Last year when the Mets needed to reach into their system and call up pitchers they weren’t expecting to, they got great results from both Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo. That fortune has not repeated itself this year with either Tyler Pill or Chris Flexen. It’s not a big surprise with either, as Pill doesn’t have the raw stuff and Flexen started this year in A-ball. Flexen takes the mound tonight for his third start, hoping this time will be the charm.
If you want to rationalize, you can come up with excuses for both of Flexen’s poor first two outings. In his first appearance, he was making the leap to the majors most unexpectedly and even guys properly groomed for their first MLB start get beat around. Then, in his second appearance, Flexen had the misfortune of making a road start in Coors Field. And to top it all off he was dealing with a blister.
But tonight, assuming his blister problem was temporary, the stage is set. Flexen’s been around the major league block twice and he’ll be performing in a relatively neutral park in Citi Field, going up against a squad five games under .500 and one who was an active seller at the trade deadline. So, what does Flexen have to do to be successful this time out?
When you give up 13 H and 5 BB in 6 IP the answer is pretty easy – make better pitches. Good luck with that one. But as much as Flexen needs to make better pitches, he needs to be the recipient of better ball/strike calls, too. According to TexasLeaguers, Flexen has had 10 pitches in the strike zone called balls and three more right on the edge that very easily could have been called strikes. That may not seem like a lot but he only has 19 pitches in the zone called strikes. When a third of your strikes are being called balls, that’s a problem. Here’s the same information visually:
Flexen is making the jump from Double-A to the majors, so it’s not a surprise that he’s struggling. But one thing that jumps out is that he was a solid ground ball pitcher in the minors and most of his balls are being hit in the air so far in the majors. In Hi-A this year, he had a 52.8 GB% and in Double-A it was a 52.6 rate. But in the majors, he has just a 39.1 mark. And MLB hitters have a 2.500 OPS on fly balls against him and a 2.000 OPS on line drives, so he has lots of incentive to get more grounders.
So far, Flexen hasn’t thrown a ton of pitches right down the middle of the zone, yet he’s had more balls in the middle third, both horizontally and vertically, of the plate than seems ideal. And for a guy who’s been a ground ball pitcher, eyeballing it he has about the same number of pitches in the upper half of the zone as he does in the lower half. Here’s that information visually:
Is this pitch calling or pitch execution? No one knows but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to believe that a guy in his first two starts in the majors may be having trouble locating his pitches.
So, things to look for from Flexen tonight:
1. Is he throwing more pitches on the inside third or outside third of the plate, rather than the middle third?
2. Is he throwing more pitches downstairs than upstairs?
3. Does it look like the umpire is squeezing him?
My personal preference is for guys with heat to work upstairs. But that upstairs has to be letter high, not belly-button high. Those belly-high pitches are the ones that get hit a long way, as we saw again and again and again during the Dodgers series, against multiple pitchers. With an average fastball velocity of 93.2, Flexen doesn’t have the raw heat to survive throwing thigh-high to belly-high pitches in the middle of the zone.