Getting To Know Mike Pelfrey, New Back End Starter

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

The Tigers are essentially done with the offseason revamp. Maybe we’ll be lucky and they’ll sign a talented left-fielder, but most of the boxes on the club’s offseason wish list have been checked. They added two starting pitchers, three relievers, a depth outfielder, a backup catcher, and a versatile bench player. We’ve covered each acquisition from a value standpoint, but now we can continue our look at the players themselves. We started with Jordan Zimmermann. Today, we’re moving on to Mike Pelfrey. What do the Tigers have in their new back end starter?

The particulars first. Pelfrey is about to turn 32 years old and will be a Tiger for the next two seasons at $8 million a piece. As discussed when they signed him, 2/$16M is the market price for a player of his caliber. It wasn’t a sexy signing, but pitching is expensive and the Tigers needed some pitching. Pelfrey was the 9th overall pick in 2005, was with the Mets until 2012, and spent the last three seasons with the Twins. He pitched full seasons in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, and 2015. Pelfrey missed most of 2012 and 2014 with Tommy John Surgery and a separate elbow surgery. So how did he pitch in those six seasons?

Let’s use fWAR as a basic guide. Rattling off his full seasons gets you 3.2, 1.7, 2.6, 0.9, 2.0, and 2.0. If you flip over to RA9-WAR which uses runs allowed instead of FIP as its base you wind up with 3.8, -0.1, 3.3, -0.3, 0.1, and 1.5. In other words, Pelfrey is a guy whose fielding independent numbers look better than his runs allowed numbers. That stands to reason, as his career ERA- is 114 and his career FIP- is 104.

He’s either an average-ish starter with an injury history or a below average starter with an injury history. In recent years he hasn’t pitched deep into games, going just 152.2 and 164.2 innings in 2013 and 2015. He fills up the zone, pitches to contact, and doesn’t get hitters to swing much outside the zone. He’s a classic Twins pitcher. I’m surprised they didn’t sign him to a lifetime contract!

You can expect a strikeout in about 13% of his plate appearances, which is very low. He allows a lot of balls to be put in play and has allowed a BABIP higher than average in recent seasons. He doesn’t walk a ton of guys but he also isn’t a low-walk guy. His real skill seems to be his ability to prevent home runs. He’s allowed 0.72 HR/9 in his career and only has one full season in which that number was above 0.88 HR/9. And that’s not because of a consistently elite ground ball or strikeout rate or anything. When Pelfrey gives up a fly ball, it doesn’t leave the yard as often as you might expect for a normal pitcher. Pitching in New York and Minnesota helps prevent those dingers, but over an entire career, there does seem to be some signal. He has a platoon split, but it’s not an unusual one.

It’s hard to judge his velocity changes precisely given some difficulty distinguishing his four-seam and sinker in previous years, but we can say that he still throws with good velocity, averaging 94 mph with his sinker in 2015. He’s mostly sinker/splitter with a touch of slider/curve when he needs to these days. Obviously righties see more of his slider and lefties see more of his splitter, but the latter is getting more screen time against righties lately. All in all, though, you’re going to see a sinker in most situations.

pelf both

He throws his sinker and typically works away. He’s a man of simple tastes. Sinkers away with the occasional splitter or slider depending on handedness. He’s probably going to keep the ball in the yard but the ball will be in play and the hits will fall.

There’s plenty of risk when it comes to his right elbow and there’s virtually no upside. If things go well Pelfrey will be an average starter over 160 innings per year. He’s not an exciting player but there’s a decent probability that he’s a useful starter. Having a good defense on the field behind him matters, so the Tigers should be sure to play there best fielders during most of his starts, but if his arm stays in tact there’s a good shot that he’ll be a solid arm at the back end of the rotation.

If the Tigers find a better option, he should be able to float into the bullpen just fine and if he blows out, $8 million doesn’t kill them. He probably won’t be the most exciting guy to watch, but Pelfrey is a nice insurance policy to give the kids more time to develop.


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