The last week hasn’t been pretty. And let’s not pretend that what came before that was all sunshine and lollipops, either. Understandably, fans are giving up on the 2017 season and making moves for next year. You hear variations of calling up the kids and deciding which guys to trade to get something of value in return. Hey, there’s no one right way to be a fan although my take is if you’re doing that in June, it’s going to be a looooong offseason.
But, if you absolutely must do that, you’ve got to immediately change your focus. Because it doesn’t make the tiniest difference who’s catching or playing the infield or playing the outfield for the Mets next year if they don’t get improved starting pitching. You can sign the top free agent at every position and if the Mets pitchers keep giving up gopher balls at the rate they’re doing now, they won’t make the playoffs. In the last 10 games, opponents have hit 29 HR against Mets pitchers.
Before Wednesday’s games, there were 16 pitchers on the FanGraphs leaderboards who had a fWAR of 2.0 or greater. Try not to be shocked when you hear that not a single one of those guys pitch for the Mets. For a team where starting pitching was supposed to be a strength, that’s a little disheartening. Of those 16 pitchers, 12 of them had a HR/FB rate of 13.0 percent or under. Leading the way is Chris Sale, who has a 4.6 fWAR and an 8.2 HR/FB rate.
But there’s more than one way to skin a cat. The four pitchers of this group with the elevated HR/FB rate get a lot of grounders and they have double digit K/9 rates. For instance, Lance McCullers has a 17.1 HR/FB rate but he compensates with a GB% of 63.0 and a 10.45 K/9.
When Robert Gsellman came up and impressed so much in 2016, he had a 3.6 HR/FB rate, an 8.46 K/9 and a 54.2 GB%. So, he got a ton of grounders, a bunch of strikeouts and the homers were very few. Flash forward to this year and Gsellman has almost an identical GB% but the other two categories show why he’s struggling so badly this year. His strikeout percentage has dropped nearly two per game to a 6.53 rate and his HR/FB rate has surged to 18.8 percent.
Zack Wheeler was a strong pitcher through most of the 2014 season. From 4/14 – 8/27 he had a 3.27 ERA with an 8.7 K/9, a 54.8 GB% and a 9.2 HR/FB rate. Checking in on his numbers from this year, Wheeler has a 5.29 ERA, an 8.3 K/9, a 45.2 GB% and an 18.0 HR/FB rate. His strikeouts are right in line with his pre-injury numbers but his groundball rate has slipped dramatically and his home run rate has more than doubled.
Upon his return from TJ surgery in 2015, Matt Harvey posted a 2.71 ERA with an 8.94 K/9, 46.0 GB% and a 9.8 HR/FB rate. This year he had a 5.2 ERA, a 6.91 K/9, a 45.3 GB% and a 22.2 HR/FB rate. He was able to get as many grounders as previously but his strikeouts evaporated and his home run rate exploded. Perhaps this was more about pitching through injury but whatever the reason, the numbers are dismal.
The sample sizes simply aren’t big enough for Seth Lugo, Steven Matz and Noah Syndergaard. The former two each impressed in their first start and then were victimized by the gopher ball in their second. Syndergaard did not allow a homer in five starts and had strikeout and groundball rates better than a year ago. He was easily the team’s best pitcher before landing on the DL.
So, before playing GM and making offseason moves to address the offense – what are you doing about the pitching? Are you projecting Syndergaard, Harvey and Matz to stay reasonably healthy? Can Wheeler, Gsellman and Harvey reverse their 2017 slide? If the former group can’t stay healthy and the latter group can’t turn things around – what’s Plan B?
Of course, one pitcher hasn’t been mentioned yet and that’s Jacob deGrom. For most of the year, deGrom was pitching well but would be victimized by one bad inning. On April 28, he gave up two homers in the second inning. On May 8, he gave up a double and a HR in the first. On May 14, he allowed a double and a homer in the sixth. All three of these games he pitched well besides the one frame. In these games, he had 30 Ks in 19 IP, an indication of how good his stuff was.
Then it all fell apart in his back-to-back starts in the end of May and beginning of June. In these two games, deGrom allowed 15 ER and saw his ERA leap from 3.23 to 4.75 for the season. He allowed 18 hits and 4 HR in 8 IP.
But deGrom responded with his best two starts of the year. In games against the Cubs and Nationals, he combined for 1 ER in 17 IP and collected two wins. The most curious thing was how he accomplished this. Earlier in the year, deGrom was piling up strikeouts. Even in his two poor starts, he collected 8 Ks in 8 IP. But in these last two games against tough competition, deGrom amassed 12 Ks in 17 IP, significantly fewer whiffs than he had previously.
Seemingly, he traded strikeouts for weak contact. In the last two games, deGrom has posted a 55.6 GB% and a 26.7 IFFB rate. Compare that to what he did in his first 12 starts of the year, when he had a 43.9 GB% and a 10.0 IFFB rate.
Can deGrom keep this us? And if he can, we may have the template for how pitchers can survive in this new offensive environment when everyone is trying to hit the ball out of the park on every pitch. Of course, deGrom has great stuff and we can’t assume that if he’s able to remake his approach that every other pitcher will, too. But when everyone on the staff is struggling with the gopher ball, we should pay attention when a guy posts a 20.0 HR/FB rate and then cuts it to 6.7% while facing two of the top offenses in the league.
Ideally, you get lots of grounder, get lots of strikeouts and limit the HR ball. But you can also succeed if you do two of those really well. Lately, deGrom has succeeded without a high strikeout rate because he upped his grounders and significantly cut his gopher balls. But as we saw with McCullers earlier, you can have a high homer rate if you combine with lots of grounders and strikeouts. Until the others start doing at least two of these three things – strikeouts, grounders, homers – well, the Mets’ pitchers will still be a huge problem.