Monday, August 15, 2011

This Long Post about Mike Pelfrey is Brought to you by Unemployment!

It was way back in the early days of April: the Mets, against everyone’s expectations, had been scoring runs, but had lost a couple of games behind rotten outings from Mike Pelfrey. After about two hours of listening to callers on the Steve Summers show complaining about Pelfrey’s lack of mental toughness and demanding that he be ought-righted to the glue factory, I had had enough: I called in and very calmly pointed out that the season was all of six days old, and that if we were going to assume that Pelfrey would stink all season we might as well assume that the Mets were going to average 6 runs a game as well, which wasn’t going to happen either. In time, I said, the Mets offense would return to mediocrity, and Pelfrey would go back to being a ‘B+’ pitcher. Steve conceded my point, and admitted that overreacting in the early days of the baseball season wasn’t exactly reasonable, but they had to talk about something, already.

It’s humiliating enough call the Steve Summers show in the first place. It is infinitely worse to have your point proved epically and disastrously wrong. Thanks, Mike.

In 2011, Pelfrey’s contributions to the Mets have ranged from putrid to mediocre. His performance (and the lack of an immediately available alternative) is just good enough to justify continuing to give him the ball; his history is just good enough to offer some increasingly faint hope that he has a run of above average games in him. I still disagree with Steve and his callers and think that Pelfrey’s problems have less to do with his mental state and the stress of being named ‘ace of the staff’ in Santana’s absence, and more to do with his just not being all that good at baseball, but at this point it’s a minor difference: Pelfrey stinks, and the only reason to keep running him out there is because someone has to pitch.

But how much does Pelfrey really stink? Are we harsh on him in light of the fact that every year from 2006 on was supposed to be the year that Mike Pelfrey blossomed into an innings-eating #2 starter? Are we unreasonably kind to him because while he might be a stiff, at least he’s our stiff? How much does he stink compared to other people who are routinely tasked with being the starting pitcher in professional baseball games?

Baseball Prospectus’ Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) is a statistic that tells how many games a team has won by using that particular player, rather than a hypothetical replacement player from the minor leagues or some other team’s discard pile. It is a counting stats (like runs home runs, or innings pitched) rather than a rate stat (like batting average or ERA)—so it is playing time sensitive. The replacement player isn’t league average or real--he just stands for the level of production that you could reasonably expect to get without really trying. So when they say (and they do say) that Mike Pelfrey has a WARP of 0.3 it means that the Mets have won three tenths of a game more behind Mike Pelfrey than they would have behind Joe McSucksatbaseball.

Mike Pelfrey’s WARP of 0.3 has him tied for 9th on the team with Pedro Beato and Dillon Gee. No regular starter on the Mets has a lower WARP. Gee, however, has taken six fewer starts to accumulate his three-tenths of a win above terrible, so Mike Pelfrey’s claim to worst starter on the Mets is pretty rock solid. Jon Niese leads the Mets with a WARP of 3.3; Chris Capuano (2.2) and then R.A. Dickey (1.1) round out the Mets pitchers who have more than one win above replacement to their credit. This, children, is why the Mets aren’t very good.

The Mets start Mike Pelfrey because they don’t really have any choice but to start Mike Pelfrey: its not like they have a ‘potentially good’ pitcher in the minor leagues whose progress Mike Pelfrey is impeding, or any money burning a hole in their pocket waiting to be turned into a ‘league-average’ pitcher. It’s not like their continued devotion to Mike Pelfrey is going to cost them a shot at the pennant (their devotion to five starting pitchers who are not much better than Mike Pelfrey did that long ago). I got to wondering: where would Mike Pelfrey, long believed to be a potential second or third starter on a decent team, fit on other teams pitching staffs? Is there a team in the National League who could improve their rotation by starting Mike Pelfrey?


Philadelphia Phillies:

Pelfrey’s 0.3 WARP would put him in 10th place on the Phillies, tied with Joe Blanton, who went into the season as the Phillies fifth starter—and then got hurt after making only six starts. The Phillies did give eleven starts to Kyle Kendrick, who has a WARP of -0.1. On the other hand, Roy Haladay (5.5) has provided as much WARP as the Mets top two starters put together. Vance Worly (1.6, 14 starts) would be the third best pitcher on the Mets.

Atlanta Braves:

Pelfrey would be the 12th best pitcher on the Braves, tied with reliever Scott Linebrink. No one who has started more than two games for Atlanta has a lower WARP.

Washington Nationals:

Mike Pelfrey would rank 9th in WARP, tied with Ross Detwiler, who has pitched in eight games and made three starts. In five starts Yunesky Maya accumulated 0.1 WARP. Mike Pelfrey would not necessarily crack the Nationals rotation.

Florida Marlins:

Mike would rank 12th on the Marlins, between Leo Nunez/Chris Volstad (0.4) and Ross Detwiler (0.2). Volstad is a starter and wroth almost exactly as much as Pelfrey (sorry, Chris).The Marlins have given 13 starts to players with lower WARPs than Pelfrey’s: Jay Buente (1 start, 0 WARP), Elith Villanueva (1 start, -0.2) Clay Hensley (25 games, 5 starts, -0.2) and Brad Hand (8 starts, -0.4). Pelfrey might be a fifth starter for the Fish, but probably not.


Milwaukee Brewers:

Pelfrey would be in a tie for 11th best Brewer with reliever Sean Green. You might remember Green from such crappy Mets teams as last year’s and the one before that. But then again you might not, because he was hurt for a lot of that time, and wasn’t memorable or interesting when healthy. No one who has made a start for the Brewers has a WARP lower than 0.7—that belongs to Marco Estrada who has mainly been a reliever. Chris Naversson and Randy Wolfe are the worst regularly starting Brewers at 1.7 WARP.

St. Louis Cardinals:

Pelfrey would fall between Octavio Dotel (0.4) and former Met Raul Valdes (0.2) at 10th best on the Red Birds. However, he could probably find a job as their fifth starter. While their top four starters are all comfortably Better Than Pelfrey (BTP), guys like Kyle McClellan and Edwin Jackson have made multiple starts and yielded negative WARPs.

Cincinnati Reds:

Pelfrey would be ranked 9th, with Cuban reliever Aroldis Chapman. Again, Pelfrey probably could pitch for the Reds, where Edison Volquez (16 starts, 0.2 WARP) and Bronson Arroyo (24, -0.2) have been given multiple opportunities.

Pittsburgh Pirates:

Pelfrey would be tied at 9th with Chris Leroux, and worse than anyone who has made more than two starts for the Bucos.

Chicago Cubs:

Palfrey would be tied with Casey Coleman and Kerry Wood for 11th best Cub pitcher. Not only did the former start nine games, but the Cubbies have given 15 starts to Randy Wells, who has pitched to a WARP of -0.3, making the Cubs yet another team who could probably give innings to Pelfrey without dragging down the quality of their rotation.

Houston Astros:

Pelfrey shares his 0.3 mark with Jordan Lyles, Brett Myers and Nelson Figueroa (!!), and it is good for 7th best on the team. Brett Myers has made exactly as many starts as Pelfrey, with the same uninspiring results. N-Fig racked up his 0.3 in eight games and five starts. I don’t even know if he is still on the team nor do I especially care: I imagine that Astros management feels pretty much the same way. Henry Sosa started one game and managed a WARP of 0 and is the only pitcher to start for the ‘Stros with a WARP below 0.3, so Pelfrey could be Houston’s fifth starter without anyone noticing that anything had changed.


Arizona Diamondbacks:

The D-backs also have a large-ish 0.3 club: Micah Owings, Joe Patterson and Juan Gutierrez; it is good for 8th best on the team. Owings (the pitcher who will occasionally pinch-hit) started four games and Snakes have given a total of 18 starts to pitchers with negative WARP value, so the Snakes could probably use Pelfrey as a fifth starter—making the fact that they lead their division all the more surreal.

San Francisco Giants:

If Pelfrey were a Giant, he would be tied with relief pitcher Dan Runzler as the 11th best pitcher on the team. He would be being out-pitched by former Met Guillermo Mota (0.4). He would be out pitching Barry Zito (9 starts, -0.3 WARP). He would not be starting regularly.

Los Angeles Dodgers:

Pelfrey would share the 8th rank on the Dodgers with Rubby De La Rosa and Jon Garland, both of whom are starting pitchers. No one significantly worse than them has made multiple starts, so, again, Mike Pelfrey could slip into the back of the Dodgers rotation without anyone noticing.

Colorado Rockies:

Pelfrey’s 0.3 brothers on the Rockies are Houston Street and Aaron Cook (12th on the team) and the latter has been used exclusively as a starter. Kevin Millwood, Clay Mortenson and Greg Rryolds have all started games while yielding negative WARP values, so Pelfrey might provide (gasp!) an upgrade.

San Diego Padres:

In San Diego, Pelfrey shares his 0.3 with relievers Luke Gregson and Kevin Spence, where it ranks as the eleventh best on the team. Anthony Bass, normally a reliever, made one spot start and has accumulated a 0.1 WARP. Other than that, the lowest WARP for a Friar who has started a game is Wade LeBlanc’s 0.6, accumulated in six starts.

So, according to WARP, in the National League, the Diamondbacks and Rockies would improve their rotation with Mike Pelfrey, while the Cardinals, Cubs and Reds would likely do so. The Astros and Dodgers could slot him in without anyone noticing. On no NL team would Pelfrey be better than a fifth starter.

Obviously, this is a very cursory analysis that leaves out lots of factors, among them health. On some clubs the guys who are BTP are injured, or might get injured, and those clubs would not necessarily turn away from Mike Pelfrey in disgust. WARP is clearly not the be-all, end-all of a player’s value, but I think in this instance it gets the point across, and the point is this: Mike Pelfrey exists on exactly the cusp of how bad a pitcher can be before they stop letting them pitch. Pretty much every single team in the National League has found a way to give four out of five games to a pitcher who is better than Mike Pelfrey. According to Baseball Prospectus’ WARP, out of 122 pitchers who have thrown over 100 innings in the major leagues in 2011, Mike Pelfrey is ranked 114th. Mike Pelfrey has been having a horrible, horrible season.

I guess you have to assume that the Pelfrey will be better next year, because there really isn’t any way for him to be any worse. On the one hand, it all isn’t terribly important: it doesn’t really matter who you’re fifth starter is, if the rest of the rotation is good. Some of the teams who have been giving the ball to guys who are worse the Pelfrey are doing just fine for themselves. On the other hand, Mike Pelfrey is clearly a fifth starter or worse this season, and even if he bounces back somewhat, the Mets need to find themselves some reliably BTP starters before they can even think about contending.

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