MLB: Miami Marlins at New York Mets

The Mets’ Rotation Tightrope

Between the drama that this season has brought the Mets’ pitching staff–what with the bone spurs and the sudden disappearance of Matt Harvey’s elite talent–it was a little surprising to look at their stats page the other day and see that the rotation this year has actually been better so far than it was last year. It seems counterintuitive–a dissonance between the eyes, the headlines and the numbers–but it’s true.

To this point, the Mets rotation has outpaced the 2015 staff. Their ERA, FIP, and xFIP (entering Wednesday) are all lower than last season. They’re tied with the Dodgers for the most WAR, according to FanGraphs, of any staff in baseball. And their strikeout percentage is higher too.

Taking this step back it’s worth remembering something: That the bedrock of this Mets team has always been their rotation. This was the way they made themselves into World Series contenders and could survive a month’s long power outage.

And it’s a reminder that things are never as bad as they seem. That the talent the Mets have amassed into one rotation is so vast and so valuable that it can overcome Harvey turning from a super-hero into a lost wonder in one offseason. Still, it was a shock when they put Harvey on the disabled list Wednesday with shoulder woes; a Newsday report says they have suspicion of thoracic outlet syndrome and sent him to a top specialist.

But with that pretext, this also serves as an opportunity to compare the Mets’ pitching to where it was a year ago, and to see where they’ve found improvement and where new questions have popped up.

There has been no bigger boon for the Mets than the ascent of Noah Syndergaard. He has gone from a promising hulk on the mound to an ace who causes havoc and devastation for whichever team crosses his path. As talented as Syndergaard is, his improvement has still been rapid. Last season, he put together one of the best seasons by a rookie pitcher in the last 10 years, and now he’s just one of the best pitchers in baseball, period.

It’s reminiscent of the leap Jacob deGrom made last year, though even steeper. While deGrom came with a different narrative, the trend line was much the same. Sure, he wasn’t as fearsome but by the time he mauled three poor American League hitters in one inning in last year’s All-Star Game, it was clear deGrom had become of the better pitchers in baseball.

He’s kept his place this year despite struggling with a case of missing velocity. deGrom has lost nearly two miles per hour off his fastball, on average, so far this year but his ERA (2.61), FIP, and xFIP are all largely almost unchanged. But the differences are visible on the edges. His strikeout rate is no longer elite, nor his WHIP. Opposing hitters have posted an OPS 59 points higher this year than last year. That fastball is no longer as strong a weapon, with his whiff rate falling from fifth best in baseball last year to 17th this year. Where that fastball was the third most valuable in 2015, according to FanGraphs runs above average formula, this year it’s 49th.

Still, it’s been remarkable to watch deGrom whittle away at opposing hitters. One of the reasons the club’s general manager was so impressed by him after his rookie year was the pitcher’s mental fortitude and that’s been apparent again this season as he guts out inning after inning despite his missing heat.

While deGrom has found a way to stabilize despite diminished stuff, Harvey has come apart–perhaps because of the health troubles that caused him to miss time in spring training and sent him to the disabled list now. His velocity has fallen dramatically too. He no longer misses as many bats and his statistics are just wretched at this point: he’s losing many of his games thanks to a 4.86 ERA. He ranks 138th in PWARP– that’s just as productive in 17 starts as Julio Urias has been in eight this year. The Mets and Harvey seem out of answers.

Fortunately for them, Harvey’s issues have been compensated for. Bartolo Colon continues his Dorian Gray-like aging curve. Steven Matz has pitched very well again–just like last year–and has been bothered by minor injuries again–just like last year. His left arm is as talented as it is worrisome.

That has been the motto for the Mets all season however: talented but worrisome. This team enjoyed enviable health last year despite the loss of Zack Wheeler and Matz for two months. Harvey, deGrom and Syndergaard all were stout and Matz returned by the postseason.

This year, the Mets’ staff seems to be walking a tightrope. Productive but constantly harangued by worries. Harvey’s DL trip is just the latest machination of them. There’s still another half of the season to come, so hang on.

Photo Credit: Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

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