Mike Pelfrey is frustrated. I know this because he drops an expletive and then says the phrase “it’s frustrating” three times in four sentences — but also because he simply looks frustrated. The TV cameras are gone, and it’s just a three reporters around him now. He leans with an arm against his locker and stares off as he answers questions, trying to formula in words what, exactly, is going wrong with this season. After surrendering four runs in five innings to the Phillies, Pelfrey’s ERA now sits at 4.67, a full run higher than a season ago. In less than four months, Pelfrey has gone from the opening day starter to the least effective pitcher on a patchwork staff that includes a double-Tommy-John Segwey-enthusiast and a 36 year old knuckleballing Lord of the Rings fan. The Mets are 6-14 when Pelfrey starts, and 41-33 when anyone else does.
“I used to come in the clubhouse and throw everything. My glove, my fleece. Everything,” he said. “But I don’t act like that anymore.”
No Mets player receives more amateur psychoanalysis than Mike Pelfrey. Every tick, every shoulder shrug, every attempt to moisten his hand is interpreted as an outward manifestation of the silent psychotic breakdown going on inside. Mental weakness is the downfall of the giant, the explanation for why someone can have a 7.39 ERA one month and a 3.09 ERA the next, a 15-9 record one season, 5-9 the next. He’s crazy. Unfocused. Soft. Mike Pelfrey is a gentle giant, armed with a heavy fastball but lacking the fortitude to handle being an ace. He doesn’t have the confidence.
This, so they say – “they” being mostly talk radio callers — is why Pelfrey struggles.
Only when you hear Mike Pelfrey speak, it becomes immediately apparent that this isn’t true. He is clearly unhappy with how he has been pitching. (“It’s frustrating. It’s frustrating to me especially when I’m part of the problem. I’m not contributing. It’s frustrating.”) And sometimes the frustration is visible on the mound – in the second inning, after missing with a 1-1 slider to Kyle Kendrick, Pelfrey put his hands on his hips and walked around the mound before gathering himself back on the rubber. Kendrick lined the next pitch back up the middle for a single. But to see his frustration as evidence of mental weakness is wrong, because it signals the exact opposite.
Think about that emotion, frustration, for a moment. It doesn’t manifest from submission or surrender. Frustration is being ticked off because you know, or at least believe, you’re capable of more. Frustration comes from expecting something to work, using the same process and discovering that the same results aren’t there — this is what Mike Pelfrey feels right now. His arm is fine, but his sinker doesn’t sink and his pitches are up. He doesn’t need extra motivation. He needs to figure out what’s going wrong so he can fix it. He’s angry at himself, but he’s only angry because he has an underlying confidence that he’s better than this. He knows he’s better than this.
“The ball’s jumping out of my hand, just there’s no bite on it,” he said. “It’s just not sharp. My command’s not where I want it to be. It doesn’t have the late movement I want it to have.”
Sinkers without sink and pitches up in the zone have been a problem for Pelfrey all season, yesterday included. In the fifth inning, he threw a 2-0 fastball to Michael Martinez that was supposed to be down and in — instead the pitch was up and over the middle, and Martinez hit his first major league home run, a three run shot just over the angled fence in right. It was the 16th home run Pelfrey has surrendered this season, placing him among the league leaders in home runs allowed after giving up just 12 all of last year.
Pelfrey is giving up more fly balls this season than ever before, his career 1.41 ground out to air out ratio falling to 1.07 this season, below the league average of 1.13. Outside of that, he hasn’t pitched much differently: His batting average against is .268, exactly the same as last season, his WHIP has risen from just 1.38 to 1.39, and his strikeout to walk ratio has actually improved. The biggest difference between this season and last season is that Pelfrey is giving up more fly balls and more home runs, and the results have spoken for themselves.
He keeps working. One, and probably the only, bright side to Pelfrey’s outing yesterday was his improved curveball, the once abandoned pitch that has slowly worked its way back into his repertoire. Pelfrey threw nine curveballs on Sunday, five for strikes, and recorded three outs on the pitch. Jimmy Rollins flew out on twice on curves and swung though a third, and Chase Utley grounded out back to Pelfrey on another. By one count, the curveball was Pelfrey’s most effective pitch of the game.
“I’ve been throwing it more, and I feel like it’s getting better and better. The spin is tighter, the break is better,” said Pelfrey. “Ultimately the hitter will let you know if it’s good or not.”
And maybe the curveball is what Pelfrey needs, a weapon to keep hitters off his fastballs — or maybe it’s part of the problem.
“Sometimes you try to add a fourth or fifth pitch . . . all of a sudden, you’ve got three mediocre pitches because you don’t use your good ones enough,” said Terry Collins after the game, though more in reference to Pelfrey’s recent toying with a cut fastball than his curve.
Pelfrey didn’t necessarily agree with his manager’s take. “I would debate against having three plus pitches, too,” he added with a grin.
“I’ve been through stretches like this before. I’ve been through worse stretches and I’ve gotten through it. If I can get through this, I’ll be fine.”