Thursday, May 17, 2012

New York Mets: Amazing Rotation, or Amazing Mess?

In yet another edition of my starting rotation analysis we’re going to take a look at the New York Mets. Now, go ahead and think back to the offseason, if I had told you then that the Mets would not only be above .500 after 36 games, but that they would have the same record as the Yankees, and a better record than the Phillies, the Red Sox, The Angels, and the Tigers, would you have laughed at me? I would have, and you should have. However, and I’m borrowing from John Sterling here, “You can’t predict baseball”. Here we are, and the Mets are sitting at 20-17 as of this writing. The team’s rotation is a lock to do all of one thing: scare Mets fans.

Dillon Gee has managed to eek out three quality starts so far, and has in the other 4 starts, only once made it out of the 6th inning. To his credit, he’s made it into the 6th in every start, which for a lot of young starters is something to hang their hat on. Now, to be fair to Gee, his BABIP is sitting at .351 which is high despite his 21% line drive rate. He is forcing batters to put the ball on the ground pretty well (over 50% of the time) and he’s only giving up 25% of hits for extra bases. Gee will probably come around some, and his BABIP will come down to earth and he might well look respectable by the end of the year.

Jonathon Niese has never before tasted anything greater than mediocrity. He has been a league average or worse pitcher on some league average or worse Mets teams since making his debut in ‘08. Niese has managed to look almost like a different pitcher this year, going 6+ innings in all of his first 4 starts (all of them quality) before the wheels fell right off in Houston giving up 5 earned runs in 3 innings, which was followed up by a lack luster (but not awful) start in Philly before he was able to right the ship and threw 6 shutout innings against the Marlins. I would be worried that Niese is more the pitcher he has been over his career than he’s the pitcher that his solid 3.40 ERA and 1.235 WHIP make him out to be.  His BABIP is at .261, which is 70 points lower than his career average, and none of his peripherals imply that that will continue. He’s giving up almost the same line drive percentage as last year, and is only forcing ground balls marginally better than last season, He is also walking more batters than ever before. If the increase in groundball rate can be sustained he might be able to get away with a few extra walks here and there, but I think Niese is going to regress as the season wears on.

R.A. Dickey has started this season off pretty well, if not quite as good as he’s been over the past 2 seasons in New York. Dickey is of course a knuckleball pitcher, and with that can come huge fluctuations from game to game in performance. That’s not to say that no other pitchers have off days, just that when a knuckleball doesn’t break, it moves like a BP fastball and often gets hit just as hard. Atlanta took advantage of just such an outing belting 3 home runs off Dickey in 4 and ⅓ innings of work to give them a nice healthy 8 runs back on April 18th. Dickey is walking, and striking out about 2% more batters than last year, and is giving up homers about twice as often, having given up 7 dingers in 7 starts. Fact is that it’s hard to say what a knuckleball pitcher will do from year to year, let alone from start to start. I don’t think Dickey will be bad this year at all, but to say that he’ll put together a 2010 like season again would be equally unlikely. Somewhere in the area of slightly below and slightly above league average seem like the safest bets you can make with an established knuckleballer, and that’s what I’d expect from Dickey.

Mike Pelfrey got off to an excellent start, and will be out now until the early part of next season for Tommy John surgery. So, what was looking like a promising start for Pelfrey, and could have been enough to have the Mets seriously considering extension talks will instead be a year of rehabbing his elbow and hoping that he can pick up next season where he left off.

Johan Santana is back, and is ready to make good on the last few years of his Mets contract. So far Santana has been excellent, after being limited to 5 innings in his first 2 outings, Johan imploded in Atlanta, going 1 and ⅓ innings giving up 6 runs (4 earned) on 55 pitches. Since then he has provided the Mets with 5 consecutive quality starts. Santana is back to his Cy Young years in strikeout rate (more than a strikeout per inning pitched), and though he’ll likely be limited in his innings total, he could look to put together a very good year, and be the one truly stable part of the Mets rotation. Santana’s giving up more fly balls than he has in 9 years, but I’d be hard pressed to start telling people to panic there. He’s recently come back from surgery, he’s looking dominant, and the rest will probably straighten itself out over the course of the year. I’d expect a rough start here or there as he makes adjustments, but I have trouble seeing anything but quality out of Santana by the end of the season.

Miguel Batista appears to be the heir apparent to take over Pelfrey’s spot in the rotation and has so far been the definition of okay this season. He’s pitching to a 4.26 ERA between starting and relieving, but managed a 7 inning 4 hit shutout in his last outing. The 41 year old Journeyman might just have a few tricks left up his sleeve. His BABIP (.329) is higher than his career average (.298), but he’s given his age and that he’ll be starting rather than relieving, that might not be too far out of line. It doesn’t look like he’s making any real changes from what he did last year, and if that means that he’ll be a roughly league average to slightly below average starter, the Mets will probably live with it, especially if they start to fall out of contention as the year wears on. The biggest question at this point may be whether or not he’s going to be able to hold down the back of the rotation all year, and that’s a fair concern, he’s 41 years old, and hasn’t started more than 5 games in a season since 2008. On the whole, there’s not a ton you can expect from Batista, and given his contract, if the Mets start looking to upgrade their rotation, he’s likely to be the odd man out by mid season.

The Mets are currently in place for the last wildcard spot in the NL, and while it’s far, far too early to say that they will be making a playoff appearance this season if they can keep winning despite a middling/weak rotation, and a questionable bullpen they might be a team to watch at the trade deadline. I don’t know that their lineup can continue to carry their pitching staff, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they started to come back down to earth in a hurry, but for the time being it’s got to be a nice feeling as a Mets fan to see your team doing something worth watching.

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