Tip leads to new outlook for Pelfrey
Mets right-hander learning to be more deceptive on mound
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Still disappointed by his performance last summer and intent on improving, Mike Pelfrey shamelessly has turned to deceit as a means to attaining his objective.
He'll do what must be done, he says. And what does he care who knows it? Indeed, the more aware the National League becomes about his plan to use PED (performance-enhancing deception), the better off Pelfrey is likely to be.
And so he is announcing here some procedural changes he already has developed and implemented solely to bamboozle opposing batters, in case they haven't already noticed what he's up to.
Beginning this season, for example, Pelfrey will spread wide the fingers of his glove -- he calls it "fanning my glove" -- whenever he reaches into it to grasp the baseball, regardless of the pitch he intends to deliver -- fastball, slider or changeup.
Likewise, when he is to throw his fastball, he will keep his tongue in his mouth under the mouth piece that now is as much a part of his baseball gear as his spikes and uniform No. 34.
Now let's see what they can do with that bowling-ball pitch, a heavy sinker he throws, now that they won't know what's coming. We'll just see.
After two seasons as a professional, and after earning some of the $5.25 million the Mets are contracted to pay him after they made him the ninth player chosen in 2005 First-Year Player Draft, Pelfrey remains a big tipper -- however unwitting. He has three pitches, and, in the parlance of the dugout, opposing hitters "have" them, too. In other words, they know what to expect. They read him like the top line of an eye chart. He's been tipping his pitches.
Like many young pitchers who seldom relied on changeups in their formative years, Pelfrey, 24, would open his glove wide when he reached in to grasp the ball deep in his right hand for the offspeed pitch -- and not do the same on other pitches.
Dugout spies caught on to that in a New York minute.
But worse, when Pelfrey initiated his delivery of a fastball, his tongue became visible. Just what happened with William Bendix -- he did it on curveballs -- when he portrayed that famous Red Sox hurler Babe Ruth in the movies.
So any batter with reasonable powers of observation and an ability to reason knew all three: fanned glove meant changeup; visible tongue meant fastball; neither was the unmistakable sign for slider.
Armed with that knowledge, opposing hitters exploited Pelfrey to such a degree that he and the Mets were incredulous until they realized his tipping tendencies. They realized it last season when hitters appeared to be "on" his pitches and were doing more with the bowling ball than made sense.
After creating an exhibition-game resume last spring that was fully consistent with his rank in the Draft and gave the Mets hope, Pelfrey was battered around in the big leagues. And tipping, the Mets concluded, was at least partially responsible for the unsightly 0-7 record that defaced his 2007 season from July 6 to Sept. 1.
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It still was an issue early in camp, when a teammate who never had faced Pelfrey could read his pitches in batting practice. He took steps to counteract the surveillance.
"All I have to do is fan my glove and throw a fastball," Pelfrey said early last week.
Whether or not it was his countermeasures at work, Pelfrey entered his third Spring Training start Saturday against the Marlins with five scoreless innings, a renewed sense of confidence and an enhanced chance of being part of the Mets' rotation when the time comes for a No. 5 starter.
But the Marlins beat on him -- seven runs and seven hits in 3 1/3 innings.
At first, Pelfrey attributed his performance to his own imprecision, to disobedient pitches.
"That was me last year," he said.
But later, three colleagues -- Billy Wagner, Ryan Church and hitting coach Howard Johnson -- told him they had cracked his code.
"They all told me they had my fastball," Pelfrey said Sunday morning. "Every time I threw my fastball, I was really chewing on the mouthpiece, bearing down. The other pitches ... I didn't chew."
The Mets couldn't know for certain whether the young Marlins hitters had picked up on Pelfrey's public masticating. But they can assume they did, and that other teams will. Every team has at least one or two spies -- a coach and a veteran -- with espionage expertise. Rusty Staub was exceptionally skilled in that regard.
"Every pitcher does something," Aaron Heilman said. "I guess some guys are easier to read than others."
But every pitcher also has the wherewithal to counter. It's called an inside fastball thrown with the same "tip" as a curve.
"Stand up a few hitters -- it'll stop," one Mets pitcher said. "Word will get around. Some hitters don't want to know what's coming. The ones who do want to be 100 percent sure. So if you cross them up a couple of times, that plants just enough doubt."
Other elements undermined Pelfrey as well Saturday. At least part of his problem was the constant wind that eliminated any moisture on the ball and made it feel slick. But there was more deception at work. Pelfrey preferred not to blame the invisible force.
"Yeah, but I don't want to make excuses. You have to find a way to command your pitches, no matter what," he said.
But as he spoke those words, Wagner and Pedro Martinez discussed the effects of wind.
"Nothing worse than the wind," Martinez said. "I'll take hot and humid when you can still grip the ball. But the wind is so tough. The only thing worse is wind and cold."
And so it went. Martinez and Wagner absolved their younger mate, even if Pelfrey wouldn't hear it.
"I told him," Wagner said, "he wasn't as bad today as it looked. When you're still working on things, the results don't matter. I don't want him to be getting down on himself. We don't know what the rotation is going to be yet, but you know sooner or later we're going to be depending on him."
And that brings us to the greatest deception Pelfrey has pulled off this spring. He wants the job.
Properly, he has deferred to Orlando Hernandez, his primary competition for the fifth spot in the rotation, at every turn.
"It's his job," Pelfrey has said repeatedly. "He's amazing how he gets outs. Lots of times last year, he was our best pitcher." And then he would add the kicker. "I had my opportunity last year, but I didn't take advantage of it."
And all of what he has said in that regard is true. Pelfrey certainly wasn't about to displace El Duque off the 3-8 record he produced in 13 starts last season -- no matter that he won three of his last four decisions. Hernandez did have extended periods during which he was the Mets' most effective starter.
Just the same, Pelfrey wasn't speaking the whole truth when he deferred to his elder teammate. Unspoken was his desire to be in the Mets' rotation.
"I want it. I want to pitch," he said Thursday. "I said what I said because I didn't want it to be a big story. I didn't want to offend [Hernandez]. And I really can't say that I took advantage of the chance I had last year.
"But that doesn't mean that I'm giving in. I want to pitch. I want that job to mine if I can get it. I want to earn it, win and keep it."
Honest, he does.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.