In today's Hit and Run, Jay Jaffe tackles the Mets' new six-man rotation, Lloyd McClendon's epic outburst, and Albert Pujols's recent home run tear.
1. Mets switch to a six-pack
On Wednesday, the Mets will send Dillon Gee to the mound against the Padres, officially kicking off their attempt to maintain a six-man rotation. Gee went on the disabled list on May 8 due to a groin strain and was replaced in the rotation by Noah Syndergaard, whose strong performance since then has made it clear that he belongs in the majors.
This is a conscious move—but not an unprecedented one—by the Mets to manage the workloads of their starters, young and old, without being forced to shut them down late in the year, as the Nationals infamously did with Stephen Strasburg in 2012. Via ESPN New York's Adam Rubin, pitching coach Dan Warthen says that the format could last into mid-August and result in the team's starters topping out at 30 turns instead of 33.
Given the current cast, it makes a certain amount of sense. Consider:
• Matt Harvey (3.11 ERA, 2.98 FIP), the team's ace and the organization’s most valuable asset, is in his first season back from October 2013 Tommy John surgery. General manager Sandy Alderson told Rubin in February that Harvey could throw 200 innings including the playoffs, but not 215. The 26-year-old righty who has been roughed up for 11 runs in 12 innings over his last two starts after allowing just 12 over his first eight starts, is averaging 6 2/3 innings per turn thus far, which extrapolates to 218 innings across 33 starts. His career high is 178, set before he was shut down in late August 2013 due to the torn UCL that led to his TJ surgery.
• Bartolo Colon (4.72 ERA, 3.84 FIP) is a fascinating freak of nature who can throw strikes at will (see his 10.8 K/BB ratio), but at age 42, he has his limitations, and the extra rest could do him good. Colon posted a 2.90 ERA and 34-to-1 K/BB ratio in his first six starts, five of which came on five days' rest, but he's been lit for a 7.31 ERA and 1.9 homers per nine across his last five starts, the most recent of which was the only one to come on five days' rest. He's currently projected to reach 206 innings across 33 starts, but his post-comeback high is 202 1/3, set last year; he hasn't thrown more than that since his AL Cy Young-winning 2005 season.
• Jacob deGrom (2.41 ERA, 2.84 FIP), last year's NL Rookie of the Year, has been outstanding of late: He's allowed just three runs in 29 1/3 innings across his last four starts, with a 34-to-1 K/BB ratio. All but the most recent of those came on four days' rest, though over the course of his brief career, the 26-year-old righty has been slightly more effective on five days, yielding a 2.51 ERA, 4.7 K/BB ratio and .212/.259/.283 line compared to a 2.54 ERA, 3.3 K/BB ratio and .242/.300/.321 line on four. Last year, he threw 178 2/3 innings split between the minors and majors and is currently on pace to throw 213 innings across 33 starts, near the outer limit of the typical 30-to-40 inning annual increase that teams tend to give their younger starters.
• Syndergaard (3.77 ERA, 2.42 FIP), the latest wunderkind, had been in a groove working on four days' rest since late April, but he was roughed up for 10 hits and seven runs in four innings on Tuesday night despite striking out 10 in a start that came on five days' rest. Even so, the 22-year-old righty has never thrown more than last year's total of 133 innings. He's at 58 through 10 starts now, and would hit 174 innings—41 more than last year—if he keeps up that pace across 30 turns.
• Gee (3.86 ERA, 3.87 FIP) is a 29-year-old righty whose career numbers (3.91 ERA, 93 ERA+, 4.22 FIP) cast him as fifth-starter material—adequate in small doses but somebody whose footprint could stand to be reduced. What's more, he's a fragile fifth starter: Though he threw 199 innings in 2013, he missed half of '12 due to surgery to repair repeated blood clots in his shoulder and two months of '14 due to a strained latissimus dorsi.
• Jonathon Niese (4.42 ERA, 4.69 FIP), a 28-year-old lefty, is pitching like a fifth starter, though he's been more or less average over the previous three seasons (3.49 ERA, 3.64 FIP, 104 ERA+) while topping out at 190 1/3 innings. He's currently on pace for 171 innings across 30 starts, which is plenty unless his performance improves.
Keeping all six of those pitchers healthy and productive is a daunting enough task no matter what kind of rotation the Mets use. They have even more pitching talent waiting to arrive in Queens. Steven Matz, a 24-year-old lefty who is a well-regarded prospect (33rd on the lists of both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus this spring), has posted a 1.98 ERA with 9.2 strikeouts per nine in 68 1/3 innings at Triple A Las Vegas, a pitchers' hell if there ever was one. His career high for innings is 140, and if we count his five-inning relief appearance as a start, he's on pace for 186 if he makes 30 starts. That means the Mets will have to rein him in at some point to avoid shutting him down.
Six-man rotations are the norm in Japan and in college, and while they're not unprecedented stateside or at the big league level, they are unfamiliar, requiring pitchers to adjust their between-starts routines and cope with even more downtime. The obvious knock against them—the same criticism heard when teams moved from four starters to five in the 1970s and '80s—is that they take away turns from the team’s top starters. But as illustrated above, each of New York's front four have reasons not to be pressed too far, and less is more from the back two.
Via Rubin, citing data from researcher Frank Vaccaro, a handful of teams have gone with six-man rotations for substantial portions of the season. The 2011 White Sox did so for nearly half of the year once Jake Peavy returned from the disabled list because Philip Humber was pitching well; they finished 79–83. The '98 Mets did so for a third of the year when Armando Reynoso came off the DL to join Al Leiter, Bobby Jones, Hideo Nomo, Rick Reed and Masato Yoshii; manager Bobby Valentine, who managed in Japan, figured that Nomo and Yoshii could benefit. New York was eliminated from the wild card race on the final day of the season. Other teams who have tried it for substantial portions of the year are the '03 Indians (29.1% of the season), '04 Royals (28.5%) and '13 Astros, all of whom finished well below .500.
At 29–24, the upstart Mets are just half a game behind the Nationals in the NL East and currently occupying a wild card spot. Their fragile bid for contention depends on maintaining their strong run prevention (3.64 runs per game, fourth in the league), and this may be their best option to maintain that clip in order to stretch their best pitchers further into the season. The good news is that they appear to have a buy-in from the established pitchers, albeit a reluctant one, particularly from Harvey. This is a preferable route to what Washington did with Strasburg three years ago, and while it may not pay off with a postseason berth, the Mets have the pitchers with which to try it. It’s worth a shot.
2. McClendon argues for the cycle
Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon uncorked a tantrum for the ages on Tuesday night. It began with a third-inning checked swing on a 3–2 fastball from the Mariners' Mike Montgomery (who was making his major league debut) against the Yankees' Brett Gardner, the 10th pitch of the plate appearance. Gardner tried to hold up, but believed he went around far enough that he began walking back to the dugout. Third base umpire Tony Randazzo ruled that he checked his swing, however, so Gardner instead headed to first base.
Two batters later, Alex Rodriguez checked his swing on a 3–2 breaking ball, at least according to first base umpire Will Little. That enraged catcher Mike Zunino, who was understandably still angry about the Gardner call. He quickly got tossed, as did McClendon when he came charging out of the dugout. The animated manager said his piece to Little and second base ump Phil Cuzzi, then tossed his hat, followed up by kicking it a fair distance, got his money’s worth with home plate umpire Mike DiMuro and finally jogged over to Randazzo—with whom McClendon has a long history, more on which momentarily—to complete the cycle. The Safeco Field crowd gave him a well-earned standing ovation before he departed the field.
As managerial tirades go, it was an impressive one, perhaps even the best of the year. But it can't top McClendon's June 26, 2001 epic, when he was at the helm of the Pirates. In that one, you may recall, he uprooted first base and tossed it into the tunnel from the Pittsburgh dugout to the clubhouse.
As for McClendon's feud with Randazzo: It was Randazzo who ejected McClendon in a June 15, 2005 game after the ump blew a call at first base, ruling the Yankees' Gary Sheffield safe on what would have been a game-ending double play. New York tied the game with the Pirates and eventually won it; afterward, crew chief Ed Montague conceded that Randazzo got the call wrong. Randazzo also tossed McClendon for arguing balls and strikes in an Aug. 27, 2014 game between the Mariners and Tigers.
Of course, when McClendon took his base in 2001, he wasn't even the first to do so. On Aug. 21, 1990, while managing the Reds—who were on a five-game losing streak at the time—Lou Piniella blew a gasket over a bang-bang play at first base, which he wound up tossing not once but twice after being tossed himself.
Piniella's Reds would win the game (and, eventually, the World Series). McClendon wasn’t so lucky on Tuesday, as Gardner came around to score on a Mark Teixeira double. The Yankees trailed 2-1 entering the ninth, but tied the score on Stephen Drew's double, and they won it in the 11th on a three-run homer from Garrett Jones.
3. Pujols's power
Albert Pujols has been on a tear—one that's not only allowed him to climb the all-time home run list but also helped the Angels match their longest winning streak of the season. With six home runs in his last six games, the 35-year-old slugger has run his career total to 534, tying Jimmie Foxx for 17th on the all-time list and putting him within two homers of matching Mickey Mantle.
Pujols homered in each of the first three games of the Angels-Tigers series last Thursday, Friday and Saturday, going deep off Buck Farmer, Anibal Sanchez and Shane Greene, respectively. He took an 0-fer on Sunday night, though the Halos completed a four-game sweep, then rebounded with a pair of homers on Monday against the Rays' Alex Colome and Andrew Bellatti as Los Angeles won its fifth in a row. On Tuesday night, he homered off Tampa Bay's Chris Archer, accounting for the Angels' lone run in an otherwise dominant performance by the 26-year-old righty: eight innings, six hits, 15 strikeouts, no walks.
Sunday night's personal shutout prevented Pujols from approaching his longest consecutive game home run streak; he homered in five straight for the Cardinals from Aug. 17 to 22, 2007, and he has seven streaks of four games, one of which (April 15–18, 2006) featured six homers. The major league record for homers in consecutive games stands at eight, with Dale Long (1956), Don Mattingly (1987) and Ken Griffey Jr. (1993) each doing so.
Even with this run, Pujols is hitting a lopsided .254/.303/.508 with 14 homers and a 127 OPS+. He's walking in just 5.8% of his plate appearances, less than half his career rate (11.9%), and his on-base percentage is a full 100 points lower than what it was coming into this season. Still, he's been the Angels' second-most productive hitter behind Mike Trout (.288/.374/.540 for a 159 OPS+), which wouldn't be a problem if the team were getting above-average offense from more than just two other regulars: Kole Calhoun (106 OPS+) and David Freese (102). Los Angeles ranks just 11th in the league in scoring at 3.94 runs per game, but that five-game winning streak did carry the club past .500. With Tuesday's loss, the Angels are now 28–25, running second in the AL West at five games back and tied with the Tigers for the second wild card spot.