Parsing words is the favorite pastime of die hard baseball fans during the offseason. When the general manager speaks, fans listen. When the owner speaks, fans really listen! An owner saying things like "I just want the best players," and "I don’t care about spending" might tend to stir up delusions of grandeur, even if the general manager is saying something completely different.
We have known since the 2015 season ended that the Detroit Tigers were probably going to acquire two starting pitchers. General manager Al Avila was very straightforward about that. If we were paying attention at all, we knew that those starters probably wouldn’t be David Price or Zack Greinke. So, when the Tigers signed Jordan Zimmermann to a five-year, $110 million contract, most of us were pleasantly surprised. He is as good as it gets among the other free agent starting pitchers on the market.
Then came the press conference. We were treated to Mr. Ilitch's first comments since Max Scherzer left for Washington. We are happy to see Ilitch, since he is the golden goose who funds our team's rather hefty payroll. But we also know that generosity has it’s limits. It seems that some were expecting the Tigers to sign another top tier starting pitcher, even after signing Zimmermann.
Mike Pelfrey is not a top tier starting pitcher. But, Avila was up front with everyone when he said the next pitcher "would not be in the same aisle" as Zimmermann. That is exactly what he got. Pelfrey's aisle contains the likes of Doug Fister, J.A. Happ, Mat Latos, Bartolo Colon, and Marco Estrada. Fister and Latos are coming off poor seasons, and may opt for one-year contracts so they can rebuild their value. Happ signed a three year, $36 million contract with the Toronto Blue Jays, while Estrada signed for two years and $26 million.
Meanwhile, the Tigers signed Pelfrey for two years at $8 million per season. Other than the rehab projects, a two-year contract for a free agent is the minimum commitment you’re going to find for a pitcher that’s not pushing 40 years of age.
Statistically, Pelfrey is in the middle of the pack of free agents in a number of categories. Among the 26 free agent starting pitchers who threw at least 100 innings in 2015, he ranks 13th with 2.0 fWAR. He has a respectable walk rate of 2.46 per nine innings, and only Greinke sported a lower home run rate among free agent starters.
Pelfrey also has the second highest BABIP on the list at .334, so he was either unlucky or gave up a lot of hard contact. Fangraphs shows that he ranked 22nd of the 26 free agent starters on this list in percentage of hard hit balls, and his .282 BABIP on ground balls was well above average, so there is some misfortune -- or shoddy defense -- in those numbers. His fielding independent pitching (FIP) ranks 12th of 26, and is better than that of Wei-Yin Chen, Mike Leake, and Jeff Samardzija. If he matched their innings totals, his WAR total would be in line with those pitchers as well.
Perhaps the best comparison for what Pelfrey may bring to the Tigers comes internally. The Tigers lost David Price and Alfredo Simon to free agency this season, both of whom had replaced Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello the previous year. Pelfrey’s 2015 numbers compare favorably with both Simon and Porcello.
Al Avila told us that he was going to be using advanced metrics more than his predecessor, and we have no reason to believe that this isn’t the case here. Pelfrey's ground ball rate should play well in front of the Tigers' stellar middle infield defense, and there weren't many capable starters (if any) the Tigers could sign for less than $8 million per year.
We Tigers fans have been somewhat spoiled in the past with flashy spending and dominant rotations, but this signing shouldn't be viewed as a disappointment. It's what we've been told to expect all offseason.