Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in The Eagle on April 22, 2005.
Mike Pelfrey is not an incredibly complex person. He keeps things simple, takes care of business, concentrates on the task at hand. Then he gets up the next morning and does it again.
That approach has served him well. It has made him perhaps the best pitcher in college baseball as a junior, and one of the best in Wichita State history.
Well, that and an incredibly gifted right arm.
Going into tonight’s game against Creighton, Pelfrey has a career ERA of 2.15. Darren Dreifort holds the WSU record at 2.24.
Pelfrey also is on pace to pass 370 career strikeouts, which is the school and Missouri Valley Conference record, by the end of this season.
Professionally, Pelfrey is nearly an ideal prospect at 6-foot-7, 215 pounds. His fastball is consistently between 92 and 97 mph. His curveball is tight; his changeup is effective. He’s throwing all three pitches with equal confidence.
Illinois State coach Jim Brownlee has no reservations about favorably comparing Pelfrey to his former ace at Evansville, Andy Benes, who pitched in the major leagues for 14 years.
How did he get to this point?
By not thinking too much.
If catcher Joe Muich calls a pitch, he throws it.
If coach Gene Stephenson asks him to pitch on three days’ rest, he does it.
If pitching coach Brent Kemnitz wants him to tweak something, Pelfrey is clay in his hands.
But it wasn’t always like this. Pelfrey had a little bit of stubbornness when he arrived at WSU.
For some reason, when Pelfrey was a senior at Heights High, his fastball wasn’t quite as fast as it was when he was a junior. Could have been because he decided to play basketball his senior year and his arm was out of shape.
Anyway, he went from being projected as a sure-fire first-round draft pick to slipping badly.
On June 4, 2002, Tampa Bay picked Pelfrey in the 15th round.
“At least they stopped the bleeding,” Pelfrey told his mother.
It wasn’t long after that Pelfrey was sitting dejected in Kemnitz’s office. He had signed with WSU without really expecting to play for the Shockers, until then.
“Brent told me it was a blessing in disguise,” Pelfrey said. “But I was so (mad) at the time, I’m sitting there thinking ‘Don’t tell me this.’ I was so flustered.”
Kemnitz couldn’t blame him.
“And I told him that,” Kemnitz said. “I said ‘Listen, I know you’re disappointed, because you should have been a higher draft pick. You may not know it now, but this will be the best thing to ever happen to you.’ ”
Not to mention the best thing to happen to Kemnitz.
However, when Pelfrey arrived on campus, he struggled. In fall drills, his teammates were hitting the fastball he’d relied on so heavily in high school.
“I got lit up,” Pelfrey said. “My reaction was to rear back and throw harder. That didn’t work, either.”
Finally, Pelfrey got tired of being hit. That’s when he became Luke Skywalker to Kemnitz’s Yoda.
It’s not enough to throw heat, Kemnitz said. Location is the key. Don’t be afraid to throw inside. Develop your other pitches and learn to rely on all of them equally. Have a presence on the mound. Be in control.
“I finally opened up to Brent,” Pelfrey said. “And now I’m 100 times better.”
It is probably safe to say every team in Major League Baseball is not going to pass on Pelfrey 14 times again this June, when he’s eligible for the draft again.
Just last week, Pelfrey had three meetings with professional scouts, which wasn’t unusual. Kemnitz knows the routine. Seven of his pitchers have been drafted in the first round.
“A lot of people think that’s a lot of fun,” Kemnitz said. “That’s not necessarily the case. . . . A high-profile guy, everybody wants a piece of him. Everybody needs a meeting with him; they need to fill out their questionnaires. Media types want your time. There are huge distractions.
“All of a sudden, there’s way too much stuff in their head. As a coach, I don’t want anything in their head.”
Fact is, it freaks out Kemnitz that this story is running the day Pelfrey is starting. He thinks it’s tempting the baseball gods.
On the other hand, if anybody can handle it, it’s Pelfrey. Not much seems to affect him.
“The area that I’m most impressed – and this is a strong statement, because when you grade his stuff out it’s outstanding – is his makeup,” Kemnitz said. “He’s a bulldog. He doesn’t make excuses if he has a bad game. He isn’t a prima donna. He wants to be like everybody else, and he’s a great competitor on the mound. If he has a good game, it’s all about everybody else.”
Indeed, Pelfrey’s whole life is geared around his teammates. He’s accepted college life whole-heartedly.
He’s treating this like his last season.
“I’m a firm believer in everything happens for a reason,” Pelfrey said. “Brent was right. Coming here was the best thing for me. Now I’m not worried about trying to impress the scouts. . . .
“I want to be remembered as a team guy; a guy who went out there and competed under any circumstances, whether he had his best stuff or not. And hopefully I’ll be remembered as one of the best ever.”