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Pelfrey off to legit 3-0 start for Mets

4/21/2010

I've been having a lot of fun this week pointing out that New York Mets starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey leads the team in wins and saves, but now it's time to get serious.

Obviously the saves part won't continue. Even if closer Francisco Rodriguez were to fall out of a taxi cab and stop pitching today, Pelfrey wouldn't be the fill-in. And don't worry, K-Rod owners, he's fine! Only a late Fernando Tatis home run Tuesday, extending a lead to cost him a save situation, prevented his first save of the season!

But what about those Pelfrey wins? After shutting down the right-handed-heavy Chicago Cubs lineup for seven shutout innings Tuesday, he is 3-0 in three starts with a 0.86 ERA and 1.00 WHIP. He looks terrific, averaging nearly seven innings per start, keeping pitch counts in check ... yet he's available in more than 83 percent of ESPN.com standard mixed leagues. His save in the 20th inning of Saturday's game might have put extra focus on him as a novelty, but his work as a starter has been totally legit. Put simply, he has been New York's MVP so far.

Although going out on a limb to predict Pelfrey will win more games than Johan Santana seems kind of silly, I guess I'm wondering, Is it really that crazy? Each entered Wednesday having made three starts, and Pelfrey has a two-win lead. I have little concern about Santana winning 15 or so games, but I am buying into this new Pelfrey, who's armed with a new pitch, new confidence and that relatively new, large ballpark.

It's not as if Pelfrey is coming outta nowhere. Two seasons ago he was more than serviceable, winning 13 games with a 3.72 ERA and 1.36 WHIP. The Mets were a contending team, and Pelfrey was the No. 2 starter. He's again the team's second-best pitcher.

Although Pelfrey's sinking fastball appears back to normal after disappearing for most of last season, he added a splitter this past winter. Not only has it been a devastating pitch that hitters haven't appeared ready for, it also has given him confidence. After Pelfrey threw first-pitch strikes to 19 of 25 Cubs hitters Tuesday, manager Jerry Manuel said, "[He has] a better presence. He's staying on top of the mound. He's ready before the hitter is ready. You don't see the lap around the mound."

Confidence can play a big role in how a pitcher performs. I saw every start Cole Hamels made last season and didn't need Philadelphia Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee to repeatedly point out how Hamels' mound demeanor was far different from his awesome 2008 campaign. I'd say Hamels looks a lot better now, although he remains fragile. I guess it hadn't dawned on me that Pelfrey, whose 2009 ERA was an unownable 5.03 and WHIP was 1.51, might have been dealing with the same thing. He was so predictable with his fastball last season, relying on it way too much. Hitters caught on. Pelfrey was tied for ninth in the NL in fastest average fastball (92.6 mph), but even Nolan Ryan needed other pitches.

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Pelfrey looks different now, and I'm ready to project numbers much like his breakout 2008 if he continues to refine his new pitch and can control the mental aspect of his game. Pelfrey couldn't have simply "lost it" last season, just as Hamels didn't. Confidence had to play a role.

"Baseball Tonight" researcher Mark Simon, a contributor to the fine TMI blog and also a big Mets fan, is my regular Wednesday guest/co-host on the Baseball Today podcast. He shared today that Pelfrey has yet to allow a hit on his splitter, and he has been spotting it consistently low and away to right-handed hitters.

"I feel like I'm a different pitcher, being able to throw the secondary stuff for strikes," Pelfrey told ESPNNewYork.com writer Andrew Marchand. "I owe [pitching coach] Dan Warthen a lot of credit, because that split-finger makes all the difference in the world because it has been huge for me."

So far, hitters haven't adjusted. Baseball is a game of adjustments, so when the scouting reports come out and teams see Pelfrey again, we'll see how things go. For now, though, I'd call Pelfrey one of those pitchers who's off to a great start and should remain useful. Fifteen wins for Pelfrey is not so crazy after all. He's already one-fifth of the way there!