When the Detroit Tigers signed free agent pitcher Mike Pelfrey to a two-year, $16 million contract last December, there was reason to believe that he could fill the fourth starter's role in their rebooted starting pitching rotation. Less than a month into the season, after just five starts, the calls are getting louder to move Pelfrey out of the starting rotation and give his spot to a younger pitcher.
In Sunday's series finale against his former team, the Minnesota Twins, Pelfrey left in the fifth inning with the bases loaded, no outs, and the Tigers trailing 3-2. Two of those runners would score, leaving Pelfrey with a line of five earned runs, eight hits, three walks, and three strikeouts in four innings. He is now 0-4 with a 5.68 ERA for the season, not exactly what the Tigers hoped for when they signed him.
Pelfrey wasn't exactly a front-line pitcher prior to this season, so he did not command the kind of salary that other free agent starting pitchers received. His $8 million annual salary was lower than any other free agent starter who threw at least 150 innings last season with similar or better performance indicators (with the exception of 42 year old Bartolo Colon). Fifteen starting pitchers received longer contracts, and five more signed one-year deals for a higher salary. Pelfrey was at the bottom of the pay scale for a healthy, effective starting pitcher.
Among 42 free agent starting pitchers available, Pelfrey ranked 14th in fielding independent pitching (FIP), 13th in WAR, and 19th with a 4.26 ERA last season. In his three seasons with the Twins, Pelfrey managed two healthy years where he started 29 and 30 games throwing 152 and 164 innings in 2013 and 2015, respectively. In 2014, injuries limited him to five starts and 23 innings. In his two healthy seasons, he posted FIPs of 3.99 and 4.00, with 2.0 WAR each season.
Pelfrey is not a strikeout pitcher, but he had the second lowest home run rate on the free agent list, behind only Zack Greinke. Pelfrey carried a reasonable walk rate, and a ground ball ratio above 50 percent. With an improved infield defense, spacious grounds at Comerica Park, and similar ratios to last season, the Tigers envisioned Pelfrey as a legitimate fourth starter, allowing them to bring along their young starting pitchers at their own pace.
Five starts into the 2016 season, all is not going as planned with Mike Pelfrey. His walk rate has doubled, his home run rate is up, strikeouts are down even further, and he is giving up a 2.05 WHIP while averaging just over four innings per start. His ERA would be even higher if not for several well-timed double play balls, helping him to escape further damage. The double play balls are part of the plan, but the volume of base runners is not.
Pelfrey was getting ground balls in Sunday's game, but they were finding holes through the infield. He even struck out two Twins to kill a third inning rally with runners on second and third, which is not his usual escape route. After a single through the infield, a double off the top of the wall, and two walks in the fifth inning, his day was over. For the first time this season, Detroit's offense rallied to bail him out, but he wasn't around to claim victory.
The Tigers bolstered their pitching depth at the trade deadline last July with the acquisitions of Daniel Norris and Michael Fulmer. With Shane Greene on the disabled list, and both he and Norris battling health issues in 2015 and 2016, the club is understandably reluctant to turn 40 percent of their starting rotation over to the trio of young guns. Expecting them to carry that kind of load is unrealistic if the team hopes to contend this season.
No American League rookie pitcher threw over 150 innings in 2015, and just four managed over 120 innings. Norris is technically not a rookie anymore with 66 major league innings on his résumé, but he is still only 23 years old. Fulmer has just made his major league debut, and Greene has 176 career major league innings under his belt, with a maximum of 83 innings in 2014. The Tigers will slide their young pitchers into major league roles as they are ready for them, but for now, they need Mike Pelfrey to be the pitcher that they bargained for when they signed him.