Posted Thursday, May 21, 2009
Mike Pelfrey is defying the odds.
The big right-hander has reeled off three straight quality starts for the Mets, who are desperately in need of a second starter to step up and provide consistent effectiveness behind Johan Santana in their rotation. Pelfrey’s poor showing in April is slowly being forgotten, as he has quietly been rounding back into the form he showed after June 1 last season.
The question is, how in the world has he managed to do it?
Pelfrey has struck out only 11 batters in his first seven starts, spanning a total of 41 innings. There are 93 starters with at least 40 innings pitched this season. Pelfrey is dead last among them in strikeouts. There are an additional 30 pitchers that have made five or more starts in 2009. Only Carlos Silva has fewer strikeouts than Pelfrey – and Silva is sporting an 8.48 ERA while allowing more than two baserunners per inning.
Simply put, Mike Pelfrey is doing something that very few pitchers in baseball history have ever been able to sustain – he is pitching reasonably well without striking any batters out.
Conventional wisdom says that a starting pitcher needs to strike out at least six batters per nine innings to be effective. Pelfrey is striking out just 2.4 batters per nine innings. The major league average of plate appearances ending in a strikeout is approximately 17.5 percent. Pelfrey has struck the opposing batter out in only 6.2 percent of plate appearances in 2009.
All of this begs the question: how can a starting pitcher continue to find success with such freakishly low strikeout totals?
For Pelfrey, the key so far has been to keep the ball on the ground. He is sixth among starters in ground ball percentage, so he has been heavily dependent on the Mets’ infield defense in 2009. Jose Reyes and David Wright cover a lot of ground, but Pelfrey will be holding his breath every time the ball is hit to Luis Castillo or Carlos Delgado’s menagerie of replacements at first base.
The optimist would say that Pelfrey is merely pitching to his strength this season: specifically a heavy fastball and a hard sinker that, when he is doing well, will be pounded into the ground by opposing batters. It doesn’t matter if opponents aren’t striking out, they will argue, as long as they aren’t getting on base.
There is some merit to this way of thinking. There are scores of pitchers throughout baseball history who, for various reasons, have been successful major league pitchers without piling up strikeouts. Perhaps Pelfrey, who has never really developed an effective third out pitch at the major league level, is simply coming to the realization that he needs to adopt a unique game plan to survive in the big leagues.
Besides, in an era where managers are obviously conscious of pitch counts, an argument can be made that the more economical outcome that comes from a groundout is actually better than a strikeout. Strikeouts require no less than three pitches to achieve and routinely require five or six pitches to complete the at-bat. A well-placed fastball or sinker can achieve the same result in just one pitch. Fewer pitches equal longer outings – and what team doesn’t want more innings out of their starting pitchers?
The pessimist, however, will point out an irrefutable fact – no major league pitcher has ever had sustained success with a strikeout rate this low. Strikeouts are a measure of dominance and an indication that the pitcher requires nothing more than his own talents to succeed.
In contrast, every ball put in play is subject to a variety of factors – team defense, weather patterns, park dimensions and even simple luck. The strikeout is almost always the most desirable outcome of any at-bat for a pitcher, for the simple fact that it will virtually always result in an out. Put the ball in play, and the odds of a successful outcome for the pitcher decrease dramatically.
The Mets’ infield defense is also going to be compromised for the foreseeable future, which is particularly bad news for Pelfrey. Carlos Delgado is no Gold Glove fielder, but he has been adept at scooping wild throws from Reyes and Wright – a skill his replacement is unlikely to match. Now with Reyes possibly on the shelf because of ongoing leg problems, Pelfrey might be putting his team at risk by giving up too many ground balls.
Some final thoughts: if Pelfrey pitches 201 innings again this season, he is on pace for only 54 strikeouts. Just 17 pitchers since 1941 have ever pitched over 200 innings with so few Ks – and no one has done so since Paul Splittorff in 1980. Pelfrey is truly in uncharted waters right now.
For Pelfrey to build on the success of his last three starts, it seems clear that he’s going to have to strike more batters out. If he cannot do it, then there’s no reason to believe he can be a successful #2 starter for the Mets.