Tigers starter Mike Pelfrey is the typical sinker ball, ground ball pitcher. He has thrown his sinker about 73 percent of the time between 2015 and his first two starts of 2016. The results haven’t been great -- he posted a 4.26 ERA in 30 starts in 2015 -- but the improved infield defense of the Detroit Tigers was supposed to help.
Pelfrey only gave up one earned run against the Houston Astros in six innings of work in his last start, but he looked shaky throughout the game. He surrendered 11 baserunners, including six walks, but the defense bailed him out by turning three double plays. Though the walks will inevitably come down, Pelfrey can’t keep living on the edge like that and continue to get lucky. Maybe if Pelfrey threw his secondary pitches more often, he would have better results.
Here’s the breakdown of pitches so far this year.
Thirty-one of the 37 at-bats have resulted in the sinker being the last pitch of the at-bat. That’s way too many and way too predictable. Opposing batters haven’t gotten a hit on any of his other pitches, which means they are sitting on his sinker and hammering it. His command has not been great on this pitch, and 44.3 percent of his sinkers have been balls so far this year.
Let’s take a deeper look at the other pitches.
Last season, Mike Pelfrey reworked the grip on his splitter and started to throw it more often in game situations (14.4 percent of the time, according to Brooks Baseball). The result: the splitter became his best pitch in 2015, with opposing hitters only having a .210 batting average against it. When Pelfrey needed a strikeout, he went to the splitter, generating a 24 percent strikeout rate when the splitter was the last pitch of the at-bat.
While it’s only been two starts this year, he is showing the same great splitter. Five at-bats have ended with his splitter, and four of them have been for strikeouts with no hits allowed. This pitch is already his second-most used pitch, but he can stand to throw it even more.
Mike Pelfrey threw 88 curveballs in 2015 -- all to left-handed hitters. It’s clearly a get me over pitch to left-handers as he threw none of them in two-strike counts. In fact, hitters ended the at-bat on the curveball only nine times last year and resulted in three hits, all singles. He has shown similar restraints to the pitch in 2016, throwing it only six times, again all to left-handed batters. Command has been an issue as five of the six curveballs have been balls. He throws this pitch so little that it might be best to eliminate it all together if he can’t get it over for strikes.
Once again with the command issues. In 2015, Pelfrey threw his slider 241 times and just over half (51 percent) of them were balls. He’s only thrown 11 of them in 2016 and seven of them have been balls. Altogether, Pelfrey has thrown 17 breaking pitches and 12 of them have been balls. There is a possibility that he is intentionally throwing these pitches for balls to set up his sinker, but given the over .400 opposing batting average on the sinker, it doesn’t appear to be working.
Like with the splitter last year, Pelfrey needs a better breaking pitch. A common belief is that a starting pitcher needs three pitches in order to be an effective pitcher. Right now, Pelfrey essentially only has two pitches: a sinker and a splitter, and only one of them is effective, the splitter. This screams of a pitcher that should be in the bullpen.
The good news for the Tigers is that they do have depth in starting pitching. Daniel Norris looks like he’s on his way to being healthy soon, Shane Greene has been doing alright in the rotation so far, and top prospect Michael Fulmer could be ready by midseason. If Pelfrey can’t get a breaking ball to work by then, he might end up in the bullpen.