Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Patching the hole left by Mike Pelfrey

Over the past few seasons, Mets fans have come to have an opinion of Mike Pelfrey that more or less matches his pitching in that time frame - pessimistically hopeful. For every flash of brilliance we have seen (see: first half of 2010 season), there has been at least as much disappointment (see: 2011). In a 1994 blockbuster film, Tom Hanks delivered this [slightly doctored] quote that sums it up perfectly:

"Life is like a Mike Pelfrey start; you never know what you're gonna get."
- Forrest Gump

Through Spring Training, many of us had our pitchforks and torches out, calling for his head. In fact, after his miserable start against the Houston Astros (8ER in 2 2/3), even the Mets brass were considering cutting him loose; his contract wasn't guaranteed. There were two problems that arose, however -

- The team valued Pelfrey's ability to eat innings (he has made at least 31 starts each year since 2008, and hovered around 200 innings), which would be especially valuable with a potentially unhealthy Johan Santana returning to the rotation.

- Who could the Mets get that would be better? Internally, the best (read: only options) were 
  • Chris Schwinden (who did not fare well in a September call-up last season)
  • Garrett Olson (who hasn't pitched over 100 innings since 2009)
  • Jeremy Hefner (brought over after a disappointing season with San Diego, had never appeared in the majors)
  • Miguel Batista (need I say more?)
Chris Young was not yet near ready (best case scenario would be late May/early June), but given his injury (torn anterior capsule; AKA the same injury Santana is just now returning from) that could just be wishful thinking. Top prospects Matt Harvey and Jeurys Familia are both too raw at this point, coming into 2012 Spring Training with only a handful of starts in AA.

So the Mets stuck with Pelfrey, and for the most part he hadn't disappointed. His numbers this year (24H, 13K, 4BB, 5ER in 19 2/3) were a pleasant surprise. His last start, this past Saturday against the San Francisco Giants was frankly dominant (1ER in 8IP). He was showing consistent downward movement from his sinker, and an ability to pound the lower half of the strike zone. Things were looking up for Big Pelf.

Aaaaaaaaaand here we are. Reports have surfaced of a partially torn UCL, his MRI's have been sent to renowned sports surgeon Dr. James Andrews, and Mike Pelfrey could be facing Tommy John surgery. So, by necessity and not by design, we're forced to address the situation. With a thin wallet and a thinner group of free agent pitchers, the Mets will likely look to at least match what they expected from Pelfrey from this point out, which is roughly 180 more innings and a 4.00 ERA.

Schwinden is the immediate option, as he has been tabbed Friday's starter against the Colorado Rockies. In all likelyhood, he will be given every opportunity to fill in (at least for the time being). He's fairly young (turns 26 in September), he's the most experienced AAA pitcher the Mets have right now, and he's off to a pretty good start in Buffalo this year (2.05 ERA, 1.045 WHIP in 22 innings). If he produces that in Flushing, then I'd probably put my money down on the Mayans being right about 2012. Really, though, if he can at least show he's learned from last September and be competitive, he could stick around for a while.

If Chris Young can (A) stay on his current rehabilitation course, he could step into the rotation in about a month if Schwinden falters (perhaps even if he doesn't). The Mets liked what Young showed them last April (1.88 ERA and 22K in 24 innings), then again who wouldn't? Even with a fastball that hovers around 85 on a good day, Young was effective and efficient. The potential of a healthy Chris Young, somehow, is something to be excited about. The best case scenario for Young is for Schwinden to pitch well enough to keep the pressure off his shoulders as long as possible. 

Based on what I've read/heard/seen, I wouldn't yet consider Hefner or Olson to be candidates for the rotation at this point. Similarly, I wouldn't expect to hear Harvey or Familia mentioned for another few months. They've been struggling with their command, and with the quality of AAA hitters so far, though they're showing improvement (Harvey's line today - 7IP, 4H, 0ER, 0BB, 5K, and a 2-run homer to boot). And really, it's probably for the best that they aren't brought back to the majors until September, to let them continue to develop before being thrown into the fire. Given the moves the front office has made, I wouldn't expect them to bring someone in from outside the organization, either by trade or free-agent signing. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

What to expect from Dillon Gee

Earlier today, I saw a tweet from AmazinAvenue's Eric Simon, in response to the question "What's wrong with Dillon Gee?"

"Notwithstanding his two starts this year, he walks too many and strikes out too few"

Certainly, Gee's numbers won't blow anyone away. Last season, along with his 4.43 ERA he registered 4.0 BB/9, 6.2K/9, and 8.4 H/9 in 160 2/3 innings. As a career pitcher, the numbers are 3.8, 6.2, and 8.2, respectively. He won't be an Opening Day starter with those numbers, but how do they measure as a fifth starter, where he currently sits in the Mets rotation?

The National League averages last year were 3.12 BB/9, 7.27 K/9, and 8.63 H/9. So he walks a few more, and gives up a few less hits. He strikes out one fewer batter per 9 innings than the mean though, so that counts against him.

Let's compare him to some other pitchers in the division, and see how he compares. I'll start by using the 2011 statistics for the #5 pitcher in each NL East rotation (Randall Delgado in Atlanta, Anibal Sanchez in Miami, Gee, Joe Blanton in Philadelphia, and Ross Detwiler in Washington)

Delgado: 3.6 BB/9, 4.6 K/9, 7.5 H/9 in 35 innings (2.83 ERA)
Sanchez: 2.9 BB/9, 9.3 K/9, 8.6 H/9 in 196 1/3 innings (3.67 ERA)
Blanton: 2.0 BB/9, 7.6 K/9, 11.3 H/9 in 41 innings (5.01 ERA)
Detwiler: 2.7 BB/9, 5.6 K/9, 8.6 H/9 in 66 innings (3.00 ERA)

So, while Gee walks more batters than his counterparts, he is second in hits and third in strikeouts. In terms of baserunners, Gee's 12.4 /9 ranks fourth of five, better only than Blanton's 13.3. Similarly, his ERA also ranks fourth, again better only than Blanton. The veteran Blanton likely won't improve much on those numbers. Delgado and Detwiler are both relatively inexperienced in the majors, so they don't really represent a large-enough sample size for comparison. At the very least, Gee is a serviceable #5 pitcher. However, he has shown the potential to be much more.

Gee is still only 26 years old. Also, if you look at his minor league numbers, they suggest much better peripherals - 2.0 BB/9, 7.9 K/9, 8.6 H/9 across four and change minor league seasons. As has been often suggested, Gee's success depends on his ability to use all his pitches often and well. Without a blow-you-away fastball or a bona-fide strikeout pitch, Gee's advantage is the element of surprise. When he is on, he can throw any of his pitches for strikes. When he isn't, he'll walk batters, and be hit around.

The important thing for Gee this year is to build confidence in his off-speed pitches. His best weapon on the mound is his confidence. In a small sample this year, he is walking 1.5 batters per 9, and striking out 8.0. Those numbers will likely regress closer to the mean, but he has shown the ability to pound the strike zone and mix up his pitches. How well he does those long-term will determine his success this season and beyond.