The struggles for Mike Pelfrey this season have gotten repetitious. He’s posted an ERA near 5.00 and a FIP in the mid-5s for most of the year. Most pitchers can’t live with a strikeout-to-walk ratio near 1.00, but that is exactly where the righty finds himself in the middle of June. To put it more bluntly, he’s just been pretty thoroughly bad.
There is, however, an argument that Pelfrey’s serviceability exists in his ability to “keep the team in games.” Especially lately, Big Pelf has found a living in giving up three or four runs over six innings and barely escaping with a quality start-unless Brad Ausmus leaves him in too long, like he did Wednesday. That gives the impression that a solid offensive performance and a shutdown job by the bullpen would win most Pelfrey games, or the Mike Pelfrey Theory. As Aaron McMann of MLive puts it,
He pitches well enough to keep the Detroit Tigers in the game, but not good enough to get a win on his own record.
How do we measure a pitcher’s ability to keep teams in a game? Win Probability Added, or WPA, is a good measure of such. It takes all of the events in a game and accumulates the corresponding changes in a team’s chance of winning to see how much each player helped. For purposes of this post, we’re going to assume that anytime Pelfrey has a WPA of 0.10 or better, he was successful, while a WPA of -0.10 or worse is a blowup. Anything in between is neutral, and neutral is “OK" by the Pelfrey Theory.
April 9: New York 8, Detroit 4
Pelfrey WPA: -.294
Several of the six runs Pelfrey allowed in this game were unearned, so he was moderately unlucky. Still, putting eight runners on base in less than four innings of work is a recipe for disaster that the offense couldn’t recover from. Blowup
April 15: Houston 1, Detroit 0
Pelfrey WPA: .165
Ah, the most famous of all Pelfrey tough-luck losses. He dueled Dallas Keuchel for six innings, allowing just a first-inning single despite walking six (!) batters. The offense decided to take a night off, however, and registered just five hits on the game. This one was definitely a letdown, but for Pelfrey? Success
April 21: Kansas City 4, Detroit 0
Pelfrey WPA: -.172
Apparently, I have this blocked from my memory, because I don’t remember the illustrious Edison Volquez throwing seven shutout innings against the Tigers. The offense did nothing, but Pelfrey was in trouble throughout the game and gave up four runs in five innings while walking five batters. Even with a better offensive output, that hole was probably too deep to dig out of. Blowup
April 26: Oakland 5, Detroit 1
Pelfrey WPA: -.158
Hey ... offense? Are you there? Big Pelf was once again the beneficiary of no run support. Once again, it was likely irrelevant. The Athletics teed off of Pelfrey to the tune of five runs on nine hits in this game. On the plus side, he didn’t walk anyone. Blowup
May 1: Detroit 6, Minnesota 5
Pelfrey WPA: -.310
The Tigers won a Pelfrey start! But it wasn’t because of the starting pitcher, as he acknowledged later. Pelfrey got just 12 outs against the terrible Minnesota offense before the bullpen came on and threw five shutout innings. The offense also bailed Pelfrey out by scoring six runs. Pelfrey hopefully bought Nick Castellanos dinner that night. Blowup
May 7: Rangers 10, Tigers 5
Pelfrey WPA: -.330
This was the low point of Pelfrey’s whole season. The Tigers scored a pretty good amount of runs, leading 5-2 after five innings. Then Ausmus stood there and watched Pelfrey bleed the lead away before a classic bullpen fireball sealed the game. There’s only one way to mark this. Blowup
May 12: Orioles 7, Tigers 5
Pelfrey WPA: .192
This should have been the dream scenario. Pelfrey pitched into the sixth, limited the damage well, and exited with the lead. Then the Wilsons had to go and give up five runs. Really, though, Pelfrey set the Tigers up to win. Success
May 17: Tigers 7, Twins 2
Pelfrey WPA: -.025
The Tigers gave Pelfrey pretty much no run support, so he was fighting a losing battle here. The two Minnesota dingers and Pelfrey’s inability to get out of the sixth hurt his win share, but he didn’t really do anything to screw up, and eventually Detroit pulled out the victory. Neutral
May 24: Detroit 5, Philadelphia 4
Pelfrey WPA: -.213
This is the ultimate test of the validity of “he kept the team in the game.” Pelfrey threw six innings of four-run ball (isn’t that like every start?), while the offense ultimately did enough to win the game. So Pelfrey did his job, right? WPA disagrees. He put the Tigers in an early hole, and after the Tigers fought back to take the lead, ceded the game-tying run. Fortunately, a bullpen that Pelfrey left no margin for error did the job to win the game. Blowup
May 29: Oakland 4, Detroit 2
Pelfrey WPA: .089
The infamous “will nothing go right?” sixth inning blowup. Pelfrey was pitching a shutout into the sixth when literally everything went wrong, from walks to errors to bad juju. Still, it’s hard to blame him when did pitch pretty well overall. Neutral
June 4: Detroit 7, Chicago 4
Pelfrey WPA: .083
This is still so awesome. We’re giving him a win even though he didn’t have the required WPA because Pelfrey beat Chris Sale! Success
June 10: New York 4, Detroit 0
Pelfrey WPA: -.208
And then there was this clunker of an outing. You can argue that Pelfrey wasn’t going to win no matter what with the offense scoring zero runs, but the fact remains that a 20 percent loss share is not insignificant. Blowup
June 16: Chicago 5, Detroit 3
Pelfrey WPA: -.083
I won’t force you to relive the gory details of this game, but I will say that had Ausmus pulled Pelfrey after the sixth when a manager should Pelfrey’s win share would have come out to a more palatable amount. Neutral
So what we have are three successful outings that Pelfrey contributed real value, three neutral outings where Pelfrey “gave the team a chance to win,” and seven blowups.
That means he’s put his team in position to lose in more than half of his starts, and forced them to fight to win another quarter. It’s not a ringing endorsement of the veteran’s ability to keep the game close.
I’m pronouncing the Pelfrey Theory officially debunked.