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Mensching: Scouting, stats both point to optimism over Pelfrey

Kurt Mensching
Special to The Detroit News
Mike Pelfrey, RHP, age 32, 6-7, 245: Coming off his first fully healthy offseason in four years, Pelfrey has had an impressive spring. When he is on his game, his hard sinker produces a lot of ground balls, which should play well for the Tigers. He also keeps the ball in the yard. He had the lowest home run rate in baseball last season. He may not make an all-star team but more often than not, he will compete and give the Tigers a chance to win games.

When Tigers GM Al Avila announced the signing of starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey, he called it a “scout signing” rather than one driven by his analytics team.

“We felt the ability’s still there, the comeback potential is still there,” Avila said in December.

That a team would give a 32-year-old player coming of an ERA of 4.94 during three seasons with the Twins a two-year deal worth $16 million would certainly indicate the analytics department didn’t play a big role in the deal.

While you can’t judge too much from four spring training starts, Pelfrey’s initial time in a Tigers uniform has gone well. Across 14 innings, he’s struck out nine while allowing nine hits and three walks. The talent of competition he has faced, as recorded by Baseball Reference, falls somewhere between the Triple-A and major-league levels.

Pelfrey threw five shutouts innings Thursday to lower his ERA to 1.17. He retired 12 of 13 batters faced to end his start.

Even if Avila did go out of his way to stress this wasn’t a stats-based signing, you don’t have to look too hard to find an argument in Pelfrey’s numbers for why this might be a successful one.

And hey, a little scouting’s involved, too.

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Pelfrey throws a sinkerball, a pitch manager Brad Ausmus deemed to be pretty good during the last start. He also doesn’t get a lot of strikeouts.

As anyone who watched Rick Porcello in Detroit can attest to, when you rely on contact like that, you’re only as good as your defense.

Porcello was always the next big thing in Detroit but only in his final year did he actually take that step. It’s not coincidence that most of Porcello’s time here was spent with a questionable defense behind him.

He had the challenges of Miguel Cabrera at third base, Jhonny Peralta at shortstop, Prince Fielder at first, and even Ryan Raburn finding some time at second base.

It’s no surprise that his ERA was always higher than the fielding independent pitching (FIP) stat said it should be.

That’s basically Pelfrey’s time in Minnesota, with the added note that he missed much of 2014 with more maladies than a game of Operation.

Last year’s Twins ranked 22nd in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) at nine worse than league average, per Fangraphs, although they were ninth by Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) per 150 games.

The end result was that Pelfrey’s ERA for the season was 4.26, a little bit worse than the 4.00 his FIP predicted it would be.

The Tigers were ranked seventh (17 runs above average by DRS) and fifth, respectively.

It was most notable up the middle. Tigers second basemen -- mostly Ian Kinsler -- led baseball with 20 DRS and 8.5 UZR/150. The Twins were worse than average by DRS, slightly better than it by UZR/150.

At shortstop, the Tigers -- led by Jose Iglesias -- ranked 10th by DRS and fifth by UZR/150. The Twins were either way worse than average or just a little bit worse, depending on the stat.

It’s not outrageous to believe that Pelfrey, now more than a year and a half removed from having season-ending surgery to clean scar tissue out of his throwing elbow, will continue to see progress, as the scouts project. Meanwhile putting a defense better suited to him behind him will help improve, too, as the stats predict.

It’s fine to quibble with the notion that the Tigers shouldn’t have given Pelfrey a $16 million deal, especially when looking at some of the other offseason deals to starting pitchers.

But it’s not too early to start looking at this deal and find a few reasons to believe it might work out better than initially thought.

Scouts and stats, unite.

Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (www.blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at bybtigers@gmail.com.