Sunday, July 09, 2006

Valentine’s View: Mike Pelfrey
By Ben Valentine

Sometimes it’s fun to listen to organizational double speak. That “double speak” refers to things said by a sports franchise that you know are just a load of bull. They’re only saying it because they have to but everyone knows they don’t buy one ounce of their own words. Like the Cubs saying anything which implies Dusty Baker has job security. Or the Giants whenever they have to defend Bonds. Or finally, the Mets saying they’re not putting any pressure on 2005 first round pick Mike Pelfrey to perform now.

No matter what they may say, Pelfrey’s here because the Mets are hoping he’s a quick learner. He’s got ace potential, and was considered one of the top, if not the top pitching prospect in the 2005 draft. If the Mets wanted a roster filler, they’d have called up someone from AAA to make the start. But the Mets are praying Pelfrey comes up here and pitches to the caliber he’s shown in college and his brief minor league career. And so, in this Saturday doubleheader, the Mets handed the ball to their top pitching prospect hoping for the best.

And I was there to watch. Here’s my thoughts from Shea Stadium.

First the line: 5 IP, 5 H, 4 BB, 3 Ks, 2 ER, 3.60 ERA, 5 GB outs, 6 FB outs

What you can tell from that? Control was a problem today. What you might not tell from that; heading into his last inning the GB/FB was 5/3. But after wearing down, he gave up three hard it line outs to the outfield. More on all of that within. On to the observations.

Pelfrey’s fast ball is electric. He was up in the mid 90’s consistently and touched 97 MPH at least once. And it clearly is a pitch that moves as he was having trouble locating it. That heavy fastball alone will make him a major league pitcher; he didn’t allow a fly ball until the third inning.

The question about Pelfrey has been the breaking stuff; does he have another plus pitch or two which will keep hitters honest? He displayed a changeup, curve and slider today, but did not throw any of them frequently. He essentially threw nothing but fastballs throughout his entire five innings.

The lone exception came in the fourth inning against Marlins’ second baseman Dan Uggla, when Pelfrey struck him out on four pitches, not one touching 90 MPH on the gun. Uggla was clearly off balance the entire at bat, checking his swing and chasing pitches. That shows Pelfrey has the stuff, but he perhaps lacks the confidence to throw it. If nothing else, he needs to mix it in just to keep hitters from sitting on his fastball.

On the other hand, one had to be impressed that despite throwing one pitch at essentially one speed, the Marlins could only muster three runs off him, only two being earned. Pelfrey surrendered five hits, but only one was hit out of the infield in the air. Of the other four, three were ground singles and the other was a chopper that got between David Wright and the third base bag for a double. Ironically, the four hardest hit pitches, a Jason Vargas line drive in the fourth and Pelfrey’s last three outs of the game in the fifth, were all outs. So in a sense, the rookie was unlucky that he gave up three runs without a real hard hit against him. However, he was also fortunate those liners found his fielders’ gloves.

Control was the biggest problem I saw from Pelfrey. Part of it was nerves no doubt; but the other part of it is just that he walks people. He was striking out 10.45 at AA but had a K/BB of 2.96. That means he’s walking over 3.00 batters per nine, so he will rack up the walks in the bigs. The key will be how well he can keep his K rate up along with generating the ground ball out. He was successful at the latter today, at least until he wore down, which was his saving grace. But in the process threw too many pitches, and was running on fumes by the fifth. In an 11-3 game, he could afford to get his ball up. But in the future, against tougher opponents, he won’t have the same leeway.

Overall, this is a positive first effort from the kid. While the Florida Marlins are not world beaters, they shelled Jose Lima just one night before. So it isn’t as if anyone can get them out. The Fish are a decent major league team with some good players in their lineup and Pelfrey managed to do enough to get the win. That’s a plus.

I heard many Mets fans on WFAN after the game who were talking as if Pelfrey had just set the world on fire. He didn’t; he did some good things, some bad. One has to hate the fact he fell behind Miguel Cabrera 3-0 with two men on in the first, but has to love that his fastball had so much movement, Cabrera could just chop it to short for an inning ending double play. One hates his control issues, but loves the fact he still was able to get by and generate the necessary ground balls. You hate the fact that he put himself in a position to be hurt by a David Wright error, yet love that he found the moxy to hold the overcome that.

Will this earn Pelfrey another start? Yes, but whether or not it is immediately following the All- Star Break will be determined by the health of Pedro Martinez. If Pedro is healthy enough to pitch soon after the break, then Pelfrey should find himself back at AAA. The rookie showed promise today, but did not do enough to deserve another start over John Maine. Steve Trachsel is debatable, but he will not be pulled from the rotation. But even if it is “one and done” for Pelfrey, he has made himself the first guy in line to be called up if something happens to a Mets starter down the road. It should be clear Lima time is over and Alay Soler didn’t do enough in his time to warrant preference.

When Pelfrey does make his next start for the Mets, he will need to mix in more breaking balls to be successful. You can get by with one plus pitch if you’re a reliever, but a starter needs at least two, preferably three good pitches. If he’s a quick learner and institutes his breaking pitches in well, then I don’t hesitate to say he’ll be a star quickly. If not, then he’ll be a fifth starter type, which for a rookie wouldn’t be so bad.

But of course if the Mets just needed that, then Mike Pelfrey wouldn’t be here, would he?

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