In genealogy, a researcher uses documents and DNA tests to trace a family history back as far as the records and science will take them. Often genealogists will see patterns in families which makes sense. Maybe you are a farmer and your father was a farmer and his father was a farmer, and so on. Starting pitching is part of the DNA of the Mets who can trace their rotation tree back to Doc Gooden, David Cone, Sid Fernandez, and Ron Darling who can trace their roots back to Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and Jon Matlack. The Mets family tree is stunted because they only came to life in 1962 but their current top of the rotation is looking like they could carry on the legacy of their forefathers. There were some changes to the rotation during the off-season, but the Mets will live and die with their starting pitching again this year, so before the craziness of playing in New York starts, we should look at how the Mets rotation projects for 2020.
So who is the Met’s “Daddy”? That would be Jacob deGrom. When you’ve just won your first Cy Young, what is left for you to accomplish? How about winning another one like deGrom just did in 2019? Now armed with a Rookie of the Year Award, three All Star game selections, and two Cy Youngs, can deGrom put together career numbers that get him into the Hall of Fame? Weirdly, that is in doubt because he didn’t even debut in the majors until he was 26. His numbers are phenomenal but he doesn’t have the counting stats that one normally would see as gatekeepers for making it into the Hall. His career ERA is now 2.62 but he only has 65 wins so there is no way he will make it to 300 or 200 and he has to stay healthy to even get to 100, which would normally not be enough to qualify him for a discussion of HOF membership. I doubt deGrom is losing much sleep over his end of career place in history as he heads into spring training. He would win most arguments that at the moment he is the best pitcher in baseball having just struck out 763 batters in the last three seasons while walking only 149 batters in the same stretch. He has three straight seasons of surpassing 200 innings pitched while making at least 31 starts – plus the back-to-back Cy Youngs. Interestingly, as he has aged, deGrom has picked up velocity on his fastball going from an average (according to FanGraphs) of 94.2 MPH in 2016 to 95.8 in 2017 to 96.7 in 2018 – and last year to 97.2. At this rate he will be bringing it at 107 when he is 41! Seriously though, deGrom’s numbers have reached a superior level and with his annual uptick in velocity without a decrease in control, it is hard to see anything changing for the worse in the near future. He is an ace in the prime of his career pitching in a pitcher’s park – yeah, he’s great.
Is your nickname the name of a Norse God? No? Is it something like Stinky or Cue Ball? Well then it is likely that you aren’t as gifted or as talented at throwing a baseball as Thor – Noah Syndergaard. You probably don’t have long flowing blonde hair either! At 6’6, 240, Thor is built like the prototypical lightning bolt throwing God you’d expect to defeat evil- or the Yankees. Even though his ERA was 4.28 (FIP of 3.60), the Mets were probably much happier with Syndergaard’s 2019 campaign than they were with his 2018 campaign when it was 3.03 (FIP of 2.80) because he made 32 starts last year as opposed to only 25 in 2018. If the Mets get deGrom and Syndergaard for 30 plus starts each, then they have an excellent chance of making the postseason. Thor, at 27, has just had two similarly good seasons in a row – ERA differences mostly occurred because a higher percentage of his fly balls left the yard in 2019 (.52 in 2018 versus 1.09 in 2019). Lively ball? The somewhat random nature of home run rates on fly balls? You pick – the point here being that Syndergaard pitched well and figured out how to stay reasonably healthy all year. Having only reached 30 starts one other time in his career (2016), that is a big step toward becoming an ace himself.
Unlike the two beast masters at the top of the rotation, Marcus Stroman doesn’t throw 97 MPH. What he does is make his 32 or so starts (3 years in a row) strike out seven-ish batters per nine, keep walks to around two and a half per nine with an ERA in the mid threes. He is an excellent number three in any rotation and, at almost 29, should be in his prime as he pitches for his next contract. It seems like a recipe for another good year from Stroman who is one of the shortest starting pitchers of the last decade at 5’7. Baseball has a huge bias against short pitchers so it will be interesting to see what kind of contract Stroman gets if he has another good year – which would be three in the last four. Stroman works predominantly with a three pitch mix (fastball, sinker, slider) with the slider consistently having the highest pitch value – a score of the effectiveness of a pitch in games – of any of his offerings. In an environment where the slider is king (as it is in the Major Leagues right now), Stroman will continue to get chances to throw it in the rotation as long as he continues to succeed, but will probably have a shorter leash because of his size or lack thereof.
In the fourth slot in the rotation, Steven Matz was a top prospect who looked like he would never be healthy enough to contribute to the Mets – so a disappointment. Then he went and had back to back 30 start seasons in 2018 and 2019. Matz is 28 and is probably a bit maddening to the Mets because he hasn’t become anything more than an innings eater in spite of his ability to occasionally dominate. The former 2nd round pick is unbelievably homer prone with three straight seasons of home per nine rates over 1.4 in spite of his other good peripherals like his Ks per nine of 8.88 and 8.59 the last two seasons and his walks per nine of 2.79 for his career. If you averted your eyes from the ERA column and home run rates, then Matz is a two or a three. Sadly, home runs count and they lead to high ERAs if you give up enough of them. Will Matz turn the corner and help the Mets to the playoffs, or will he continue to frustrate and have the Mets finally cut bait and move on from the lefty? I wish there was a stat that indicated Matz had finally figured it out but, other than halving his home run rate in the second half of 2019 leading to a much lower ERA, you will have to stay tuned.
You have to love a rotation where Rick Porcello is your 5. Not because Porcello is an ace ambushing teams from the 5 spot but because if you are going to stick someone in the 5 spot how nice is it that he has a 22 win season and a Cy Young in his portfolio? Porcello is 31 and not really an ace – more of an innings eater with the possibility of more. Still if your number five guy can throw 180 league average innings, you are in really great shape and it is a decent bet that that is where Porcello’s lives now. In the decade just passed, Porcello never failed to make at least 27 starts and that has value, especially to a team that has seen its share of pitchers go down. His career ERA now sits at 4.36 which is about what the Mets should expect – maybe a bit lower due to their pitcher’s park, but moving from Boston where he had that Cy Young season might take some pressure off Porcello where he was always expected to be that guy again. Now, Porcello can fill the bottom of the rotation with average innings and all will be well.
And if things go south or injuries hit, Michael Wacha, who even though he seemingly has been pitching since Tom Terrific wore a Mets uni but is only 28, is ready to go and apparently healthy. Like Porcello, Wacha is probably not a top of the rotation starter anymore, but his velocity appears to be up this spring, and if he can get even part of the way back to where he was in 2015 after battling numerous injuries over the last few seasons, then the Mets have at least some depth, and pretty talented depth at that. Wacha’s ERA has only been below 4.00 once since 2015 (3.20 in 2018) but his FIP has been below 4.00 multiple times. Last year wasn’t pretty – an ERA of 4.76 and a FIP of 5.61 with an incredible 1.85 home runs per nine that was likely the culprit. On paper the Mets don’t need Wacha to start the season in the rotation but will very likely give him the chance to win a spot in spring training. For him to succeed, his walk rate needs to creep back closer to the 2’s like it was during his salad days instead of the high 3’s like it has been the last three seasons. The home rate will probably be better this year even if it is just because he is pitching in a tougher home run park.
There isn’t an obvious answer at triple-A although top prospect, David Peterson will likely start the season there after a meh season at double-A. After not exactly killing it at high-A either, it seems like the Mets would want him to show that he can, if not dominate, at least hold his own for half a season at triple-A before they call him up. His ground ball percentage which was in the high 60’s in the lower levels, has dropped to the mid-50s, which could signal a change in approach or a decrease in effectiveness. Watch what he does in Binghamton – maybe even go see him pitch and take a side trip to see the former site of the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Factory – you know – if you have extra time.
The Mets have a top-heavy starting rotation with lots of innings eaters with upside at the bottom. Every team would love to have the Mets top two starters, and every team would be thrilled to get 180 league average innings out of each of their bottom three starters; that’s the kind of season the Mets can realistically expect to get out of their rotation. By retooling for reliability in the rotation, the Mets have taken a lot of pressure off the bullpen. If things don’t break that way because this is baseball and plans are for stooges, the Mets probably don’t have the depth in the minors to pivot. They would have to convert Gsellman or Lugo back to starters, go sign someone or make a trade, or hope for their pen to step up and rescue them. With the rosy glasses of pre-injury spring, the Mets rotation looks poised to compete in the NL East. If history repeats itself and the Mets recapture their glorious pitching heritage, look for a deep playoff run for the New York team that wears purple and orange.