Mike Pelfrey got rocked last night. Really no two ways about it. He retired only six batters and allowed eight hits and seven runs — six earned — to an underwhelming Phillies offense. He didn’t help himself with his defense and, though he probably got at least a tiny bit unlucky with how many hits found holes, nearly everything hit off him was scorched. He looked terrible.
The Mets have only lost two games this season: Both of Pelfrey’s starts. Mets fans and media seem about ready to panic. I’m not interested in singling out any reporter or analyst, but the concerned masses seem to offer three potential explanations for Pelfrey’s struggles:
1) He is overwhelmed by the pressure to be the Mets’ “ace” in the absence of Johan Santana.
2) He is reeling from the offseason loss of his sports psychologist, Harvey Dorfman.
3) He is injured and keeping mum about it.
To the first: Remember that “ace” is just a label and that often the pitcher that emerges as a team’s “ace” or “No. 1″ is someone entirely different than the one chosen to throw on the first day of the season. Indeed, of the three returning holdovers in the Mets’ rotation from 2010, I could pretty easily make the case that Pelfrey is least likely to pitch as “an ace.”
Pelfrey has three full seasons of being a solid but unspectacular Major League starter under his belt, implying that he’ll probably continue being just that. R.A. Dickey had the eighth-best ERA+ in the National League last season, which seems pretty ace-like to me. Jon Niese is the youngest of the three and has an arsenal more impressive than Pelfrey’s.
Of course, clearly Pelfrey is conscious of the team’s decision to pitch him on Opening Day, and far be it for me to say it hasn’t weighed on him. But starting games in the Major Leagues is a pretty high-pressure thing to begin with, and I’m not sure how the loss of Johan Santana necessarily puts more pressure on Pelfrey, other than in how it puts more pressure on all the Mets’ starters that are not Santana. I would guess that every starter in the Majors wants really badly to pitch like “an ace,” and that if a pitcher allows pressure to get to him, it’s not one specific identifiable item of pressure like the responsibilities of being an Opening Day starter. In other words: If Mike Pelfrey is struggling due to pressure, there are probably plenty of reasons besides just that he started the game on Friday.
Which seems to be a pretty good segue into No. 2 on the list. According to this report, Pelfrey first admitted to consulting with Dorfman to combat the stigma against psychology in sports. So we reward him for that bravery by assuming he is so fragile mentally that he melts down in the face of adversity.
Again: I’m not Pelfrey’s psychologist and I can’t tell you what’s going through his mind, but I can say I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works. A good psychologist — and presumably Dorfman was a good psychologist — gives people the tools to overcome mental and emotional challenges whenever they arise. Supposedly Pelfrey called Dorfman after rough starts, but certainly he didn’t call Dorfman after every rough inning or rough pitch.
People seem eager to diagnose Pelfrey as crazy because of his body language on the mound, which seems patently ridiculous. How often have you seen a pitcher getting rocked maintain great body language? It’s a combination, I’d guess, of a pitcher actually looking distressed and confirmation bias on our parts, but I’m pretty sure we’re always going to view a pitcher in the midst of a shelling as a mope on the mound.
As for the injury thing: It’s another possibility I can’t discount. Pelfrey pitched through shoulder pain all last season, and though he says he’s healthy now, really, who knows? If he didn’t say anything about the injury last year, it could be he’s not saying anything about the same injury — or a more taxing one — this year.
But I’ll offer another possible explanation: Randomness. Pelfrey looked pretty bad in his first two starts, but if you go back through his game logs, you can find plenty of other times where he has done the same — they were just relatively masked by a handful of good starts around them, mitigating the concerns. In fact, over a three-start stretch from July 5-19 last season, he yielded a 15.30 ERA, just about as bad as he’s sporting this season.
Pitchers like Pelfrey who pitch to weak contact and lack a swing-and-miss pitch appear prone to huge fluctuations in performance. It could easily be that Pelfrey just happened to have two bad starts in a row that happened to come at the beginning of the season.
This you already know: It’s very early. I’m willing to give Pelfrey a few more starts to get the kinks worked out before I call him a head case and suggest he’s the new Oliver Perez.