Thursday, March 20, 2008

5th Starter: Big Pelf vs. Old Duque

The rotation is clearly the strength of the club, to the extent that the concerns about the bullpen and the health of the line-up do not yet strike one in any particularly ominous light. Santana is Santana, and Pedro, Maine and Perez are as good a bunch to have following him as you could realistically hope for. But, as good as that group is, the precise identity of the fifth starter, when he is finally needed, remains uncertain.

The candidates for the job are, at this point, Mike Pelfrey and El Duque, each of whom has their own unique and glaring downside. El Duque, as far as it is possible to judge these things from reading lies in the papers, seems to be totally over the hill, and I am not even remotely sold on Mike Pelfrey as a guy capable of getting big-league hitters out on a consistent basis, over an extended period of time.

WHIP (Walks + Hits/Innings Pitched) is a newish metric for evaluating pitchers that is fairly brilliant in its simplicity. WHIPs around 1.10 are considered extremely good. In the Minor Leagues, Pelfrey has generally managed to get by with a WHIP of slightly over 1.30, however during his brief stints in the big leagues his WHIP has been over 1.70 which is strikingly worse. Admittedly, the most recent of these was his best, as he finally won a couple games late last season; but any relatively new pitcher is liable to occasionally foil an offense that hasn’t seen his stuff before. Reports of him from the minors, and the occasional good inning in the Big Leagues give one significant cause for hope-- but the discrepancy between his potential and the results he has achieved in the Majors is glaring enough to lead one to believe that he either suffers from a severe form of stage fright, or his stuff is in some liminal range of quality and becomes ineffective against Major League hitters. Whatever his problem, his results so far in spring training do not support the conclusion that it has been corrected.

To accommodate pitching with a bunion on his foot, El Duque has altered is trademark delivery (a consolation, if he doesn’t make the team, is the knowledge that even if he had we would still be missing out on his high leg-kicks). Altering a pitcher’s delivery is something that is not lightly undertaken, and does not uniformly yield good results. He recently pitched in a simulated game, in which he never threw harder than 81 mph and got taken deep by a bunch of minor leaguers. Even if he had been throwing effectively this spring, you would have to think that it would only a matter of time before he got injured again, forcing them to call on Pelfrey or someone worse.

Writing the above paragraph, however, fills me with a weird sense of déjà vu: this isn’t the first time that old age and frailty have lead people to pronounce Old Duque finished, and they haven’t been right yet. Last year, he was actually sort of the second best pitcher on the staff, after John Maine; his WHIP was 1.17.

If Pelfrey was a young pitcher who I really believed in, I would advocate seeing what the kid can do and trying to find another club willing to see if El Duque can still work his age and logic defying magic. As it is, don’t think there is really any choice other than to wheel El Duque out to the mound and see what happens—not so much on the strength of what he seems capable of now, but because of what he has done in the past, and how little reason there was to expect it then.

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