The ‘fixable’ Mike Pelfrey hangs in there in Minnesota

Mike Pelfrey strikes out Miguel Cabrera. (MLB.tv)
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MINNEAPOLIS — On Monday night at Target Field, a pair of once-heralded pitching prospects matched zeroes for most of the first six innings in a 4-3 Twins victory.

For the Tigers, Justin Verlander, the number two overall pick in the 2004 draft, looked virtually unhittable over six shutout innings. For the Twins, Mike Pelfrey, the number nine overall pick in the 2005 draft, allowed just a single run in six impressive innings of his own.

But that is where the similarities end. Verlander, in between then and now, established himself as one of the premier pitchers in baseball. He's had a bit of a down year in 2013, but he'll be leading a Tigers staff into the playoffs next week for the third straight season, and fourth time in his career.

Mike Pelfrey will not be pitching when the playoffs start next week. The one-time pitching savior for the New York Mets, then miscast ace, and ultimately injured castaway, is now trying to salvage his career, in his first full season after Tommy John surgery.

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Monday night, he had to do it with the flu.

"Our starting pitcher was fantastic," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said from his postgame podium set up in his office. Gardenhire, who managed many of the excellent Twins teams of the last decade, has been dealt less talent over the past three years as his team tries to rebuild, but he relentlessly looks for the positive from his youthful players. "Had the flu bug, and didn't look too pretty out there on the mound, but did a really nice job of hanging in there. That was fun to watch, like I said, a guy that was not feeling too awful well, and did a nice job against a very, very tough lineup over there."

Both were true. Poor Pelfrey, whose emotions are his facial uniform, looked like a kid who'd eaten way too much ice cream at the amusement park as he walked off the mound after each half inning, slowly making his way from the mound to the Twins' dugout. But he also held the Tigers and their juggernaut of an offense to a single run. 

In the fifth inning, that looked unlikely. Pelfrey allowed a pair of singles, then a booming double to Torii Hunter to score a run. With two runners on, Pelfrey faced Miguel Cabrera, easily the best hitter in baseball this season.

Pelfrey got ahead 1-2, but even then, the smart money was on Cabrera, He'd hit 14 home runs with two strikes in 2013 alone, while an inability to put hitters away is perhaps the largest barrier between Mike Pelfrey and sustained big league success.

This time, though, the battle went to Pelfrey, who struck out Cabrera on the eighth pitch of the at-bat. 

Pelfrey, his eyes watery, leaned wearily against the right side of his wood-paneled locker after the game Monday night. But he smiled when I asked him about the Cabrera at-bat.

"Realistically, you got guys on second and third, one out, I was thinking, let's just try and stop one guy from scoring," Pelfrey said. "Best hitter in the game. Luckily, he chased that sinker in, six or seven inches off the plate, so he helped me out in that situation."

Of course, that encapsulates the inherent limitations of Mike Pelfrey, even now. His out pitch was his sinker, but then, a lot of his setup pitches are sinkers too. It was that sinking fastball that made him a high draft pick in the first place, with the Mets hoping he'd add pitches to complement it, but the team rushed him to the big leagues before he had a chance to develop them.

Pelfrey is throwing his sinker nearly 55 percent of the time in 2013, which is a career-high. Between that and his four-seam fastball, nearly three-in-four Pelfrey pitches are accounted for, and he doesn't throw any other pitch more than 10 percent of the time. That was certainly true Monday night as well: he threw a sinker for 62 of his 102 pitches, and only the sinker went for a strike more than half the time.

Dreaming about what Pelfrey might be has obscured, in the eyes of many, the value he does provide: a durable pitcher who continues to take the ball, limit walks somewhat, and provide the same performance each year. Though his superficial numbers are ugly in 2013, a 5.19 E.R.A. is his highest in any full season, Pelfrey's walk, strikeout and other numbers are right in line with his career. His x.F.I.P. is 4.54 this season. In 2011, his last full year, it was 4.55. And 2011 looked remarkably like his previous seasons.

That is simultaneously encouraging, because it means Pelfrey has run the gauntlet of his first post-surgery year without regressing, and discouraging, because he's another year into a big league career without showing any signs of progress. Pelfrey, always his own biggest critic, expressed frustration over his 2013 results.

"I'm not going to sugarcoat it, and say I had a good year," Pelfrey said. "I definitely didn't. It didn't work out the way I wanted, or for the team, or for anybody else."

Now, at 29, the discussion about Pelfrey from the Twins' perspective is still essentially identical to the one the Mets had about him for years: if he can throw his secondary pitches for strikes and improve his pitch selection in key counts, he can be something better than the durable innings-eater who has survived for almost a decade in the major leagues.

There's a good chance he'll get to do it with the Twins. There's a scarcity of major league-ready starting pitching within the Twins' system for next season. Twins' general manager Terry Ryan, prior to the game, expressed support for the year Pelfrey's had. He signed Pelfrey to a one-year deal last offseason, and speaking Monday, he made it clear that he, at least, has his eyes open about what Pelfrey is, rather than what others keep hoping he'll be.

"Pelfrey's done a decent job, under the circumstances," Ryan told me, referring to his first year following surgery, in the press dining room earlier Monday. "I have no complaints about him or Correia," he said, lumping Pelfrey in with journeyman starter Kevin Correia. "I know Pelfrey was hoping he'd have a little bit more quality. I was hoping that, too. But my expectations are tempered, because he's coming off of Tommy John. He's been very accountable here. He's been a guy who we could count on to take the ball... we're way back in the standings, sometimes, getting a guy to take the ball in September is a struggle."

Pelfrey's done so, and he's hoping to do so again next year, in a place where he clearly feels more comfortable.

"I want to come back, and I've expressed that," Pelfrey said. "It's obviously in their hands, as far as what direction they want to go. But I've told them I'd like to come back, and we'll obviously cross that bridge when it gets here. Minnesota's been great, and it's been refreshing, coming from New York, so I've enjoyed my time here. And hopefully, there'll be a lot more."

And yet, even now, Pelfrey's manager can't help but see that strapping pitcher with the ace build and the ace pedigree, and dream of it all coming together for him.

"One hundred fifty-plus innings, I don't know if we're gonna start him again," Gardenhire said, indisputably in the present reality. "We'll have to talk about that, see how he feels after this one. He wants the ball, I know he does, the guy's just game on. We've seen some bright spots. We've also seen some regression, to where he can't find the strike zone."

And then, the jump to projection.

"But I think those are all fixable," Gardenhire continued, visibly brightening at the prospect. "Velocity's there, his secondary pitches are getting better, his arm feels great. So those things are all fixable. The paces of the game, the 3-2 counts," and here, Gardenhire chuckles slightly as he says it, as if remembering his year-long frustration in the midst of his hopefulness, "that's fixable. And that means I'd have to stand behind the rubber and yell at him every time he goes 3-2. That's how we would fix that."