Tigers believe gamble on Pelfrey is well-placed bet

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Mike Pelfrey

Lakeland, Fla. — During the winter meetings in December General Manager Al Avila called the signing of veteran right-hander Mike Pelfrey a scouting decision. 

“I’m not going to throw our analytics people under the bus on this one,” he said. 

The recent raw numbers on Pelfrey aren’t pretty. After the All-Star break last year he was 1-5 with a 4.46 ERA and 1.50 WHIP. He had thrown just 20 innings in 2014, sidelined with a nerve condition. He’s four years removed from Tommy John surgery. He is six years removed from his best season (15-9, 3.66 ERA with the Mets in 2010). 

So, clearly, the Tigers took a leap of faith in signing him for two years and $16 million.

Here’s why they did it:

“I feel like there is more there,” manager Brad Ausmus said on a rainy Wednesday morning. “Being a couple years out from surgery we hope is a good omen. We think, with the stuff he has, there is a little more in there.

“He has been a good big league pitcher. We feel like he can be a very good big league pitcher.” 

There are indicators of a potential resurgence. He has a clean bill of health and was able to execute his usual offseason workout regimen. He is coming off a season where he made 30 starts. Though the 164⅔ innings was low for that many outings, it was the most he’s thrown since 2011.  

And in terms of analytics, his velocity increased 3 mph, from 90 mph in 2014 to 93 in 2015. And, when his sinker and newly acquired split-fingered fastball are working, he got a lot of ground balls.

His 0.6 home runs per nine innings (11 total homers allowed) was the lowest in baseball last year.

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Besides all of that, the Tigers love Pelfrey’s makeup. Assistant general manager David Chadd has known him and his family going back to before he was a high school star in Wichita, Kansas. They love his work ethic, competitive fire and believe he can be a positive influence in the clubhouse. 

They feel like the $16 million deal was a very calculated risk, and Pelfrey feels ready to validate their faith.  

“I know the last couple of years haven’t been great, necessarily,” Pelfrey said. “But I still feel like if I’m healthy I am going to get guys out — and I am healthy. No excuses. We’re going to go out there and we are going to be effective and we are going to give this team a chance to win every five days, and we’re going to win a lot of games.”

Pelfrey started strong for the Twins last season (5-2, ERA under 3.00) and then seemed suddenly to wear down physically.

“I don’t know for what reason, but I was fatigued,” he said. “I struggled the last three months. I just felt exhausted. I don’t know if it was because I was coming off surgery or coming off 20 innings the year before. I just felt tired.”

He still kept taking the ball every five days. His velocity didn’t diminish, but his pitches lost some bite and his command was spotty. He believes with a full offseason of conditioning, he won’t crash into that wall again this year.

“I do think I can be a lot better,” he said. “I plan on getting back to being one of the guys you can count on every fifth day to give the team a chance to win. I think after taking the ball 30 times last year, it won’t be as hard.

“I feel like I am in pretty good shape. I feel good throwing the ball — no pain, no limitation. This team can be great and I just want to do my part.” 

As for those who may think the Tigers misspent on Pelfrey, well, he said you are entitled to your opinion.

“I don’t pay attention to that stuff,” he said. “They can say what they want. I take pride in going out and competing and winning. I don’t need any extra motivation.”