THE METS' STARTERS ARE YOUNG AND OLD, SLIM AND ROUND, SELF-EFFACING AND SUPREMELY CONFIDENT. ONE THING THEY HAVE IN COMMON: THEY ATTACK THE ZONE LIKE NO OTHER ROTATION IN THE GAME
This is an article from the July 20, 2015 issue
MISMATCHED AS a pile of garage sale dinnerware, the starting pitchers for the Mets make for one of the most efficient strike-throwing rotations ever assembled. Like the stage, the mound provides no instructional manual. It invites interpretative behavior. Having arrived four by the draft, one by trade and one by free agency, and ranging in age from 22 to 42, the Flushing Six are masters of the "pitching in a nutshell" philosophy of their pitching coach, Dan Warthen: "Throw strikes when you have to; throw balls when you want to."
The rotation includes four young guns who rank among the hardest-throwing starters in the majors, but also a soft-tossing mid-career lefthander and a quadragenarian miracle of modern medicine (some of it even legal). There are two broad-shouldered superheroes (the Dark Knight and Thor), and two other members uniquely recognizable by the bulges in their silhouette (one from under the cap, the other from over the belt).
Bartolo Colon, 42; Jon Niese, 28; Jacob deGrom, 27; Matt Harvey, 26; Steven Matz, 24; and Noah Syndergaard, 22, are to pitching what Strunk and White are to writing. William Strunk Jr. wrote The Elements of Style in 1918. E.B. White revised and enlarged it in '59. The volume has long been recognized as the definitive American guide to the craft. "A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts," Strunk wrote.
The Mets' starters treat their pitches with the same purpose as Strunk and White did their words. New York's starting six average 4.18 strikeouts for every walk, a rate that rivals the 2011 Phillies' rotation—which featured Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt—as history's best in that category (4.22 strikeouts per walk).
"The way we've been attacking is pretty incredible," Harvey says. "That shows you how confident we are in our stuff. As young as we are, we know we're talented. I don't see that stat changing at all."
The rotation just got even younger and more talented—briefly. The lefthanded Matz was too good for the Mets to keep in Triple A. "He reminds me of [Clayton] Kershaw," says Warthen, applying the highest possible accolade in the game today. Matz's career strikeout-to-walk rate in the minors (3.14) is even better than what Harvey put up before his 2012 promotion (2.82). Matz debuted on June 28 and pitched two excellent games, allowing New York to use a rolling system of six starters for five spots, a fungible rotation general manager Sandy Alderson calls "six-man light." But last weekend the team announced that Matz had a tear in his left lat muscle and would miss at least three weeks.
The 2011 Phillies won 102 games. These Mets, even with such stalwart starting pitching, struggle to keep their heads above .500. The beauty of their arms is undermined by an unathletic defense without much range, the lack of an experienced catcher, and an offense that ranks 14th in a 15-team league in runs per game. Pitching for the Mets, no matter how well done, can seem like being yoked to Javert's chain gang.
Harvey, for instance, allowed one or no runs in 25 of his first 50 starts, tying a live-ball-era record (since 1920) set by former Mets phenom Dwight Gooden in '84--85. Gooden went 21--0 in his 25 starts allowing no more than one run. But Harvey won fewer than half of his gems, going 12--3.
Complicating the Mets' task is the gnawing worry behind virtually every pitch in the modern game: How do you keep pitchers healthy, especially the ones who throw so hard? Syndergaard and the now-injured Matz have never pitched a six-month season. Harvey and DeGrom have never thrown more than 1782/3 innings in a season. Matz (May 2010), DeGrom (October '10), Harvey (October '13) and erstwhile starter Zack Wheeler (March 15) all have had Tommy John surgery between ages 19 and 24.
The air in Flushing is charged with unease. Since moving into Citi Field more than six years ago, the Mets have never fielded a winning team, while losing a million paying customers. New York is trying to contend for a postseason spot while protecting its young power pitchers, an awkward balancing act that resembles a circus bear on a ball; the trick is that it is done at all, not that it is done well. Says Alderson, "There's not a science to this. We're not following a formula. It's not just about innings. It's about pitches, the number of starts, a whole host of things. None of that information can you just plug into an algorithm and say, 'This guy will be protected from this injury.' It's a very imprecise effort to manage."
The Mets briefly toyed with a six-man rotation in early June, gave it up, returned to it when Matz arrived, and may continue it when he recovers. They have used every available off day to juggle their starters and get them extra rest. They will use the All-Star break to beg, borrow and steal more time off for their young arms.
In Harvey, DeGrom, Syndergaard and Matz, the Mets are sitting on the greatest cache of young pitching in the game. The curse to such a blessing is that they are trying to win now without turning any of them into the next Dan Warthen.
HEY, WHERE are you?"
Harvey recognized the glaze of worry shellacked on the face of Syndergaard, who had just given up seven runs in his fifth major league start, on June 2.
"Uh, I'm sitting in the dugout in San Diego."
"Yeah, in the big leagues!" Harvey said. "This is where you want to be and where you're going to be. I'll tell you one thing: This is not going to be the last game you give up seven runs. Do you know why that is?"
"Because you're going to be here a long time. You have to know that."
Says Harvey, "His face kind of lit up then. I remember I gave up two or three home runs in San Diego. It was my third start. Immediately you get a little bit of doubt. 'Am I going back down? What's going to happen?' I just wanted to let him know that wasn't going to happen, that we were all there behind him."
Eight days later, Harvey gave up seven runs himself. After the game, Colon walked over to Harvey at his locker, smiled, hugged him and said, "You're O.K."
"That's all I needed," Harvey says.
Well, not really. The next day, fighting a four-start slump during which he yielded 20 runs in 25 innings, Harvey met privately with manager Terry Collins and spoke on the phone with his sports psychologist, Don Carman. What Harvey concluded was that he had lost the bare-bones attack mode that as a 24-year-old in 2013 had landed him on the SI cover as "The Dark Knight."
"Whether injuries or innings limits or six-man rotations, being away from the game ... I let that get to me," Harvey says. "I had to get back to worrying about the next pitch and not outcomes, like, Hey, if I throw seven innings for the next 21 starts, am I going to be done? Those outside distractions got cluttered in my brain."
Niese and Colon have more experience than Harvey. But there is no doubt who leads this staff. Harvey has a physical presence, especially since he packed on about 30 pounds since slimming to 195 pounds at the end of 2013. He does not so much walk as he stalks, slowly, as if it's high noon on a dusty Main Street in Dodge City. His bearing announces to the other team that baseball will be played under his rules of engagement on what have become known as Harvey Days—as if the entire day when he pitches is private property.
Says Warthen, "I want this to be Harvey's team, Harvey's pitching staff. At times he's trying to do that, and he overdoes it on the mound—because they follow him. Nobody misses a Harvey pitch. In San Diego, I would never miss a [Barry] Bonds at bat or a [Tony] Gwynn at bat. And they're never going to miss a Harvey pitch."
Harvey looks at Syndergaard and sees himself when he was a sophomore at North Carolina, when he bulked up to 260 pounds, wanting to be bigger and better than what he was as a freshman—only to flop. Syndergaard, the son of a Texas horse trainer, is 6'6" and 240 pounds, with a tightly muscled bearing that caused teammates last year to tape a picture in his spring training locker of Ivan Drago, the cinematic Soviet boxing rival of Rocky Balboa.
"My goal was to loosen him up a little bit, and I think he has," Harvey says. "I had that kind of macho man, unstoppable kind of thing going on. Just the way he was walking around ... he knows he's big, so bringing him down a little but to loosen him up was the main thing. I think he's found his place."
Says Syndergaard, "He always makes fun of me. I'm not a very flexible person. I look robotic. He gives me a hard time about that."
DeGrom and Harvey, who locker next to one another, have become close friends. DeGrom has a lightness of being that contrasts well with Harvey's molten intensity. DeGrom is the accidental pitcher, having played middle infield at Stetson University. Before his junior year there, the school placed him on a summer collegiate league team with the idea of having him pitch; he was so unhappy about it he quit the team. The next spring, in 2010, Stetson planned to use him as a shortstop and as a closer. But when few save opportunities arose, he was asked to start. His second start was against Chris Sale of Florida Gulf Coast University, a certain first-round pick. The place was loaded with scouts, who suddenly also were interested in this 6'4" 180-pounder with the silky delivery.
The Mets took him in the ninth round in 2010. After six starts in rookie ball, DeGrom needed Tommy John surgery. "That helped me a lot," he says, "because I had no programs before that. It helped me build a training routine and mechanics and to repeat my arm slot."
While on rehab, DeGrom learned a changeup from former Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana, who also was rehabbing with the Mets at the time. The organization had no idea what they had. A rival general manager said New York shopped DeGrom after the 2013 season, when he had a 4.51 ERA in the minors. "It actually made you skeptical, like, What do they know about him?" the GM said. (Alderson disputes the account.)
The Mets called him up in May 2014 as a stopgap. He made 22 starts, pitched to a 2.69 ERA, won the NL Rookie of the Year Award and became famous for the most outrageous tresses this side of Broadway.
"It's driving me nuts," DeGrom says of his famous flowing hair. "I've been saying I'm going to cut it off, but I don't know if I can. It gets hot. It's pretty annoying really because I have to wear a hat all the time."
A shorn DeGrom would be as odd a sight as a svelte Colon. (A semi-Colon?) The righthander is shaped like a garden gnome, complete with perpetual smile, perhaps as a wink to the extension of his career that seemed impossible six years ago. Colon missed the last two months of the 2009 season with elbow and shoulder trouble. In April '10, doctors took stem cells from fatty tissue in Colon's hip and from his bone marrow, and injected them into his elbow and shoulder to repair a damaged ligament and a torn rotator cuff. Since then Colon is 60--45 with a 3.66 ERA; he has made another $26 million; and he was suspended for 50 games in '12 for PEDs.
"Bartolo," Warthen says, "is the most flexible guy we have on our whole team. He can wake up Christmas morning and put either leg up above a door frame, and he can do the splits."
As for Niese, Warthen calls him the Enigma. With a career record of 55--59, the lefthander been a rotation fixture for six years, long enough to rank ninth in franchise history in strikeouts. He typically throws his fastball 90 mph, which, in this band is like being the Ringo Starr of vocals. "Unfortunately," Warthen says, "he thinks he's a power pitcher with Harvey and DeGrom. If he does not use his changeup and curveball, he has a propensity to give up big innings."
Even Harvey, however, envies Niese's greatest tool: an unshakable confidence. Nobody needs to give Niese a pep talk or a hug after a bad game.
"Jon is an interesting guy," Harvey says. "Not in a negative way, but there's always ... there's never anything that he did wrong. It's a great way to look at pitching. It's 'They got lucky.' I'm not going to say he's full of excuses, which is cool, but I wish I had more of that in myself."
DAN WARTHEN was Noah Syndergaard 40 years ago. Warthen was drafted 28th overall by Montreal upon graduating from high school in Nebraska in 1971. Syndergaard was drafted 38th overall by Toronto upon graduating from high school in Texas in 2010. Both reached the big leagues at age 22 with fastballs that approached 100 mph. Warthen is a reminder of how it can go wrong.
A lefthander, Warthen made his debut with the 1975 Expos. His first manager was Gene Mauch, who oversaw the collapse of the '64 Phillies, a team that blew a 6½-game lead in late September by losing nine in a row—four of them when a panicking Mauch twice started Jim Bunning and Chris Short on two days' rest.
On July 11, 1975, in Atlanta, with the 34--46 Expos already 15 games out of first place, Mauch allowed Warthen to throw 142 pitches before finally removing him in the 10th inning for a pinch hitter with the score tied at one. Just two days later, Mauch summoned Warthen out of the bullpen in the seventh inning of a game the Expos were losing 4--3. He threw 17 pitches and walked the bases loaded before Mauch finally pulled him.
Warthen felt an ache in his arm. It would never be the same.
In July and August of 1975, Mauch permitted Warthen to throw 130 pitches or more four times. (All the pitchers in baseball combined since Opening Day 2014 have thrown that many pitches just twice.) In one game against the Giants, Warthen threw 164 pitches while working into the 11th inning. Five days later he threw 130 pitches.
Warthen's career ERA that night in Atlanta stood at 2.94. It was 4.59 thereafter. He was out of the majors by 1979, at age 26, another in the hundreds of forgotten casualties lost in our Kodachrome desire to promote outliers such as Jim Palmer, Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver as the proxies of a day when "men were men" and pitchers took the ball often.
The abuse of Warthen's arm began early. He threw more complete games as a teenager in two months of Class A ball (10) than Harvey, DeGrom, Syndergaard, Wheeler and Matz have thrown in 485 professional starts combined (seven). In 1976, Warthen was one of seven pitchers 25 and under who started games for an Expos team that lost 107 games. None of those young pitchers started a major league game after age 26.
In 1981, still only 29, Warthen took a job coaching in the Pittsburgh minor league system. And so began a career that has taken him from Bend, Ore., to Spartanburg, S.C., to Calgary to Seattle to Las Vegas to San Diego to Toledo to Detroit to Norfolk to Los Angeles to New York, where he was hired midway through the 2008 season to replace Rick Peterson as the Mets' pitching coach. "Dan is awesome," Niese says. "He's like a philosopher. He does a lot of homework, he understands our deliveries, and he knows what to say to get you back on track."
Bespectacled and lighthearted, Warthen has the easy bearing of a grandfather who pulls quarters out of his grandkids' ears. He likes to crack up the new pitchers with the same old jokes.
"What do you call a deer that can't see? No-eye deer."
All these years on the road, all the miles and all the pitchers between Mauch and the Mets—"I have one of those stupid memories: I can remember every pitch of every count of every game"—have brought this pitching sage to the best young staff in baseball, and one of the best strike-throwing staffs of any kind. "One thing we may be getting now is too many strikes," he says. "There is such a thing as picking your battles, and we can do a better job of that. You try to help them understand it, but testosterone gets in the way a lot of times."
He is thinking of Harvey, for whom Warthen has cut postsurgery bullpen sessions to as few as an easy 20 pitches, rather than a hard 40. They work on getting the left foot down in time to execute a fastball to the glove-side corner.
"If you can execute that pitch, you can win," Warthen says. The philosopher dives into his canon: "But adrenalin gets greater when you're in the game. It's like fire: It can be a valuable servant but a dangerous master. That's when he gets away from it. They all do it. The young ones will."
Another pearl: "See how easy you can throw hard." Then he gives the proper annotation: "That's Sandy [Koufax], by the way."
ON SUMMER nights Citi Field can seem like the Apollo Theater, or Carolines on Broadway or any other New York institution where the entertainment is as varied as the dates on the calendar.
One night it might be Colon, whom a newcomer could mistake for a guy from the local car dealership throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. Colon throws a blizzard's worth of fastballs—85% of his pitches. As with snowflakes, though, each one has its own look. Colon can vary the speed and movement with uncanny precision. He began the year walking one of the first 227 batters he faced. He averages less than a walk per nine innings; nobody this old in baseball history ever had this kind of control.
So confident is Colon of his fastball, which averages a modest 90.5 mph, that he has little use for the reams of scouting reports and data on opposing hitters. He wants only two pieces of information: who swings at the first pitch, and whom do I not want to go in on. "And for him," Warthen says, "that means [he's] going farther in."
On another night it's Niese playing the Enigma, using a half dozen pitches like the thick menu of a 24-hour Queens diner. What'll it be tonight? Seven starts into the season, Niese had thrown his four-seamer, two-seamer, changeup, slider, curve or cutter at least 17 times in any one game.
The next night it's Syndergaard, whose Nordic heritage, 98-mph fastball and hammer of a curveball—"The hook from hell," Collins calls it—inspires Mets fans to come dressed in Viking headgear. After the 2012 season Alderson, in a trade with Toronto, turned a 38-year-old knuckleballer (and freshly minted Cy Young Award winner), R.A. Dickey, into a long-term battery: Syndergaard and catcher Travis d'Arnaud.
"He asks more questions than anybody has ever asked of me," Warthen says of Syndergaard. "'Why would you do this? Why did you do that?' I'm very excited for him." There is one concern: Syndergaard can be Ivan Drago on the mound. His arm action is mechanical. "The hitters get a good look," Warthen says. "It's so methodical, almost statuesque. You're up, you show, you throw."
On another night, with his locks flying and his sinews firing, the balletic DeGrom turns Citi Field into Lincoln Center. His 95-mph four-seam fastball actually is more difficult to hit (.162) than Harvey's 97-mph heater (.274). He pulls off this trick because, as with his personality, there is a jauntiness to his delivery. Ease of movement trumps brute force. Not only is DeGrom blessed with a long stride, which shortens the distance his pitches have to cover, but he also has a forward release point. The ball leaves most pitchers' fingers when the throwing hand is about even with the head. With DeGrom the hand travels a bit farther forward before the ball comes out. Pedro Martinez was blessed with this same late release, which fools a hitter's usual timing mechanism. It's why teammates regard a simple game of catch with DeGrom as a challenge.
The biggest nights of all belong to the Dark Knight, when the stands fill with people in Batman headgear, some of them old enough to remember when Gooden gave Mets fans that same tingling awareness that History always lurks right around the corner. Only six pitchers struck out more batters than Harvey in their first 50 starts: Gooden, Yu Darvish, Mark Prior, Hideo Nomo, Kerry Wood and Herb Score—the names of phenoms, sure, but also names that flutter like yellow caution flags. None of those prodigies was an All-Star starting pitcher after age 27.
The Mets feature four of the 15 hardest-throwing starters in baseball: Syndergaard (first with an average fastball velocity of 97.0), Harvey (fourth, 95.9), DeGrom (14th, 94.7) and Matz (also 94.7). No other team has more than one starter in the top 15. The Mets' rotation is reminiscent of the 2003 Cubs, when Wood, Prior and Carlos Zambrano, all between the ages of 22 and 26, were among the 10 hardest-throwing starters in the game. Chicago rode its three young power pitchers—rode them hard—to within one game of the NL pennant, whereupon the franchise's tiny window slammed shut. The trio never again was healthy for the same full season, and the Cubs haven't won a playoff game since.
Velocity is a powerful but cruel baseball god. The clock is always ticking, and the Mets know this. Lacking experience behind the plate, athleticism on defense and skill at bat, the team is under pressure to better support their exceptional starting pitchers. With trade season approaching, Alderson is inclined to keep all of his young arms. "If you look back on the time I've been here, we haven't traded that many prospects," he says. "What is a strength quickly can become a weakness—nowhere more so than pitching. By the way, Syndergaard is just working his way into the rotation. Matz is working his way into the rotation. It's not like these guys are slam dunks and you cruise to the World Series with them."
Alderson runs through his lineup. He likes D'Arnaud (currently recovering from a sprained left elbow) and first baseman Lucas Duda, he thinks shortstop-turned-second-baseman Wilmer Flores "notwithstanding all the hand-wringing by many people, has done a pretty good job for us," he hopes to get third baseman David Wright back from a back injury, and "for better or for worse, we're committed to the outfield," where Michael Cuddyer, Juan Lagares and Curtis Granderson are all signed through at least next year.
"The question is, who's out there that's better at a reasonable price?" he says.
Last month the Mets lost seven games in a row while scoring a total of nine runs. Each defeat, in its numbing repetitiveness, hit them like another hot, dry day in a drought. All this great pitching was going to waste, like a fallow field. Before every loss, in the manner of a support group, the starting pitchers gathered in the bullpen to watch that day's pitcher warm up (all except Colon, who keeps to his own pregame program in the clubhouse when he is not starting). The starters began the ritual this year, with Warthen having pilfered the idea from former Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan.
"It shows great camaraderie," Warthen says. "I love 'em. I really do. This is as much fun as I've ever had. It's a young group, but talented? Wow. These [guys] are good—with a chance to be great."
A chance. It's where the modest hopes of the Mets have begun for almost a decade. Since Harvey was drafted in 2010, the club never has finished closer to first place than 17 games out. In '12, when Harvey arrived in the majors, there was talk of a chance, and again in '13 when Wheeler arrived, and again in '14 when DeGrom arrived, and again in '15 when Syndergaard and Matz arrived. "Very similar to Kershaw," Harvey, echoing Warthen, says of Matz. "Similar with that backdoor curveball, the running two-seamer, the similar high arm slot...."
But when does the actual chance, and not the promise of one, begin? Harvey is tired of waiting.
"You know," he says, "I initially refused this interview because I didn't think now was a good time to talk about the future, which everybody wants to talk about, because, one, I think that's unfair to the rest of the guys in the clubhouse, and two, nothing against Mets fans, but the typical excuse is, 'It's coming!' or 'It's almost here!' And that's unacceptable to me.
"The reason we get paid on the 25-man roster is to concentrate on the now. Every pitch, every at bat, every groundball and every game. I think once you start using excuses—whether it's people talking about how we need another hitter, or more runs—if you start looking for outside help, you're not going to do the job internally and you've already given up your edge. That's the biggest thing I've tried to bring to this staff."
It is a big job, even for a superhero. Stuck to the top of Harvey's locker at Citi Field is the silhouette of a winged Batman logo, enclosing an image of Harvey in mid-delivery. Next to his locker is a placard with another logo: his initials, MH, atop one another, with the peaks of the M cleverly extended to mimic the pointed ears of Batman's hooded disguise. It's clear that this is the job Harvey wants, even only 52 starts into his career. As Warthen says, "We're not asking Matt to do something he wouldn't want to do."
On Harvey Days at home, the pitcher leaves his locker about 30 minutes before game time, makes a right turn out the clubhouse door, down a flight of steps into the dugout and then up the dugout stairs and into the wide horseshoe of Citi Field. He heads toward the bullpen, where the other starters, an audience of believers, will be there to hear the hum of his fastball and the thwack of the catcher's mitt.
This is the moment, until Harvey has his way, that defines the Mets. It is a moment of anticipation. Pitch by pitch, with power and concision, Harvey and his fellow starters want to author a new definition. It's time for the elements of their style to fit the words of Strunk 97 years ago: "Instead of announcing that what you are about to tell is interesting, make it so."
Scout's Take: The Young Guns
WHO WOULD YOU RATHER BUILD AROUND? A RIVAL SCOUT RANKS THE METS' 27-AND-UNDER STARTERS
1. MATT HARVEY (R)
Great competitor, his fastball's 94--97 mph, he can ride it up or sink it. He's got a hard slider, 87--90, an 81--83 curveball that he can use to both sides and a changeup that he can sink down and away from lefthanded hitters. He comes at you harder than almost anyone in baseball today. Harvey's biggest issue is going to be holding his delivery together. He's a breakdown candidate: I don't like his landing foot, I don't like the way he finishes, he puts a lot of pressure on that arm. If he stays healthy, he's got the highest upside of the bunch—but it's a huge if.
2. JACOB DEGROM (R)
He, like Harvey, has a power slider, and he has a backdoor curve he uses for lefthanders. But everything keys on his fastball command. He's not going to blow you away with velocity; he has to pitch. One advantage DeGrom has over the others is he can flat hit. And five years from now I think he's going to be the healthiest of the group.
3. NOAH SYNDERGAARD (R)
The wild card: A lot of ability, but he's the least consistent of the big three. He's got the same velocity Harvey does, and that big ol' downer curveball. He's also got a slider and a changeup—he has all the pitches, to this point he just hasn't commanded them as well as the top two. But he's right in that mix.
4. STEVEN MATZ (L)
A porcelain pitcher—he breaks all the time. When he's healthy, he's got power stuff: a 94--96 fastball, big-time sink and a good curveball. Long term he has to develop a change and throw his breaking ball to both sides. There's a lot of ability there. But he's been hurt so much, and the Mets' track record of diagnosing and treating injuries is not real strong.
5. ZACK WHEELER (R) (Left)
Another hard thrower: hard slider, a curveball that's pretty good against lefthanders. Abilitywise he's fifth of these five, but he has the potential, if he comes back [from Tommy John surgery] and finds better fastball command, to jump right into the middle of this pack.