Henning: Tigers can’t afford to be patient with Pelfrey

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Mike Pelfrey

The Tigers are in Cleveland toting a five-game winning streak. Six times in the past seven games they’ve won. The hitters are hitting. And most of their pitchers can be trusted, including in the bullpen, which is quite the historical event in Detroit.

But because this is baseball, and baseball even for good teams is an accident waiting to happen, the Tigers are dealing with a particularly messy problem on May 2.

Mike Pelfrey.

He has made five starts, almost all of them rough, and has yet to win. His ERA is an unsightly 5.68. The wonder is that it’s not dramatically worse given that his WHIP – a far more accurate measure of a pitcher’s antics – is a hideous 2.05.

By comparison, a terrific pitcher’s WHIP is beneath 1.00. A good pitcher is 1.00 to 1.20. An effective pitcher can be 1.30 or 1.40. A guy in deep trouble is 1.70, 1.80, and a man soon to be out of a job is anything above, which is where Pelfrey’s headed if a 32-year-old right-hander doesn’t straighten out.

The Tigers are hopeful. But they can’t be sure, either about Pelfrey, or about contingencies, should they need to realign a rotation.

Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd ooze promise but are kid pitchers. Peek at their game logs, and scouting reports, and you’ll note all have, or had been, throwing unevenly at Triple A.

Fulmer’s different in the sense he has true powerhouse stuff and had only one bad start at Toledo before pitching with pizzazz Friday in his Tigers debut at Minnesota. In most minds, he would be tempting.

Fulmer’s hang-up is that he lacks a dependable third pitch, which is a must even for a 23-year-old with a fastball-slider combo as deadly as his. Unfortunately for Fulmer and for the Tigers, the big leagues is no place to refine a change-up.

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Add to the above imperfect realities Shane Greene, who is gone for another week or so because of a nasty finger blister. Greene isn’t overly young at 27, but he missed most of last season and this spring needed regular turns as the Tigers worked to make a talented pitcher a reliable starter.

These facts of pitching life, hardly unique to the Tigers, have made any thought of jettisoning Pelfrey complex.

But neither will the Tigers risk a playoff ticket by riding too long with a pitcher who has little chance of winning.

They understand September. And how, for just about any playoff contestant, every game is magnified, every day invites thoughts about what might have been done differently early in the season to have eased tension and improved playoff math in the waning hours.

If he can’t realistically compete, the Tigers will not – will not -- hesitate to say goodbye to Pelfrey and eat a potentially bad, two-year, $16-million contract. Payroll is too vast, mistakes are too easily made in big-league ball, to let pride or fractional economics sabotage a playoff run.

But out of necessity, should he not turn it around, the Tigers will consider various options.

The bullpen: Pelfrey has, in short spurts, pitched decently, as he did in the third and fourth innings Sunday. The Tigers always looked at the bullpen as a viable second choice if Pelfrey and some wobbly past numbers resurfaced in 2016. A relief role might allow him to maximize any pluses.

Toledo: Remember, the Tigers have in earlier times sent established pitchers and players to Triple A for helpful head-clearing and mechanical overhauls. Rick Porcello, Brandon Inge – even Max Scherzer. All went down, and all benefited. Pelfrey’s a fine man and would listen to reasonable suggestions.

Mike Pelfrey's WHIP this season is an ugly 2.05.

Another avenue, potentially, is for the Tigers to relocate Buck Farmer at Toledo. He has been caught in an in-between game with the Tigers, who haven’t always been sure if he’s a starter or a reliever. But he has the repertoire to start, and if he looms as a better answer, he could be moved from Detroit’s bullpen to Toledo’s rotation in a jiffy ahead of a possible, rapid, return to Detroit.

How the Tigers got into their Pelfrey fix is of course a proper question.

Begin with history. The Tigers nearly drafted Pelfrey in 2005, when he was a stud pitcher at Wichita State. David Chadd, then the Tigers’ scouting director, is from Wichita, Kan., and knew well Pelfrey and his skill set. So did other big-league teams, including the Mets, who that year had the first round’s No. 9 pick, one ahead of Detroit. The Mets grabbed Pelfrey. The Tigers settled for Cameron Maybin.

Chadd is now the Tigers’ assistant general manager and last autumn wasn’t averse to thoughts Pelfrey would be the right guy for a Tigers team hunting a fifth starter. There apparently were no serious objections when Pelfrey in four starts against the Tigers twice had pitched well.

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The problem, of course, is there was little, statistically, to fortify notions Pelfrey would be much different overall than he had been in recent years. It’s not the whole story, a stat such as WHIP, but it’s revealing enough, and here are Pelfrey’s WHIP numbers from the past three seasons at Minnesota: 1.55, 1.99, 1.48. For his 11-year, big-league career he’s at 1.49.

So, what exactly was destined to change in 2016 is difficult to figure, except a case could be made that he would give up his share of hits (198 in 164 innings 2015) but also chew enough innings to make Pelfrey a reasonable investment.

That might yet be the case.

But if it isn’t, the Tigers know they can’t be overly patient, not when you’ve banked everything on a playoff run. Other options may be few. But beginning a game, with a team knowing there’s precious little chance a pitcher will succeed, is no option at all.