clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

One thing that will make Mike Pelfrey better in Detroit? Good defense.

Mike Pelfrey may not have super-sexy numbers, and he'll never be an ace of the rotation, but he's got more value than you probably realize.

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

And so, in conclusion, when we look at Mike Pelfrey's 6-11 win/loss record last year, along with his 4.26 ERA, we can easily see that he sucks. Really, really, really sucks. The Tigers have made a massive mistake, and Al Avila is a chucklehead. Thank you for coming to my TED Talk, please be sure to grab a free pack of Topps cards on the way out, and enjoy the gum.

/waits until the crowd files out

Alright, now let's really talk about this Mike Pelfrey situation. These numbers don't look good, but there's probably a good reason for that. Mike Pelfrey is basically the "Chocolate Spheres" bowl of generic cereal to Jordan Zimmermann's "Cocoa Puffs" brand name. It's not top-shelf stuff, but mehhhh, I'm late for work and I don't feel like eating cold tuna out of a can for breakfast, so this generic stuff will work -- but I really need to get to the store soon.

Zimmermann pounds the strike zone and gets ground balls without giving up a lot of walks. He also doesn't rack up a ton of strikeouts, which is probably why he only cost $22 million and not $31 million. Similarly, but in that generic-brand-cereal way, Pelfrey throws strikes, has a respectable walk rate, gets a lot of ground balls, and is allergic to strikeouts.

Here's the career data on both:

Player Strike % GB % BB/9 K/9
Zimmermann 68 43 1.8 7.4
Pelfrey 62 48 3.2 5.1

Like I said: "Chocolate Spheres" versus "Cocoa Puffs."

The problem with Pelfrey's stats is that there's no giant warning label that says "CAUTION: NUMBERS DO NOT REFLECT HORRIBLE SUPPORTING DEFENSE." Why does that matter? Because bad defense lets balls in play turn into hits, hits turn into runs, and runs turn into losses.

"Yikes, look at that awful 1.552 WHIP in 2013!"

The "H" in "WHIP" stands for hits, and the 2013 Twins had a team worth -10 defensive runs saved. Not surprisingly, opponents had a BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) of .338 against Pelfrey that year. For the uninitiated, that means a higher number of balls were falling for hits than is typical. That's what happens when you rely on ground balls to get outs and your defense can't convert those balls in play into outs.

Pelfrey's WHIP in 2015 (his 2014 season is over there, in the trash, because he only pitched 23 innings) was 1.476, the Twins's defense posted a -9 defensive runs saved, and the BABIP against Pelfrey was .336, or, as Stephen King might write it, "SSDD."

The point? Pelfrey doesn't give up a lot of walks, so you're looking at WHIP numbers that are inflated by bad defense.

"Yeah, but that FIP isn't super-impressive either, and that stat doesn't even take hits into consideration!"

Mike Pelfrey's FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) isn't super-sleek and sexy compared to guys like Chris Sale (2.73), David Price (2.78), or Dallas Keuchel (2.91), but -- and this is important -- that's why he's not an ace pitcher getting paid in units of private islands. His 4.00 FIP in 2015 was tied for 20th among qualified starting pitchers in the American League (Yovani Gallardo was his rank-mate).

The only reason why his FIP isn't a little more sparkly and exciting is because, as stated earlier, Pelfrey is not a strikeout pitcher. The FIP stat is calculated using walks, home runs, and strikeouts, and since strikeouts are the only "positive" outcome in that formula (walks and home runs are bad, folks) it stands to reason that a low-strikeout pitcher won't be able to trim that number back like a Chris Sale (11.8 strikeouts per nine) or a David Price (9.2 strikeouts per nine).

So just how much will it help Pelfrey to be pitching in Detroit with an improved defense behind him? That can be tough to quantify, but let's take a clunky shot at it. Let me just grab the crayons and paste ...

The Tigers posted a +17 defensive runs saved in 2015, and Pelfrey's Twins posted a -9 DRS. The net effect would be a gain of +26 defensive runs saved on the season. The American League average hits-to-runs ratio in 2015 was 2-to-1, so applying this ratio to 26 defensive runs saved yields an estimated 52 hits saved for the season. Pelfrey would only be one of five starting pitchers drawing from this total, which means his 20 percent share comes out to about 10.5 hits saved.

That's a shaky formula and I certainly wouldn't set it out on the dining room table when guests come over for dinner, but it's there mostly to give us a rough shape of what's possible, not to predict the future. The unavoidable result, though, is that Pelfrey will clearly reap some benefits from better defense in 2016.

What benefits? His WHIP should go down, for starters. Fewer baserunners translates into fewer runs scored against him, which means a lower ERA. More ground balls converted to outs means fewer pitches per inning, too, which means longer outings. Remember 2014, when Rick Porcello threw three shutouts, two of them in back-to-back outings, one of them qualifying as a "Maddux?"

And speaking of Rick Porcello, let's do a quick career comparison:

Player Strike % GB % BB/9 K/9
Porcello 64 51 2.2 5.8
Pelfrey 62 48 3.2 5.1

Porcello's getting paid $20 million a year now.

Good defense is worth more than we might be able to project or imagine. The story of Rick Porcello, though, should give us a nice outline of what is possible. The Tigers had bad defense in 2013, and improved it greatly in 2014. In the transition, Porcello's ERA dropped nearly a full run (from 4.32 to 3.42), his innings total shot up to 204 ⅔ from 177, and his WHIP went down from 1.282 to 1.231. That's the value of decent leather.

Pelfrey has real value, even if that value is somewhat under the radar and needs a different backdrop to bring it into starker relief, but finding this kind of value is precisely what Al Avila has been tasked with doing in the 2015 offseason.