Fluke watch – Mike Pelfrey and Phil Hughes

This article is going to deal with two pitchers: Mike Pelfrey and Phil Hughes. Both Pelfrey and Hughes started off the 2010 season pretty well, then suffered major drop offs in June-July (June for Hughes, July for Pelfrey). Which version of these pitchers should we expect going forward?

Mike Pelfrey

Mike Pelfrey had an amazing start to the season, in real life as well as fantasy. Through June 30, Pelfrey was 10-2 (with a save!) with a 2.93 ERA, 66 striekouts and 35 walks. He even had a .301 BABIP, making the ERA improvement seem pretty real. While the Ks and BBs weren’t amazing, the overall results were really good, and many thought Pelfrey had finally broken through. The next four months, however, showed otherwise, and Pelfrey finished the season with a 15-9 record and a 3.66 ERA, which is solid in real life, but unremarkable in fantasy, especially for a guy who doesn’t strike out many batters.

An explanation for this could be found in Pelfrey’s new pitch in 2010: the split-fingered fastball. Pelfrey had previously been totally reliant upon his fastball, and Mets fans always wondered how effective he would be if he developed another plus pitch. In April it appeared that Pelfrey had finally found one in the splitter, which was getting pretty great results, inducing ground balls at a relatively high rate (62.5% GB Rate against LHBs, 71.4% GB Rate against RHBs) while also being pretty effective at getting swings-and-misses (12.28% against LHBs and 18.42% against RHBs).

In the season’s first month, Pelfrey used the pitch 25.10% of the time against LHBs and 19.19% of the time against RHBs, resulting in lower fastball usage. But after April, the pitch became less effective, even though it’s movement didn’t seem to change significantly. The swinging strike rate and groundball rate of the pitch both decreased, and Pelf’s usage of the splitter after June dropped dramatically, to the point where it almost became an insignificant pitch in his arsenal. In fact, in August Pelfrey’s pitch usage was pretty close to his usage of pitches in 2009.

So where does that leave Pelfrey going forward for the fantasy owner? Due to the change in pitch usage and the splitter’s decreasing effectiveness throughout the year, I would expect a year closer to his poor 2009, rather than his okay 2010, and thus wouldn’t consider him a legitimate fantasy option. (Note, of course, that as a Met, Pelfrey is unlikely to get very many wins, making him even less fantasy-valuable.) Still, there’s a large amount of uncertainty here. Whatever the case, remember one last thing: if you do add Pelfrey to your fantasy team, watch out for starts against teams loaded with left-hand batters. Pelfrey’s biggest weapon, his sinker, isn’t effective at getting ground balls against such batters, so you’d be advised to sit him for such starts.

For more information as to Pelfrey’s pitches, see these other two posts.

Phil Hughes

Like Pelfrey, Hughes also had a terrific start to his season. Through June 2, Hughes was 7-1 with a 2.54 ERA, 64 K and 20 BB, though he was getting a bit lucky with a .262 BABIP. He finished with a 4.19 ERA, but due to being on the Yankees, Hughes had a nice win total (18). That win total will make Hughes a viable option in any fantasy league using wins as a category, but how good of a fantasy starter will he be?

Well, like Pelfrey, there’s a quick thing we can point to as a potential cause for Hughes’ drop. Starting in June, Hughes decreased his usage of his cutter. Against left-handed batters the cutter basically disappeared, replaced with more fastballs and a few curveballs. As the cutter was not a particularly good pitch against LHBs, this didn’t hurt too much. Against right-handed batters, the cutter usage also dropped and was replaced with a greater number of curveballs.

Unfortunately for Hughes, his curveball, which has never been great, was absolutely miserable against RHBs last year. The pitch had a swinging strike rate of 2.55%, which would be below average for a FASTBALL, nevertheless a breaking pitch. Hughes has never been particularly great with the curveball, but a 2.55% swinging strike rate on the pitch is something else entirely. (Before this year, Hughes’ curveball had a 4.1% swinging strike rate in his very short time in the league in 2008 and a 10.9% swinging strike rate in 2009.) This could account for a good deal of why Hughes’ performance dropped off after May.

As for next year, it’s hard to see that curveball continuing to be so dismal at striking batters out; it’s more likely that last year was an outlier. Thus, if Hughes maintains the same pitch usage pattern next year as he did at the end of 2010, he clearly should have better results. Hughes is also two years younger than Pelfrey, and is thus more likely to have a breakout season at this point in his career.

For some more information on Phil Hughes’ pitches, see here.

CONCLUSION

Both of these pitchers would appear to be in flux at this point in their careers. How well they do next year will depend upon how they continue to refine their repertoires. If Pelfrey comes back with his splitter going strong, having figured out how to keep it effective as batters know it’s coming, then he could be a decent fantasy starter. If Hughes comes back and figures out his pitch usage and perhaps improves his curveball, he could be a pretty good fantasy option. It’s hard to say for now; we should check up on these pitchers after the first month of next season to see what’s happened.

I wouldn’t bet on Pelfrey, but I would be willing to take a chance on Hughes, especially in leagues using wins as a category, where being on the Yankees should get him a pretty nice total. (Pelfrey’s Mets, on the other hand, are unlikely to provide a great amount of support.) Hughes is not only younger than Pelfrey, but at least part of his issues in the latter few months can be attributed to just oddly bad luck (the low swinging strike rate of the curveball) and that should improve with regression to the mean.

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Comments

  1. Mark said...

    While I agree Pelf won’t necessarily be a useful fantasy pitcher, I also wouldn’t expect a repeat of 2009.  Really, if you look past the surface, Pelf has essentially been the same pitcher for three straight years.  Not much has changed in his walk, strikeout, or GB rates.  In 2009 though, his BABIP and HR/FB were both well above his career marks and his LOB% was well below.  In regard to BABIP and LOB%, and considering his high reliance on contact, a lot of this had to do with the Mets’ poor infield defense in 2009.  The opposite can be said for his solid ERAs in 2008 and 2010—much stronger infield defense helped.  There’s little reason to think they won’t be at least as good in 2011.  Second base is the only variable, with Wright, Reyes and Davis all with solid grasps on the other positions.  Even if Reyes is traded, that probably means Ruben Tejada gets a shot to play most days (at least when Pelf is pitching), so there’s little downside there.  If Castillo, Murphy, or Emaus win the 2B job for the Mets, its probably a bad (but not catastrophic) thing for Pelf, but if at any point its turned over to Tejada, Havens, or Turner outright wins the job then his ERA could expected to be even a bit better than last year. 

    Its the kind of situation where if he starts on a little hot streak, I might roster him and then try to sell high, especially if he has another strong April (I got away with that in a couple leagues last year and got great value for him right before he nosedived mid-season).  Otherwise, he’s a viable spot starter against weak offenses if the Mets defense is playing up to par.

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