Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 11/18/14

Mike Pelfrey‘s season is over after just three starts. The 28-year old righty is set to undergo Tommy John Surgery and will miss the rest of the 2012 season.

While all injuries are untimely, this one seemed especially so, as Pelfrey was finally starting to show signs of improving and turning the corner. Through three starts — an admittedly minuscule sample — the results were encouraging. However, more importantly, the inputs leading to those outputs were different, leading many to believe he had altered his approach to better fit his skills.

Unfortunately, for both he and the team, Pelfrey might never get to show the Mets if he finally has turned the corner. Next year is his final year of arbitration eligibility and it’s unlikely that the Mets will tender him a contract. Pelfrey will earn $5.7 million this season and his salary would only increase next season.

Given the uncertainties surrounding his eventual recovery, immediate post-surgery abilities, as well as his past track record of success (or lack thereof), it doesn’t seem very prudent for the Mets to pay him upwards of $6.5-$7 million.

Pelfrey has been a very interesting case study throughout his career. He throws hard, in the 92-94 mph range, and throws his fastball more often than just about anybody in the league. In fact, from 2009-11, Pelfrey threw his fastball 70.4 percent of the time, which was the fifth greatest frequency among the 135 qualified pitchers in both leagues. However, he didn’t strike many batters out and had trouble getting them to swing and miss, period.

His 5.8 percent swinging strike rate over the same span ranked as the 7th-worst. His 12.7 percent strikeout rate was the 13th-worst during that three-year span, lower than the likes of Livan Hernandez and Rodrigo Lopez. Batters swung at his pitches rather often and had little trouble making contact.

Pelfrey was rather adept at keeping the ball on the ground, with a 48.2 percent rate that ranked in the top 25 percent of qualified pitchers. Put together, though, Pelfrey wasn’t very productive given the opportunities bestowed upon him. Only 42 pitches logged at least 550 innings from 2009-11, and Pelfrey posted the third-worst WAR tally of the bunch. At 5.1 WAR from 2009-11, he outperformed only Joe Saunders and Bronson Arroyo.

He didn’t live up to expectations, but it’s entirely possible that those expectations were unreasonable. By virtue of making an opening day start and being a former first round pick, and given the absence of Johan Santana, Pelfrey was essentially thrust towards the top of the rotation, even though he had no business being there.

Perhaps he was a victim of circumstance in this regard, a back of the rotation starter miscast by necessity. Regardless, the Mets entered the 2012 season unsure if they would even retain his services… and for good cause.

Through three starts, he was making their decision to keep him look good. Over 19.2 innings, he struck out 15.3 percent of opposing batters while walking just 4.7 percent, clear improvements over his career rates. His strikeout rate improved in large part due to a spike in swinging strike percentage. Though he fell towards the bottom of the league from 2009-11, his 8.9 percent rate this year ranked in the NL’s upper-half.

He was getting grounders on 53 percent of his balls in play and managed a great 2.29 ERA despite a .353 BABIP against. His strand rate was abnormally high and he hadn’t allowed a home run, but he had also changed the mix of his pitches. He threw his fastball 63 percent of the time while doubling his cutter usage and calling on the curveball more frequently. Pelfrey was attacking hitters differently and the results were paying off.

Again, three starts is a minuscule sample size, and even Bronson Arroyo and Kyle Kendrick can look this good, or better, over a similar stretch. But there were enough changes in Pelfrey’s approach-based metrics to add intrigue to his performance. The sample is too small to merit tendering him a contract next year, but the unfortunate possibility exists that some other team will reap his true rewards.

Then again, this could all just be a Francoeur-esque mirage where even the approach-based metrics are fluky early on. And that’s really the point: we just don’t know with any certainty whether Pelfrey was pitching over his head or if this performance was sustainable. He looked great over three starts, but it was only three starts, and that shouldn’t be enough for the Mets to drastically alter their stance on him.

The injury occurred at a very unfortunate time in a make-or-break season for Pelfrey. While his performance sample was too small to merit a guaranteed $6.5-$7 million from the Mets next year, there were seemingly enough key positives to merit opportunities elsewhere moving forward.

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