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Mike Pelfrey as a reliever

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Mike Pelfrey is a possible option for the bullpen in 2015. As a pitcher that fires fastball after fastball at hitters, can he make it work?

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Unless you've buried your head in sand this offseason, you're well aware that the pitching staff is now packed with options. In the rotation, it's already set that the Twins will have Phil Hughes headlining a decent group that includes Ervin Santana, Kyle Gibson, and Ricky Nolasco. Now it's just a matter of finding that final piece.

If you're optimistic, you want Alex Meyer or Trevor May receiving that spot. If you're a bit more of a realist, you bet that Tommy Milone takes it, but if you're a pessimist, you see Mike Pelfrey giving it another go after three consecutive years of being hurt and/or ineffective.

Prior to the 2013 season, the Twins signed Pelfrey to a one-year contract as he was coming off of Tommy John surgery. In spite of having the procedure done early in the 2012 season, Pelfrey looked to become one of the fastest to ever return to action. Although he succeeded in making 29 starts, it came with a 5.19 ERA and most of us thought that Pelfrey would be sent packing after the year was over.

The Twins inexplicably gave Pelfrey a two-year contract instead. Admittedly his FIP (3.99) was much lower than that 5.19 ERA, so perhaps the Twins thought they were getting a steal. However, Pelfrey's peripherals were mainly aided by a low home-run rate - something he's achieved throughout his entire career. His strikeout and walk rates weren't really that good so any belief that he'd perform better in the future was certainly misguided.

Pelfrey ended up being even more ineffective last season in his 5 starts before being shut down for the rest of the season. That brings us to this year, where the Twins are still on the hook for $5.5 million and need to figure out what to do with him.

To be honest, I'd rather just cut bait on Pelfrey and admit that he's a lost cause. I can't see him being a better asset in the rotation than Milone and he doesn't have a future in Minnesota like May and Meyer. However, he still could be shifted to the bullpen as the Twins attempt to recoup some of his lost value.

Admittedly, the bullpen is already packed as well. Glen Perkins, Casey Fien, Brian Duensing, Caleb Thielbar, and Tim Stauffer are already locks. I'd argue that Ryan Pressly has proven to be an adequate middle reliever. That would leave a single bullpen spot for the likes of Rule 5 pick J.R. Graham, Michael Tonkin, Lester Oliveros, Stephen Pryor, Aaron Thompson, and even the losers of the final rotation spot battle, which does include Pelfrey.

I've seen multiple people say that they'd be intrigued by putting Pelfrey in the bullpen to throw an inning at a time. He already possesses above-average fastball velocity as a starting pitcher, so it makes sense that he could pull a Wade Davis or Glen Perkins and ramp it up even more in a late-inning role. Of course, that's assuming he even warrants consideration in the late innings. With his background as a starting pitcher, it would make sense that Pelfrey would just slide into Anthony Swarzak's old role.

Of course, one could counter that Tim Stauffer's presence is to be a long reliever, so let's play around with the idea that Pelfrey would be a one-inning reliever. As I've already mentioned, I've seen comparisons made to Wade Davis, but I see those being a bit hasty. Davis is a three-pitch pitcher as he features a 4-seam fastball, cutter, and curveball; Pelfrey does feature five pitches, but his usage rates are far different than Davis'.

Last season as a shutdown reliever in the Royals bullpen, Davis used his fastball about 60% of the time while mixing in his cutter and curve almost evenly at nearly 20% apiece. Meanwhile, Pelfrey leaves no mystery as what he's going to throw - he's going to pound the zone with fastballs. In his career, Pelfrey has thrown his fastball about 70% of the time. His other four pitches come in at 12% and under, so there isn't as much effort put into changing speeds and fooling hitters.

Granted, this isn't a fully fair comparison. You don't need to have an even mix of pitches to succeed in the major leagues, so instead I'll take a look at the pitchers that throw a single pitch as often or more than Pelfrey. Additionally, I'll look at their other pitches to see how they compare with usage rate and also pitching linear weights. I've used the linear weights before, and just as a refresher it's a stat that can be used to judge an effectiveness of a pitch based on the results it generates. I will admit that it doesn't factor in pitch sequencing, but it'll work. Also, zero is average while most pitches stay in the range of -2 to +2. One last thing to note is that I eliminated pitches that were used less than 2% of the time, as I attributed that to pitchF/X error instead of an actual intended pitch by the relief pitcher, so that's why some pitchers' repertoires don't add up to 100%.

Pitcher FB SL CT CB CH SF
Jake McGee 96.4% (1.12) 3.6% (3.44)
Kenley Jansen* 94.1% (1.70) 5.9% (0.60)
Zach Britton^ 91.5% (0.82) 8.6% (1.25)
Sean Doolittle 87.6% (1.64) 11.3% (0.06)
Brian Schlitter^ 86.6% (0.15) 13.0% (-0.17)
Ross Detwiler 85.7% (0.16)
9.8% (-1.31) 4.5% (-0.73)
Jared Hughes^ 84.8% (0.28) 14.2% (0.64)
Brandon Kintzler^ 80.7% (1.44) 13.0% (-0.81) 6.3% (1.02)
Brandon League^ 78.4% (0.36) 4.9% (0.51) 16.7% (0.48)
Jonathan Broxton 78.4% (0.89) 20.6% (1.13)
Dale Thayer 78.1% (1.27) 18.1% (-1.15) 3.7% (-3.97)
Trevor Rosenthal 77.6% (0.75) 4.5% (-0.43) 16.8% (2.87)
Ronald Belisario^ 76.7% (0.67) 18.1% (-0.07) 4.2% (-1.27)
Addison Reed 75.0% (0.78) 24.4% (-1.69)
LaTroy Hawkins 74.9% (0.72) 16.1% (0.48) 7.9% (-0.07)
Jeurys Familia^ 74.5% (0.73) 24.7% (1.28)
Kelvin Herrera 74.5% (0.76) 6.2% (-1.31) 19.3% (1.60)
Glen Perkins** 74.4% (-0.18) 25.6% (1.08)
Hector Rondon^^ 73.8% (0.63) 16.5% (0.34) 9.3% (0.51)
Jim Johnson^ 73.7% (1.16) 15.9% (0.70) 10.4% (1.51)
T.J. McFarland^ 73.4% (0.57) 17.5% (-3.23) 9.1% (2.24)


Primarily throws a cutter
^ Primarily throws a 2-seamer
** His poor fastball rating is due to his time as a starting pitcher.
^^ Couldn't find the linear weight on his cutter as the FanGraphs leaderboards said he threw one, but his player page did not show a cutter, nor did it even show a pitch with the same velocity. I ended up using the FanGraphs linear weight instead of the pitchF/X linear weight as I used for all other pitches.

Short of some pitchF/X classification errors, I noticed three main things. First, only five pitchers threw a secondary pitch less often than Pelfrey: Jake McGee, Kenley Jansen, Zach Britton, Sean Doolittle, and Ross Detwiler. I don't know if it's coincidence, but all of those pitchers except Jansen are lefthanders, and he's the second coming of Mariano Rivera with his cutter so he's pretty damn tough on lefties anyway.

Second, look at all those sinkerballers! That gives a little hope for Pelfrey, but we should remember that his fastballs are actually split somewhat evenly between 4-seamers and 2-seamers. The worm burners above all generate high ground ball rates, while Pelfrey has been merely average in that department for his career.

Finally, every pitcher except Glen Perkins (which I explained below the chart) has had an above-average fastball according to the linear weights. As the primary pitch, I sure hope that it would be effective as challenging hitters with mediocre 90 MPH fastballs would be no way to find success in the big leagues. One thing working in Pelfrey's favor is that his 4-seam fastball has rated as slightly above-average for his career, although the 2-seamer has been slightly below-average.

As for his 5-pitch repertoire, it would likely be pared down if he became a relief pitcher. Working in shorter bursts, pitchers tend to focus more on their best pitches instead of changing speeds and keeping hitters off-balance to last 6+ innings per appearance. Therefore, if Pelfrey dropped his splitter or cutter - his two worst pitches - I bet he could see success in the bullpen. Also, there's the chance that he'll receive a velocity boost by airing it out in relief, so if he could turn his 92-93 MPH fastball into a 94-95, he's got a good possibility of becoming a pretty decent reliever.

I don't know if Pelfrey has what it takes to become a successful reliever. As long as he can add a couple MPH to his fastball and drop a pitch or two that hasn't worked for him as a starter, I think he can make it work. But he'll need to impress during spring training, because otherwise he may not have much time left wearing the new Kasota gold.