Mike Pelfrey and Selling High on Bad Pitchers

Mike Pelfrey is going to start pitching better. Maybe not this season, but it’s going to happen sometime soon.

These are the twelve pitchers who qualified for the ERA title last season and had low strikeout rates. Mike Pelfrey is one of them. I wanted ten pitchers, but I had to go with 12 because two don’t have enough innings to qualify for the ERA title this season. Here’s the dozen:

  • Kyle Kendrick, Phillies – 4.2 strikeouts per nine innings
  • Mark Buehrle, White Sox – 4.2
  • Brad Bergesen, Orioles – 4.3
  • Rick Porcello, Tigers – 4.6
  • Carl Pavano, Twins – 4.8
  • Livan Hernandez, Nationals – 4.8
  • Doug Fister, Mariners – 4.9
  • Joe Saunders, LAA/ARI – 5.0
  • Mike Pelfrey, Mets – 5.0
  • Paul Maholm, Pirates – 5.0
  • Bronson Arroyo, Reds – 5.0
  • Jeremy Guthrie, Orioles – 5.1

Mostly sinkerball pitchers, all of them are low strikeout guys. The MLB average was 7.1 strikeouts per nine innings last season, so everyone here is well below that.

We’re going to split these pitchers into two groups now: Those who had good seasons in 2010, and those who had bad seasons in 2010. First the good pitchers. Here’s what they did in 2010, and what they’re doing in 2011:

  • Mike Pelfrey, Mets: 15-9 with 3.66 ERA in 2010. Named the Opening Day starter for the Mets this season, he’s 5-9 with a 4.67 ERA. Pelfrey is having the worst season of anyone in the Mets’ rotation.
  • Livan Hernandez, Nationals: 10-12 with a 3.66 ERA for a last place Nationals team in 2010. 5-9 with a 4.09 ERA for a marginally better Nationals team this season.
  • Carl Pavano, Twins: 17-11 with a 3.75 ERA last season. Re-signed by the Twins in the winter, Pavano is 6-6 with a 4.08 ERA this season.
  • Jeremy Guthrie, Orioles: 11-14 with a 3.83 ERA for a bad Orioles team last season. Named the Opening Day starter in 2011, Guthrie is 4-13 with a 4.35 ERA.
  • Bronson Arroyo, Reds: 17-10 with a 3.88 ERA, and someone gave him a third place Cy Young vote. He’s 7-8 this season and his ERA is 5.57. Leads the majors in home runs allowed.
  • Mark Buehrle, White Sox: 13-13 with a 4.28 ERA last season, 7-5 with a 3.38 ERA this season. You could argue that Buehrle’s 2010 was a bad year — his ERA+ was 100 and his record was .500, so he was basically average. We’ll just call it a good year.

Okay, that’s six pitchers with low strikeout totals who had good seasons last year. One of them is pitching better (Buehrle, the borderline case), and five are pitching worse in 2011. Some of them aren’t pitching much worse, but worse is worse.

Now the next group, low strikeout pitchers who had poor 2010 seasons. How they did last season and how they did this season:

  • Doug Fister, Mariners: 6-14, 4.11 ERA in 2010 for a terrible Mariners team. Fister is 3-11 this season thanks to miserable run support, but his ERA has dropped to 3.18. Like Buehrle, his 2010 is another season you could argue either way, but Fister’s ERA+ was 97, so he goes in the bad pile.
  • Joe Saunders, Angels/Diamondbacks: 9-17 with a 4.41 ERA. Saunders didn’t pitch terribly — 91 ERA+ — but he didn’t pitch well either and wound up leading the majors in losses. He’s 6-8 with a 3.89 ERA this season for the second place Diamondbacks.
  • Kyle Kendrick, Phillies: Kendrick went 11-10 last season for the Phillies, but his ERA was 4.73. This season, he’s been bumped into the longman/spot starter role, and doesn’t have enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. He’s 5-4 with a 3.34 ERA.
  • Rick Porcello, Tigers: 10-12 with a 4.92 ERA last season after finishing third in rookie of the year voting the year before. He’s 9-6 with a 4.76 ERA this season.
  • Brad Bergesen, Orioles: 8-12 with a 4.98 ERA for the Orioles last season. 1-6 with a 5.76 ERA this season, lost his rotation spot and doesn’t have enough innings to qualify for the ERA title.
  • Paul Maholm, Pirates: 9-15 with a 5.10 ERA. Pitching coach Ray Searage has worked his magic on Maholm this season — he’s 6-9 due to low run support, but with a 3.06 ERA. The Pirates are in first place.

That’s six low strikeout pitchers who had poor seasons last year. Five are pitching better this season. One is pitching worse and lost his rotation spot, but everyone else is at least a little bit improved.

So among the low strikeout pitchers, five of the six pitchers who had good seasons last year aren’t pitching as well this season; five of the six pitchers who had poor seasons last year are pitching better this year. See where I’m going with this?

I wrote about this last year, with regards to Mike Pelfrey, but it’s the same idea here: Pitchers who don’t strike out many batters are subject to ups and downs. Pelfrey had a good season in 2008, then a crummy 2009. He rebounded in 2010, but he stinks again in 2011. As Mets fans, we live in our own little baseball universe, and it seems like Pelfrey is horribly inconsistent in a special way.

But he’s not special. Most low strikeout pitchers are like that. Fausto Carmona is frustrating Indians fans right now. Bronson Arroyo is tormenting Reds fans. They do this. Pelfrey happens to be our guy.

But, unlike last year, I don’t just think it’s low strikeout pitchers anymore. I think they’re all like that. All pitchers have ups and downs, some of them huge, from season to season. Low strikeout guys are frustrating for a different reason. That in a second, but first, here are the dozen best strikeout pitchers from last season, what they did last year, and how they’re doing in 2011:

  • Tim Lincecum, Giants: 16-10 last season with a 3.43 ERA for the World Champion Giants. 8-7 this season with a 2.99 ERA.
  • Yovanni Gallardo, Brewers: 14-7 with a 3.84 ERA last season, 11-6 this season with a 3.96 ERA.
  • Jon Lester, Red Sox: 19-9 with a 3.25 ERA in 2010, finished 4th in Cy Young voting. 10-4 this season with a 3.31 ERA. Unrelated, and maybe only interesting to me: Lester has the third-best winning percentage of all time (1871 to present).
  • Jonathan Sanchez, Giants: 13-9 with a 3.07 ERA for the World Champs last year. Injured this season, but is 4-5 with a 3.81 ERA.
  • Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers: 13-10 with a 2.91 ERA last season, he’s having the same season this year: 10-4 with a 2.88 ERA.
  • Jered Weaver, Angels: 13-12 with a 3.01 ERA in 2010, finished 5th in the Cy Young voting. 12-4 with a 1.90 ERA this season, he’ll probably win the Cy Young or finish second to Verlander.
  • Mat Latos, Padres: 14-10 last season, 2.92 ERA, got a couple of Cy Young votes in 2010. Biggest drop off on this list, he’s 5-10 this season with a 4.02 ERA.
  • Cole Hamels, Phillies: A tough luck 12-11 with a 3.06 ERA last season. 11-5 with a 2.71 ERA this season, and he’d be the best pitcher on just about any team but his own.
  • Josh Johnson, Marlins: 11-6 with a 2.30 ERA in 2010, finished fifth in the NL Cy Young voting. Injured for most of this season, but he’s 3-1 with a 1.64 ERA.
  • Colby Lewis, Rangers: 12-13 with a 3.72 ERA for the AL Champions, 9-7 with a 4.07 ERA this season.
  • Justin Verlander, Tigers: 18-9 with a 3.37 ERA last season, 12-5 with a 2.29 ERA this season.

That’s 12 more pitchers, all high strikeout guys. By ERA, six are pitching better this season, and six are pitching worse (though, to be fair, Gallardo and Lester are barely pitching worse and Kershaw is barely pitching better). But the six better, six worse figures are exactly the same as the low strikeout group. And the size of the swings isn’t that different. Three high strikeout pitchers (Weaver, Verlander, and Latos) have seen their ERA change by at least a full run, while four low strikeout pitchers (Pelfrey, Arroyo, Maholm, and Kendrick) have seen theirs change by a full run. Someone could really look into this, but my guess is that the performance of low strikeout pitchers doesn’t vary much more than the performance of high strikeout pitchers. I thought it might, and maybe it does, but it doesn’t look like it. I don’t know. But pitching is hard, and a lot of the results depend on the fielders, the ballpark, the baserunners, the weather, and so on. So ERAs go up and down from season to season for seemingly no reason, even if the pitcher’s abilities stay the same.

But there is a key difference between high strikeout and low strikeout pitchers: High strikeout pitchers are better. Most of the ERAs in the high-K group are in the 3.00 range, while most of the ERAs in the low-K group sit in the 4.00 range. Which is sort of obvious, but it’s an important difference, and it’s the reason the low-K guys are so frustrating.

Here’s why it’s important: If a high strikeout pitcher has a good season, his ERA is somewhere in the 2.00 range, he wins a Cy Young, whatever. But if he has a poor season, his ERA is probably in the low 4.00 range — everyone talks about how he’s not as sharp as last season and thinks of way to fix him . . . then he’s fine the next season and we all go on with our lives.

It’s different for the low-K guys. If they have a good season, they win 15 games with an ERA in the mid-3.00 range, and then you make them the Opening Day starter the next season if you don’t have anyone else. But if a low-strikeout pitcher has a poor season, then his ERA is probably up near or above 5.00. That’s a problem. You start thinking about what to do with him — trade him, non-tender him at the end of the season, send him to the bullpen or the minors or the moon. If a high-K guy has a poor season, it’s just a down year; if a low-K guy has a poor season, he might lose his job.

Mike Pelfrey happens to be a low-K guy who has pitched pretty poorly this season, and there have been some suggestions that the Mets should trade him or non-tender him at the end of the season. I see the argument, but I don’t see how this is the best time to let him go. I think his value is only going to go up from here.

Most pitchers like Pelfrey, low strikeout pitchers who has bad season last year, are pitching better this year. He bounced back from 2009 to a 3.66 ERA last season. A 3.66 ERA is about as good as it’s going to get for Pelfrey — he’s not going to be an ace — but a 4.67 ERA is about as bad as it’s going to get, too. The point being, if the Mets are going to trade Pelfrey, they should do it when his value is high. It isn’t high right now, obviously. I wouldn’t trade a broken VCR for Mike Pelfrey. And if they’re not going to tender him a contract for next season, they should be sure he’s not going to be a 200 inning, 4.20 ERA guy — which has a lot of value — and I don’t think they can be sure of that. Pelfrey’s stock is low right now, but it’s going to go up. It makes more sense to hang on to him until it does.

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13 Comments

Filed under Columns, Mets, Words

13 responses to “Mike Pelfrey and Selling High on Bad Pitchers

  1. “I think his value is only going to go up from here.”

    There are reasons to believe his value could go down. Nn that case, wasting 6M on him and not getting a prospect could be considered a poor decision.

    • Patrick Flood

      OK, fair enough. But the reasons to believe his value is going to go down are what? And are those reasons better than the reasons that his value might go up?

      • His GB% and FB velocity have declined. Last year, he admitted to pitching hurt. Pitchers who don’t miss bats tend to fall apart quickly (CM Wang). Freddy Garcia is making 1.5M and he has an identical xFIP to Pelfrey.

        Frankly, I think his downside is worse than his upside (3 WAR pitcher) at this point.

      • Patrick Flood

        His fastball velocity is down 0.5 MPH . . . but it dropped 0.6 MPH from 2009 to 2010, and he had a much better year in 2010. I don’t know if I buy into small drops of velocity being something to worry about. I don’t know if I’ve read anything that convinced me of that. Obviously, it’s not good, but I don’t see it as a big thing.

        His sinker not sinking is more worrisome, and that explains the lower ground ball rate and the high number of home runs. I see what you’re saying, but I think he’ll be fine if he can figure out how to get the sink back. His walks are down, he has the best SIERA of his career, and his xFIP is right around his career mark.

      • Fair enough. But I don’t like the trends. I don’t mean to repeat myself, but he’s the kind of pitcher who pitches on a very narrow edge.

        His xFIP is only around his career average because of a career low walk rate. I don’t know if you can expect him to do that again or improve on it.

      • Patrick Flood

        Also there’s the possibility that he’s throwing too many strikes. That is, he’s walking fewer people because batters that would otherwise become walks end up hitting home runs.

  2. Unsurprised by Lester’s winning percentage, seeing as he’s playing on a perpetual playoff contender his whole career.

    • Patrick Flood

      Right, but there have been a lot of good pitchers on perpetual playoff contenders. The list is:

      1. Al Spalding, 252-65, .795%
      2. Spud Chandler, 109-43, .717%
      3. Jon Lester, 71-29, .710%
      4. Whitey Ford, 236-106, .690%
      5. Dave Foutz, 147-66, .690%

      Maybe not surprising. But impressive.

      People talk how no one is going to win 300 games again, and not that wins are a great stat anyway, but it’s hard to see how one of Lester, Weaver, Sabathia, Verlander, Felix doesn’t wind up winning 300 games.

  3. His xFIP the last 4 years: 4.45, 4.47, 4.31, and now 4.43. For how much his ERA fluctuates, his xFIP is amazingly consistent. I wonder if there is something specific about his pitching that enables such variation in results or if he’s just lucky one year and unlucky the next.

  4. I think his value is going to go up when he goes to a team like St. Louis. D.Duncan will massage his brain somehow and Big Pelf will turn into a consistent 17 game winner with a sub 3.5 era…

  5. To my mind, it’s a question of whether the Mets have a better option than paying full price ($6mil or so after arbitration raise) for a marginal win or two (or maybe nothing better than replacement level pitching) from Pelf next year. They might be better served non-tendering him and then attempting to sign him for less, tho Boras might stand in the way if that. What I mean to say is: can the Mets get more for $6/mil than the ~1 WAR they could reasonably expect from Pelf? That is the question, not whether or not they would be selling low/high on the big man.

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