- New York is getting Seth Lugo and Steven Matz back from injury, but unless its fortunes—and decision-making—improve elsewhere the club will have a hard time getting back to the postseason.
At a news conference three days before Opening Day, Mets starter Noah Syndergaard told the assembled press that his team entered 2017 boasting a rotation of “five aces.” Five of ’em! The team was so flush with starting pitching that the standard 52-card deck could not suffice.
His statement wasn’t even hyperbolic by the usual preseason standards; New York did project to have five indisputably strong starters in righthanders Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler and southpaw Steven Matz. Of those five, deGrom, Harvey and Syndergaard himself could all have been reasonably construed to be among the NL’s 10 best pitchers when healthy. In fact, among NL starters who had thrown at least 333 total innings from 2012, the year of Harvey’s debut, to 2016, those three ranked Nos. 3, 4 and 5 in Fielding Independent Pitching. Only three-time NL Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers and late Marlins ace Jose Fernandez pitched better.
To back up those three, the Mets had four more conceivable ace options. Matz and Wheeler had been first-rate prospects who had pitched well in the bigs when healthy; onetime afterthoughts Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman had combined for a 2.69 ERA in 15 starts last season. Had Syndergaard really wanted to cause a stir, he could have said the Mets would have seven aces once Matz and Lugo ended their season-opening DL stints for respective elbow problems.
Matz and Lugo finally return this week (repeat after me: barring further setbacks) and to the 2017 Mets they may mean essentially everything. At close of business on June 6, New York's starting staff has produced the third-worst ERA in the majors (5.16), is on pace to walk 43% more batters per outing than last year and has gone from allowing three home runs every five starts to allowing four homers in that time. (That’s about 32 extra homers a year.)
The relievers might even be worse than the starters. Against the Mets’ bullpen, opponents have had an easier time of getting on base (.351) than against any other 'pen in the majors. New York's relievers allowed 220 runs in 525 innings of work last year; this year they have allowed 118, the most in the NL and only one fewer than the Twins' MLB-worst total, in 210 innings.
The pitching staff as a whole gave up 3.84 runs per nine innings last year. This year it is giving up 5.5, the most in the majors. What happened?
Injuries have played a role in the team's 24-32 start that has left the club with dwindling chances of making its third straight postseason appearance. In addition to Matz and Lugo being absent all year, Syndergaard tore a lat muscle and has been out since walking off the mound in the second inning of his start in Washington on April 30; Harvey has a career-worst 5.43 ERA in his first year back from thoracic outlet syndrome; and closer Jeurys Familia had surgery for a blood clot and hasn't pitched since May 10.
To his credit, general manager Sandy Alderson hasn’t blamed injuries. He told reporters two weeks ago, “I don’t subscribe to the notion that the injuries have put us where we are. I think there’s a contributing factor there. But there are many players that we have on the roster, that I’m sure if you asked [them how they have played], they would say, ‘Gee, I expect a little more from myself.’ So I think that explains a good deal where we are as well.”
Indeed there may be something to this. DeGrom is healthy, but he hasn’t looked entirely like himself, most recently when he gave up 10 hits and eight runs in four innings in a 10-8 loss to the Rangers on Tuesday night. Harvey can’t blame his surgery for all of his woes. Some of the righthanded relievers (like Rafael Montero and Hansel Robles) have pitched far worse than even the most pessimistic projections would have suggested. Too often baseball analysis can treat the players as robots who, so long as they’re fully healthy, have no hand in their own performance. It’s quite possible that in past years the success of New York rotation as whole gave each individual starter a little boost of confidence. With Syndergaard on the shelf and Harvey’s best stuff gone, maybe the others have lost a little of their focus, or tried to overcompensate. And perhaps Addison Reed—who had a 102 ERA+ in parts of five seasons before resurrecting his career upon coming to Queens as Familia's set-up man in 2015—has taken a step back because of the additional psychic demands of the closer’s role, one he hadn't filled since 2014.
But the coaches and the front office, including Alderson himself, deserve more blame than the players do. The Mets assembled a contending core this year but failed to surround it with credible role players, particularly in middle relief. Take Fernando Salas. He had a 3.20 FIP last year in 17 games for the Mets after coming over in a trade from the Angels at the August waiver deadline. Alderson signed him to a modest $3 million deal in free agency rather than pursue more reliable options. This year, his FIP is 4.26, but his ERA with New York has ballooned from 2.08 to 5.13 due mostly to a dramatic rise in walks allowed (0 in 17 1/3 innings last year; 15 in 26 1/3 this year). Yet he is being treated as an essential part of the bullpen, tying for the team lead with 29 games pitched.
Similarly, the front office's faith in Montero has not been justified. He was so bad last season that he finished the year in Double A. He made the Mets out of spring training, but got sent back down again, this time to Triple A after posting a 9.45 ERA. But then he came back! Hitters hit .485/.571/.515 against him before he was sent down; they hit .315/.422/.500 against him afterward. He was sent back to the minors, but I’m sure he’ll excel next time he’s called up.
Then there is righty Neil Ramirez, who has been waived four times since the start of 2016 yet was given a major-league deal in mid-May. And why has Collins, whose bullpen management has been consistently awful, continue to make regular use of Ramirez, who has yet to deliver so much as a clean inning in his first nine outings?
There are other questions nagging at Mets fans. Why claim Tommy Milone off waivers and start him three times when he was demoted by the last-place Twins in 2016 and by the Brewers earlier this season? Why hasn’t Wheeler learned an out pitch? And as long as we’re asking questions, why did Daniel Murphy and Justin Turner get so good once they left Flushing? (In Murphy’s case, why did the Nats’ bosses interpret his 2015 second-half performance more accurately than the Mets’ did?)
Maybe the Mets are on the cusp of an amazin’ second-half run; stranger things have happened. So far, though, 2017 looks like a missed opportunity.