Just a month removed from being celebrated for his amazingly quick recovery from Tommy John surgery less than 11 months ago, Mike Pelfrey’s numbers through his first four starts in a Twins uniform have been extremely disappointing.
This raises the question of whether or not Pelfrey is completely ready for re-introduction into the major leagues. After all, this is in line with the plight of Joe Nathan in 2010 who rushed through his rehab only to hit a wall a month into the season. Despite being the owner of a 7.94 ERA through 17 innings in 2013, the notion of removing Pelfrey from the rotation at this point appears moot. The idea was quickly shot down by manager Ron Gardenhire following his most recent start, said Pioneer Press beat writer Mike Bernadino.
Clearly, Pelfrey has a lot of things going wrong right now. If you were listening to the broadcasts, you were told that the reason that the big right-hander is struggling is due to his decline in velocity. But let’s be honest here: It’s not as if Pelfrey is suddenly throwing the Henry Rowengartner floater pitch to every batter he sees. It’s less than a mile per hour slower. In 2011, his last full season at the major leagues, he was throwing his fastball at 92.2 miles per hour. This year, it has been at 91.3. All things considered, that is not substantial.
Let’s take a look at the things that are really plaguing him in 2013.
Experts and those who have gone through the procedure agree that command is the last skill to return after Tommy John surgery.
Last week, Jeff Zimmerman of Fangraphs.com interviewed Kansas City Royals’ pitching coach Dave Eiland – someone who had gone through the surgical process and recovery in his playing days – echoed that sentiment.
“One of the last things to come back is the command.” Eiland told Zimmerman, “You might feel strong. You might be fast. You might be good to go. Pitching off the mound and competing in a game is all together different then throwing sides and batting practice. My suggestion is if you think everything feels good, take another month.”
Pelfrey’s return was heralded as nothing short of miraculous. And in many ways it was. No other pitcher on record has come back from the surgery in fewer than 12 months and competed in a major league game. However, we have seen his struggles to command the ball. Like Eiland said, you can feel great in many other facets of the game, but once the real games start, your precision may not be all there.
In Pelfey’s case, his ability to locate the ball in the strike zone has been one of the worst in the league. After his first three outings, Pelfrey’s in-zone percentage – the number of pitches he has thrown in the strike zone – is 39.8%, the sixth-lowest in baseball. Worse, the five below him throw a high percentage of breaking balls – pitches that are harder to command and are often supposed to be out of the strike zone -- while Pelfrey has been throwing his fastball/sinker 70% of the time. Fortunately, Pelfrey found the zone more frequently in his start against the Marlins on Tuesday (58 of 94 pitches) to increase his zone presence.
What is more worrisome than not throwing the ball over the plate is his missing his spots. Here is a recent example of this malfeasance. This sinker to Rob Brantley was supposed to be down and away, per Ryan Doumit’s request, but wound up in the middle of the zone:
This particular pitch was lasered to the right field gap for a two-run double. Some such pitches and outcomes have not been that detrimental but a lot of the contact allowed, even on the ground, has been loud and solid.
(2) His pitches are staying up in the zone.
What the noise from the bats is telling the ball guys around the stadium, the data from pitch f/x confirms: Pelfrey’s pitches just are not moving the way they did prior to the injury.
When it comes to his sinker, the pitch is staying up in the zone, on average, an inch high than it has in the past. Where it was coming in at 5.5 inches in 2010, 6.7 in 2011 and 6.2 in 2012, it has shot up to 7.5 inches this season, meaning there is less of a sink. Less sink from a sinkerball pitcher is not a good thing. Results wind up like the aforementioned example.
His slider, his most often used secondary pitch, has had less vertical drop compared to previous seasons. In 2010, his vertical finish was 3.4 inches. Same in 2011. This year, it is 6.8, a little over three inches higher than his last two healthy seasons, meaning less downward movement. This is very comparable to Joe Nathan during his recovery with the Twins in 2010. Prior to heading back to Rochester, Nathan's slider stayed in the 6-to-7 inch range while in the past there was much more substantial drop than that.
Finally, his split-finger change, a pitch he throws mainly to lefties, has been splattered across the field the few times it has been thrown. Opponents are 4-for-6 off it and, you guessed it, it too is staying up in the zone.
This has translated into a whole lot of contact and a whole lot of well-struck contact – even if the majority of it has resulted in grounders. That is how you “scatter” 29 hits over 17 innings.
(3) Release point.
This ties in to the first two items. His release point is measurably lower than his 2011 season. Two years ago, Pelfrey was releasing his pitches a little over six feet high. That has since dropped to under five-feet-nine-inches, according to BrooksBaseball.net.
The angles are different, but the release point is captured well in these examples. In 2011, you see the higher release point – a great thing considering his overall large stature. In 2012, that leveled out some. While a few inches may not seem like much, this lowered released point is likely one of the reasons he is not seeing the usual downward movement, since his sinker and slider flatten out when his arm angle drops and he is unable to stay on top of the ball.
(4) Mound Presence.
Sinkerball pitchers are a finicky lot. Former Met teammate and once-upon-a-time sinkerballer, R.A. Dickey, told reporters in 2011 how easy it is to completely lose the feel for the pitch after Pelfrey continued to have issues that spring.
“There’s so many different things that can impact the movement of the pitch,” Dickey told reporters, “that you do, sometimes, lose it for a period.”
Dickey went on to say that a slight change in the grip or the arm action could cause a loss of movement that he would struggle to regain. The Mets discovered that Pelfrey is someone who had a history of needing to readjust regularly. Early in his career, he kept his glove at chest level when he started his windup. He changed that to keeping his hands at belt-level before his windup. In spring training of 2012, he went to bringing his hands over his head in order to get more of a downward plane and stay on top of his sinker, the same motion he uses today.
Additionally, after being a guy who had worked off the third base side of the rubber for most of the previous two seasons, he swapped that practice for the far left side of the rubber, pitching instead off the first base side.
Take a look:
It may be minor, but when you add up all the changes and alterations in the past several years, in addition to the recovery from the Tommy John surgery, these may be affecting his ability to repeat his mechanics consistently to the point where he can't command all his pitches effectively.
Mike Hargrove, in his playing days with Texas and Cleveland in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, was affectionately known as “The Human Rain Delay” for his deliberate routine before and after each pitch in the batter’s box. Meanwhile, Mike Pelfrey, a few decades later and sixty-feet-and-six-inches away from the batter’s box, is doing his own version of that in 2013.
While not nearly as OCD as Hargrove, Pelfrey’s pace on the mound is staggeringly slow. After maintaining a normal pace of around 22 seconds per pitch, the right-hander is lulling opponents and fans to sleep with his 27.5 seconds between each pitch. By comparison, Houston’s Bud Norris, the next slowest pitcher in the majors, is nearly two seconds quicker with his delivery to home.
Is this a lack of confidence in his stuff, not being on the same page as his catcher or simply a pace slowed by 11 months of rust? There is a lot to be read into the fact that Pelfrey has been holding the ball a lot longer than usual.
Pelfrey has an extensive list of things that are not going right for him. Lack of command and movement, a noticeably lowered release point, an evolving mound presence and a tempo problem that is wearing down his own defense and spectators have all been reasons why he has struggled so much at the opening of the season.
At this point, management is letting him fight through his own issues. That said, with a few more outings like the one against the lowly Marlins, don’t be surprised if Pelfrey is on the outside of the rotation looking in.