Matt Harvey is a star, someone who should be in the rotation as long as he’s healthy. Dillon Gee is a placeholder, a competent MLB pitcher who should be in the rotation until someone better comes along. Gee has done a fine job for the Mets, making 103 starts for the club. We should salute his efforts for the team the past four-plus seasons. However, just because he has been useful in the past should not guarantee him a job in the immediate future.
In an injury-plagued campaign last year, Gee posted a 4.00 ERA and an 87 ERA+, which among National League pitchers made him an SP4. There were 78 pitchers in the league last year who pitched at least 90 innings and breaking those down into groups of 15, here are our rankings based solely on ERA:
SP1 – 1.77-2.83
SP2 – 2.85-3.40
SP3 – 3.44-3.70
SP4 – 3.71-4.10
SP5 – 4.18-5.38
On the surface, it seems if you have a SP4 as your fifth starter, you’re doing pretty good. However, not all mediocre pitchers are created equal. While Gee, Dan Haren and Kyle Kendrick all had below-average results for starters over the 162-game season, how they got there was a bit different.
Haren got off to a great start last year, as he posted a 2.84 ERA over his first eight starts. For the rest of the year, Haren notched a 4.46 ERA over 24 starts. Meanwhile Kendrick’s best eight-game stretch, which occurred in the middle of the year, produced a 3.69 ERA and overall he had a 4.61 ERA.
Last year Gee had a 2.73 ERA through his first eight starts before hitting the DL with a lat injury, which sidelined him for two months. His first start back was a continuation of his fine pitching from earlier in the season, as he allowed just 1 ER in 7 IP. But in his final 13 starts of the season, Gee had a 5.10 ERA in 77.2 IP.
So, he had nine consecutive starts where he pitched like an SP1 followed up by 13 consecutive starts where he pitched like an SP5, despite a perfectly average .301 BABIP. And before you think he was pitching while injured, here’s what Marc Carig of Newsday reported last September:
“Right now, the word that comes to mind is frustrating,” said Gee, who noted he was healthy in the second half. “I’ve been very inconsistent, with the injury and everything that we went through. This whole year leaves a sour taste in my mouth.”
This Jekyll and Hyde routine is nothing new for Gee.
In 2013, his first 12 starts of the year he had a 5.20 ERA and followed up with a 2.87 ERA over his final 20 starts. In 2011, he had a 2.86 ERA in his first 13 starts and a 5.51 ERA over his final 17 games. Even in 2012, in what might be termed his most consistent year, Gee had a 5.44 ERA over his first eight starts and a 3.00 ERA over his final nine games of the year before having his season end with an injury.
One can argue that this bi-polar pitching is what separates the end-of-the-rotation guys from the All-Stars. But the question that is relevant for the 2015 Mets is: Why give 30 starts to a guy you know is going to produce SP5 numbers for at least two consecutive months of the season?
Let’s say the good Gee shows up in the first half of 2015 and the Mets are battling for a playoff spot. And then he rips off an eight-game stretch of lousy pitching like 2012 or a 12-game stretch like 2013 or a 13-game stretch like in 2014 or a 17-game stretch like he had in 2011. Can you see the Mets making the necessary move to yank Gee for a rookie in August with the playoffs on the line? Especially since the Mets have the veteran-loving Terry Collins at the helm?
At this point in time, you know what you’re going to get with Gee. You’ll get stretches of brilliance combined with streaks of crappiness that has an upside of SP3 and the more-likely result of an SP4. If you were to put his expected full-season outlook into odds, a reasonable forecast would be:
SP1 – 0
SP2 – 2%
SP3 – 15%
SP4 – 60%
SP5 – 20%
Worse – 3%
All four of the projection systems currently available on FanGraphs place Gee with an ERA between 4.11 and 4.29, which straddles the line between SP4 and SP5.
This is acceptable production if you don’t have anything better. But in Rafael Montero, the Mets have what appears to be a reasonable alternative. As a rookie, Montero does not have much of an MLB track record to examine. So let’s look at his Triple-A results. There have been 13 pitchers for the Mets in Las Vegas to throw at least 68 innings over the past two years. Here they are broken down by ERA:
Montero has pitched more innings than any other pitcher for the Mets in Las Vegas and he has the best ERA among the 13 pitchers who’ve logged the most innings, a sample size picked specifically to include Wheeler. Simply put, Montero doesn’t have anything left to prove in Triple-A, where his numbers have been better than two guys who garnered attention in the Rookie of the Year balloting last year.
In his first exposure to MLB last year, Montero was not good. For whatever reason, his pinpoint control was missing and he gave up an obscene amount of homers for his innings pitched. He was sent back to the minors after posting a 5.40 ERA in 20 IP. When Montero returned in August, he put up a 2.96 ERA in 24.1 IP, despite flip-flopping between starting and relieving and going long stretches between outings.
If Syndergaard had put up the exact same season Montero did last year, everyone would talk about how he overcame a rough start to turn things around. But with Montero, all we hear about is small samples and strength of competition. Given his success in Las Vegas, which tiny sample do you think is more indicative of Montero’s likely MLB value? Do you think he’s more likely to allow a homer every four innings and give up five walks per game like he did in his first stretch? If so, that seems like an incredibly pessimistic view to me.
So, let’s say that you’re feeling generous and that you’re willing to write off Montero’s first four MLB games to nerves. What do you think about his second stint in the majors? He posted a 2.96 ERA with a .323 BABIP while giving up three homers in 24 IP. And even though his walks were essentially the same as they were in the first stint he took a big step forward.
What would your opinion of Montero be if he didn’t pitch in the majors in May and the only thing you had to go by were his Triple-A numbers in Las Vegas and what he did in his last six appearances with the Mets? Wouldn’t that look like a top prospect pitching exactly how you hoped/expected from him?
And do you really want to have Gee keep a top prospect from making 30 starts this year when the Mets are hoping for a playoff appearance?
Montero’s first four starts were worse, but in the same ballpark, as Gee’s last 13 starts of 2014. The difference is that those starts were out of character for Montero while Gee’s pitching at the end of last year was no different than what he’s done in similar stretches each of his full seasons in the majors.
If you had to pick a pitcher to put up eight consecutive starts with an ERA north of 5.00 the obvious choice would be Gee.
The Mets should put Montero in the rotation right from the start in 2015. And if in any eight-game stretch he posts an ERA in the neighborhood of what Gee did when he was healthy at the end of last year, the Mets can yank him and put the veteran in his place. That’s a move none of us should have trouble envisioning Collins doing.
Having a guy forecasted to put up a 4.18 ERA as your fifth starter is far from the worst thing in the world. But ZiPS, the same system that projects that mark from Gee, projects a 3.63 mark from Montero. Using the breakdowns mentioned earlier, that makes Gee a top flight SP5 and Montero a low-end SP3.
In a year where you hope to make the playoffs if everything breaks right, why make the path to success harder by choosing an SP5 over an SP3? The risk with Gee is that he pitches terrible for half the year and you don’t have the courage to remove him because he’s a veteran. You don’t have that issue with Montero.
Because he hasn’t had much success in the majors, conventional wisdom is that Montero’s floor is worse than Gee’s in terms of 2015 success with the Mets. For the sake of argument, let’s agree on that statement. At the same time Montero has more upside, which he reaches if he has a normal HR rate and if he returns to his typical walk rates. Those are far from given but in Spring Training this year he hasn’t allowed a homer and has given up 2 BB in 8 IP over three appearances.
The case for Gee is that he has had stretches of success in the majors, as recently as his first nine starts of 2014. Additionally, no one will criticize you for going with a veteran.
The case for Montero is that he’s a better pitcher. His minor league track record is far superior to Gee’s, who had a 4.76 ERA over 221.1 innings in the friendlier pitching environment in Buffalo. Non-biased projection systems in ZiPS and Steamer both see Montero being better in 2015. Also, his rookie status makes removing him if he bombs a much easier proposition than doing likewise with Gee. It may seem like a weird thing to list as an advantage but I’d rather have the guy you know will be gone if he stinks in eight starts compared to the guy you know they will keep pitching, even if he bombs in 15 straight.
The bottom line for me is you choose Gee if your main concern is eliminating second guessing and you pick Montero if your main concern is maximizing the value of the 2015 season. Let’s see which one Collins and the Mets pick.