Big Pelf Blues

In the past, Manuel, Pelfrey and pitching coach Dan Warthen have described the right-hander’s struggles as equally mental and physical. But after Monday’s loss, Manuel indicated that the bulk of Pelfrey’s issues are lodged somewhere in his brain.

I just see a guy that kind of loses confidence,” Manuel said. “I see a guy that doesn’t have the presence on the mound.”

– Anthony DiComo, Mets.com

Mike Pelfrey has made 28 starts this season. He has been a great pitcher in just under two-thirds of them: He’s 13-1 with a 1.62 ERA in the 17 starts in which he’s allowed 3 or fewer runs. The Mets are 15-2 in those games. In his other 11 starts, however, he’s been an awful pitcher: 0-8 with a 10.19 ERA. The Mets are 1-10 in those games.

Now, if you arbitrarily split up any pitcher’s starts into two groups, as I just did for Pelfrey, you would get these sorts of results — doing so falls into the “statistics” category of lies. He’s not really two pitchers, one with a 1.62 ERA and the other with a 10.19 ERA. Mike Pelfrey is just one pitcher with a 3.96 ERA, one who has good starts and bad starts, just like all pitchers do. Yesterday was a decidedly bad start for Pelfrey, as was his previous start, but he was coming off a run of four solid performances before that.

It certainly seems as though Mike Pelfrey has been having a particularly Jekyll and Hyde season . . . or a particularly Jersey Shore/Mad Men season, if that analogy makes more sense to the big TV watchers out there. Month to month, start to start, or even just inning to inning, it seems that Pelfrey can be getting groundout after groundout, when it suddenly just blows up in his face. He retires ten of the first twelve batters he faces yesterday. Then a walk. Then another walk. A double. Single. Flyout. Walk. Single. And he’s out of the game.

I think because Pelfrey has these sorts of extended meltdowns — and they’re never just quick three-run home run blowups, they’re always tedious, painful slap-happy single-and-walk-fests — people are quick to assume that Pelfrey’s problems are mental. Why else would someone pitching so well suddenly lose it? Someone gets on base, Pelf gets rattled, and it all just slowly falls apart for him. It’s a confidence issue. He gets nervous with men on base. He can’t pitch on the road.

Generally, I tend to dismiss these sorts of assertions as armchair sports psychology, something which normally can also be referred to as “BS.” For example: “Carlos Beltran doesn’t look like he’s having fun because he’s not smiling. He must hate baseball/playing for the Mets/rainbows. Trade him.” Or: “Jose Reyes is always smiling. He’s not taking baseball seriously enough. Trade him.” These sorts of things. No one really knows what’s going on inside a player’s head, sometimes not even the player himself. When a pitcher looks uncomfortable, maybe it is because he doesn’t want to throw the ball . . . or maybe his underwear is just riding up. It’d be really hard to distinguish between these two scenarios just by watching. So I tend to not even try.

But I sometimes think there might be something to be said for Mike Pelfrey’s problems being of the mental variety — not in a “Mike Pelfrey is crazy, let’s lock him up” sort of way. More in a, “Mike Pelfrey might not understand the sort of pitcher Mike Pelfrey is” kind of way.

And Mike Pelfrey is indeed a certain type of pitcher. Among National League pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, Pelfrey is fifth from the bottom in strikeouts per nine innings pitched. He’s somewhere in the middle of the pack in terms of walks, but he’s also the sixth best at preventing home runs. So he doesn’t strikeout, walk, or allow many batters to hit home runs. In other words, he leaves a lot to the gloves of the defense, the park, and all sorts of other things that aren’t him.

If you look at pitchers like Mike Pelfrey — that is, not nefarious hand lickers, but ground ball pitchers who don’t walk or strikeout many batters — you’ll see that most are susceptible to the same sort of ups and downs that have marked Pelfrey’s young career.

  • Fausto Carmona went 19-8 with a 3.06 ERA for the Indians in 2007; he went 13-19 with a 5.89 ERA over the next two seasons, before bouncing back with a 4.05 ERA for a last place Cleveland team this year.
  • Livan Hernandez had a 9-12 record and a 5.44 ERA last season; he has suddenly improved to a 9-10 record and a 3.81 ERA for the Nationals this year.
  • Zack Duke posted a 4.06 ERA with the Pirates in 2009; he has a 5.24 ERA in 24 starts this season.
  • Joe Blanton went from 12-8 and a 4.05 ERA with Philly last year, to 6-6 with a 5.25 ERA in 2010.
  • Mike Pelfrey went 13-11 with a 3.72 ERA in 2008, 10-12 with an ERA of 5.02 in 2009, and he’s 13-9 with a 3.96 ERA this season.

Pelfrey is not a unique phenomena. When a pitcher allows a large number of balls in play, more and more things being to fall outside the realm of his control. The quality of the defense behind him becomes more important. The size and location of the ballpark. The location of seagulls in the outfield.

Basically, when you’re the type of pitcher Pelfrey is, more things are just going to happen. When a strikeout pitcher makes a good pitch, the batter swings and misses and that’s sort of it. The hitter strike outs. When a groundball pitcher makes a good pitch, the batter hits a grounder — but sometimes those grounders find holes. Sometimes the second baseman has bad range and doesn’t reach the ball, or makes an error. A good pitch turns into a hit. And sometimes two good pitches turn into two hits in a row. And sometimes three good pitches in a row wind up hits. And so on. Over the course of an inning, a game, or even an entire season, that sort of luck doesn’t always even itself out. So you get the ups and downs that have marked Big Pelf’s time with the Mets.

In fact, if you look just at the things Pelfrey can control, he hasn’t pitched all that differently any of the past three seasons. His xFIP — an awkwardly named ERA-like statistic that only looks at a pitcher’s strikeouts, walks, and flyball rate, the things he has the most control over — is almost exactly the same over the past three seasons: 4.49 in ‘08, 4.52 in ’09, and 4.45 this season. It’s the things he can’t control which have made the biggest difference.

I’m not sure if Mike Pelfrey realizes this — and I think that’s the “mental” problem he has. Pelfrey, like most pitchers, seems to take personal responsibility for everything that happens when he’s on the mound. When things start to go wrong, when someone sneaks a single up the middle on him, sometimes it appears that he’ll tinker with his approach, as if it he did something wrong . . .  even when the hit wasn’t necessarily his fault. Pelfrey might be trying to correct problems that don’t exist, and that’s when the canary dies and the meltdowns begin.

Or maybe that’s just my imagination. Maybe Pelfrey is just a contact pitcher, and sometimes everything goes right for contact pitchers, and sometimes everything goes wrong for contact pitchers. Maybe that’s all it is.

But that’s not an explanation with a lot of satisfactory “this is why it happens” behind it, which can make us uncomfortable. So we look for something else, and Pelfrey is up and down and licks his hand a lot and-he-does-sort-of-look-crazy-now-that-you-mention-it. And we end up assigning confidence issues to Pelfrey . . . mostly because he sometimes has trouble keeping his hand moist. When he pitches well, he’s mentally on track, and when he’s not pitching well, he’s a crazy train.

I don’t know if there really are two Mike Pelfreys, one crazy and one not. I’d guess there’s just one who gives up a lot of contact — sometimes it goes well, and sometimes it doesn’t, and we assign credit and blame to Pelfrey when it’s really just defense and luck. Maybe the only crazy ones are us.

Photo via Keith Allison’s Flickr. CC 3.o

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11 Comments

Filed under Columns, Mets, Words

11 responses to “Big Pelf Blues

  1. This is one of the most straightfoward, simple, common sense pieces I’ve read in some time. about the vagaries of baseball. So, naturally, you will be swamped with obscure statistics and hair pulling rants telling you how wrong you are, if only you would wake up. Thanks anyway.

  2. Can we get Mike Pelfrey to read this?

  3. embedded

    This seems generally on-point. A closer analysis would have to examine whether Pelf loses some control, throws more balls and gets into unfavorable counts when men get on base. If true, this would suggest he begins to press, whether consciously or not. And when athletes begin to press, they soon choke as well.

    • Patrick Flood

      Yesterday’s struggles just looked like control problems to me, but sometimes it does appear that Pelfrey throws WAY more sinkers with men on base — maybe too many. I know he’s trying to get a double play ball, but it seems that EVERY pitch is suddenly a sinker when men get on base.

  4. A performance such as the one delivered yesterday by Mike Pelfry leaves the viewer with little choice but to conclude that something happened to affect him during the game. If a pitcher cruises through a couple of innings, generally looking good, and then all at once starts walking guys, giving up hits and runs and failing to be able to secure three outs, you can’t help but assume that something happened to him. If the report from the locker room tells you that he, say, pulled a shoulder muscle, you would say, “well, I knew it had to be something like that, because he was doing fine and then he wasn’t. But when the report comes back that he says he’s feeling fine, no physical problem, what is left to conclude? If a physical problem didn’t come up to alter his performance so drastically, what did?

    • Patrick Flood

      Well, as for yesterday, Pelfrey says he just lost command of his fastball. Josh Thole also said as much. Perhaps that’s a mental issue, or some sort of bio-mechanical mind-body issue. I don’t know where mechanics fall into the mental physical spectrum.

      But in a more general way, what happens to Pelfrey is sometimes just “luck.” And I don’t necessarily mean that in just the leprechaun luck sort of way. I mean more in the quality of the defense behind him, if a groundball is in reach of the fielder or just outside of his range, if the wind is blowing out, those sorts of things. Blind leprechaun luck also plays a big part in it, but there are a lot of things at play. Questioning his mentality should be way down the checklist, at least the way I see it.

      • I like Pelfry, and I root for him to do well. The Mets need him to do well. I generally agree with what you’ve written about him in your post and recognize that there are a lot of variables at play for every pitcher, in every ball game.

        BUT… When I watched him pitch in the first half of the season Pelfry had a completely different demeanor on the mound. His whole attitude conveyed a sense of authority and quiet command (Not like Bruce Willis, but more like Gary Cooper.) He worked in an efficient, business-like manner. Now, more often than not, he looks like a guy just hoping that things aren’t going to blow up in his face. As everyone has noticed, his body language is terrible and he projects anything but confidence. To be fair, he plays for the Mets and the whole team seems to have some degree of psychological damage, but it’s easier to see it Pelfry’s behavior than in just about any other player on the team.

        Luck, good and bad, is part of the game, just as it’s part of life. How any given player responds when luck goes against him (or for him)is a character issue. If character is not a product of mentality, what is it?

      • Patrick Flood

        Ok, I see what you’re saying. But what if Pelfrey looks confident when things are going well simply BECAUSE things are going well? Is it necessary for the confidence to be a cause of his success, and not the result of it? I’m not saying the two aren’t related, but maybe they’re just related in a way different than the one you present here.

      • It’s easy to have confidence when things are going your way. The guy you want on your team is the one who still has confidence when things are going to hell. Not doesn’t-have-a-clue-how-bad-it-is confidence, but I’ve-been-in-tougher-spots-than-this confidence. The mind leads, everything else follows.

      • Patrick Flood

        Right. What I’m saying is it might be helpful for someone to tell Pelfrey, “Hey. Sometimes you’re going to pitch well and they’re going to hit you anyway. It’s going to happen. Keeping doing what you’re doing.”

        It’s not that things go poorly because he inexplicably loses his confidence all of a sudden, because I don’t see how that makes sense. I could see that maybe he makes things worse for himself by losing his confidence when things don’t go well, even if it’s not his fault things aren’t going well. He could make things worse for himself that way.

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