The improved pitching of Chris Flexen and Rafael Montero

Coming into Spring Training the Mets hoped that the majority of their starts would be handled by seven pitchers. Sure, a handful of other guys would likely get a start here and a start there, since teams usually use 10 or so starters per year. But those depth starters likely wouldn’t get many chances and they likely wouldn’t be very good.

So, it probably says at least as much about the injuries and ineffectiveness of the super majority of those original seven starters but over the last few appearances, the Mets’ second and third-best starters have been guys who probably weren’t on anyone’s radar in mid-February. In a world where nothing makes sense, Chris Flexen and Rafael Montero have brought a touch of stability to the Mets’ rotation.

Let’s look at the last three starts by pitchers who started a game for the Mets in August, listed in reverse order of their ERA in that span:

Robert Gsellman – 12.2 IP, 8.53 ERA
Steven Matz – 14.1 IP, 8.16 ERA
Seth Lugo – 16 IP, 7.31 ERA
Chris Flexen – 16 IP, 4.50 ERA
Rafael Montero – 15 IP, 4.20 ERA
Jacob deGrom – 19 IP, 3.79 ERA

Of course there’s more than just these two stats to judge a pitcher by and if we were to include, say WHIP, certainly Flexen wouldn’t look so hot. But while the first three guys on this list look like candidates to move to the bullpen – assuming there were other starting options – Flexen and Montero here recently have been performing at an ERA rate that in 2017 that would mark them as a low-end SP3 or high-end SP4.

To be crystal clear, these are tiny sample sizes looking at just ERA. But in a season where very little has gone right for the Mets on the mound, this at least gives a glimmer of hope for two guys who right now have a shot to force their way into the team’s plans in 2018.

Flexen was not on anyone’s radar for starts in the majors back in February. Instead, he was a guy who had potential but who, at the very least, had to prove he could stay healthy. He started the year in Hi-A, got the call to Double-A and was lights out at the higher level, posting a 1.66 ERA in 48.2 IP before getting the surprise call to the majors. It was the first time since Mike Pelfrey in 2006 that the Mets promoted a pitcher from Double-A to Queens.

Pelfrey got in four games back in ’06 and had a 5.48 ERA and a 1.734 WHIP. Twelve years later, he’s still pitching in the majors, although he hasn’t been good since 2010, when he was 15-9 with a 3.66 ERA..

In his first two games in the majors, Flexen was horrible. In those two appearances he allowed 8 ER and 15 H in 6 IP. He also allowed 5 BB and 2 HR in that span. But in his last three games, he’s made some strides. He’s averaging 5.1 IP per game instead of 3.0 and while he’s still allowing way too many baserunners, at least here lately he’s given up fewer hits (15) than IP (16). And while no one is doing any cartwheels over a 1.7 HR/9, it’s still an improvement over the 3.0 HR/9 rate of his first two starts.

Some worry that being in the majors right now is hurting his growth and development. But Flexen is showing growth at the major league level. It’s next to impossible to tell these things from a distance but if forced to wager, you would think that Flexen’s confidence level on August 20 is better than what it was on August 3 after his second start. If/when Lugo or Matt Harvey return from the DL this year, my preference would be to keep giving starts to Flexen and move Matz to the pen.

Meanwhile, Montero has turned in back-to-back strong starts against good-hitting teams. After giving up 2 ER in 6 IP against the Yankees, last night he allowed just 1 ER over 6 IP. And the reason for his success is remarkably simple – he’s started to throw pitches inside. Let’s look at two charts. The first one is from the beginning of the year through his start on August 10 and it’s the called strike zone of his pitches to righty batters.

As you can see, the overwhelming number of pitches to righties have been low and away. And the image to lefties would show the exact same approach.

Unfortunately, as of press time, TexasLeaguers only had charts available for Montero’s start against the Yankees and not his one against the Marlins. So, instead of using the called strike zone, this chart is Pitch Locations by Type, which show all of his pitches to righties.

The change is drastic. Against the Yankees he went from throwing somewhere around 80 percent of his pitches low and away to actually throwing more pitches inside. Halle-freaking-lujah. After asking for this for years, it’s nice to see this in practice. It’s the pitching equivalent of Daniel Murphy finally trying to pull the ball after years of being content to flick the ball to the opposite field.

And while the number of inside pitches against the Marlins might not be as high as it was against the Yankees, it was still a considerable amount.

It’s three games for Flexen and two for Montero. In the immortal words of Winston Wolf, “Well, let’s not start sucking each other’s (lollipops) just yet.”

But in this lost season, we’re hoping to see growth and change and trying to figure out who can be a contributor in 2018 and beyond. While most look to see that from young hitters, the same principle applies to young pitchers, too. The only pitchers who should be considered locks for the 2018 rotation are deGrom and Noah Syndergaard. Everyone else needs to earn their spot. Flexen and Montero could get an additional six more starts this season. Flexen needs to keep improving while Montero needs to continue to do what he’s done in his last two appearances.

20 comments for “The improved pitching of Chris Flexen and Rafael Montero

  1. Koos
    August 20, 2017 at 9:59 am

    Package Matz,Robles,and Montero and see if you can get a young guy who can play CF, 3B or 2B.

  2. Metsense
    August 20, 2017 at 11:43 am

    A very positive article. There may be a silver lining to all the pitching injuries in 2017. Hopefully some of the injured starters will be back before the end of the season and pitch successfully. If Familia Blevins and Rojas are the first-tier relievers then there should be many candidates as second-tier relievers that can pitch more than 2 innings an appearance and that can only stretch out your bullpen. As we found out in 2017, you cannot have enough pitching.

  3. Name
    August 20, 2017 at 12:38 pm

    I disagree. Montero and Flexen are not pitching better, they’re just getting better sequencing, and thus a better outcome. They’re still pitching relatively horribly.

    Flexen: 10/11 K/BB ratio. 6.2 BB//9, 1.625 WHIP. 6.39 FIP
    Montero: 16/8 k/bb ratio. 4.5 bb/9. 1.6 WHIP. 4.43 FIP.

    And this is the best they can do when their pitching “well”?

    We should be sad that they’ve got the 2nd and 3rd best results in the past few weeks, not celebrating it.

    Montero, whatever, we’ve seen him fail a million times and he has no future so who cares if we keep running him out there. But Flexen still has a hope in this org and he should be sent down to develop properly.

    • August 20, 2017 at 1:08 pm

      Not much left of the minor league season and I see no point to sending Flexen down for two weeks. And while he’s allowing too many baserunners, the take away is that he’s shown improvement, not that he’s where he needs to be right now.

      As for Montero, his FIP is being hurt by the start before the Yankees where he allowed 10 baserunners and a HR in 3 IP. I have no idea what the 2017 constant is but 5 BB, 11 Ks and 1 HR in 12 IP should result in a FIP at least half a run better than what you posted and likely better than that.

      • Name
        August 20, 2017 at 2:55 pm

        I’d send him back down to Binghamton. They’re in the playoffs so he’d make at least one postseason start for them. Hopefully he’ll pitch well and get his confidence back. Then i’d shut him down for the rest of the year. I’d rather see no innings from him in September than see him pitch in the majors.

        He’s not a candidate to make any April starts for the Mets next year – if he does it’s going to be another long year – so there’s nothing to “evaluate” in September.

      • August 22, 2017 at 9:41 am

        FG shows the FIP constant as 3.132 so in the small sample of his past two starts, Montero has a 3.63 FIP.

    • Chris F
      August 20, 2017 at 1:15 pm

      I completely agree Name. Flexen has a lost season, so might as well leave him up, but Id only permit a spot start and maybe some genuinely planned relief appearances. I am completely off put by Collins saying no matter who is out there they are playing to win. Right now that equates to getting strong player assessments done, regardless of score. I view the remainder of games as spring training in strategy. We can catch everyone but the Phillies in the NL.

      Montero is the proverbial “a broken clock is right 2x a day”. The needle has moved a tad for 2 games out of howm many MLB starts? He’s a cat on its 12th life and not really showing more than desperate to use long relief in lost games.

      The sample size is som small that the numbers have nothing but face-value meaning. Nothing is predictable from them. Much like Gump getting 3 DPs and a HR last night…and I dont want him near 3B even in an apocalypse.

  4. TexasGusCC
    August 20, 2017 at 12:48 pm

    Thor, JDG
    Harvey (rehabbing and looking strong)
    Wheeler, Lugo, Gsellman, Flexen, Montero, Matz
    Pill, Knapp, Milone

    Matz should be next to Harvey; pitchers that have been successful and recovering from injury. But, while Harvey is looking good, Matz is looking lost. Also, what happened to the great control all these guys had?

    Have Wheeler/Lugo/Gsellman shown enough where one can be flipped for a third base prospect? I would think so, but would hypothetically a team do Wheeler or Lugo for Devers or a similar prospect? Should we? The White Sox also need pitching and have some offensive talent…

    • Chris F
      August 20, 2017 at 1:08 pm

      “would hypothetically a team do Wheeler or Lugo for Devers or a similar prospect?”

      If you called Boston with that proposal, Dombrowski would hang up the phone before you got Dev- out of your mouth.

      Wheeler, has never recovered from TJ. Presently lost somewhere on the back 40 chasing butterflies and skipping stones in a pond.

      Lugo, has a shoulder impingement and a partial UCL tear. Has not pitched well and is looking at 18 months on the shelf.

      Gsellman, may have been a hot off season inquiry, but dont expect that this Winter Meetings.

      Matz, last seen chasing Wheeler in the goldenrod patch well off a paved road.

      What about Harvey? TJ, ToS. Has never recovered. Permanent injury risk.

      And you want Devers??

    • August 20, 2017 at 1:09 pm

      Some day you’ll explain to me your fascination with Knapp.

      No team is going to trade a prospect anywhere near as good as Devers for the guys you mentioned.

      • TexasGusCC
        August 20, 2017 at 8:25 pm

        While you guys can spit at these guys all you want, last year Gsellman was a hot ticket, and while Lugo may not excite you, Wheeler should. Let’s not forget these prospects aren’t sure things so you guys need to stop dumping on our young players. Devers is a good prospect, but so was d’Arnaud, so was Profar, so was the Braves catcher that was made a pitcher, so was Gallo, etc.

        Why are our players always so crappy but the other teams’ players are always all-stars before they even get going?

        • Chris F
          August 20, 2017 at 9:17 pm

          Devers has 20 games in the bigs. The Red Sox dont have a third baseman but him. And how has he done so far?

          .364/.424/.727 triple slash.

          Wheeler? Cant find home plate with a GPS. Ya know, when he is actually able to be on a mound. It mystifies me that you would even imagine Wheeler with trade value.

          The main difference is that our prospects arent so good, aside from Rosario.

          Gsellman was last years news. You impressed with him this year? I think you get a bucket of balls, batting practice balls at that.

          • TexasGusCC
            August 21, 2017 at 12:03 am

            That’s Devers’ triple slash? Wow! But, how do we say it: SS. Nonetheless, impressive. So, why were they so active for a third baseman before July’s end?

            Obviously kids are an unknown quantity, but three years ago the Giants were in the same position with a second baseman, finally brought up Joe Panik out of nowhere, he hit .300+, and they won a World Series. Then he hit .312, .239, and now .271 with no pop or speed and they are looking to upgrade him. (TJ Rivera)

            Sure our players had down years, but it doesn’t mean they stink. Wheeler is talented, Lugo was in demand as was Gsellman. If they are pitching lights out, is Devers enough? No… So, why can’t we accept that talent is traded for and not results because there isn’t a track record? What do Schimdt, Hernandez, and Trout have in common? They sucked when they first came up.

            I laugh when I think of the 1986 Mets, and how Met fans would have run half that team out of town in today’s times.

            • Chris F
              August 21, 2017 at 9:11 am

              There is a track record. Wheelers “talent” trade was made for Beltran years ago, and its no longer relevant after failing to recover from TJ. You think a team will part with the #1 prospect at a position (Devers) for a pitcher that spent 2 years recovering from surgery and today is on DL because of the mythical talent he possesses?

              Devers got called up in a thin 3B market when Sandoval was benched/DFAd.

              • Jimmy P
                August 21, 2017 at 10:20 am

                Your #2 whipping boy, Zack Wheeler, whom you also are wildly vitriolic and negative about.

                That you don’t see the talent — which you put in quotes and then refer to as mythical — is just pretty hopeless to me. You can question whether he’ll be able to put it all together, but he’s been an undeniable talent for many years.

                Also, and this is more nuanced but, I think, as part of your ongoing campaign directed at this player, you talk about his “failure” to recover from TJ surgery. I think fans do this kind of thing a lot, blame athletes for their injuries, subtly impugn their character.

                I don’t know why you seem to need to have these players you target with unfair criticisms. On Wheeler, no, he hasn’t been perfect. He was a tremendous talent and a good acquisition by Alderson, sidetracked by injuries. Not everyone makes it all the way back from TJ. All he has done is battled, and struggled, and rehabbed, and not made any excuses along the way. Yet you seem to take glee at taking potshots at him.

                I don’t understand you.

                • Eraff
                  August 21, 2017 at 1:59 pm

                  This is similar to the John Maine experience—- he was trashed for being hurt—trashed for trying to pitch hurt. Meanwhile, Montero was trashed for not pitching when he was hurt.

                  It’s the Myth of the sophisticated NY Fan–Total Bullshit. Fans cheer winners and Boo losers

                • Chris F
                  August 21, 2017 at 6:50 pm

                  That’s ridiculous. He’s been faaaar overrated from the get go. Prior to surgery he could not even average 6 IP per outing. He’s been all over the map. He now has a long track record and let’s look at both sides of the equation.

                  He has 66 starts as a pro. It’s a lot of time on DL. I don’t blame him for that. It is what it is. But the fact is Gus proposed trading him for the best 3B prospect in the land. Would you do that?

                  Then look at his numbers. He’s a career 3.9 ERA, with a 1.4 WHIP, and a 4 FIP. That’s not a top of the rotation guy. If he was so gifted with talent surely we would see more of it. I think he is one of the most wildly overrated pitchers in a decade. Talent? Sure. Execution? Terrible. So I ask you again, would you trade Rosario (read Devers) for Wheeler? I wouldn’t in a million years. And you can put Lugo, Gsellman, Matz and Harvey on that list. Whether or not these individuals have raw talent can’t be denied, but for a multitude of reasons the reality has *never* matched the talent in the Show.

  5. Eraff
    August 20, 2017 at 1:14 pm

    Wow—I’m not sure how you can poo-poo the past two starts from Montero. It’s a short statistical sample, but it strongly backs “The Eye Test”—lower Hit and Lower BB…Lower WHIP. Good K Rate.

    Beyond seeing and “Statting” the results, the approach and the execution are a dramatic change in format–“He’s Done Something Different”, and he’s executed it well…personally, I’ve been waiting to see this for a long time.

    He did the same thing over and over to fail again and again…and he has changed it over the past two starts. This has come against two reasonably talented MLB lineups…teams that are still Chasing the post-season.

    He needs to keep proving and improving, but this has been wonderful.

    On Flexen—I like what I see…and the MILB stats don’t show all of these walks—This is a baby Pitcher trrown into the deep pool—he’s struggling, but he’s kicking–I like it.

  6. Steevy
    August 21, 2017 at 2:53 pm

    Montero is still young,will be only 24 years old.He has ML level stuff.I’d like to see him get a fresh start with a new manager and pitching coach.

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