Pelfrey has struggled this season, but found success when he works quickly.
Mike Pelfrey is slow.
I don’t mean the type of slow you may be thinking of though. In fact, spend a couple minutes talking to him and you realize that he’s pretty sharp. He speaks softly, often pausing thoughtfully when giving his answers. He’s also frank: He’ll tell you what went wrong and if he messed up.
He is also not sluggish. He’ll beat the tortoise, but finish behind the hare. He can field his position, but don’t stick him in the outfield. He can sacrifice bunt—and as a member of the New York Mets for seven years, he did—but don’t expect a bunt single.
When I say that Pelfrey is slow, I mean that he does not pitch quick enough. His games drag on way too long. If the first pitch is at 7:10 p.m., you can expect him to be laboring in the fifth inning after 9:00 p.m. A year after Tommy John surgery, he can hit 90-plus on the radar, but he just takes way too long in between pitches.
“I know the game slows down,” he admits, “but when I can’t necessarily find it and I’m throwing a lot of balls, I try to slow it down and maybe I think I’m going to find it on those days I can’t throw strikes.
“I try to think myself through it, which any time you think, you probably over-analyze, maybe over-think. It’s usually never good.”
He’s right: The outcome of the game is usually not in his favor when he takes too long between pitches.
Pelfrey is 1-4 in his last 10 games. Three of the four games he lost lasted roughly three hours or more, with the outlier being a two-hour, 43-minute contest at the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim against Jered Weaver.
The game he won in Toronto back on July 6 lasted only 2:33.
This pattern has universally held true for the staff. Kevin Correia is the quickest starter on the staff and most of his games are over after two-and-a-half hours. The key to his success early in the season lay in his shaking off solo shots and plowing through opposing lineups, while his issues of late are more stuff-related rather than a result of his going too fast.
Scott Diamond, on the other hand, entered the season as the only sure thing in the lineup but struggled against batters during the third time through the order. He says that he tends to over-think his adjustments instead of just executing, slows the game down to rush-hour traffic tempo and ends up getting burned.
After his demotion, he said that he became too nit-picky with his pitches in addition to over-adjusting to the batters he faced. It was almost as though he was driving a car on ice and overcompensated while trying to straighten the car out, resulting in a tailspin.
For Pelfrey, it is almost as though he is going too slow and can never get the car over the patch of ice. Instead, he just idles across the frozen surface until his tires freeze to the road and he’s forced to exit the car.
“You can sense it in the dugout and I’m sure you can sense it up here, you’re two hours into the game and you’re in the fifth inning,” said manager Ron Gardenhire after an August 4 contest against the Houston Astros in which Pelfrey went only five innings, gave up seven hits and left with a no-decision.
“He knows it more than anybody. He’s trying to pick up the pace. He talked about it in the dugout, but it’s not so much how fast you can throw the pitches and how many pitches, it’s just the 3-2 counts that make the game drag.”
Pelfrey admitted he got into too many three-ball counts that game and insisted that his stuff has been erratic a year removed from Tommy John surgery. He says that he feels that he just goes out and throws the ball, but he cannot throw at a rapid pace if his stuff is off, and his command usually goes when he is laboring and throwing too many pitches.
It’s a deadly spiral: The more pitches he throws, the less he is able to command the ball and the longer he takes getting through the game. When it’s been two hours and he has only gone through five innings, it usually means his pitch count is high and he’s not finding the zone.
And all of that can be avoided if he has his best stuff to start a game.
“I prefer not to battle,” he said after an August 15 start against the Chicago White Sox in which he again got a no-decision. “Coming off surgery, it’s kind of hit-or-miss. You go out there and one day you feel good and the next day you feel totally different.
“I could probably say of the 20 or whatever starts, I’ve had good stuff in maybe five of them, which is the complete opposite—usually I’ve had bad stuff in five of them.”
Pelfrey had some success before the trade deadline and there were rumors that he might be dealt, but he told Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press at the time that he would be crushed by a trade and wanted to remain with the Twins. If he wants to stay in Minnesota or at least have a major league job next season, Pelfrey will have to bring his A-game in September.
That means giving the arm a rest before starts, going as far as eliminating bullpen sessions and reducing time spent thinking between pitches.
Resting the arm before starts
During batting practice before his starts, Pelfrey used to soft toss with anyone who was willing to play a little catch.
“I picked up ball after ball and was throwing with [closer Glen] Perkins or [reliever Josh] Roenicke or whoever would catch it,” he says.
In mid-June, pitching coach Rick Anderson pulled Pelfrey aside and said he had to stop.
“He told me I’m not allowed to do that anymore,” said Pelfrey after a June 12 no-decision against Philadelphia Phillies where he went seven innings and only gave up three runs on five hits.
“I gotta give my arm a break. I’ve done that the last two starts and I felt good even with [100-plus] pitches.”
Patience and inactivity are not strong suits for Pelfrey. He came back as soon as he could from Tommy John surgery and says he likes to be tossing a ball anytime he can.
It is in his best interest, however, to give his arm a break before starts.
Eliminating bullpen sessions
On a similar note, Pelfrey should probably scrap bullpen sessions altogether.
While not throwing a ball to every animate being in the ballpark before a start is easier to understand, most people understand the value of a bullpen session. It keeps the pitcher sharp while allowing him to know which pitches are working and which he needs to fine-tune before a start, among other things.
Pelfrey ditched the bullpen session before his August 15 start against the Chicago White Sox and went 6.1 innings with only three earned runs. All three runs came early in the start, which is a little concerning, but he made the necessary adjustments and went deep into the game.
He got himself into a bit of a jam, putting two on with one out in the sixth inning, and was replaced with Caleb Thielbar, one of the best young relievers on the team.
Pelfrey said that he felt fine at that point, and having thrown only 88 pitches could have gone further if he did not run into trouble with one out on the board.
“For the first time all year, we didn’t throw a bullpen to give my arm a break,” he said after the contest, “kind of refresh it a little bit.”
Everyone knows that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, so Pelfrey should keep resting that arm before starts, even if it means skipping the bullpen session.
Thinking less between pitches
Finally, Pelfrey has to just go out and execute.
The veteran admits that he overthinks a little bit instead of just relying on the instincts he’s built up since getting his major league call-up on January 10, 2006 as a 22-year-old out of Wichita State.
“The less you can probably think is probably better,” he says, “but for some reason I always tend to slow it down. I think I can find it and think my way through it, which is not necessarily the best idea.”
Pelfrey will probably be better next season, a full two years removed from surgery, and with so much uncertainty in the rotation, the Twins would be wise to hold onto him if he has success in September.
Currently on a one-year deal, Pelfrey knows that his time in Minnesota and potentially the majors is limited if he doesn’t have success down the stretch.
By keeping the arm rested, reducing bullpen sessions and thinking less between pitches, Pelfrey should look more and more like the pitcher he was during his three 10-plus-win seasons with the Mets from 2008-2010.
Mike Pelfrey is slow. He needs to go faster.
All quotes were obtained firsthand.
Tom Schreier covers Minnesota sports for Bleacher Report and is a contributor to Yahoo! Sports.