Can The New York Mets Find Balance?

These days, good arms are hard to come by.

Every team in Major League Baseball, it seems, wants more pitching. This quest for arms has led the 30 Major League teams to collectively spend over a billion dollars combined during the past six seasons on salaries for pitchers who are too injured to pitch. With that much money at stake, is it any wonder why the search for healthy, viable arms is always a concern?

But the New York Mets aren’t like other teams. The team’s core is built around the concept of pitching depth. And like every team reliant upon its rotation, the Mets’ foundation feels a bit shaky. Matt Harvey, the team’s ace of aces, is in his first season after returning from Tommy John surgery. Zack Wheeler, who was supposed to play Robin to Harvey’s Batman this year, is on the shelf — rehabbing from his own surgery this spring.

New York’s wealth of premium arms runs even deeper, though. Jacob deGrom was the National League’s Rookie of the Year last summer, and he has followed up by making a leap in his sophomore campaign. Bartolo Colon, at 42 years old and long past his presumed expiration date, is openly flaunting Father Time with a deceptively unhittable fastball. Noah Syndergaard is just six starts into his Big League career, but he looks every bit the part. And Harvey, has looked elite (despite a recent rough patch).

Plus, the Mets have yet another ace up their sleeve. Top prospect Steven Matz has been a revelation this season, owning the normally hitter-happy Pacific Coast League, and he appears increasingly ready to make an impact at the top level.

Matz made his Major League debut against the Reds at Citi Field. After allowing a leadoff home run to Brandon Phillips, the 24 year old left hander settled in to pitch 7.2 innings, scattering 5 hits, 3 walks, and striking out 6. The pitching rich Mets just got richer.

And so, as we approach the midway point of the season, New York finds itself in a unique position. They are obviously contenders, and there’s no limit to the places their dynamic starting rotation can carry them. But the organization will need to balance the need to win now with the more long-term goal of optimizing their pitchers and keeping them healthy.

The Mets have the resources. But can they find the balance?

Laying the Foundation

The Mets have been the target of jokes for many years, but the strategy of loading up on young pitching has paid dividends. They have a surplus of the type of asset that the current marketplace places a premium on — and meanwhile, they are very much in a pennant race.

Of their 40 wins, all but 11 have come at Citi Field — significant, considering that the beautiful stadium has been widely panned as ill-suited for the team’s roster over the years. Now, the Mets’ talented pitching staff has flipped the script, and turned their home park into an advantage.

And the success of the starting rotation has covered up what has long been the team’s most glaring concern under General Manager Sandy Alderson — the bullpen. Harvey is on pitch limitations, and deGrom and Syndegaard have only a bit more freedom — but still, the starting rotation has combined to pitch 479.2 total innings this season, first in the National League and second to the Oakland A’s in all of Major League Baseball. This has allowed manager Terry Collins to avoid overexposing the shakier elements of his bullpen.

In those 479.2 innings, the rotation has posted a 3.73 ERA and a 3.45 FIP, both good for eighth best in the majors. Their 20.8 percent strikeout rate is ninth, while their 4.7 percent walk rate is the best in baseball. Offensively, the Mets have adapted to injury after injury — but the stellar work of the starting rotation has managed to buoy the Mets to the top of the division for much of the season.

But that’s not necessarily a good thing. If the Mets’ foundation feels shaky, it’s because their success is built on the least sustainable resource in all of sports. More pitchers than ever are missing large amounts of time to injury, and the problem is only accelerating. But the Mets seem to have found a workaround to this, though — quality and quantity, stacked together.

The sport as a whole has undergone a massive shift towards accepting the power of analytics. More than ever, a strong front office plays a pivotal role in optimizing the on-field performance. And the Mets have an All-Star staff, headed by GM Sandy Alderson and his two top lieutenants, JP Ricciardi and Paul DePodesta. This season, the product on the field has started to take shape.

Maximizing Returns

For the Mets’ front office team, the challenge is: how do you maximize your assets? Matt Harvey is traveling through the standard highs and lows that come with recovery from Tommy John surgery. He’s been absolutely dominant at times — 5–1, 1.98 ERA, 56 strikeouts in 54.2 innings during his first eight starts. And then he’s been flat — 1–3, 7.20 ERA, 8 home runs allowed in his next four starts. His last three starts have been phenomenal, with the right hander allowing just 2 runs in 19.2 innings of work. But that’s to be expected. And even during his recent rough patch, Harvey’s still striking out better than a batter per inning.

Monitoring Harvey’s workload will be important as the season wears on — especially if October baseball becomes a more realistic possibility. While the old adage that “you have to get there first” still holds true, the idea of the Mets squaring off for the playoffs without their ace is unacceptable if it can be avoided. And the Mets can look at their main competitor for a lesson in what not to do.

The 2012 Washington Nationals won 98 games, and came into the postseason as favorites to win the World Series. But their ace, Stephen Strasburg, was — like Harvey — in his first season after Tommy John surgery. The Nats shut Strasburg down in September, and he was a spectator as the St. Louis Cardinals stunned his club in the first round of the playoffs.

So the Mets will attempt to do a better job balancing out the demands of a pennant race with the workload restrictions of Harvey and Noah Syndergaard. The 23-year-old Syndergaard threw 133 innings last season at AAA, and the industry uses approximately 30–40 additional innings in a one-year span to avoid damage from overwork. That gives Syndegaard about 170 innings to work with this season — through June 28th, he’s tallied 82.1 total innings. Thus far, Syndergaard has averaged approximately 6 innings per start — with about 15 starts or so left on the schedule, Syndergaard would be approaching that 170-inning limit with the playoffs still to go.

Since his call-up last season, Jacob deGrom has been the Mets’ best and most consistent pitcher. Through 15 starts he has turned in 100.1 innings — allowing just 75 hits and 18 walks versus 100 strikeouts to go with his stingy 2.15 ERA and 2.62 FIP. deGrom is throwing first-pitch strikes at a higher rate than he did as a rookie, plus getting hitters to chase more often. As a result, he’s walking less than two batters per nine innings this season. And unlike his rotation mates, deGrom has a clear path to pitching 200 innings this season. But he’s on pace to hit that point well before the playoffs. Like with Harvey and Syndegaard, the Mets will be faced with difficult decisions regarding how to deploy deGrom most efficiently.

And that’s where Bartolo Colon comes into play. At 42 years of age, Colon has no reason to be concerned with his career being shorted out by overwork. He’s chewing up just under seven innings a start to the tune of a 4.89 ERA and 3.90 FIP. Of all the Mets’ starters, Colon benefits the most from Citi Field — his flyball rate is a rotation-high 41.1%. And he makes deGrom look downright liberal with the base on balls — averaging 0.88 walks per nine innings. But the Mets might want to exercise caution with their veteran, as well. Last season, Colon fell apart down the stretch.

The fifth starter is 28-year-old Jon Niese. Niese has put up a 3–7 record, 4.12 ERA, and 4.39 FIP in 83 innings so far. It’s an almost perfectly replacement-level performance — but the fact that they can count on that from their fifth starter is a big reason why they’ve been so successful up to this point. Consider the Toronto Blue Jays — whose entire rotation has posted a 4.62 ERA and 4.72 FIP. Niese would slot up high in their rotation, and Toronto isn’t the only team where he could do that. This isn’t a love letter to Jon Niese, or an overhyping of his performance — rather, a reflection of what he actually is. A guy who has been worth two to three wins per year, and pitches at just a hair better than the average Major League starter — and happens to be only the fifth, now, perhaps sixth most desirable option for Terry Collins to pencil into the lineup.

Having two reliable inning-eaters like Colon and Niese bringing up the rear end of the rotation gives the Mets the luxury of handling Harvey, deGrom, Syndegaard, and Matz with kid gloves. Collins can pull them at the first sign of fatigue, knowing that the bullpen won’t have to be further taxed to bail out an unreliable fourth or fifth starter in the coming days.

And, thus far, it’s worked. Only the Chicago White Sox’ bullpen has thrown fewer innings — but going by WAR, the Mets have a slightly-better-than-average bullpen. Last year, the Mets’ bullpen ranked 25th in baseball. It’s another testament to the front office’s ability to maximize assets — by going to the relievers less, they are getting more.

With the bullpen optimized, plus all five rotation spots locked in, the Mets have all of the tools necessary to maximize each pitcher’s individual value, allow them all to develop, and can win games in the process. But like most teams, they seem to be making it up as they go along — and not every move they make is perfect.

The Right Idea Thrown Away — Maybe Back?

Not too long ago, the Mets planned to roll with a six-man starting rotation, aiming to keep Harvey and Syndergaard’s inning totals down. And, unlike most teams, the Mets had enough in the cupboard to make the six-man rotation work.

Dillon Gee’s final stat line as a Met this season will never come off looking good. He made just seven starts (plus a relief appearance) and posted a 5.90 ERA, surrendering 55 hits in just 39 innings. That 5.90 ERA is enough to give a contending general manager panic attacks — but his 4.39 FIP is actually pretty close to his career line. He wasn’t throwing any slower, he wasn’t getting hit much harder — other than the ugly ERA and WHIP, Gee doesn’t look at all like a guy who is done as a viable Major League starter.

Yet the Mets designated him for assignment, abandoning the six-starter plan before it could even see daylight.

If the Mets had stayed the course with Gee, it would’ve saved perhaps five or six starts per pitcher. At approximately six innings per start, that would save about 35 innings apiece. Those innings would be incredibly useful in the playoffs. Or, they could be used in September if the expected playoff push is needed. The Mets could have gone into the playoffs with their best three pitchers better rested and without restriction, or they could’ve unleashed their killer young arms down the stretch if the standings called for it. Instead, they bowed — like the rest of the industry — to convention and routine.

Or did they?

Perhaps the Mets simply cleared room for their next dominant young starter. Southpaw Steven Matz certainly has nothing left to prove at the AAA level. In 12 starts there this year, the 24-year-old has posted a shining 2.30 ERA. In 78.1 innings, he’s allowed 90 total baserunners and struck out 80. And he did all of this in the dry, desert air of Las Vegas — a minor-league locale with a long history as the place where pitching prospects go to die.

Matz may have forced the Mets’ hand with his dominant debut. The six-man rotation makes too much sense for them to not reconsider — especially if they could add another young, electric pitcher rather than a replacement-level veteran. The idea of giving Harvey and deGrom’s starts to Matz, rather than Gee, has to sting a bit less to Alderson and company.

Maximizing — and Balancing

With six, potentially seven quality starters, the Mets are in a position that most clubs will never be in. They have the depth to move away from tradition and give their starters more rest. They can save innings for the playoffs. They can keep Matt Harvey on the mound through September and, more importantly, into October. Without an additional starter, the Mets will have to shut Harvey down at some point. The same would go for Syndergaard. Promoting Matz and going to a six-man rotation avoids that.

But the balanced approach is just one of the paths New York can take. They could, instead, choose to maximize. Each of their starters is an extremely valuable trade chip. While their deficiencies in the lineup are not easy ones to fill, the pitchers they can offer up will be more than enough to entice a willing seller. They already sunk Dillon Gee’s value by designating him for assignment. Even if they manage to trade him, it will not be for anywhere near what he’d have commanded just months ago.

But in this, the Mets have one of those good problems. They’re winning because of their standout young pitching — and they’ve got even more of it on the way. Their pitchers are already one of the best staffs in the game, but the current pace foreshadows an early stall-out for that talent.

There are ways to avoid ending up like the 2012 Nationals — or, at the very least, to maximize the value of their assets and set the team up for long-term success.

But if you judge by the hasty, questionable decision to designate Gee for assignment, and you factor in Major League Baseball’s dizzying arm injury epidemic, the notion of the Mets finding balance seems pretty unrealistic. The organization is hardly the first to have questions about spots in the pitching rotation. But they are the only one who could squander a playoff opportunity over it.

Talent is the most important ingredient in winning titles — but the front-office personnel need to deploy that talent correctly to build a winner. Right now, the Mets look no better than everybody else when it comes to pitching health and management — they’re just making it up as they go along.

If they decide to go to the six-man rotation, the playoffs are a very realistic possibility. And after years and years of disappointing finishes, that’s all any Mets fan can ask for.

Now, it’s on the front office to make it happen.

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