Marcum, Gee and Hefner need to start pulling their weight

 You almost have to feel bad for the Mets’ pitchers who have to follow Matt Harvey these days.

With the legend of Harvey nearly growing to ‘perfect’ proportions, the rest of the staff (sans Jonathon Niese) have to be suffering from an inferiority complex. So far on the season, Shaun Marcum, Dillon Gee and Jeremy Hefner are now a combined 2-10 with a 5.59 ERA. (And let’s not even bring up Aaron Laffey, okay?)

With the Mets dropping a 6-3 decision to the White Sox on Wednesday night, the Mets are now 0-7 after Harvey’s starts. As the saying goes in baseball: “Momentum is only as good as the next day’s starting pitcher.”

For the Mets, that statement couldn’t be any truer.

With the way Harvey and Niese are pitching (or at least in regards to Niese, capable of pitching), I’m also reminded of the “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain” mantra used by Braves’ fans in the late 40’s.  What inclement weather term can we rhyme with Niese or Harvey?

All kidding aside, the Mets’ staff after Harvey and Niese is a major source of consternation-as if you didn’t already know this. Will Marcum, Gee and Hefner get their act together? Can they get their act together?

While Marcum has the pedigree (57-38 with a 3.79 ERA in his seven-year career) to contribute, he first has to stay healthy. With an assortment of injuries over the years, Marcum has had trouble putting together many starts. Once he began getting regular starts in 2007, Marcum has only started in 30 or more games twice. For a team already down Johan Santana, it is imperative that Marcum gives this team some innings-and solid ones at that.

As for Gee and Hefner, well, after seeing enough of them for the last couple of years, it’s becoming readily apparent that the two of them are nothing more than serviceable No. 5-type pitchers-nothing wrong with that. While Gee and Hefner can be deceptive, they simply don’t possess the stuff to be trusted mid-rotation pitchers.

And with the Mets still under .500 and not showing much signs of becoming any better than that, the Zack Wheeler clock isn’t clicking fast enough.

The promotion of Wheeler serves two good purposes.

First, he’ll be an obvious upgrade to the staff, as he has the stuff to electrify the masses.

That brings me to my second point. Once the Mets call up Wheeler, the Mets will get a needed PR boost. Since Matt Harvey’s starts are an event these days, the next logical thing is to drum up support for the next best thing in Wheeler. Whenever Wheeler gets the call, It could only help spread some good will among the fanbase.

In the meantime, the back end of the rotation has to get in line, particularly Hefner and Gee. Granted Marcum stays healthy, the Mets staff by mid-year should be Niese, Harvey, Wheeler, Marcum and either Gee or Hefner-with Gee the most likely candidate.

So, with the season off to a semi-rocky start, it’s high time the back-end of the staff start pulling their weight, or they will soon be dead weight.

Should the Mets count on Dillon Gee in 2013?

In his last start of 2012, Dillon Gee allowed 1 ER in 8 IP and picked up the win, as the Mets improved to 46-39. For the rest of the year without Gee, the club was 28-49, meaning either that Gee picked a fortuitous time to get hurt or that his loss was a bigger deal than many thought at the time.

Coming into the season, I thought Gee was the weak link in the rotation and that he would be sent to the bullpen before the year was out. While Gee did not finish the year as a starter, it was not due to a demotion but rather because he was shut down after a damaged artery was discovered in his pitching shoulder, one which required surgery to remove a blood clot.

Prior to the injury, Gee was having a terrific season. While his 6-7, 4.13 ledger does not seem impressive on the surface, a 3.34 K/BB ratio led to a nifty 3.54 xFIP, tied for the 27th-best mark among 142 pitchers who threw at least 100 IP in the majors in 2012.

When people try to be optimistic about the 2013 Mets, they point to the starting rotation, mention Gee as one of its members and say that all of the starters are good. Is this a valid view point? Especially given how Gee’s 2012 season ended?

While there’s always concern about a pitcher coming off shoulder surgery, Gee has not suffered any setbacks in his rehab, he threw off a mound in September, indicated that he will follow his typical off-season regimen and expects to report to Spring Training without any restrictions. So far, so good for Gee.

So, let’s assume that Gee is healthy. Then the question becomes: Is he really good?

In 39 starts at Triple-A, Gee has a 4.76 ERA and a 1.310 WHIP. That’s hardly the stuff that inspires confidence. In 52 games (49 starts) in the majors, Gee has a 4.06 ERA and a 1.312 WHIP. Last year the NL average for SP was a 4.04 ERA and a 1.299 WHIP. Gee figures to be the Mets’ fourth or fifth starter and he has numbers that are solidly league average. That seems pretty good to me.

So how does a pitcher who was mediocre in Triple-A post league-average numbers in the majors?

Gee’s Triple-A numbers might have to be taken with a grain of salt. Most of those – 28 of 39 starts – came in 2010. Gee’s 2009 season was truncated due to a strained shoulder. He opted for rest instead of surgery and was able to pitch a full season in 2010. But it’s not crazy to think he was operating at less than 100 percent efficiency that year.

If we look at Gee’s time in the majors, we see steady improvement. He had a cup of coffee with the Mets in 2010 and while his ERA checked in at 2.18 his xFIP told a different story at 5.00 for his stint. In 2011, his xFIP dropped to 4.46 and last year it was 3.54 at the time he was shelved for the year.

In the minors, Gee had pretty good strikeout rates without lighting up the radar guns. And we see in the majors that his K% has increased each year. It started out at 4.64 in his debut in 2010, rose to 6.39 in 2011 and checked in at 7.96 last year, the 43rd-best rate among pitchers with at least 100 IP last year.

While no one will fear Gee’s fastball, he has a good changeup, a better cutter and last year he displayed one of the best sliders in the game. Gee threw his slider three times more often in 2012 and by linear weights on a rated, per-100 pitches basis, it ranked as the 10th-best slider in the majors last year.

Assuming that Gee is healthy, I am bullish on his chances in 2013. We’ve seen him make great progress in the majors, getting more comfortable with his stuff and switching to more effective offerings. He’s greatly increased his strikeouts, cut his walks (4.09 to 3.98 to 2.38 BB/9) and kept his HR rate near league average.

He’s done everything you would want a pitcher to do. Now, much like with Jonathon Niese heading into 2012, we are just waiting for results to catch up with his peripherals. Perhaps he needs to maintain his peripherals for another year to indicate that 2012 wasn’t merely a fluke. But if he does indeed keep his K/BB ratio in the 3.0 range, I have no doubt that he will someday break out with noteworthy Wins and ERA totals.

Dillon Gee’s ERA is the same but he’s pitching much better

So far in 2012, National League starting pitchers have a 3.98 ERA. Dillon Gee has a 4.42 ERA, almost exactly identical to last year’s 4.43 mark. Coming into the season, I thought Gee was the weak link in the rotation and someone from whom the Mets needed to upgrade. But despite the similarities in results from a year ago, Gee has made some real strides here in 2012. Now we just need to see if this is a small sample issue or if Gee can be a rotation member on a pennant contender.

Things looked bleak for Gee after his start on May 15th, when he was knocked around by the Brewers. His ERA stood at 5.65 – or right in line with the 5.51 ERA in his final 94.2 IP in 2011. But since then Gee has ripped off five straight Quality Starts, with a 2.88 ERA in his last 34.1 IP, over a run better than the average NL starter. This strong stretch has gotten Gee in line with last year’s ERA.

But it’s not accurate to say he is pitching like he did a year ago. Gee had a great start in 2011 and then was rotten for over half the season. His 4.43 ERA was right in line with his peripherals. But if we look at 2012, we see that Gee’s peripherals paint a different picture.

  ERA FIP xFIP
2011 4.43 4.65 4.46
2012 4.42 3.76 3.34

He posted a poor 1.61 K/BB ratio in 2011 but this year Gee has a 3.18 mark, the 34th-best among qualified pitchers in MLB. That’s a remarkable turnaround, one for which Gee does not receive enough credit. Now Gee just needs to work on keeping the ball in the park.

In 2011, he had a slightly elevated 11.1 HR/FB ratio but nothing too out of the ordinary. This year his HR/FB mark sits at 15.3 percent, which is tied for the 18th-worst mark among qualified hurlers. And while the MLB average for HR in 2012 is for 57 percent to be solo shots, Gee’s solo HR rate is 44 percent. In raw terms right now, it’s not a huge difference. But Gee’s gopher balls have definitely hurt him and if he keeps up this current pace of allowing more HR with runners on base, it will be a factor by the end of the year.

Still, if you had offered me the chance for Gee to have a 3.34 xFIP, I would have signed on the dotted line with no questions asked. He’s doing a lot of the things you want your pitcher to do. Gee is striking batters out, he’s limiting the free passes and the majority of opponent’s batted balls wind up on the ground, as he has a 54.5 GB%.

Consider me cautiously optimistic about Gee at this moment in time. I’d like to see more changeups from him (sacrificing some fastballs and curves in the process) but that is not a huge quibble. Of course we have to see him maintain this good pitching over a larger stretch of the season. Remember he was fantastic over a 10-start stretch in 2011 before it fell apart. Here’s hoping for a different outcome in 2012.

Should Josh Thole be Dillon Gee’s personal catcher?

One night after Miguel Batista made the Brewers look impotent, the same team knocked around Dillon Gee pretty good, as they notched 7 ER in 5.1 IP against the interjection (h/t Doug Parker). In his last two starts, Gee has allowed 11 ER in 11 IP. For the season Gee has a 5.65 ERA in 43 IP, pretty much in line with his 5.51 ERA over his final 94.2 IP last year.

That seems … bleak.

However, it may not be as bad as it seems. Or, there may be a way to get more out of Gee than the Mets are currently. Gee has made seven starts this year – let’s sort them by Game Score, a metric devised by Bill James to rate a pitcher’s performance in a given start. Most starts earn in the range of 0 to 100, although it’s possible to exceed either goal post. Generally, a start with a score in the 50s or better is pretty good. Here are Gee’s starts ranked from best to worst.

4/16 – 69
5/4 – 59
4/28 – 54
4/10 – 43
5/9 – 37
5/15 – 27
4/23 – 26

We have three good starts, one okay start and three starts that range from poor to fair. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but the three good starts were all with Josh Thole behind the plate while the other four had either Mike Nicekeas or Rob Johnson. Very few people think Thole is a good defensive catcher but could it be that he and Gee have developed a rapport?

If we go back to last year, we see Gee had 15 starts with a Game Score rated 50 or higher. Thole caught 12 of those, including the top five and eight of the top 10.

Gee has appeared in 42 games in the majors and made 39 starts, with 236.2 IP under his belt. Let’s take a look at how Gee has done with Thole behind the plate compared to our non-Thole catchers. In addition to Nickeas and Johnson, Henry Blanco and Ronny Paulino have also caught Gee in the majors.

Catcher

IP

ERA

FIP

AVG

OBP

SLG

OPS

Thole

150.2

3.23

3.75

.235

.317

.352

.669

Others

86.0

6.28

5.57

.283

.359

.480

.839

Gee has made six starts in his career where he’s given up 5 ER or more and someone besides Thole has been behind the plate each time.

We are used to stars like Steve Carlton and Greg Maddux having a personal catcher. We’re also used to a knuckleball pitcher having his own catcher. Gee does not fit into either category but I hope that once Thole returns from his concussion that he will be behind the plate for the majority of Gee’s starts the rest of the year.

Mets need Dillon Gee more than ever after Mike Pelfrey injury

After yesterday’s win over the Marlins, it was announced that Mike Pelfrey was likely to undergo elbow surgery and miss the remainder of the season. This is really bad news for the Mets, a statement I’d never thought I would say. The Pelfrey we saw in three starts this year was doing everything he needed to do to “cross the Rubicon,” as broadcaster Keith Hernandez would say.

In our small sample, Pelfrey had a 3.25 K/BB ratio, easily the highest of his career. He had not surrendered a home run and his 2.69 GB/FB ratio was also a career-best. Previously, people had said that Pelfrey might be better off in a new organization, that he would need to be surrounded by different people to reach his potential.

I have no idea what Pelfrey’s potential actually is at this point in his career, but I want the guy we saw in 2012 on my team.

There was no shortage of opinions that Pelfrey’s time on the Mets was limited. Some speculated that he would be dealt midseason while others figured that the Mets would let him walk at the end of the year. Either “he’s too inconsistent” or “Jeurys Familia and Matt Harvey will take his place” were echoed by nearly everyone around.

Guys who can throw 200 IP on a yearly basis do not grow on trees. Even last year, an admittedly poor year, Pelfrey was a solid #4 SP. You need guys like that. This isn’t Lake Woebegone, where everyone is above average. Just as it was insane to consider Pelfrey a #1 SP, it is equally crazy to not see the value of a guy who gives you innings and an ERA near league average.

And what we saw this year in three starts was a guy likely to give much better than a league average ERA. Why was everyone so eager to cut ties with this guy?

Equally frustrating for me was that while everyone was eager to push Pelfrey out the door, Dillon Gee seemingly has a Teflon coating and no one wants to admit the obvious: If anyone in the rotation needs to go, it is Gee rather than Pelfrey.

My favorite over-the-top endorsement of Gee comes from his sponsor at Baseball-Reference. A patron by the name of “Snicks” sponsors the page and says of Gee:

I truly believe he is a future 20 game winner. Apparently, the key for him is not to overthrow. When his “SO/9” ratio is lower, he has more success.

I admire Snicks for sponsoring a page at B-R. I appreciate his optimism around a player on the Mets. But having said those two things – that might be one of the dumbest things I’ve seen written. Since 2002, there have been 29 seasons where a pitcher has won 20 games. In the past 10 years, we have roughly three 20-game winners per year. So our sponsor thinks Gee is going to be one of the top three winners in baseball one of these years.

Meanwhile, Gee is a pitcher who had a 4.96 ERA his full season in Triple-A. While he had 13 Wins last year, that was based on a start in which he won seven of nine GS, a great pace for a pitcher in the race for a Cy Young Award, much less a pitcher of Gee’s pedigree.

Gee deserves all of the credit in the world for his performance in the early going last year. I’ve said more than once that his pitching is what kept the Mets’ season enjoyable for so long last year. But we have to look past a hot streak, see what the player is really like and project what he is likely to do going forward.

Last year, Gee finished the season with a 4.43 ERA. On the surface that seems okay, a bit below the league average, perhaps, but not anything that is going to really hurt the team. But Gee was worse, considerably worse, for most of the season. In his final 17 starts, a stretch covering 94.2 IP, Gee had a 5.51 ERA.

Now, which one seems more likely coming from a guy with a 4.96 ERA at Triple-A:

Option A: 7-0, 2.86 ERA (when he had a 2.23 K/9)
Option B: 6-6, 5.51 ERA (when he had a 1.33 K/9) – sorry Snicks

I think Option B is the much more likely outcome that we should expect. And here in the early going, Gee has a 5.21 ERA here in 2012.

Yet no one complains about Gee and many fans actively look forward to a rotation that does not include Pelfrey. It makes no sense to me.

In 2012, Pelfrey was doing everything he needed to do to be an above-average pitcher. The exciting thing was that he was doing it in ways that indicated skill, rather than luck. Pelfrey was an above-average pitcher in both 2008 and 2010, but in those years he benefitted from an elevated LOB% and a depressed HR/FB rate. If we go by his peripherals, he was exactly the same guy in 2009 and 2011 as he was in 2008 and 2010.

While his xFIP in those four years ranged from 4.31 to 4.55 (a remarkably narrow range for four full seasons), this year it was 3.08 – a truly good number. I blame no one who says that he would regress to his numbers from the previous four years. However, much like I did with Gee’s start in 2011, the detractors need to acknowledge that what we saw this year from Pelfrey was worthwhile.

If we go back to Gee’s strong start to 2011, we see he had a 3.50 FIP and his xFIP would have been even higher, as he had allowed just 4 HR in 66 IP. His hot start was not supported by his peripherals, which suggested a pitcher much-closer to league average. Meanwhile, Pelfrey’s 2.29 ERA in 2012 is supported by a 2.18 FIP and a 3.02 xFIP. Even if Pelfrey regressed completely to his xFIP – that’s still a wonderful pitcher to have.

In an ideal world, Familia and Harvey have great years in the minors in 2012 and hold their own during September auditions in the majors, giving hope that they could be contributing members of the 2013 rotation for the Mets. But even if that happens, I would still be interested in re-signing Pelfrey to battle for a spot, assuming his recovery went off without a hitch.

I feel bad for Pelfrey, coming down with a season-ending injury. But I also feel bad as a Mets fan, as there was seemingly a good chance that this was the year we were going to see Pelfrey blossom before our very eyes. Good luck with the surgery and rehab Mr. Pelfrey. I hope we see you in a Mets uniform again.

As for Gee, he’s more important than ever now. While his start to 2012 has been less than inspiring, the one thing to take comfort in is that he has 16 Ks and 3 BB for a spectacular 5.33 K/BB ratio, which leads to a 3.90 FIP and a 2.99 xFIP. If he can keep his K/BB numbers above 2.0 – I’ll be much more confident in his ability to be a productive member of the rotation, despite what Snicks says over at B-R.

Mets Notes: Cedeno, Hairston, 40-man issues and CRG

The Mets have reached agreement with infielder Ronny Cedeno on a one-year deal, worth just north of $1 million. The Mets had no backup shortstop on the roster so Cedeno certainly fills a need. He’s very good insurance in case Ruben Tejada regresses or if Daniel Murphy gets injured again.

Cedeno is not much with the bat in his hands, as he has a lifetime OPS+ of 68 in 2,309 PA. But he is a good baserunner, despite last year’s SB/CS numbers, and he is a fine defensive shortstop. Last year he had a +8 DRS and a 6.8 UZR/150. For a comparison, Jose Reyes was below average in both metrics last year, with a -11 DRS and a -3.6 UZR/150.

The main question seems to be if he will be content in a back-up role. Cedeno, who will turn 29 in February, has topped 450 PA three times in his career, including the past two seasons. Will he accept getting just the 150 PA or so that a typical reserve middle infielder gets? Or does he figure that with the recent injury history of the Mets, he’s bound to wind up closer to the 454 PA he got in 2011.

HAIRSTON REJOINS METS – The Mets also addressed their need for a backup outfielder, re-signing Scott Hairston to a one-year deal, with a similar dollar value to Cedeno’s. After a dismal month of April, where he posted a .565 OPS in 34 PA, Hairston put up a .255/.315/.520 line over his final 111 PA before having his season cut short with an oblique injury in late August.

An experienced pinch-hitter capable of playing all three outfield positions, Hairston provides a solid bench option for the Mets. Like with the Cedeno deal, in Hairston Sandy Alderson picked up a low-cost bench player more than capable of filling in should one of the starters go down for an extended period of time.

NOW ABOUT THAT 40-MAN ROSTER – Both of these moves also create a problem, as the Mets are at their limit with the 40-man roster. Last year Hairston came in on a minor league deal, but I could find no reference to the contracts for either Cedeno or Hairston being that way. Most people would assume that two of the minor league pitchers like Jeremy Hefner, Armando Rodriguez or Josh Stinson would be removed to make room for the newest additions. There’s also been speculation about Fernando Martinez.

However, Justin Turner should not be sleeping soundly right now, either. In Cedeno, the Mets have another player capable of filling in at 2B. In Hairston, the Mets have a superior RH bat off the bench. Typically, a five-man bench consists of a catcher, two infielders and two outfielders. If Cedeno is the back-up middle infielder then will the Mets be content to forego the traditional backup corner infielder?

With Lucas Duda and Daniel Murphy also on the roster, they very well might. Duda and Murphy have experience at first base while the latter also covers third base. Still, it’s far from a given that Turner makes the Opening Day roster, as he had just a .648 OPS in his final 388 PA. And the Mets may need to open up an additional spot on the 40-man if either Mike Baxter or Adam Loewen makes the team as the fifth outfielder.

METS HIRE CRG PARTNERS – By now you have probably heard that the Mets hired CRG, the firm that assisted the Rangers in their bankruptcy sale. Of course, the Mets have vigorously denied that the reason they retained CRG had anything to do with bankruptcy but rather they are around to help with analyzing financial statements, and deal with business projections. The knee-jerk reaction is to claim the Mets are being dishonest.

But which one seems more likely – the Wilpons hiring an outside firm to handle some very necessary business planning without realizing that the media would connect the dots, see CRG’s previous high-profile baseball customer and leap to the bankruptcy conclusion or that they are planning ahead for a graceful exit strategy? Nothing in the past three years has given any indication that the Wilpons plan to leave if there’s a whiff of a hint of a sliver of a chance to retain control of the team. I think in this case we should take the Mets at their word.

We all want new ownership with deep pockets. The Wilpons want to retain control of the Mets and their majority stake in SNY. There is a lot of debt but there is also the chance to make a lot of money if the Wilpons can ride out the current storm. If the minority investors come through, which seems a reasonable chance, they will be able to pay back the bridge loan and likely meet their debt payments. The big unknown is the Madoff lawsuits. A win for Irving Picard likely means that the Wilpons have to sell. Unless the clawback suits are decided against them in a decisive way, it’s unlikely the Wilpons will put the Mets up for sale.

SANTANA THROWS – The latest report on Johan Santana is that he is throwing on consecutive days from a distance of 75 feet. This seems like good news, although it’s anyone’s guess if this means he will be on the mound for Opening Day. The signings of Cedeno and Hairston were welcome news, but I still hope the Mets add a SP before Spring Training starts. Even if Santana is ready at the start of the year, it sure would be nice to have someone push Dillon Gee for the final spot in the rotation. In Gee’s last 17 starts he had a 5.51 ERA. He allowed 14 HR in his final 94.2 IP and it’s hard to imagine those numbers improving with the fences coming in.

METS-RAYS RUMORS – Recently the Mets and Rays were linked to a potential deal. While I think the two clubs are excellent trade partners, I want no part of a Daniel Murphy-Wade Davis swap. Last year Davis had a 4.45 ERA and it wasn’t due to poor luck, as he had a 4.67 FIP and a 4.82 xFIP. He lost nearly a full point on his K/9 ratio, which fell to 5.14 after being 6.05 in 2010. Davis is another Mike Pelfrey and one of those guys is enough, thanks.

What’s an optimistic projection for Dillon Gee?

If you ask most Mets fans if they are more worried about the hitting or the pitching for the 2012 team, they’ll say the pitching. And now that the Winter Meetings are over, if you ask fans if they’re more worried about the starters or the relievers, the answer will likely be the starters. So let’s take a look at each of the five starters who make up the rotation here in mid December. Let’s give an optimistic projection for each, assuming good health and everything goes right.

Johan Santana – 15 Wins, 3.50 ERA
R.A. Dickey – 15 Wins, 3.00 ERA
Jonathon Niese – 15 Wins, 3.25 ERA
Mike Pelfrey – 15 Wins, 3.75 ERA
Dillon Gee – I have no idea

Seriously, what would be a “realistic” optimistic projection for Gee? In his first 15 games last year, covering 12 starts, Gee was 8-1 with a 3.32 ERA. That’s a significant part of the season and knowing that he’s capable of doing that, is it really a stretch to consider that he could pull a 2010 Pelfrey season (15 W, 3.66 ERA)?

My take is yes – that type of season from Gee just isn’t in play, even knowing that we have our rose-colored glasses on and assuming everything goes right. I’ve said before that Gee’s pitching is what kept the 2011 season from being a disaster, as he came in and gave them a shot in the arm when they needed it the most. I just don’t see him duplicating that stretch ever again in his major league career.

Here’s what we know about Gee: In 2010 against Triple-A batters he had a 4.96 ERA. Then he came up in September and put up a nice ERA (2.18) but his peripherals were much worse, as he had a 4.20 FIP and a 5.00 xFIP.

Then he had a phenomenal start in 2011 yet ended the season with a 4.43 ERA, which was right in line with his FIP (4.65) and xFIP (4.46). Gee pretty much delivered what we should have expected from his components. But he did it in a way where he essentially bunched above-average performances in the first half of the year and rotten performances at the end.

The end result was one of the worst pitchers in baseball. There were 145 pitchers in MLB last year that threw at least 100 IP. Only five finished with a fWAR lower than the 0.2 that Gee put up. He is grouped in with luminaries like J.A. Happ, Kyle Kendrick and Kevin Correia. His full season numbers brand him as a replacement-level pitcher. We could sub in old pals Nelson Figueroa or Pat Misch and at the end of the year we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

So, what’s the upside with this type of player? Correia, Happ and Kendrick have a combined 11 seasons in the majors where they pitched at least 100 IP. Seven of those ended up with a fWAR less than 1.0, another was exactly 1.0 and three were above that threshold, led by the 2.5 mark Correia put up in 2009.

So, it seems like there’s at least some chance of turning in a decent season for Gee. Certainly, I would sign on the dotted line for Correia’s ’09 season out of Gee in 2012. So, how does Gee defy the odds and turn in a season where he’s noticeably above replacement level?

In his first 13 games last year, Gee had 22 BB and 49 Ks in 66 IP. That’s a 6.7 K/9, a 3.0 BB/9 and a 2.2 K//BB ratios during his best pitching. In his final 17 games, he had 49 BB and 65 Ks in 94.2 IP. That’s a 6.2 K/9, a 4.7 BB/9 and a 1.3 K/BB ratios.

No pitcher can thrive with a 4.7 BB/9. Five pitchers had a BB/9 of 4.5 or greater last year. They went a combined 30-50 with a 4.69 ERA. A 1.3 K/BB ratio would rank as the third lowest mark among 2011 pitchers with at least 100 IP.

Any optimistic scenario for Gee has to include him getting his walks in the 3.0 per nine innings range. In his 13 Wins last year, Gee averaged 2.7 BB/9 while in his 6 Losses he averaged 5.5 BB/9. Even in his no-decisions, he averaged a 5.4 BB/9. For a comparison, Gee had a 5.5 K/9 in his Wins and a 6.3 K/9 in his Losses and an 8.2 K/9 in his no-decisions.

The Bill James projections are out on FanGraphs and they are usually considered the most “optimistic” ones out there. These show Gee with an 8-10 record and a 4.33 ERA. This projection gives him a 3.49 BB/9 or about a half a walk better than he did in 2011. Even with this marked improvement in his walk rate, Gee does not forecast as even an average pitcher. Last year the average NL pitcher had a 3.94 ERA.

So, my optimistic forecast for Gee is 12 Wins and a 4.25 ERA in 2012. What’s your optimistic projection for him?

Mets Notes: Warthen’s pitching staff along with Bay, Duda and Pagan streaks

Eight pitchers for the Mets have thrown at least 20 innings in both 2010 and 2011. Here are their ERAs for those two seasons:

Name 2011 2010
R.A. Dickey 3.77 2.84
Jonathon Niese 4.05 4.20
Mike Pelfrey 4.58 3.66
Dillon Gee 3.92 2.18
Francisco Rodriguez 3.16 2.20
Bobby Parnell 4.20 2.83
Manny Acosta 4.00 2.95
Ryota Igarashi 5.56 7.12
Total 4.08 3.48

The 2010 group pitched 747.1 innings while this year’s collection has 719.2 innings. As a whole, the Mets’ pitching staff has a 4.13 ERA compared to 3.70 a season ago. And yet no one talks about the role of the pitching coach in the pitching staff’s struggles. This time last year, Howard Johnson was on the hot seat for his role in the struggles of the offense. But Dan Warthen sits pretty as a picture, seemingly with no worries about his future employment.

Last November I wrote an article where I expressed disappointment that Warthen was not among those to go in the offseason house cleaning. Since then, nothing has changed with my assessment. In the November article, I asked who could we point to as success stories for Warthen? And the only answers I came up with were Dickey and Pelfrey. Both have regressed significantly this season.

The closest you can come to for a success story in 2011 for Warthen is Niese, who has an ERA 0.15 lower than a season ago. But that is a bit misleading. Last year Niese really fell apart down the stretch, which dragged his overall numbers down. This time last year, Niese had a 3.38 ERA. Can you really point to him as a success for Warthen?

Despite playing in a pitcher’s park, the Mets rank 13th in the 16-team National League in ERA. Since the All-Star break, Mets pitchers have a 4.64 ERA, which is 15th in the league. No pitcher has taken a leap forward and no pitcher is raving about the new pitch that he learned from Warthen. So, what exactly is he doing for the team and why should he be here next year?

DUDA ROLLS ON – Many people were worried how the Mets would replace the big bat of Carlos Beltran in the lineup. But the Mets have missed little offensively with the insertion of Lucas Duda. Since he was recalled from the minors in early June, Duda has a .301/.368/.494 line. That’s an .862 OPS in 191 PA. If he hit that well the entire season, that would put him between Jay Bruce (.865 OPS) and Kevin Youkilis (.861) this year.

Since becoming a regular on July 27th, Duda has 4 HR and 15 RBIs in 66 ABs (78 PA). And he was robbed of a HR by 6-foot-6 Kyle Blanks in that stretch. Duda has been one of the bright spots for the team here in the second half and it looks like he can be an asset for the 2012 squad. Now the only problem is where to play him defensively. His best position is first base, where he seems to be about average defensively. But if Ike Davis comes back healthy next year, Duda will be in an outfield corner, where he is stretched defensively. In 320.2 lifetime innings defensively in the outfield, Duda has a -32.9 UZR/150.

A CHANGE OF PACE FOR GEE – Heading into Wednesday’s start, Gee had a 5.61 ERA in his previous nine starts. For some reason – perhaps inspired by his pitching coach – Gee started throwing fewer change-ups and more fastballs and curves. And the results were horrible. Wednesday Gee returned to throwing more changes and he allowed 1 ER over 6.2 IP and picked up the win. Here are his off-speed breakdowns for his last two starts:

8/12 – Gee throws 14 change-ups, 4 sliders and 7 curve balls and goes 5.0 IP and allows 4 ER
8/17 – Gee throws 29 change-ups, 2 sliders and 5 curve balls and goes 6.2 IP and allows 1 ER

In the earlier start, Gee threw his change 56% of the time when he didn’t throw a fastball. In his last start, that percentage increased to 81%.

AUGUST AGREES WITH ANGEL – In 14 games during the month of August, Angel Pagan has a .333/.365/.500 slash line over 63 PA. He’s hit safely in 12 of the 14 games and reached base in all of them. Additionally, he has 9 Runs, 6 RBIs and has 6 SB compared to 1 CS. Pagan has been batting leadoff for the club since Jose Reyes has been on the DL and it will be interesting to see where Terry Collins bats him in the order when Reyes returns. Pagan has done his best work of the year in the 5th spot in the lineup, where he has an .803 OPS this season.

BAY ON HITLESS STREAK – Over a 14-game stretch covering the end of July to early August, Jason Bay had 22 hits in 53 ABs (.415 AVG) and Mets fans were hoping that Bay was finally going to pay dividends. But since that streak, he is 0-20 with 6 Ks. He just looks hopeless against both outside pitches and pitches below mid-thigh.

FRENCHY CASHES IN – Old pal Jeff Francoeur inked a two-year, $13.5 million deal with the Royals on Thursday. Francoeur got off to a tremendous start and has a .793 OPS overall this year, good for a 119 OPS+. Of course the issue is that Francoeur always gets off to a good start with a new team. Here are the starts he got off to with all four clubs he has played for in his career:

Atlanta – 274 PA, .884 OPS in 2005
New York – 308 PA, .836 OPS in 2009
Texas – 56 PA, .848 OPS in 2010
Kansas City – 126 PA, .980 OPS in 2011

Since the first 126 PA, Francoeur has a .264/.320/.411 line in 91 games and 387 PA. If that line looks vaguely familiar, it’s because it fits so perfectly with his career numbers. Lifetime, Francoeur has a .269/.312/.430 line.

Kudos to the Rangers for getting the good start and then cutting ties with the charismatic Francoeur. And condolences to the Royals fans out there, who have to put up with him for two more seasons at an inflated rate.

Exploring the reasons for Dillon Gee’s slide

When they write the epitaph for the 2011 Mets, it will be about the team that overachieved despite the many obstacles placed in its way. And there’s no doubt that is a large part of the story and an angle that should not be overlooked. But we should also remember what went right. And in the first half of 2011, one of the things that went right for the Mets was the production of Dillon Gee.

Gee came up at the end of 2010 and posted a nifty 2.18 ERA in 33 IP. This performance earned him respect from many Mets fans in the blogosphere, who were vocal about wanting Gee to be in the starting rotation at the start of 2011. However, some looked at his 4.20 FIP and 5.00 xFIP and anticipated ugly things happening if Gee pitched 150 or more innings for this year’s club.

The season started with Gee in the minors but he soon got a call to the big club and it was not long after that before he moved into the starting rotation. And it’s not an exaggeration to say that Gee and his strong pitching kept the Mets afloat through much of the first half.

However, here lately things have not been quite so rosy for Gee. Here’s a breakdown of his first 13 games compared to his last nine.

ERA IP BB Ks HR FIP
First 13 2.86 66 22 49 4 3.50
Last 9 5.61 51.1 25 28 8 5.60

We see that in the early part of the year Gee really was pitching well, although not quite as well as his ERA would have you believe. Unfortunately, we see that over the last two months, Gee has been every bit as awful as his ERA would indicate. He’s walking more batters, he’s striking out just a fraction of the hitters he was earlier in the season and he’s allowed twice as many HR in fewer innings.

Let’s take a look at those gopher balls. This year, major league pitchers are allowing a HR on just over 10 percent of the fly balls they allow. In his first 13 games, Gee had 63 FB and only 4 of those left the park. That’s a HR/FB ratio of 6.3 percent or below what we would expect. In his last nine games, he had 57 FB and 8 of those left the park. That’s a HR/FB ratio of 14.0 percent or above what we would expect.

But if we take the season as a whole, Gee has allowed 120 FB and 12 HR or almost exactly what we would expect. The increase in homers here lately has been nothing more than regression, something we should have completely anticipated.

The troubling aspect for Gee has been with his strikeouts. He’s just not getting the punchouts he was earlier in the season. Now for the million-dollar question – Why?

In 2010, Gee had a 9.20 K/9 in the minors but when he came to the majors his strikeout rate dropped to 4.64 in his debut in the show. We expect pitchers to have a worse strikeout rate in the majors than in Triple-A, but the size of Gee’s dropoff was unexpected.

In the first part of the year, Gee had a 6.68 K/9 or more in line with what we might expect given his Triple-A numbers. But in his last nine games, Gee has a 4.91 K/9 or more in line with what he did in his first taste of the majors.

At TexasLeaguers.com we can get splits and here are Gee and his “whiff” rates by pitch. Here’s how Gee rated over his first 13 games:

Pitch Percent Thrown Whiff
2-seam Fastball 30.2 3.1
Changeup 29.2 20.6
4-seam Fastball 27.6 9.4
Curveball 9.3 11.1
Slider 3.7 2.8

Now here’s the same chart for his last nine games

Pitch Percent Thrown Whiff
2-seam Fastball 32.2 3.8
Changeup 23.7 20.1
4-seam Fastball 31.2 6.7
Curveball 11.4 5.8
Slider 1.4 7.7

The changeup is his best swing-and-miss pitch and here recently Gee is throwing it less often. Instead, he’s throwing more four-seam fastballs and batters are making more contact against the pitch than they were in his first 13 games. Also, the curve was his second-best swing-and-miss pitch at the beginning of the year and Gee is getting whiffs now only about half as often with his hook as he was earlier.

Additionally, Gee is throwing a fewer percentage of strikes with each one of his pitches here in his last nine games. None of the differences, save for his slider, are great but a small decrease across the board can add up and that’s what seems to be plaguing Gee. His slider has seen a significant dropoff, but since he throws so few of those, it’s not a big factor overall.

It would be nice to see Gee throw more changeups for the remainder of the season. It’s probably too simplistic to say that this is the root of his problem but a righthander without an overpowering fastball needs a standout secondary pitch. Gee’s best shot of developing that necessary offering is to concentrate on his changeup.

Jair Jurrjens, Shaun Marcum and Carl Pavano are righties who don’t light up the radar gun but who succeed thanks to a great changeup. Gee’s average fastball velocity this year is 89.7 compared to 89.2 for Jurrjens. In my opinion, Gee’s best chance to succeed is to stop throwing so many curves and get back to his change.

What do the 2011 Mets lack in SP?

Entering the 2011 season one of the biggest question marks was how the Mets’ SP were going to do with Johan Santana on the shelf. Would the team be able to handle not having an ace? There were other concerns about the starters, too. Could Chris Capuano and Chris Young stay healthy and regain their earlier form? Could Jonathon Niese take a step forward? And finally, could Mike Pelfrey repeat his 15-win season from 2010?

The answers to these have been mixed. Niese has been a solid pitcher, Capuano has stayed healthy and Dillon Gee has stepped forward to stabilize the rotation. On the negative side, Young fell apart physically, Pelfrey has taken a step backwards and Santana just recently had a setback in his rehab. The Santana news is the worst of all, meaning we could be in a similar position again in 2012.

Can the Mets handle not having an ace?

Everyone throws around the term “ace” but there’s no clear cut definition of what makes a pitcher into one. You’re just supposed to know when you have one. Roy Halladay is an ace, but is Jaime Garcia? It all depends on how you define the term.

Instead of worrying about semantics, let’s instead look at pitchers and break them down into percentiles. Let’s start with doing this by ERA. If we take all starters who have thrown at least 80 IP, we see the 30th-best ERA is 3.19 so far this year. If pitchers were distributed equally among team, each squad would have one pitcher with a 3.21 ERA or better. This would be your #1 SP

The 60th pitcher has an ERA of 3.69 so each team, assuming the same equal distribution, would have a pitcher with an ERA between 3.20 and 3.69. This would be your #2 SP. The #3 SP would have an ERA between 3.70 and 4.23 and your #4 SP would have between 4.24 and 4.92 ERA. Your #5 SP would have an ERA 4.93 and above.

By ERA, the Mets best pitcher is Gee and he rates as a bottom-tier #2 SP. Dickey rates as a strong #3 and Niese is a solid #3. Capuano and Pelfrey are solid #4 SP.

The problem is not just that the Mets do not have a #1 SP, it’s that they barely have a #2 SP. On the flip side, they do not have a #5 SP, either, which certainly helps things out. After inserting Gee into the lineup the Mets have been healthy and reasonably productive with their starters.

But we know that xFIP is a better indication of a pitcher’s quality than his ERA is. So, how do SP break down via this metric? Here are the bottom numbers for each group:

#1 SP – 3.44
#2 SP – 3.80
#3 SP – 4.05
#4 SP – 4.42

By xFIP, the Mets do have a #1 SP with Niese (3.22). They have two strong #3 pitchers in Capuano (3.86) and Dickey (3.88). Gee is a bottom tier #4 SP (4.39) and Pelfrey is one of the better #5 SP (4.46).

Either way, the Mets are missing an elite pitcher. If you go by ERA, the Mets need to add a #1-type pitcher but if you go by xFIP, they may really only lack a #2-type guy.

We hope the Mets will not be as financially handcuffed after this year as they were last offseason. However, with the Madoff clawback lawsuits yet to be finalized, no one really has any firm idea what to expect. Will the Mets go after someone like C.J. Wilson (3.38 ERA/3.47 xFIP) to fit in as a #2-type SP, if the budget allows?

Do you think the Mets should go to the free agent market do sign a #1 or #2 SP? And if so, do you think they should non-tender Pelfrey? These are some of the decisions awaiting Sandy Alderson in the offseason.

Who’s better – Dillon Gee or Jonathon Niese?

With Johan Santana starting the season on the disabled list, the Mets were left without an ace. By default, Mike Pelfrey assumed the label as the team’s top starter. But Pelfrey has been the weakest pitcher on the staff so far. Now with two-thirds of the season already complete, we are still wondering who the best pitcher on the staff is.

I think there are two reasonable answers to this question: Dillon Gee and Jonathon Niese. Both pitchers have 10 wins but Gee has the best winning percentage (.769) and the lowest ERA (3.69). Given those two factors, it would seem to be a big uphill battle to claim Niese as the Mets’ best pitcher. However, Niese leads the staff with a 2.4 fWAR while Gee is fourth among the club’s starters with a 0.8 fWAR.

In case you were wondering, fWAR uses FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and innings as the primary inputs. FIP credits/debits the pitcher with things that he controls – strikeouts, walks and home runs – to determine how well he has pitched. After the calculation with those three numbers is done, a constant (typically 3.20) is added to arrive at an ERA-like number.

Niese does better in fWAR than Gee because he holds the edge in FIP, 3.29 to 4.11 so far this season. Also adding to Niese’s edge is that he has 134.2 IP compared to 107.1 for Gee.

You may think that it is unfair to use FIP instead of ERA, since the latter records what actually happened. However, we are trying to determine who is the Mets’ best pitcher, not who is the team’s luckiest hurler. Studies show that FIP does a better job of predicting the following year’s ERA than ERA does. For example, if a pitcher has a 2.18 ERA and a 4.20 FIP in Year 1, his ERA is much more likely to be in the 4.20-range in Year 2.

Those numbers were what Gee posted in his 33 innings with the Mets in 2010. And we see that Gee’s current ERA is 3.69 or much closer to his FIP (0.51 away) last year than his ERA (1.51 away).

Let’s look at some other metrics and see how Gee and Niese rate:

K/BB BABIP LOB% GB/FB HR/FB O-Swing% F-Strike% SwStr%
Gee 1.63 .241 71.0 1.33 7.1 31.5 55.0 9.3
Niese 2.97 .314 68.2 1.86 9.9 33.1 59.1 8.1

For several of these categories, we know that most MLB-quality pitchers will produce consistent rates in the long term. We know that most pitchers will record a BABIP around .300, a LOB% around 70 percent and a HR/FB rate around 10 percent. Whenever a pitcher records numbers noticeably different than these benchmarks, we refer to it as “luck,” which can be either good or bad depending upon the direction.

Gee’s .241 BABIP is good “luck” while Niese’s .314 may be slightly bad “luck.” Both pitchers are right about where you would expect them to be in LOB%, although Gee is slightly better and Niese slightly worse. And in HR rate, Niese is right where we would expect him to be while Gee is again having good “luck.”

Now let’s look at the categories where more skill is involved. A K/BB ratio over 2.5 is good while one below 2.0 is poor. This year among 109 pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the FanGraphs leaderboards, 56 of them had a K/BB ratio of 2.5 or greater while 26 had a ratio below 2.0 in the category. Niese’s 2.97 ranks 30th while Gee’s 1.63 would tie for 99th if he had enough innings to qualify for the leaders page.

Typically, we view ground balls as favorable to fly balls because grounders almost never result in home runs. Niese ranks 12th in GB/FB rate while Gee would place a very respectable 52nd if he had enough innings pitched.

Both pitcher are very good at getting batters to chase pitches outside of the strike zone, but Niese is better here, too. The only skill category where Gee wins out is with swinging strikes, where his changeup has been a very effective weapon.

Gee averages under 90 mph with his fastball, but it’s been a very effective pitch for him. He throws both his changeup and curve a significant amount of the time (27.1 and 10.6 percent, respectively) and also mixes in a cutter and slider.

Niese broke through in 2009 when he added a cutter to his fastball-curve repertoire. The cutter has not been a successful pitch for Niese here in 2011 but both his fastball and curve are seeing much better results than a season ago.

The bottom line is that Gee has pitched great this year and given the pitching staff a much-needed shot in the arm. Few doubted that Gee would pitch meaningful innings for the 2011 Mets, but he was called into service earlier than expected due to the season-ending injury to Chris Young and has delivered better results than many anticipated.

But by most objective measures, Niese has been the better pitcher. And as the season goes on, Niese is hitting his stride while Gee is faltering. In his last 15 games, Niese is 8-4 with a 3.34 ERA. In Gee’s last 6 games, he is 3-3 with a 5.01 ERA.

As Mets fans, we hope that Niese’s stretch is indicative of what we can expect the final two months of the season while Gee’s stretch is merely a slump. Niese’s 3.34 ERA over his last 15 games almost perfectly matches his season-long 3.29 FIP. That may not be what jumps to mind when you hear the term “ace” but it’s the best mark among the starters for the 2011 Mets.

Who is the Mets’ ace?

As the Mets once again climbed back to .500 on the year after last night’s 4-0 victory over the Braves, the Mets have been winning games on the heels of some terrific starting pitching. Mets’ starters have now tossed 11 straight quality starts (sans last night’s rain-shortened start for Dillon Gee) and have gone 7-4 in those games. On their current road trip, the Mets have assured a winning record and have gone 6-3 in the process.

This recent surge now has the Mets in third place in the NL East (leapfrogging the struggling Florida Marlins) while still placing them just 3.5 games back in the Wild Card standings.

The starting pitching has been nothing short of fabulous of late, and if the Mets are to make a push for the postseason, the starting pitchers will have to continue to throw gems.

So, in a utopian world, let’s just say the Mets do make the playoffs. (Stay with me for argument’s sake.)

If this were to happen, it begs the question: Who would start the opening game of a playoff series?

In other words, who is the Mets’ ace?

Excluding the rehabbing Johan Santana (who may or not be himself upon his expected return-if he ever does return), let’s closely examine the candidates:

  • Mike Pelfrey
    The de-facto ace entering the season, Pelfrey has simply been too erratic for anyone’s liking. Pelfrey has gone Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde too many times. Pelfrey has been solid in his last two starts (13 innings pitched and allowing only four earned runs), but he is still just 3-5 on the year with a 5.11 ERA.
  • R.A. Dickey
    After a rough beginning, Dickey has been starting to deal of late. Dickey, believe it or not, has been better since suffering a tear of his plantar fascia and has thrown 23.2 innings while allowing only seven earned runs in his last three starts. Dickey has his knuckle ball darting again. However, Dickey has not been the beneficiary of good run support, and as a result he has dropped two of his last three decisions. Still, Dickey loves the challenge and is a true gamer.
  • Jonathon Niese
    Niese has had perhaps the best run of his career in the last couple of weeks. Niese has won three out of his last four starts while throwing 28 innings and allowing only five earned runs. Niese has been devastating hitters with his nasty curve ball, and the maturation he has developed is making him a complete pitcher.
  • Chris Capuano
    Another pitcher who just keeps on getting better as the season progresses is Capuano. Capuano, while building up arm strength after prior injury woes, is now trusting his stuff more and is becoming a valuable asset to the Mets’ rotation. Capuano is 2-0 in his last two starts and has allowed only one run in his last 13 innings pitched. Capuano is still just 5-6 on the year with a 4.40 ERA.
  • Dillon Gee
    The pitcher du jour of the moment has to be Gee. Gee has simply been scintillating as a rookie, and has been better than anyone could have ever imagined. Gee was in top form once again last night (4 innings pitched and only one hit and two walks allowed) before the rain came. Gee is still 7-0 on the year (with the Mets wining each game he started) with a sparkling 2.33 ERA and 1.08 WHIP.

So, with Pelfrey battling inconsistency issues and with Capuano being up and down himself while shaking off the injury rust, the candidates to be the Mets’ ace has to come down to Dickey, Niese and Gee.

In my opinion, if a playoff game is on the line, I would not be willing to put Gee on the mound as my ace. Gee, in all likelihood is in for a market correction and he’s still too wet behind the ears. By the end of the year, it’s doubtful that Gee will be the best Mets’ pitcher, as he is today.

Thus, the race to be the ace of the Mets has to be between Dickey and Niese.

While Dickey is a gutsy trooper, I’d have to go with Niese as the Mets most polished, durable and dependable arm.

Niese has had his growing pains, but he is finally evolving into the pitcher the club envisioned him being when they selected him in the 7th round of the 2005 draft. While he is no Roy Halladay, Niese is no slouch and he is clearly ready to take the next step.

So, the debate rages on. Who would be your choice as Mets’ ace?