What the Mets need from their starters to make the playoffs

Most everyone expects Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard to be very good. Many of us expect Zack Wheeler to be good, too. However, the outlook is not quite as rosy for Steven Matz and Jason Vargas. The questions become how good does the starting five have to be and can the first three make up for the second two. To answer these questions, let’s look to the playoff teams from the National League since 2012, when the current two Wild Card system was adopted.

That gives us seven seasons, with five teams per season, which works out to a sample of 35 teams. That’s reasonably large enough. However, it’s important to note that these are the raw numbers and the run environments were not necessarily stable in this time period. There were 3.95 runs per game scored in the NL in 2014 and 4.58 rpg in 2017. The hope is that the tradeoff for simplicity isn’t compromised too badly by a swing of roughly half a run between the low and high.

As you might expect, we see all kinds of ways to build a playoff team. We have teams with dominating pitching in both starters and relievers. There are great starting staffs with noticeably worse bullpens. And there are teams where the starters were okay but the relief corps was outstanding. Our 35 playoff teams ranged from starters amassing between 54 and 81 wins, with an ERA between 2.96 and 4.59, which was posted by the 2017 Rockies. The next worst mark for starters’ ERA was also by the Rockies and the 2018 version of the club had a 4.17 mark. Among the 33 non-Rockies teams, the worst mark was 4.05 by the 2017 Cubs. Here are our 35 playoff teams, with their numbers broken down by starters and relievers

Year Team Wins SP Record SP ER SP IP SP ERA RP Record RP ER RP IP RP ERA
2012 Nats 98 72-45 360 953.0 3.40 26-19 185 515.1 3.23
2012 Reds 97 66-43 412 1018.2 3.64 31-22 128 434.1 2.65
2012 Giants 94 71-49 414 998.1 3.73 23-19 179 452.2 3.56
2012 Braves 94 69-54 400 959.0 3.75 25-14 149 486.1 2.76
2012 Cards 88 71-47 398 989.1 3.62 17-27 205 473.1 3.90
2013 Cards 97 77-46 374 984.1 3.42 20-19 182 475.1 3.45
2013 Braves 96 67-51 386 989.2 3.51 29-15 126 460.2 2.46
2013 Dodgers 92 62-46 341 979.0 3.13 30-24 183 471.1 3.49
2013 Pirates 94 64-48 360 925.0 3.50 30-20 175 545.2 2.89
2013 Reds 90 66-48 382 1003.1 3.43 24-24 172 470.1 3.29
2014 Nats 96 70-49 339 1002.1 3.04 26-17 156 468.1 3.00
2014 Dodgers 94 76-44 347 975.0 3.20 18-24 207 489.2 3.80
2014 Cards 90 64-49 371 969.1 3.44 26-23 193 479.1 3.62
2014 Pirates 88 55-49 388 971.0 3.60 33-25 177 485.1 3.28
2014 Giants 88 56-60 406 977.0 3.74 32-14 158 472.0 3.01
2015 Cards 100 72-42 326 979.2 2.99 28-20 152 485.0 2.82
2015 Dodgers 92 64-42 352 978.1 3.24 28-28 203 467.1 3.91
2015 Mets 90 64-51 383 1002.2 3.44 26-21 178 460.0 3.48
2015 Pirates 98 67-48 379 967.1 3.53 31-16 155 522.1 2.67
2015 Cubs 97 60-39 353 946.2 3.36 37-26 193 514.2 3.38
2016 Cubs 103 81-39 325 989.0 2.96 22-19 186 470.2 3.56
2016 Nats 95 72-44 384 960.0 3.60 23-23 187 499.2 3.37
2016 Dodgers 91 59-49 378 862.1 3.95 32-22 220 590.2 3.35
2016 Mets 87 58-55 370 922.0 3.61 29-20 205 525.0 3.51
2016 Giants 87 62-51 405 982.1 3.71 25-24 194 478.0 3.65
2017 Dodgers 104 72-39 333 885.0 3.39 32-19 210 559.2 3.38
2017 Nats 97 72-47 392 973.0 3.63 25-18 232 473.2 4.41
2017 Cubs 92 64-47 400 888.1 4.05 28-23 236 559.0 3.80
2017 D’Backs 93 66-51 378 941.1 3.61 27-18 210 499.2 3.78
2017 Rockies 87 63-56 452 887.0 4.59 24-19 269 550.2 4.40
2018 Brewers 96 54-46 369 847.0 3.92 42-21 237 614.0 3.47
2018 Dodgers 92 57-38 317 896.2 3.18 35-33 240 579.1 3.73
2018 Braves 90 60-46 350 899.2 3.50 30-26 257 557.0 4.15
2018 Cubs 95 59-50 405 888.0 3.84 36-18 219 588.1 3.35
2018 Rockies 91 59-43 432 932.0 4.17 32-29 267 520.1 4.62

We see that the average NL playoff team over the past seven years received 65+ wins and a 3.55 ERA from their starting staff. The two Mets teams from this time period to make the playoffs got 58 wins and a 3.61 ERA in 2016 and 64 wins and a 3.44 ERA in 2015 from their starters. Contrast that with the teams the past two season which fell shy of the postseason. In 2017, Mets starters posted 49 wins and a 5.14 ERA while their 2018 counterparts notched 50 wins and a 3.54 ERA.

Interestingly, the quality – as judged by ERA – just wasn’t there from the rotation in 2017. But last year, the starters posted an ERA that was good enough for a playoff berth. But due to a lousy bullpen and an inconsistent offense, they finished about 15 wins shy of where they needed to be. Reinforcements were made to both the bullpen and offense this year. It’s beyond the scope of this piece to address the offense, so let’s look at the relievers.

Last season, the Mets used 25 guys out of their bullpen and only six of those posted an ERA below the 3.47 mark of the average playoff bullpen. And even that is misleading, as four of those six pitched in nine or fewer innings in the majors for the Mets. Overall, the Mets’ bullpen amassed a 4.96 ERA over 546.1 IP in 2018. Judging by our 35-team sample of playoff teams, they’ll have to cut at least a full run from that mark this season. It will help if they don’t give 130 IP to four guys with ERAs above six like they did last year to the ugly quartet of Tim Peterson, AJ Ramos, Paul Sewald and Anthony Swarzak.

Edwin Diaz had a 1.96 ERA over 73.1 IP and figures to be a big help in this department. Hopefully the team will have Jeurys Familia and Seth Lugo for full seasons out of the pen, too. If those three can give 200+ relief innings with a sub-3.00 ERA, that will go a long way towards stabilizing the pen. In 2018, the Mets received just 129.2 IP by relievers with a 3.00 or better mark.

Getting back to the starters, last year the Mets received 799.2 IP in 136 starts from the five pitchers who begin the 2019 season in the rotation. That’s certainly a strong number of starts, even if you’d like to have 50+ more innings with that many starts. Additionally, the Mets’ top two depth starters – Lugo and Corey Oswalt – combined for 78.1 IP in 17 starts with a 4.48 ERA.

Those are actually pretty good numbers from your sixth and seventh pitchers when you didn’t do a mid-season trade for an upgrade or have a stud prospect waiting in the wings for a promotion. For a comparison, those guys last year for the Nationals – Erick Fedde and Jefry Rodriguez – combined for 89 IP in 19 starts with a 6.06 ERA.

Let’s check in on a computer forecast to see how they project the Mets’ starters. We’ll use Steamer Projections for this exercise. Their forecasts called for the starting five to combine for 138 starts, 822 IP and a 3.65 ERA. That’s a few more starts and innings for the quintet than a season ago but at a worse rate of production.

It’s hard to forecast deGrom to match last year’s 1.70 ERA but Steamer also sees three other Mets starters having their ERA rise compared to 2018. Only Vargas is expected to beat last year’s mark, as it has him going from a 5.77 ERA to a 4.30 mark. That’s a nice improvement, but the Steamer forecast calls for Vargas to pitch in just 105 innings.

Once you factor in the depth starters, the team ERA for SP will certainly rise, probably to the 3.75 range. Recent history shows you can make the playoffs with that type of rotation but you better have a good bullpen and you better have a good offense. Ten of our 35 playoff teams had an ERA of 3.71 or greater from their starters and all 10 of those teams had a bullpen ERA better than their SP ERA. There’s definite room for improvement in the Mets’ bullpen from their 2018 numbers. Can the assembled cast combine for a sub 3.70 ERA?

That seems optimistic.

14 comments for “What the Mets need from their starters to make the playoffs

  1. TexasGusCC
    March 24, 2019 at 1:22 am

    Nice job Brian. Very informative.

    • March 24, 2019 at 8:28 am

      Thanks Gus! Please send me an email when you get the chance. Very busy today but I’ll reply either late tonight or early tomorrow.

  2. March 24, 2019 at 2:36 am

    I see the big 3 SP’S each being 10 games above .500 and an ERA of 2.50 for the three. All you need to ask from your 4th and 5th starters is .500 pitching. The upgrades in the pen which will have the biggest improvement leaves the Mets with an excellent opportunity at 95+ wins.

    • March 24, 2019 at 10:29 am

      Having a strong, deep bullpen allows you to escape lots of jams. Not sure why Sandy didn’t understand that, especially after playing the Royals.

    • March 24, 2019 at 11:35 pm

      And I thought I was optimistic!

      I hope your forecast about Jake, Noah and Wheeler comes true.

  3. NYM6986
    March 24, 2019 at 8:52 am

    It’s about the top three continuing to progress, teaching Matz to keep the ball down, and hoping Vargas can pitch 5 effective innings each time out. On paper, our pen is vastly improved and the addition of Cano and Ramos and hopefully the continued development of Conforto, Nimmo and Rosario might add a half a run or more to the offensive output. We need to score more runs to compete even with the strength of our pitchers. We’ve never been the typical playoff type team because we lacked the depth. The depth is here now and our bench will be unmatched with pro caliber players unless the over 30 injury bug continues to negate the offseason moves. Could be the break McNeil and Alonso need to show us what they’ve got. Exciting times ahead.

  4. MattyMets
    March 24, 2019 at 11:38 am

    I think the key stat will be innings pitched by the big 3. If either Matz or Vargas get unsuited Lugo can step in and we won’t miss a beat. The big 3 stay healthy and we’ll go far, but as last year proved, starting pitching isn’t everything. 2017 was all about injured starters while 2018 was all about injured bats. As competitive as the NL East will be, I think if we get 90+ starts from JDG, Thor and Wheels, plus a vastly improved bullpen and a much deeper offense, I like our playoff chances.

  5. Chris F
    March 24, 2019 at 12:48 pm

    Nice job Brian, very thoughtful exercise. I think it shows that the team must play better all around to account for any actual retreat in pitching. As far as the pen goes, Ive read a lot about the back end being handled, and I get it, but has anyone looked at Diaz ERA this spring? Ok, its ST and so not worth getting over focused on this, but surely he’s not trying to pitch to an 8 ERA.

    • TJ
      March 24, 2019 at 5:23 pm

      Chris,
      I have looked at Diaz’s spring performance. It is a little troubling but as we know nothing truly matters unti the games really count. But, as we’ve seen previously with young guys coming to NYC (Didi on the Yankees in recent memory), some struggle and put additional pressure on themselves. Diaz has filty stuff, but he is still a kid and Seattle is a difference scene than NY. Some early struggles would not be shocking, but still glad he’s on the squad.

      Overall, the 4 & 5 guys needs to carry their load and adequate offense should keep them in the mix. But, it is a tight 4 team race, and the team that stays healthy and addresses its weakness best will likely be the one at the top after game 162.

  6. Metsense
    March 24, 2019 at 1:18 pm

    Great job Brian but it made me have a reality check. Everyone knows that deGrom, Wheeler and Syndergaard all finished in the top 10 starting pitchers in the National League in fwar. I am confident that they can duplicate that in 2019. Vargas and Matz concern me. One of them must step-up to become a 3 pitcher . I have confidence that Diaz, Familia and Lugo will close down the late innings and the offense is much improved especially the younger players. The article uncovers the Achilles heel at the back of the rotation and that is my concern.

  7. Mike Walczak
    March 24, 2019 at 4:17 pm

    Brian, you need to do baseball research for a living. You are awesome at it. Mets sure could use you.

    • March 24, 2019 at 11:37 pm

      Thanks to you, Chris and Metsense for the kind words!

  8. Eraff
    March 26, 2019 at 6:05 am

    I’ve been focused heavily on health and innnings pitched over the past several years….especially given the way the Mets have been structured. 6 innings being a magic kind of number drives an sp innings to 972 innings

    A review of your chart::: most teams were near or above that 6 inning cut until the 2017 and 2018 seasons….. 7 of the 10 teams are below 900 sp innings…..that’s about 5.5 innings per start. Prior to the past two seasons just one of the charted teams had a season with less than 900 sp innings

    This tells us nothing about what teams need during the playoffs, but there is a very clear change in emphasis and importance in sp innings over the 162 game schedule

    • March 26, 2019 at 7:57 am

      Your IP by starters is an important point.

      Not in the NL and not in the playoffs but the Rays had a very good year last year utilizing the opener. And since they had success with the concept, it’s likely we’ll see teams use that strategy more often in 2019.

      I’ve long held the belief that you do things that make sense for your club, not things that other clubs do or things that will shield you from second guessing. Personally, I think a 4-man rotation makes more sense than using an opener but if you only have three worthwhile starters, maybe this is a good idea. Regardless, if the opener catches on in a meaningful way, it’ll make an analysis like this much more complex in the years to come.

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