Mike Pelfrey is the New York Mets' ace, unfortunately for him

Mike Pelfrey. (mlb.com)
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Mike Pelfrey has come to embody everything the Mets fans have felt about their team over the last six years.

Drafted in 2005, a time of great hope, he appeared on the scene in the summer of 2006, just as the Mets were good enough to contend for a championship. Yet he’s taken unexpected steps backward, just as the team has, and has failed to become the star that fans and much of the press expected.

Now he’s stuck in a kind of baseball limbo: too talented to write off, but not quite good enough to live up to the hopes that the team and the fans continue to invest in him. So, with grim regularity, they turn on him: he is the vehicle for Mets fans to express exasperation with an era that began with such promise and descended into seemingly inescapable mediocrity.

The disappointment in Pelfrey may not be fair, but it is understandable. Drafted near the top of the first round back in 2005 due largely to his imposing fastball, standing an imposing 6’7” on the mound, Pelfrey has always looked the part of an ace. And Mets fans expect Pelfrey, now 27 years old, to be in his prime. He’s in his fourth full season, he’s beginning to be paid like it—making just under $4 million this year, with a raise likely in 2012.

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In his last start, in a Thursday game at Citi Field against the San Francisco Giants, Pelfrey got through the first three innings without allowing a hit. The sparse crowd starting making some noise. Just as when Pelfrey broke through with a 3.72 ERA in 2008, or dominated last April with an ERA of just 0.69, it looked like he was hot.

A couple of innings later, as Pelfrey labored through a long fifth inning, the cheers turned to jeers. “You suck, Pelfrey!” shouted an older man in Mets attire from the Caesar’s Club section. Pelfrey had allowed just one hit and one walk at this point.

Pelfrey finished the game with 7 2/3 innings of two-run, four-hit pitching in a 5-2 Mets victory. It was a strong start by any measure. Yet the response from the crowd as he exited was muted. And after the game, reporters continually focused on Pelfrey’s mental state, and whether he felt better after a game like this than after the first six starts on 2011, when he pitched to a 7.36 ERA.

Part of the problem is that even when Pelfrey’s going good, he’s not spectacular. He doesn’t make hitters miss as much as an overpowering big man ought to. His value to the team is in a combination of his durability, relatively low walk totals, and a high ground-ball rate.

And he just seems to make people uneasy. The combination of Pelfrey’s manner on the field—a teeth-grinding tic required him to wear a mouth guard earlier in his career, and he’s often seen on camera gnawing at his fingers in the dugout between innings—and his acknowledgement that he visited a sports psychologist to seek out a better mental approach has led to the easy media storyline that he’s an consistent performer because of a lack of mental toughness and self-confidence.

Pelfrey, a nice guy, does nothing to dispel this impression when he’s in the presence of the beat guys. Standing in front of his locker after the game Thursday, he assumed his usual sheepish smile as he patiently answered questions about how he felt when he was pitching poorly (“Bad”) and how he feels when the results go his way (“Good”).

But the reasons for his inconsistency, rather than some mental issue, are fairly basic, and mechanical, and apparently either so boring or so easy to miss that the people covering the team, and Pelfrey, on a regular basis throughout the season don't write about them much.

Pelfrey throws a sinking fastball, with his velocity gradually decreasing as he’s gotten older. His second pitch is a slider without a sharp break, meaning it serves as little more than a slower pitch along the same plane as his fastball. He’s added a split-finger fastball to his repertoire, but that, too, is a pitch along the same plane that checks in at a velocity just between the roughly 91-mile-per-hour fastball and 83-mile-per-hour slider.

None of it has much velocity differential, and none of the pitches change the batter’s perspective on his pitches. The result is a ground ball about half the time, but only around five strikeouts per nine innings. That means quite a few balls in play, and crossed fingers in the dugout.

Pelfrey, encouragingly, made greater use of a new weapon on Thursday: a curveball that acts quite different than his other pitchers, and checks in at around 75 miles per hour. Pelfrey has tried to use this pitch before, but only briefly, and never with a consistent ability to throw it for strikes.

“It’s still my fourth pitch, but I feel like it’s getting better, the action is getting better on it,” Pelfrey said as we chatted after Thursday’s game by his locker, brightening at the chance to answer a question that was just about pitching. “I think I was two-for-three throwing it for strikes on the first pitch, and that’s a weapon that can help me against left-handed batters.”

Pelfrey, once he wasn’t answering questions about his comfort level, had demonstrated at least that he is aware of his limitations, and actively working on them.

Pelfrey, who is now 2-3 this season, with a 6.06 earned run average, should have been allowed to make adjustments like this in the minor leagues back in 2006 and 2007, when the Mets instead rushed him to the majors. But then, that was a time of much hope and optimism, for Mike Pelfrey and for his team.

Howard Megdal edits PerpetualPost.com and writes about baseball for The Journal News, MLBTradeRumors.com and others. His new book, Taking The Field, was just published by Bloomsbury.