1. Going to the Matz for a sextet
Stop me if you've heard this one: The Mets are shifting to a six-man rotation. Shortly after the team halted its seven-game losing streak behind Jacob deGrom’s gem on Thrusday, word leaked out that top prospect Steven Matz would be recalled to start on Sunday against the Reds, with the team then going forth with some kind of six-man rotation that also includes Bartolo Colon, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard and Jon Niese. As to the exact logistics, manager Terry Collins said only that the team planned to make an announcement before Friday night's game.
Matz, a 24-year-old lefty who was the team's second-round pick in 2009 out of a Long Island high school, came into this year ranked 33rd on the prospect lists of both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus. In 14 starts and one lengthy relief appearance for Triple A Las Vegas (a pitcher's nightmare unto itself) totaling 90 1/3 innings, he has posted a 2.19 ERA with 9.4 strikeouts per nine—the best marks of any qualified starter in the Pacific Coast League.
If this six-man plan sounds familiar, it's because the Mets already took steps to implement it earlier this month, when Dillon Gee came off the disabled list, then quickly tabled the idea after he was cuffed for seven runs (four earned) by the Padres on June 3. The 29-year-old righty was subsequently sent to the bullpen for his first relief outing since 2011, placed on the bereavement list due to the death of his grandmother, given another spot start that went even worse than the previous one (eight runs and 11 hits in 3 2/3 innings against the Braves), designated for assignment and finally outrighted to Las Vegas.
Gee's performance wasn't the only reason the six-man rotation was suspended. Off days and grumbling from among the starters played a role, though at the time, general manager Sandy Alderson quickly went into damage control mode, underscoring the team's seemingly eternal communication gap with the rest of the world and within its own hierarchy (recall Collins's “If I say so, it’s a headline” comment when asked if Gee would be skipped in the wake of that Padres start). Via NJ.com's Mike Vorkunov, Alderson said, "This was always a six-man light, five-man heavy, however you want to describe it. This was never about pitching guys every sixth day regardless of an off day or what have you."
As noted before, the knock against six-man rotations—which are the norm in Japan and college and not unprecedented at the big-league level, though never carried out for a full season—is that they shift starts and innings away from each of the team's top starters to inferior ones. Their unfamiliarity requires pitchers to adjust their between-starts routines and cope with even more downtime. Yet with so many of the aforementioned cast on pace to exceed their year-to-year innings increases significantly beyond the industry norm of 30 to 40, the Mets’ goal with the six-man rotation is to slow those paces down without having to shut key starters down early (a la Stephen Strasburg in 2012 or Jose Fernandez in '13), send them to the bullpen for an extended stretch, or find a phantom injury to put them on the disabled list.
Here's the current cast, with ERAs and FIPs considering only their major league work but innings totals that incorporate their minor league work:
Four of the six starters are on pace to increase their innings by at least 30 over last season, and even if we use Harvey's 2013 innings total of 178 before undergoing Tommy John surgery and missing all of last season, he'd still fit that bill assuming he throws at least five innings in Saturday's scheduled start. Colon, who has been lit up for a 6.50 ERA over his last eight starts—and 5.04 for the five starts in a row on five days' rest—could probably benefit with a breather as well.
The six-man rotation isn't likely to be permanent, but given that the Mets have already squandered their early-season success to fall to 37–37 and 3 1/2 games back in both the NL East and the Wild Card race, they have little to lose. Now if they could only fix their ailing offense (3.58 runs per game, 14th in the league) and shoddy middle infield defense (-9 Defensive Runs Saved between their second basemen and shortstops), they might be onto something.
2. Sox shuffle the deck chairs
Though they've managed to win five of their last nine games, it's been another rough week for the Red Sox, who at 32–42 own the AL's worst winning percentage (.432) as well as run prevention (4.72 per game) and are nine games out in the AL East race. On Thursday, the team lost one of its most effective position players and jettisoned one of its least effective pitchers, placing Dustin Pedroia on the disabled list with a right hamstring strain and demoting Joe Kelly to Triple A Pawtucket.
Pedroia, who injured the hamstring as he hit first base awkwardly while running out a two-run single in Wednesday night's 5–1 win over the Orioles, has looked like his old self this year. Coming off a season shortened by surgeries for his left thumb and wrist, the 31-year-old has rediscovered his power, hitting .306/.367/.452 with nine homers—already exceeding last year's total of seven and matching his 2013 total, set over 160 games. His 126 OPS+ is not only his best mark since '11, but also the best on the team save for the 134 of super-utilityman Brock Holt, who has exactly 100 fewer plate appearances. Holt will serve as the team's primary second baseman during his absence, with outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. recalled from Pawtucket to take over his share of the playing time in rightfield, and infielder Deven Marrero added to the roster as well.
Pedroia isn’t likely to return before the All-Star break, a significant blow for a team whose offense has lagged behind expectations, scored just 4.11 runs per game, 10th in the league. Also worth keeping an eye upon on the injury front is the status of Hanley Ramirez, who suffered a bruised left hand via a batted ball while running the bases in the same game that Pedroia was injured. CT scans and X-rays revealed no fractures, but swelling and soreness kept him on the bench on Thursday. Ramirez is hitting .283/.330/.482 with 15 homers, but his value with the bat has been offset by wretched defense in his first season as a leftfielder (-14 DRS, -11 UZR); via Baseball-Reference.com (which uses the former), he's been 0.2 wins below replacement level.
As for Kelly, the 27-year-old righty was demoted after allowing five runs in 3 2/3 innings in Tuesday's start against the Orioles, a 6–4 loss. Through 14 starts totaling 74 2/3 innings, he's carrying a 5.67 ERA and 29% quality-start rate, the worst marks among the starting five at the time, although not by much given Rick Porcello's 5.67 ERA. Aside from a 3.7 per nine walk rate, Kelly's peripherals and 4.18 FIP are unremarkable, but a .312 batting average on balls in play hasn't helped, nor has a .279/.372/.515 line with runners in scoring position.
Acquired from the Cardinals in a July 31 deal that sent John Lackey to St. Louis, Kelly now joins his teammate from that trade, Allen Craig, at Pawtucket. Craig, who hit .135/.237/.192 in 59 PA for the Red Sox, was sent down on May 11 and has since hit .295/.430/.410 with three homers in 151 PA. He's making $5.5 million this year and is owed a minimum of $21 million more through 2017.
Replacing Kelly in a rotation that ranks last in the league in ERA (4.86) but otherwise in the middle of the pack in most categories is Justin Masterson, who was torched for a 6.37 ERA with a 5.26 FIP and 4.8 walks per nine in 35 1/3 innings before going on the disabled list with shoulder tendinitis in mid-May. His stay may be temporary, as there was some speculation the team was leaning towards Pawtucket lefty Brian Johnson, a 2012 supplemental first-round pick who, when not fronting AC/DC (kidding!), has posted a 2.57 ERA with 8.5 strikeouts per nine in 80 2/3 innings this season. Johnson last pitched on Wednesday, and the team didn't want to pitch him on three days' rest on Sunday, but he could be up soon.
3. Independent-league pitcher makes history
On the eve of a day in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down states' bans on same-sex marriage, baseball history was made. Pitching for the Sonoma Stompers of the independent Pacific Association of Baseball Clubs, 23-year-old Sean Conroy became the first openly gay player in a professional game. What's more, he spun a three-hit shutout against the Vallejo Admirals, striking out 11.
A graduate of Division III Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 2015, Conroy had previously made six relief appearances with four saves for the Stompers, who at 16–3 are a dominant squad—the only one above .500, in fact, in a four-team league that began play in '13. At age 16, Conroy told his family he was gay, and he has been open with his high school, summer league and college teams about his sexual orientation. He came out publicly while agreeing to start on the Stompers' Pride Night. Via the Associated Press:
"He wanted to be that guy, and coming out here and doing this shows you what kind of man he is," Tim Livingston, the team's radio broadcaster, said after a ground ball ended the game and Conroy's teammates jogged over to hug him. "To see this little field here in the middle of nowhere, when we look back it will have been the perfect setting for this."
Scott's teammates wore rainbow-colored stirrups and sweatbands in support of his groundbreaking effort:
The Stompers, who play a 78-game schedule, play their home games at Arnold Field, a facility that seats just 370 people, but the park is nonetheless outfitted with PITCHf/x cameras, and the team is attempting to take advantage of cutting-edge technology and out-of-the-box, sabermetrically-driven thinking in its management. My former Baseball Prospectus colleagues, Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller, are serving as Co-Directors of Baseball Operations this season and are writing a book about the experience.
Thanks to the f/x technology, Livingston filed a scouting report on Conroy via Fox Sports' Rob Neyer:
Conroy sat 81–84 [miles per hour] from a low 3/4-sidearm with a two-seam fastball. He relied mostly on his slider—seven of nine hitters he saw were righties—with tremendous break on the horizontal plane. He changes to an over-the-top curveball from time to time that sat around 75, and he threw a few change-ups to the left-handed hitters.
Against righties, his arm slot comes from behind the eye line of the hitter because he throws off the third base side, which makes it difficult to pick up. Is fearless about coming inside to righties, even with just 84, as the way he throws, it snakes back on the inside corner. He's got nasty stuff for this league, which favors the hitters.
He only had two hard-hit balls all night: The double to P.J. Phillips (Brandon's little brother) on a 1–2 fastball in the first, and a hanger in the fifth that was snagged on a line drive at third.
Obviously, that 81–84 mph fastball isn't likely to have scouts beating a path to Conroy's door, but the pitcher himself has walked through an even more important one. Of the tens of thousands of players in professional baseball history, not one has come out publicly during their playing careers, and only two have done so afterwards. Glenn Burke, an outfielder for the Dodgers and Athletics from 1976 to '79, came out after his abbreviated playing career but died of AIDS-related causes in '95. Billy Bean, an outfielder for the Padres, Tigers and Dodgers from '87 to '95 (not to be confused with Oakland's general manager, Billy Beane), came out in '99 after his playing days were done as well. Last year, commissioner Bud Selig appointed Bean to be MLB's first "Ambassador for Inclusion," tasked with providing guidance and training for teams and the league in efforts to support the LGBT community and developing initiatives against sexism, homophobia and prejudice—work that should help pave the way for the first out MLB player.
It's also worth noting that active umpire Dale Scott, who came out as gay last December, has worked this season without the world collapsing. Some day, the same will be said for the first player, and that day drew at least a little bit closer thanks to Conroy’s courageous, pioneering step.