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Henning: Tigers aren’t giving up on Pelfrey

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Detroit — Sometimes the second-guessers win. Or, not so much win, but find they had a point, after all.

Mike Pelfrey’s critics have not, during most of his 2016 work, been any happier with Pelfrey than they were last December when the Tigers signed him to a two-year deal worth $16 million.

Pelfrey’s career numbers were, well, mushy when the free-agent right-hander was brought aboard as the back-end starter Detroit had been hunting. During nine big-league seasons he had etched a 4.52 ERA, which isn’t great, but wasn’t overly bothersome when ERA can be warped by variables. The greater issue was 1,400 hits and 434 walked batters in 1,237 innings, which suggested the Tigers would be dealing with a fair share of baserunners in 2016.

That had been the case, and then some, as Pelfrey, all 6-foot-7, 240 pounds of him, went to work Tuesday in a game the Tigers — thanks to a seven-run, three-homer fifth inning — won, 7-5, over the Miami Marlins at Comerica Park.

Pelfrey was socked for 12 hits in 5 1/3 innings and still nabbed the victory. He now has a 2-7 record and a 5.02 ERA. He has been clipped for 118 hits in 86 innings and has walked 32 batters. Opponents are batting .337 against him. His WHIP, which based on past years and 2016’s projections should have been in the 1.4-1.5 range, instead checks in at 1.74.

Tabs on Pelfrey

Responsibility for this signing has always been tied, principally, to David Chadd, the Tigers assistant general manager who first got to know Pelfrey when Pelfrey was a junior-high pitcher with big-league potential in Wichita, Kan., where the two men’s families lived.

Chadd kept tabs during some happy years at Wichita State when Pelfrey became a first-round draft pick. The Tigers, in fact, were thinking of snagging him with the 10th overall pick in 2005 until the Mets pounced one pick ahead of Detroit. The Tigers opted for a prospect named Cameron Maybin.

Seven-run fifth lifts Tigers over Marlins

It was easy to see in last December’s deal some old ardor.

“Trust me, it was not just my decision,” Chadd said Tuesday, standing on Comerica Park’s lush green grass, between Detroit’s dugout and the third-base line, as the Tigers took batting practice. “Did I give everyone my thoughts?

“Yes. I’ve known Mike Pelfrey for a long time. But it doesn’t fall all on my shoulders. We all met. All the pro scouts. We were all looking for starters to fill both ends of our rotation.”

This was not to be confused with a “don’t blame me” response, even if Pelfrey’s numbers aren’t going on anyone’s resume. The Tigers don’t make unilateral signings unless your name is Ilitch.

Neither have they canceled thoughts that Pelfrey, who is only 32, could yet find a comfortable pitching lane. Something that would produce innings and workable numbers. Something alien to this season and more reflective of his best years with the Mets, when he was 15-9 with a 3.66 ERA (2010) and 13-11 with a 3.72 ERA (2008).

The reason for signing him last December, Chadd said, was based on thoughts Pelfrey had shaken off Tommy John surgery in 2012, had regained some velocity, and would be a pitcher who could give the Tigers 175 or so innings in 2016.

It hasn’t worked that way. Then again, anyone studying Pelfrey’s past numbers had pretty much expected black-and-blue marks.

“The hits? I’ll give you that,” Chadd said, adding, correctly, that had Pelfrey’s mates gotten him a few more runs in a handful of outings Pelfrey’s record would be better than 2-7. “We knew he wasn’t a strikeout guy. He’s a pitcher who puts the ball in play and lets his defense go to work.

“And when that sinker’s on, with that split (split-finger fastball he has been developing) he can be an uncomfortable at-bat for a right-handed hitter.”

Contract complaints

A second complaint from fans and media last December had to do with Pelfrey’s contract, which was heavy in dollars and even in years for a man with his stats. Chadd says, and his boss, Al Avila, has agreed, the market was moving fast and the Tigers wanted to lock up a second starter after signing Jordan Zimmermann.

They could have gone with, say, Yovani Gallardo, who later signed an expensive, three-year deal with the Orioles and had a 6.04 ERA before he went on the disabled list in April. They could have opted for old friend Doug Fister. But Fister had injury history, and a fastball that last year was cruising 85-86 mph. The Astros instead signed him to a one-year, $7-million deal that could reach $12 million based on innings-pitched bonuses. Fister is 8-4 with a 3.36 ERA in 15 games. There have been no second-guesses in Houston.

The Tigers aren’t asking from Pelfrey anything extraordinary. Roll up innings. Keep the hits and walks at a reasonable rate. Ideally, become a pitcher marginally different from his past, and markedly better than he has been this season.

“We’re not upset that we signed Mike Pelfrey,” Chadd said even before the Tigers, and their starting pitcher, won a crazy game Tuesday. “We made that decision collectively. And we’ve not given up on Mike Pelfrey.” @Lynn_Henning