Mike Pelfrey is coming home.
Pelfrey spent 12 years as a Major League Baseball pitcher. Now he is bringing his knowledge and experience back to Wichita, Kan. to Newman University as an assistant coach in 2018.
Pelfrey is rooted in Wichita, home to McCarthy Field, home of the Newman Jets. He played his college ball for the Shockers at Wichita State. Pelfrey turned a monster 12-3, 1.93 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 143 strikeout junior season into a first round selection, taken by the New York Mets ninth overall in the 2005 MLB Draft.
“Draft day is a chance to get your foot in the door on reaching your goal of playing in the big leagues,” Pelfrey told NCAA.com. “For me, it was a dream come true. I kind of knew it was going to happen. You never 100 percent know where, but leading up to the draft there were talks, so I had an idea. But obviously until your name is called, nothing’s guaranteed.”
The righty’s career took him from New York to Minnesota, and then to Detroit, before one last stop in Chicago with the White Sox. It was the latter years of his career that Pelfrey began to get the itch.
“The last four or five years, I’ve taken up more of a mentor role in professional baseball,” Pelfrey said. “This coaching thing sparked my interest, so I said when I was done I was going to get into coaching. I didn’t know it was going to be quite this soon.
“I had a friend that knows Zane [Ehling, Newman’s head coach]. I went back to school to finish up my degree and saw an internship in 2019. Then he was like, ‘tell him to come now,’ so I said alright. I don’t know if he thought I was even serious at first, but a couple days later I showed up, ready to help out.”
It wasn’t always like that for Pelfrey. Mentoring the players changed his perspective on his post-playing career. In fact, Pelfrey can remember the moment it changed.
“When I was playing, early in my career, I wanted to be the best player I could be and play until they took the jersey away,” Pelfrey said. “After a couple of surgeries and I felt like the last couple of years that my abilities were declining, I got more into that mentor role. It was in Minnesota in 2013, and somebody was late one day. The pitching coach came over to me and just said, 'you got him.' I was like, 'what?' And he said, 'you don’t want me to get involved.' Ever since that day, I went to talk to him, it’s been talking to young guys and helping them out. I enjoy it, I embrace it.”
Pretty cool to see former @GoShockersBSB All-American Mike Pelfrey back in Wichita kicking off his coaching career @NewmanUBaseball. And he's not afraid to show them how it's done! More on the newest Jet tonight on @KSNNews at 10 @NewmanU @NewmanJets #Shockers #watchus pic.twitter.com/gMcE9yCQyw— Elliott Polakoff (@KSNElliott) January 11, 2018
Now, Pelfrey is back in Wichita, on the baseball field with Newman and in the classroom at Wichita State. As he finishes his degree, he again is taking on a role once familiar to him: a student-athlete.
“I haven’t had classes with guys I’m coaching, so that helps,” Pelfrey said. “ I do have classes with some of the Wichita State players, so we’ve talked about baseball and what they think. I remember what it was like when I was there, so I want to see what it’s like now.”
Pelfrey will obviously be working most closely with the pitching staff. He recently made his first mound visit, which is going to take some getting used to for the MLB veteran. Instead of listening to instruction, he’s now the one giving it.
“When I signed on, John Branum was a two-way guy. He played third and pitched, and was their No. 1 guy,” Pelfrey said of Newman’s assistant coach.”I call him the John-of-all-trades, he helps out with all of that stuff. I’m solely with the pitchers. We had a scrimmage the other day, and I took the mound visits, which was kind of weird.”
There hasn’t been many putting Newman high up in the rankings as 2018 begins, but that doesn’t bother Pelfrey. He sees a lot of promise in his young rotation.
“Roger Wilson is a guy that will probably run it up towards 90. He’s got a good change up. His slider and curveball, we’re trying to get a little more consistent with. [Jacob] Stramel I think has a chance to be really, really good, but needs to be a bit more consistent with his off speed. I know we have the preseason ranking of seven in the conference. I’d be pretty disappointed if we don’t perform better than that.”
Pelfrey had a big arsenal himself, able to throw the fastball a few ways, with an assortment of secondary offerings that helped him get people out. That’s a huge advantage for Newman’s young staff, having a veteran that can relate to many different pitches.
“There’s a couple guys that actually throw the splitter,” Pelfrey said of his signature pitch. “I can relate a lot easier. I show them, ‘I threw it like this, or I felt this out front’. I tried a thousand different slider grips, so I show them what worked for me. At the end of the day, there’s ten different grips for a slider that work for people. We’re just trying to get them to a point where it becomes consistent, and it becomes easy to be consistent. It definitely helps with the experience that I’ve had.”
Another thing Pelfrey can show them is the mental side of the game. Playing in the bright lights of New York, it was something Pelfrey had to master himself. He references his favorite baseball movie, For Love of the Game, on what it’s like.
“I like the way he cleared the mechanism as it was called,” Pelfrey said of Kevin Costner’s character. “People don’t understand, but that actually happens in a game. When you’re locked in, it’s you and the catcher and no one else. There could be 50,000 fans in the stands and you don’t hear a single one of them. But the days that go bad, you could probably hear the guy in the third deck yelling at you. The mental part of the game is that big of a difference.”
The Jets open the season with a home-way series against Fort Hays State, starting on February 8. Newman returns home on the ninth. That's when Pelfrey, once the best pitcher in Wichita, will be grooming the next wave of young, talented pitchers and begin the next step of his baseball journey.