NY Sports Dog: Mets Pre-Season Questions : Part 1, Starting Pitching

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Mets Pre-Season Questions : Part 1, Starting Pitching

My friend Ravi, a very, very smart baseball guy has agreed to write here "time permitting", and we're thrilled to have him on board...enjoy!

--Dave

Tales From the Picnic Seats

Like any baseball team, a number of questions have been asked regarding the Met players, and the 2009 season, from both the fans and media. Living in New York, in the shadow of that "other" team, any positive outlook is often met with skepticism, and often drowned out by overwhelming pessimism. In addition, the fact that the Mets are largely bringing back the same team after failing on the eve of October the past two seasons only serves to exacerbate the situation.

Count me out of that skeptical, pessimistic group. While there are questions to be answered, The Mets are entering 2009 with a very strong team. Although they failed to get the job done over the past two (some may argue three) seasons, one needs to look back just 5 years to understand what a bad team truly is.

I am not a scout, nor do I claim to be. What I am is a die-hard Mets fan, who after watching 162 games, and following all off-season coverage, can offer logical perspective based on observation, and fact. As my first article for NY Sports Dog, I will be taking a 3-part look at the team as constructed. Part I will focus on starting pitching (particularly the top 4), while Part II and III will focus on the offense and bullpen respectively.

PART I: STARTING PITCHING

2008 stats (NL Rank):

  • 3.98 ERA (5th)
  • .253 BAA (2nd)
  • 771 K (4th)
  • 388 BB (15th)
  • 458 RA (3rd)
  • 7.15 K/9 (5th)
  • .725OPS (4th).

I think that the above shows how good the starting staff was despite all the adversity it faced, including injuries to Maine, Pedro, Duque, a lack of a true 5th starter, as well as Ollie and Pelf’s early struggles. The below will show you why we can expect improvement in ’09, from the same cast of characters.

Johan Santana:

Critics say that Santana is on his way down, with decreased FB velocity, a much lower K-rate, and his HR tendencies. Though his Pedro like seasons may be finished, he is a fine pitcher. While I don’t know how Citi Field will affect his HR tendencies, I do know that he altered his pitching style slightly in the 2nd half.

Why? The one word answer is the bullpen. The full answer is that Johan thought that by going deeper into games, he could minimize the exposure of a suspect bullpen. He did this by pitching to contact, knowing that hitters would have trouble squaring up on his offerings, and that his defense would do the rest. This is not just speculation. The truth is in the numbers:

1st half – 6.2IP/start, 8.1K/9, 3.26K/BB

2nd half – 7.2IP/start, 7.7K/9, 3.29K/BB

There is a big difference between leaving the game with 2 outs in the 7th, and 2 outs in the 8th. While we saw many potential victories blown by the bullpen in the first half, this was not the case when Johan shortened the bridge to Wagner. The result? Santana goes 8-0 in 15 2nd half starts (compare that to 8 wins in 19 first half starts).

Oliver Perez:

I didn’t want to write this piece before Perez was officially signed, because there are some key takeaways from his work under Dan Warthen. Although it is still largely true that Good Ollie or Bad Ollie can show up any day, Perez’s 2nd half stats was encouraging in a few instances. Consider the following:

1st half – 5.2IP/start, 7.75K/9, 5.23BB/9, 1.48K/BB, 4.44ERA

2nd half – 6.0IP/start, 9.03K/9, 4.5BB/9, 2.02K/BB, 3.97ERA

It must be noted that Ollie’s 1st half stats have include a few starts with the new coaching staff, and essentially weaken the correlation between Warthen and Perez, by making his numbers look a bit better. With Dan Warthen, Ollie was able to average 6IP/start. While that tidbit by itself is no big shakes, Perez also finished with more K’s than IP (albeit by a slight margin) while also cutting his walks down by 1 batter/9IP. The most encouraging sign is the bottom line- an ERA drop of nearly half a run. The rate stats by themselves don’t mean much, but we can see the effect that incremental improvements across the board can have on overall performance.

Now I’m not saying that Perez has completely turned the corner, but instead that perhaps Bad Ollie won’t be as bad as in the past, which goes a long way toward justifying his contract, and place in the rotation.

John Maine:

Aside from the bone spur, Maine’s Achilles heel was high pitch counts. The lack of another out pitch allowed batters to sit on Johnnie’s rising fastball. However, hitters were not as likely to chase it, and instead would take the heater for a ball. When Maine got it in the strike zone, the pitch was often times fouled off, as hitters still could not square it up. There has also been a lot of debate as to whether or not Maine suffered from the loss of Peterson. However, Warthen has been cognizant of the situation, and has paid attention to Maine, saying recently:

"Warthen already has encouraged Maine to throw more curves and changeups and "back off the slider." His reasoning is this: Maine works high in the zone, and a curve starts high and therefore will add some deception for those thinking fastball, and the change of speeds may keep hitters off the high fastball that produced the many foul balls that padded Maine's pitch count. (MLB.com)

It is a reason for optimism, but we will have to see if Warthen’s ideas take.

Mike Pelfrey:

No pitcher (ok, maybe Ollie) is a tougher read for me than Mike Pelfrey. When I am on comment boards for several different Mets blogs, and see the projected lineups people post, many have Pelf as the number 2 guy. My colleague Dave Singer thinks Pelf can put up close to 17 victories. I am just not sure if he will take that step just yet. For the record, I am a big fan of Mike (I’ve got the Go Big Pelf! Tee from Brooklyn Met Fan); However, my Shea record with that shirt is 0-2, and for overall games watched in that shirt, it is 0-5), but based on just a half season, I’m not sure if he is the #2 guy yet.

Much like Johan’s 2nd half approach, Pelf just pitched to contact, and forgot about throwing that perfect pitch every time. His bowling ball of a sinker did the rest. The positive is that going into June, Pelf was 2-6. The rest of the way? 11-4. Certainly, over the course of the full season, 17 wins is a possibility, with his new approach. Then again, the biggest question with Mike is whether or not he can pitch a full season in 2009, due to his workload increasing by 50 innings. Personally, I think the Verducci Theory (young pitchers should increase their workload by no more than 30 innings, to avoid injury) is flawed, because it assumes all innings are created equal. However, thanks to Mack of Mack’s Mets, I was able to do a quick analysis using pitch counts.

2007- 2,565 pitches/152.7 IP = 16.80 pitches/inning (incl. minors)

2008- 3,323 pitches/200.7 IP = 16.56 pitches/inning

Pelf threw 758 more pitches in 2008. Assuming a rate of 16.65 pitches per inning (a mid point of his 2007-8 seasons), Mike’s workload increased by close to 45.2IP – certainly a red flag. Originally, had no questions about his durability, but after crunching numbers, I do have some reservations.

Ultimately, I think the Mets will feature yet another strong staff anchored by a true ace in Johan, and 3 other solid pitchers. I think that Omar has been very wise in building depth for the rotation with the rash of minor league signings, so the team isn’t undermined by poor 5th starter performance, as it has been the past two seasons. Furthermore, I think the depth will come in handy to give Pelfrey a breather in the middle of the season.

As an aside, I want to comment on A-Rod’s steroid allegation. I will withhold judgment until he is proven guilty. I do hate the Yankees, and on one hand, nothing will make me happier. However, in addition to a Met fan, I am also a big baseball fan. Personally, I am saddened by the revelation, because I was hoping that A-Rod could de-throne Barry Bonds (who I am convinced was tainted, particularly after Game of Shadows) and reclaim the most hallowed record in all of American Sports. I am afraid that unless definitively proven innocent or guilty, he will be tainted. Personally, I hope that the truth comes out, and soon.

--Ravi
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9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Really nice writeup.

Do you think the Mets will try and keep Pelf's pitch and inning count down early in the year?

I mean, lets say he's pitching a good game, like 1 or 2 runs in the 6th, will Jerry know to hold him back early to save him for later?

Dave Singer said...

I hope so. Pelfrey threw 40+ innings and July and August, which is a lot for a young pitcher.

Hopefully they'll limit him to around 30 or so innings per month for the first 3 months of the season....get him to the break at about 100 innings, then let him finish strong in the 190-200 IP range.

I'm not really worried about the Verducci effect because of Pelf's physical abilities....the guy is a horse.

You just have to hold him back a little bit so he doesn't burn out late.

Mets4Ever said...

Ravi--what is your take on Freddy Garcia? Does he have enough health to throw 25 to 30 starts?

Anonymous said...

Ravi:

Good piece.

Don't be surprised if the Mets have the best SP5 in the NL this year... a healthy Freddy Garcia.

Mack said...

Sorry Ravi...

that was me above this comment writing about Garcia.

I hate anon-people.

Mack

Ravi said...

I also wonder if Jerry will use some caution with Mike. We haven't really seen how he handles the pitching staff (last year, he pretty much had to go with the starter as long as possible b/c of the bullpen). However, both he and Warthen have been cognizant of the pitching issues. I agree with Dave, and hope that they try to keep the workload from being too high.

I really have no clue about Garcia...the only time I really ever watched him was while he was a Phillie. Health permitting, he would potentially round out the best starting 5 in the league. I think his Winter League injury shows that they guy who was winning 15+ games for Seattle is gone,but he is still better than the slop the Mets have thrown out there in the past.

What I will say is that if the entire rotation stays healthy and performs well, the team will be sitting pretty.

Mets Tailgate said...

Ravi,

Great writeup. But I'm not sure about your saying Johan and Pelf were "pitching to contact." That seems like speculation to me. If a pitcher has strikeout ability, there's no reason to "pitch to contact" - with a strikeout, there's a 100% chance a batter won't reach base (barring a dropped 3rd strike). However, for every ball put into play, there's a 30-35% chance the batter reaches base. I'm not so sure the numbers you posted support this.

I love Johan as much as the next Met fan, but all indicators show he's on a slight decline.

Dave Singer said...

If we get the same Johan in 2009 that we had in 2008, we'll all be thrilled.

With a repeat of last season, and less blown saves, he wins 20.

Ravi said...

Mets Tailgate-

I remember reading some of Johan's quotes during the season suggesting he wanted to go deeper into games. By saying pitch to contact, I mean that he didn't try and make the perfect pitch each time..instead, it was more about getting a pitch in the right location

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