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:
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.