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It's OK to start getting excited about Mike Pelfrey

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The only time spring training makes any real sense is when a player does what you expect him to do. Which is exactly why it's time to start getting excited about Mike Pelfrey.

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I'm high on Mike Pelfrey. Totally high. I could not be higher on Pelfrey if I actually rolled up bits of his facial hair in a Zig-Zag and smoked the whole thing while staring at a lava lamp and listening to Jimi Hendrix on vinyl. Maybe I just like a solid underdog to root for once in a while. In fact, I know I do. But in Pelfrey's case, there's more to it than that -- I like hidden Easter eggs.

The formula is quite simple, really. Pelfrey + good infield defense = solid back-of-the-rotation pitcher. Pelfrey + bad infield defense = guy you complain about incessantly when your team signs him in the offseason. Pelfrey has good defense behind him this year, which makes his 2016 stats a hidden Easter egg.

Spring training may not give us a ton of things to latch onto, but I do have a general rule of thumb that I try to follow. If a player is doing more-or-less what you expected him to do based on his career history, that's good. If he's doing those things a little better than expected, that's really good, and I get a little excited. If he's doing things he's never done before in his career -- Bryan Holaday, call your office -- I'll ignore it, because no, he's not going to suddenly start doing those things now. J.D. Martinez is the exception, not the rule.

What Mike Pelfrey has demonstrated so far in spring training has been pretty much exactly what you'd expect out of a ground ball pitcher who doesn't strike out a lot of batters. In his very first outing, he tossed three perfect innings with a 56 percent ground-out rate and a 22 percent strikeout rate. In his most recent outing, he threw five scoreless innings with a 53 percent ground-out rate and a 20 percent strikeout rate.

In the game that fell between those two stellar performances, Pelfrey struggled a bit more with command and gave up two walks and a hit in just 2 1/3 innings pitched. Not surprisingly, however, he also induced a critical ground ball that Nick Castellanos butchered on the throw to first base (and Casey McGehee equally butchered on the hop). What should have been a one-on, two-out situation became a two-on, one-out situation, and when Pelfrey walked the next batter to load the bases, he was done for the day (It's only spring training, you don't really want your pitchers going over 50 pitches in three innings in only their second start).

This will be the mantra for Pelfrey in 2016: if his defense is supporting him, he'll be wonderful. If not? Shut off the TV and go find something else to do for the day.

Mike Pelfrey is totally hashtag-MyTiger, and I'm prepared to stick with that even when he's in the middle of a blowout game, which -- spoiler alert -- he's absolutely going to do that a few times. But I'm also realistic in my expectations. Here are five things I am quite confident he will not do in 2016.

  1. Win the Cy Young Award
  2. Throw a no-hitter
  3. Become the ace of the staff
  4. Win 20 games
  5. Strike out 300 batters

That's just not who Mike Pelfrey is as a pitcher. He doesn't strike out a lot of guys, and  he doesn't have a super-unhittable "out pitch" that he can turn to at will. He relies on balls in play being converted into outs, and as everyone ought to know by now, balls in play can sometimes be the minor fender-bender at the stop light after you just found out you owe the IRS thousands in taxes. You just have to shake your head and mumble, "Of course, that would go for a hit, it would bounce in all the right places, because the baseball gods are butt-heads."

I'm excited about Mike Pelfrey because his defense behind him is going to reveal his true qualities. Those talents were always there, of course. It's not like he's going to suddenly have a rookie-style "breakout season" or something, but those talents are very easily masked when hundreds of ground balls can't be converted into outs.

So, here are five things I believe Pelfrey will do this season.

  1. Pitch 200 innings
  2. Post an ERA under 4.00
  3. Get lots of ground ball outs
  4. Toss at least one complete game
  5. Get totally shelled once or twice

Someone on Twitter told me "He needs to work on that strikeout rate." No, you see, he doesn't. He's not a strikeout pitcher and he's never going to be. If he was better at getting whiffs to along with that ridiculously high ground ball rate, he'd be a legitimate ace who would have never settled for a two-year, $16 million dollar contract. Mike Pelfrey: strikeout artist is a thought you should never, ever have. Mike Pelfrey: ground-ball king, however, is a legitimate hope that you can marry to Jose Iglesias and Ian Kinsler: ground-ball vacuums, and wind up with a nice expectation for 2016.

One final tidbit that I'll leave you with: last year, Pelfrey threw his heavy-sink fastball 73 percent of the time, and it induced a 52.7 percent ground ball rate. Only his curveball generated a higher ground ball rate. The BABIP (batting average on balls in play, a great indicator of how much randomness and luck are getting involved) against his sinking fastball last year was .359, at least a solid 50 points higher than it should have been. There's an easy fix for that; it's called "better defense." This year, he has it.

So far, spring training is showing us pretty much exactly the Mike Pelfrey we should expect to see in 2016. You have to admit: it looks pretty damned good.

[Ed.: We're blaming HookSlide if Pelfrey gives up eight runs in his first start.]