There is still much we don't know about Mike Pelfrey as the 2009 season comes to a close. However, much of what seems to pass for knowledge about Pelfrey as he completes his age-25 season strikes me as ill-conceived.
Let's start with the fact, espoused most vocally by Pelfrey himself -- that 2009 has been a lost season.
"I had goals and I had expectations, and I'm not going to meet any of them with the way the season's gone," Pelfrey told the New York Times on Sunday. "I'll be the first one to tell you I've had an awful year."
And the honesty is appreciated, Mike, but it seems that a more accurate phrasing would be: "My defense has had an awful year."
Pelfrey had a 3.72 ERA last year, while even Sunday's stellar performance only lowered his 2009 ERA to 4.83. But let's take a closer look.
Fangraphs has his FIP at 3.96 last year, 4.18 this year -- a negligible difference in performance over the two seasons. Essentially, Pelfrey is a pitcher who puts a ton of balls in play. Now replace Jose Reyes with Alex Cora and Anderson Hernandez at shortstop, Carlos Beltran with Angel Pagan in center field, add in the defensive regression of David Wright (which Mets fans have to hope is simply a bad defensive year, rather than the beginning of a trend), and no defensive improvements to help him other than Daniel Murphy at first base.
How would you expect that to turn out?
It's possible to chop this down even further when all the injuries started to take their toll. Proof of the bad Pelfrey has been trotted out this way: through May 29, his ERA was 3.88, and it has been 5.35 since. Of course, the team he was pitching for was 27-20 on May 29, and 35-55 since.
Pelfrey, through May 29, had walked 19 in 55 2/3 innings, a rate of around 3.1 per nine innings. But he'd struck out just 23, a rate of 3.7 per nine innings. In other words, Pelfrey's early performance was incredibly reliant on his defense, and a clear step down from his 2008 levels of 2.9 walks and 4.9 strikeouts per nine innings.
In 102 2/3 innings since then, Pelfrey's walk rate is a tad below 3.7 per nine innings -- so it's up a bit. But his strikeout rate has doubled, to 6.1 per nine innings. His home run rate has remained consistent throughout.
The disappointing Pelfrey has been a far better pitcher than he was earlier in the year, better than in 2008, and the strikeout rate is by far the best of his career (and the most positive indicator for 2010).
Not only is this true in a broad sense -- as Bill James has explained, the strikeout rate is to future pitcher performance the way being tall is to future basketball player performance -- it is particularly true for Pelfrey, who only tends to get strikeouts when he can locate his secondary pitches.
So what do we make of Pelfrey's regression, and how it fits in with the famed Verducci Effect for pitchers who exceed their previous season's workload by at least 30 innings?
Well, let me start by saying I have my doubts about the Verducci Effect as ironclad rule. I suspect an increase in workload can adversely affect a pitcher, but I'm not positive that 30 innings is the benchmark, nor that it should be innings, rather than, say, high-stress innings or total pitches that will turn out to be the best correlation to effect.
The other 2009 Verducci Effect pitchers don't help the argument much, either. Jon Lester, for instance, was apparently so worn out from his 2008 jump in innings that his strikeout rate jumped from 6.5 per nine to 10.2 per nine. Cole Hamels saw a jump in his ERA from 3.09 to 4.32 but is utterly the same pitcher -- nearly identical walk, strikeout and home run rates. Only his BABIP has changed, from .262 to .321. Jair Jurrjens and Tim Lincecum appear to have improved slightly, while John Danks and Chad Billingsley have dipped slightly. No one has collapsed among Verducci's seven to watch in 2009.
But for the sake of argument, let's take the Verducci Effect pitchers at face value. Whether they regress due to workload, or as David Gassko persuasively argues, simple regression to the mean, what can we expect from Pelfrey, as a Verducci Effect pitcher, the year AFTER the Verducci effect?
Of the seven 2008 Verducci Effect pitchers, only one -- Ubaldo Jimenez -- stayed healthy. Jimenez saw his walk rate go up a bit in 2008, while his strikeout rate held steady. In 2009, of course, Jimenez has become one of the National League's best pitchers. He is exactly eight days younger than Pelfrey.
Another interesting comparison to Pelfrey is his most comparable pitcher through age 25 on Baseball-Reference.com: John Lackey. The Angels' free-agent-to-be pitched to a 4.67 ERA at age 25, then saw his K-rate jump more than two per nine innings at age 26 as he became one of the better pitchers in the American League for the next five years.
There are those that believe the Mets should sign Lackey this offseason. Beginning next season at 31, a three-year deal would give the Mets a solid No. 2 starter behind Johan Santana.
However, the reason to do so simply isn't the utter failure of Mike Pelfrey's 2009 season. While it is hard to know what the future holds for any pitcher, there simply isn't any evidence that Mike Pelfrey has deviated from becoming a strong option for the Mets' rotation. If anything, his second half strikeout rate makes future success even more likely.
And if the 2010 Mets defense resembles the 2008 squad more than 2009, his miraculous recovery will be touted by one and all. There just won't be anything miraculous about it.