How big, gentle Mike Pelfrey became the Mets' never-ending development project

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Pelfrey, spring training. (Rachel Megdal)
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PORT ST. LUCIE—A pair of longtime Mets fans stood in the main entry point to the stands at newly renamed Digital Domain Park, watching New York take on the newly renamed Miami Marlins in an early spring training game Thursday. They were venting about Mike Pelfrey, Thursday's starter, who had labored through his two innings, allowing four runs on six hits and two walks.

“He's a minor league pitcher, let's face it,” one man said to the other. “He wouldn't even be in the rotation if it was just about performance.”

“He thinks he's going to hit the gold mine this winter,” the other man said, referring to Pelfrey's upcoming free agency, which he isn't eligible for until 2014, unless the Mets let him go.

“Not pitching that way he won't,” the first man said.

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Incredible as it may seem, the pitcher the two disgruntled fans were discussing was once considered one of baseball's next stars. Pelfrey, the ninth overall pick in the 2005 draft, dominated college and minor league hitters with a high-90s fastball.

At 6'7”, 250 pounds, he looked the part of a dominating ace coming out of school, and only a year after he was drafted, Pelfrey made an appearance in a July 2006 doubleheader for the Mets.

There's only one problem: Pelfrey is not an ace, never was, and as he enters his fifth full season in the rotation, there's no reason to think he ever will be. He still hasn't learned to pitch.

This isn't Pelfrey's fault alone, of course. That meteoric rise through the minors, fueled by Pelfrey's ability to throw his signature fastball past overmatched hitters, sort of skipped over the part of a pitcher's maturation process in which he actually learns his craft. So Pelfrey broke into the major leagues quickly, and without the tools to succeed. The six years since have been filled with remedial work that hasn't quite taken.

Thursday's start was another tutoring session, and it didn't go well. In an effort to compel him to diversify his offerings, Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen forbade Pelfrey to throw his four-seam fastball, forcing him instead to work with his two-seamer.

The two-seam fastball is supposed to sink. Pelfrey’s didn’t.

“The sinker was moving sideways, instead of down,” Pelfrey said, still in uniform as he stood at his locker, surrounded by around ten reporters who didn't enjoy asking about Pelfrey's failings any more than Pelfrey must have liked talking about them. He'd elected to speak with reporters before he even showered, rather than keep anyone waiting.

The routine had to be unpleasantly familiar to Pelfrey, who has been less than the Mets or their fans have expected for years. But he never wavered from looking each reporter in the eye as he answered their questions, never making excuses, and appeared to genuinely try and answer each query. Contrary to his reputation among some fans as a “head case”, Pelfrey is actually bright, attentive to his work, and acutely aware of what he needs to do to succeed as a major league pitcher: command a second, and ideally, a third pitch to complement his fastball.

There's no stubbornness to Pelfrey; he dutifully went out on Thursday and kept on throwing that two-seamer, ineffective as it was. The result was four runs on six hits and two walks.

“One of the hardest places to put it is away to righties,” Pelfrey said of the pitch that failed him. “With [Austin] Kearns there, I tried to throw four straight sinkers in. The first two were balls. The next one was high. It wasn't where I wanted it. And the next one was right down the middle and he hit it.”

At least this spring, Pelfrey can concentrate on improving his results without the added pressure of knowing he'll be starting Opening Day. Once the Mets knew they'd be without Johan Santana last season, new manager Terry Collins pronounced Pelfrey his new ace, as if putting him in the role would allow him to acquire the skills necessary to excel as a result.

The results weren't pretty: a 7.39 ERA in April, and a 4.74 mark for the season. The reality is that Pelfrey simply doesn't strike out enough hitters to be consistently effective without a solid defense behind his. His ERAs have fluctuated; his “expected” ERA, which is based on walks, strikeouts and home runs, thus removing fielding as a variable, has remained virtually unchanged over the past four seasons.

But even that ticked up a bit in 2011, because Pelfrey was throwing his fastball less, and getting fewer ground balls as a result. The pitch is not what it was coming out of college—he's down a few miles per hour in velocity.

The combination of a heavy fastball and durability can at least allow Pelfrey to provide some value as an innings-eater. It's the Mets' continuing attempts to make him into something more than that that seem to trip him up.

Unfortunately for Pelfrey, this is precisely the work that should have been completed before he faced his first big-league batter.

As the shortened interview broke up—after all, everyone knew the problem, and there really wasn't anything more to say—one of the beat reporters said of Warthen, half-jokingly, “You think he'll let you throw the four-seamer in the regular season, right?”

A brief look of fear passed over Pelfrey face, before he responded, with a half-smile, “I assume so.”