could not throw a baseball really, really fast. But an ability to adapt and change at the highest level, that may be the most important skill, both for “actual pitchers” and rock ‘n’ rollers.