With the 2016 MLB season roughly one-third complete, this series has touched on possible changes the Detroit Tigers might make at the catcher and shortstop positions and now turns to the starting pitching rotation.
To begin with the good news about the Detroit Tigers’ pitching, we almost have to begin with the bad news, which is that the presumptive lock for an above-slot number three starter, Anibal Sanchez, was so bad through his first eleven starts that he’s been demoted to the bullpen. Another potential starter, Shane Greene, has continued to be unable to prove he can hold down a starter role, and still-semi-prospect Daniel Norris has battled injury and efficiency problems that, so far, have kept him in Toledo and out of a rotation spot in Detroit. Thankfully, Jordan Zimmermann and Justin Verlander have, for the most part, been very solid in the first two spots, and rookies Michael Fulmer and, to a lesser extent, Matt Boyd, have arrived this year as big-league-ready starters.
A weakness common to all Tigers starters this year has been an inability to pitch late into games, but the arrival of Fulmer in particular has allowed the team to bolster an already-improved bullpen with extra tweener (i.e., not quite starter material yet/anymore) arms like Sanchez and Greene, with Boyd, who has been a bit homer-prone of late, a possibility to join them in the near future. Brad Ausmus and Al Avila have done a good job of rotating these arms through a suddenly thick bullpen, making frequent use of Toledo options where available, to the point that many Tigers fans are experiencing a creeping and unfamiliar sensation of actual comfort with their team’s pitching staff. These are strange days indeed.
If they want to return to the familiar, however, they need not look too hard, because every fifth game or so begins with Mike Pelfrey on the mound.
It is not fully clear why Detroit signed Pelfrey, now in his eleventh major-league season, at all this past offseason, and it’s even less clear why they inked a two year, $16 million contract with him. At the time, Avila called him “a proven Major League starter who will strengthen our rotation.”
The first part of that is sort of true, in a reductionist, literal sense, and the most charitable treatment of the second part would be to call it overly optimistic. Yes, Pelfrey has a proven ability to convince MLB teams to hire him as a starting pitcher. What he does not have is a proven history of strengthening pitching rotations. In reality, he has a proven history of weakening pitching rotations. Pelfrey played in ten seasons prior to the current one, and he hurt his team (i.e., posted a negative WARP) in eight of those seasons. Not great, Al.
Thus far, Pelfrey’s 2016 has been no exception. He earned his only winning decision of the season over Chris Sale, which was a neat trick, and he’s had less run support than any of his fellow Tigers starters. Still, Pelfrey unquestionably has been bad. He’s allowed more hits, runs, and home runs and a higher OPS than any current Detroit starter this season. His 1.056 OPS against essentially turns opposing lineups into something between Daniel Murphy and David Ortiz. That is bad.
Pelfrey isn’t just the worst of Detroit’s starting pitchers, he’s one of the worst in all of baseball this year. Through yesterday, 193 MLB pitchers had thrown at least thirty innings this season. Pelfrey ranks 189th in that group by DRA:
Bad company indeed. Among those few worse than Pelfrey, Jesse Hahn has been sent down to AAA, as has Wily Peralta, and former Tiger Alfredo Simon has been demoted to the bullpen. Aaron Blair somehow remains on the AAAA-caliber Atlanta roster, to the great surprise of the local press. Sanchez’s name also appears on that table, above Pelfrey’s, and the team already moved him to the bullpen.
Why haven’t the Tigers similarly demoted Pelfrey? There is no indication that, going forward, Pelfrey will be any better than he has been through his first thirteen starts. His two-year, $16 million contract is a sunk cost that hurts the team’s financial standing, but they don’t also have to allow him to continue to hurt the team on the field as well. There may be a strategic business reason to keep Pelfrey in the big-league rotation that’s beyond my comprehension, but, from a baseball performance perspective, it’s time to cut bait.
Catching Fire: When is it okay to stop short? – 6/15
Catching Fire: Heading for the exit velocity – 5/17
Catching Fire: Boy, the starters need to carry that weight a longer time – 5/3
Catching Fire: Who’s Number Two? – 5/2
Statements both obvious and only slightly less obvious about the Detroit Tigers’ finances
Shift the shift: Victor Martinez and counter-strategies
Feel like they never tell you the story of the Gose?
Getting to know Jordan Zimmermann in context
Highlights from MLB Network’s visit to Detroit Tigers spring training
2016 Detroit Tigers Season Preview: They’re Not Dead Yet