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Tigers' Mike Pelfrey was an average 5th starter in 2016

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While his numbers weren't great, Pelfrey compares favorably with other No. 5 starters in the AL.

Of all the roster moves that Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila made during the 2015-16 offseason, none has been more controversial than signing free agent starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey to a two year, $16 million contract. Pelfrey made 22 starts for Detroit in 2016, posting a record of 4-10 with a 5.19 ERA. His peripheral numbers were not any better, and included a 5.24 FIP, 1.73 WHIP, and 0.4 WAR.

Pelfrey is exactly the kind of pitcher that fans love to hate. He walks plenty of hitters and strikes out relatively few. He gives up a lot of hard contact, resulting in a lot of base runners. Yet, when you stack up all the starting pitchers in the league, Pelfrey ranks as an average No. 5 starter.

Looking at all starting pitchers in the American League, only 68 threw at least 100 innings. Setting the innings limit at 80 IP gives us 73 pitchers, or almost five starters per AL team.

Near the bottom of the list in most categories, you will find Mike Pelfrey. Here is how he ranked among all starting pitchers in the American League with at least 80 innings pitched.

Pelfrey IP ERA FIP WHIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 GB/FB
2016 112.2 5.19 5.24 1.78 4.07 3.63 1.12 2.07
Rank 62 66 67 73 73 63 32 5

These rankings certify Pelfrey as one of the least effective starting pitchers in the American League during the 2016 season, and dead-last in several categories. The range for fifth starters would be 61-75, assuming five starters per team. Pelfrey ranked in that range for starting pitchers in this group. Anibal Sanchez also falls into this range as a starter. Unfortunately, the Tigers deployed both pitchers in the starting rotation much of the season.

Other teams also struggled to find five effective starting pitchers. The Cleveland Indians had Josh Tomlin as their fifth best starting pitcher with a 4.42 ERA, 4.90 FIP and 1.0 WAR. The Chicago White Sox traded for James Shields, who posted -1.4 WAR and disastrous numbers across the board.

Here is a look at the number five starting pitchers on each team in the league for the 2016 season.

Player Team IP ERA FIP fWAR
Matt Andriese Tampa Bay 105 4.80 3.95 1.6
Doug Fister Houston 180 4.64 4.75 1.1
Josh Tomlin Cleveland 173 4.42 4.90 1.0
R.A. Dickey Toronto 169 4.46 5.03 1.0
Colby Lewis Texas 116 3.71 4.81 0.8
Anibal Sanchez Detroit 138 6.04 5.19 0.7
Daniel Mengeden Oakland 72 6.50 4.34 0.7
Wade Miley Seattle 112 4.98 4.76 0.6
Mike Pelfrey Detroit 112 5.19 5.24 0.4
Dylan Bundy Baltimore 72 4.52 5.24 0.4
Ivan Nova New York 83 4.86 5.33 0.3
Clay Buchholz Boston 116 5.01 5.32 0.3
Dillon Gee Kansas City 73 5.55 5.45 0.0
Hector Santiago Minnesota 61 5.58 5.82 -0.1
Jered Weaver Los Angeles 178 5.06 5.62 -0.2
James Shields Chicago 114 6.77 6.93 -1.4

These are the starting pitchers with the fifth-best fWAR on their respective teams that have enough innings to qualify. Some teams did not have five starters with even 80 innings, so I've listed their next starter with the most innings. Others had a couple that meet the criteria here as fifth starters, such as Detroit. In those cases, we take the best of the two. Pelfrey performed similar to most fifth starters.

Avila came under fire for signing Pelfrey as a free agent. Could he have done better? Not for the same amount of money in November. Looking at all the free agent starting pitchers who were signed last off season, Pelfrey ranks 21st of 29 pitchers in fWAR and ERA, and 23rd in FIP. Ten pitchers posted a lower WAR while working fewer than 100 innings. All but three of those who ranked better either received a higher salary, for more years. Rich Hill, Bartolo Colon, and Doug Fister signed one-year contracts. Fister was not available in November for the terms that he eventually signed with Houston, presumably.

Pelfrey allowed three runs or fewer in 14 of his 22 starts, but wasn’t credited with his first win until June. He was shelled often enough to keep a restless fan base calling for his removal from the rotation. He went on the disabled list in July with a back strain and never regained his starting job. The injury allowed Sanchez, who had been banished to the bullpen, a second chance at the rotation.

Avila stated early during the offseason that he would acquire two starting pitchers, and he did that with Zimmermann and Pelfrey. One could argue that the Tigers would have been better off putting Matt Boyd in the rotation from the start of the season. Boyd was called up at the end of May, and made 18 starts with a 4.53 ERA and 4.75 FIP, before running out of gas toward the end of the season. He was the Tigers' fourth starter by this method.

Realistically, a team can not rely on pitchers who have never worked a full season in the major leagues to hold a full time spot in the starting rotation. No AL pitcher has qualified for the ERA title (162 innings) in either of the past two seasons.

Pelfrey can not count on a starting job for the 2017 season. While $ 8million may be the going rate for a fifth starter on the free agent market, it’s a lot for a sixth starter who can not be optioned to the minors. The free agent market for starting pitchers is even more desperate this offseason. Every team needs starting pitching, and prices haven’t gone down. Pelfrey has just one year left on his contract, although he would have more value — and a higher WAR — if he had pitched in the rotation toward the end of the season.