Even as Citi Field rises, the Citi Field Preview Center maintains its space in Loge. It seems rather superfluous with the real thing sprouting toward reality, but I assume there are still Excelsior Club memberships to shill, the price of which, one imagines, stretches ever upward. While I haven't been inside the CFPC since my chilling visit last September  (when everything going on at Shea, to be fair, was chilling), I have noticed a change regarding its exterior.
The Mets plastered on the CFPC last year lifesize pictures of the players we can look forward to paying StubHub for the privilege of seeing when their world-class home opens in April 2009. Of course there was No. 5 and No. 7 and No. 15 and No. 34…
No. 34? I wondered. Who the hell is No. 34?
Oh right. Mike Pelfrey.
Easy enough oversight to make on my part. Mike Pelfrey visited Shea between May and September 2007 less frequently than I did. He had started the season in the rotation but then rotated his way back to N'Awlins. Didn't mean to forget the big fella, just hadn't indelibly plastered his image into my consciousness.
This year when you pass by the Citi Field Preview Center, you don't see No. 34. You see No. 57 in his place. Well, of course Johan Santana would be pictured. It's impossible to picture Citi Field without him. It will be impossible to buy a morsel or a trinket without thinking of how much of the markup is attributable to luring him into the new park.
Pelfrey? I guess we can picture him coming to life at Citi Field, too, even if he's been painted over at the Preview Center. I guess we'd better, even if the world can change and change again in ten months' time. Santana was a Met pipe dream last August, even further from Flushing than Pelfrey. Last August, you would have penciled in Philip Humber for Citi Field before writing Johan in ink. Pelfrey's only now working his way from pencil to pen.
If every fifth day of this season is to be given over to the education of Mike Pelfrey — and it may as well be — one of the subjects I hope he gets better at is remedial arithmetic. Somebody's got to teach him to count, because the number of pitches he throws in every start is undermining him and us.
Check this out:
6/5 vs Padres: 112 pitches thrown, 6 innings pitched
5/31 vs Dodgers: 109 pitches thrown, 7 innings pitched
5/26 vs Marlins: 95 pitches thrown, 4 innings pitched
5/21 vs Braves: 104 pitches thrown, 4 innings pitched
5/15 vs Nationals: 100 pitches thrown, 7.2 innings pitched
5/10 vs Reds: 106 pitches thrown, 6 innings pitched
5/3 vs D'backs: 102 pitches thrown, 5 innings pitched
4/25 vs Braves: 99 pitches thrown, 5.1 innings pitched
4/20 vs Phillies: 98 pitches thrown, 5 innings pitched
4/15 vs Nationals: 100 pitches thrown, 7 innings pitched
4/9 vs Phillies: 100 pitches thrown, 5 innings pitched
That's eleven starts to date, all of them strikingly similar. He's made it into the eighth inning once, through seven twice, through six twice, including last night. Six times he hasn't lasted six full innings. Yet he has thrown between 95 and 112 pitches every time out.
This is not efficient. The whole staff, come to think of it, is not efficient. Santana and Maine have run high pitch counts as a matter of course, though Johan generally gives you a little more bang for the buck (four straight starts of at least seven innings, no more than 110 pitches in any one start). Maine's had only two starts out of eleven lasting more than six innings but only three that have come up short of six. I don't know if it's Rick Peterson or Brian Schneider or not enough Brian Schneider and too much Ramon Castro or Raul Casanova, but I can't recall another season when pitch counts uniformly rose so quickly in just about every game.
Oliver Perez threw only 36 pitches Monday night in San Francisco, but he recorded only one out, so pitch counts don't tell you everything. But when you match up Mike Pelfrey's (and, to a certain extent, Santana's and Maine's) pitches thrown and innings pitched with walks and strikeouts, they don't add up. Pelf does not walk an inordinate number of batters: three last night, one on Saturday, three the three previous starts, no more than four in any of his eleven starts. He also isn't a master of the strikeout, not yet anyway. He recorded only one against the Padres. Except for the last Dodger game, he hasn't fanned more than four in any start in 2008.
So what gives? Why can't big ol' Mike Pelfrey blow batters away? Or make them swing and miss a little more? Opponents tag him for hits, not homers — yay! — but mostly they seem to work him into more pitches than would seem necessary. They work Santana and Maine, too (while Ollie mostly does himself in). It's a veritable epidemic in this rotation and if it's doing anybody harm, it's the bullpen. It's why one dip in the road by a Schoeneweis or a Sanchez in their otherwise substantive seasons stands out as it does.
Maybe we were better off not knowing about pitch counts. I never saw any displayed on a scoreboard until I visited Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego a dozen years ago. I found it distracting. Now it's standard fare. Now you can't ignore it, not as long as pitching coaches and managers don't. With pitch counts embedded into their statistics and our brains, your starter either has to go after the hitter with more confidence that he can make the batter swing and miss (something Pelfrey began to emit last Saturday) or figure out a way to throw ground balls to the shortstop and second baseman. Gary Cohen loves to tweak Greg Maddux over his tendency to pull himself after only so many frames, but you can't argue with Maddux's pitch counts in any given game. He's always gotten out of innings quickly, just as Josh Banks did last night. Bruce Bochy took out Banks after six just as Willie removed Pelfrey after six. Banks threw 71 pitches in the time it took for Pelf to throw 112.
Why does Mike Pelfrey have to throw 41 more pitches than Josh Banks?
It's a random coupling, I grant you, but have you noticed that Pelfrey seems to get outpitched or at least evenly matched by not the cream of the crop of the other team's rotation most games? Since he last won on April 15, he's faced Josh Banks, Chad Billingsley, Ricky Nolasco, Jair Jurrjens (twice), Jason Bergmann, Bronson Arroyo, Brandon Webb and Adam Eaton. Webb is a Cy Young winner and Arroyo too often has the Mets' number. Billingsley's been hot of late and Jurrjens shows every sign of being yet another annoying Brave. But Banks has made three big league starts, Nolasco is traditionally a Met snack, Eaton's what you'd kindly refer to as a journeyman and Jason Bergmann lowered his ERA to 7.45 at Shea on May 15. But Pelfrey hasn't been able to beat any of them or the Mets haven't been able to hit any of them on his behalf.
There's just something weird about the way all of Pelfrey's steps are of the baby variety, something increasingly unsettling. I'd almost feel more encouraged if he were walking six but striking out eight as long as he's going to throw too many pitches to last seven most nights. I'd believe we're seeing raw talent if not immediate results. I'd believe we'd have a weapon in development, not a very tall, very nice kid who doesn't show quite enough stuff to merit a place on the Wall of the Future and barely enough stuff to keep his place in the rotation ahead of Claudio Vargas. I suppose it's progress that Mike kept the Mets in another game last night when the offense forgot to unpack its punch. I suppose it's progress that last night he made it through six on the road for the first time in 2008. I suppose it's still way too early to form definitive judgments on a 24-year-old in his third professional season, even if I'm a little antsy about that remaining  the default setting for measuring his progress.
Not that I trust the appellation of “No. 1 draft pick” to guarantee or even promise anything where the Mets and their sordid amateur selection history  are concerned, but I still believe there's more to Mike Pelfrey than he's revealed in 28 big league starts. There has to be. The Mets weren't the only team to like the cut of his jib when they selected him as high as they did in 2005. Still, my hunch remains he was a little overvalued and my fear is he's being insufficiently taught. I look forward to watching No. 34 pitch at Citi Field nonetheless. I could do, however, without seeing No. 51 — and The Jacket that obscures it — coaching him or the rest of the Mets staff any longer.