Cutting the CheeseBy: kconlin
Much has been made about the underwhelming quartet of pitchers slotted behind Johan Santana to start the season in the Mets’ rotation. Given the choices of Mike Pelfrey, John Maine, Oliver Perez, and Jon Niese, it’s easy to see why the majority of Met fans are pinning their hopes of finding a reliable number two starter on the power sinker of Pelfrey. The tall right-hander has the combination of pedigree, stuff, and age that can’t quite be claimed by the other three. Pelfrey has even flashed enough Major League success (3.72 ERA in 2008) to reinforce such high expectations.
But even so, Pelfrey’s stats have yet to jive with his potential, and pundits have questioned his ability to succeed with his current repertoire. However, this spring we’ve been hearing stories about Pelfrey’s efforts to bolster that arsenal by adding a split-fingered fastball. First, let’s take a look break down the 2009 version of Big Pelf:
- 78.3% Fastballs
- 13.6% Sliders
- 3.9% Curveballs
- 4.2% Change-ups
- 1.1% Unidentified
Let’s start the analysis with something of a generalization. Pelfrey threw either a fastball or a slider 91.9% of the time in 2009, placing him squarely in the sinker/slider class of pitchers. Typically, these types have more success against like-handed batters and tend to struggle a bit against opposite-handed ones. For Pelfrey, this would mean lesser numbers against left-handed batters. Let’s see if this is the case:
2007 – 2008
- Vs. RHB .269/.330/.378
- vs. LHB .299/368/.445
- Vs. RHB .294/.351/.415
- Vs. LHB .284/.344/.438
As you can see, Pelfrey has in fact had an easier time with righties during his career. His splits did even out some in 2009, but there are other numbers to consider. As a pitcher who throws a sinking fastball an overwhelming majority of the time, Pelfrey is out there to induce groundballs. And even though right-handed batters fared better overall last season than in the years prior, Pelfrey was still able to post a 2.42 FB/GB ratio against them, compared to a 1.34 GB/FB ratio against lefties. This disparity makes sense if you visualize the slight uppercut utilized by most major league players. A hard sinker from a right-hander will veer down and in toward the handle of a right-hander’s bat. To a left-handed batter, the same pitch stays right along the bat plane, moving diagonally down the barrel rather than avoiding it.
For Pelfrey, the splitter would essentially replace his change-up as a second off-speed pitch. However, it wouldn’t really give batters a look that is all that different from his two-seam fastball. And as Pelfrey would most likely continue to pound right-handers with the sinker-slider combo, the splitter would really be an effort at conquering lefties. Perhaps there’s an option being overlooked…
Disclaimer: The following is mostly conjecture and me trying to play Dan Warthen from my couch.
If there is one pitch that could really enhance Pelfrey’s repertoire from top to bottom, it’s the cut fastball. Depending on how it is gripped and released, the cutter will either break horizontally into a lefty when thrown by a right-handed pitcher or down and in (like a quicker slider). And because the cut fastball is still thrown very hard (Roy Halladay averaged 92.6 MPH on his fastball, 91.2 MPH on his cutter in 2009), the hitter has less time to recognize the spin and make a determination of where the ball will wind up. While that is also the case with a well-thrown splitter, the cutter would give Pelfrey a pitch that stays off of that left handed bat plane. Perhaps just as important, it would open up another pitch that Pelfrey has tried to hone in the past—the front-door two-seam fastball that is thrown at the left-handed batter’s front elbow and breaks back over the inside edge of the plate.
I mentioned Roy Halladay before—obviously not a perfect comparison for Pelfrey, but definitely some similarities. Halladay isn’t generally thought of as a sinkerballer, (but then again, maybe Pelfrey isn’t as much of one as we think either) but both are big right-handed pitchers with groundball tendencies. Halladay has increasingly utilized the cutter over the last few seasons, from 7.5% in 2005 all the way up to 41.5% of his total pitches last season. Obviously, Halladay has been an elite pitcher for quite some time, but even he had some problems containing left-handed batters before he started throwing the cut fastball. Lefties batted for a higher average against Halladay each season from 2002-2004. Beginning in 2005, (the first season he started throwing cutter with some regularity) Halladay has held lefties to a lower average every season.
Another interesting comparison is the Rangers’ Scott Feldman, another tall right-hander in the sinker/slider mold. Feldman, unlike Pelfrey, was never a blue-chip prospect (drafted in the 30th round), but put up decent numbers against righties in the early part of his career. He struggled mightily against lefties however, and continued to put up ugly splits until his breakout 2009, where he threw his cutter a whopping 52.6% of the time. He held lefties to an ugly .226/.303/.356 line, while maintaining decent numbers against right-handed batters (.277/.337/.396) somewhat consistent with his career line.
Mike Pelfrey may trot out to the mound today and start unleashing splitters from hell, making my article a moot point. But my guess is, we don’t see a ton of splitters (probably something in line with the 4.2% of pitches that he threw change-ups last season), and that Pelfrey looks more or less like the same pitcher we’ve seen over the last few seasons. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, Pelfrey would still need to make some enormous strides with his secondary pitches and his control in order to make the leap to quality number two starter this season. All I’m suggesting is a more proactive approach—adding another power pitch that can be effective in itself, but also change the way batters must approach every at-bat against Pelfrey.