By Mike Steffanos
The Starting Pitchers
Continuing our look back at the disappointing 2007 season, we turn our attention to the starters. They took a lot of abuse for the collapse from both fans and the media. While they did, indeed, falter down the stretch, I really don't think the starting pitching deserved all of the blame that was tossed their way.
Tom Glavine was the de facto ace of the staff for most of the season. His last start of the season may well be the most infamous 1/3 of an inning in Mets history, but the two starts before that weren't much better. Glavine's ERA after 31 starts was a respectable 3.88. At the end of the season it was 4.45. You have to really stink out the joint to raise your ERA 57 points that late in the year.
While it's easy to attribute that poor finish to bad timing, I thought as a whole this was Glavine's poorest season with the Mets since his forgettable first year in New York. He pitched very well through his first 8 starts (with an ERA under 3), but much of the rest of the year was a struggle. He was bad more often than not in June and July, rebounded nicely in August and early September, only to come up very small for a team that desperately needed him to stop the bleeding.
The league seems to have caught up to many of the changes the Glavine and Rick Peterson made in his pitching style. Once again, it seems that Tom is quite dependent on the strike zone he is getting from the home plate ump, and is also vulnerable to teams that are willing to take a patient approach at the plate and force him to throw strikes. While I understand all too well that it will be difficult to replace the 200 inning that Glavine contributed in 2007, I've honestly come to the point where I hope that Glavine does indeed go home to Atlanta next season. I don't feel this way because I'm sulking about his last 3 starts. I actually came to that line of thinking during the season. The Mets need to explore other options and get younger. Glavine needs to be closer to his family during the school year. It really doesn't make sense for him to return.
The two 26-year-olds in the rotation behind Glavine took a lot of heat for their own struggles down the stretch -- ironically, often from the same pundits who gave Glavine a pass for his late season stumbles. You'll forgive me if I find this somewhat unfair. I was generally happy with both young starters in 2007, and felt they gave the Mets all they could have reasonably expected.
Yes, John Maine had a rough time after the All Star break, but gave the Mets 32 starts and a solid 191 innings. Keeping in mind that this was a 26-year old pitcher who had thrown 147, 151, 168 and 152 innings in his previous 4 years as a pro, this was a significant step up. You also had to like the way he stepped up the second-to-last game of the season to give the Mets a chance.
His fellow 26-year-old starter, Oliver Perez, contributed 29 starts and 177 innings to the cause. He also seemed to tire in August, losing the extra oomph on his pitches and uncharacteristically struggling to put batters away. While he can still be erratic at times, he took a huge step forward in 2007 from the completely lost young left-hander the Mets picked up the year before.
Going forward, the Mets now have 2 talented young pitchers to team with Pedro Martinez and build their staff around. Given all of the uncertainty that surrounded the rotation heading into the 2007 campaign, this is a nice step in the right direction. While it may have cost them in the short run, they're in good shape for the long haul.
Orlando Hernandez was the Mets most effective starter when he was healthy. The 24 starts and 147 innings pitched were about what it was reasonable to expect from the veteran Cuban heading into the season, but the timing was awful when he went down in late August when Maine and Perez were struggling.
What compounded the loss of Hernandez was that the pitchers the Mets were counting on for rotation depth for situations like El Duque's injury didn't pan out. Jason Vargas was terrible in 2 fill-in starts; Mike Pelfrey and Brian Lawrence came up lacking in fifth starter auditions and as fill-ins; and Jorge Sosa proved better suited for the bullpen. At one time or another, Chan Ho Park, Dave Williams, and Phillip Humber did not impress in spot starts. Pedro Martinez did a nice job in 5 September starts after his return, but there wasn't enough time to save the season for the Mets at that point.
For all the pitchers who came up short as the fifth starter or in starts, at least Pelfrey and Humber (and maybe Vargas) have a chance to help this team down the road. Park and Williams were only given a single start each. Lawrence, on the other hand, wound up making 6 starts for the Mets in August and September, despite only being effective his second time out against the Marlins. He allowed 37 hits and 4 HR in only 25.2 total innings. Moreover, a pitcher who made a career of pitching to contact but throwing strikes allowed 12 walks in his limited opportunities. It was puzzling at the time, and in retrospect, why he was given so many chances to be bad. Teams less inclined to play things conventional and safe might have rolled the dice with a Pelfrey or a Humber. Pelfrey's numbers were actually better, and Humber had been pitching well in Triple-A.
In my mind, while Maine and Perez seem to take the majority of the heat in the media, the bigger factors were these:
- Glavine's inconsistency
- He ERA in April, May and August was 2.80, 4.03 and 3.13. In June, July and September it was 5.83, 5.14 and 6.10. Any team that displayed a patient approach with Glavine was almost invariably able to hit him. He can still dazzle at times when he has the great changeup, but when things aren't perfect he seems to be constantly pitching in a 3-1 count. Realistically, at this stage of his career Glavine is a third or fourth starter in a good rotation.
- Minaya's failure to build effective depth in the system
- I thought Jason Vargas was a great pickup for rotation depth last winter. He wasn't just terrible with the Mets, however, he wasn't really good in Triple-A, either. Maybe it was injuries (he had surgery after the season) but his velocity was mid-80s, and his control wasn't great. Park, Williams and Lawrence couldn't fill the bill, and Pelfrey and Humber weren't ready. It all combined to make trading away Brian Bannister look like a really big mistake. Time will certainly tell on pitchers like Ambiorix Burgos, Vargas and Adam Bostick, but the bottom line for 2007 was that the pitchers traded away helped their teams much more than any the Mets received in return.
- Playing it safe
- Giving 6 starts to Brian Lawrence was the "safe" play, but the Mets were 1-5 in those starts. Lawrence never showed signs of being an effective starter. While giving those starts to a Phillip Humber might not have led to any more wins, it's hard to argue he could have done much worse. We'll never know if they could have caught some lightning in a bottle by allowing Humber to settle into the rotation.
- Was too much emphasis placed on Pelfrey developing secondary pitches?
- When I look back on the season, I wonder what might have happened if the Mets were able to get something out of their fifth starter. In retrospect, I wonder if the Mets should have put their efforts with Mike Pelfrey into throwing strikes down in the zone with his fastball. So much effort went into trying to get him to throw his slider and changeup for strikes, yet his fastball command -- which had been a strength -- was spotty at best last season. With that gone, he had no real strength to from which to build in my mind. I'd like to see tightening up command of that plus fastball be a priority next season. His fastball is good enough to win with if he can throw it for quality strikes. The secondary stuff is moot if he's constantly behind in the count.
What's overlooked in the disappointment with 2007 were the steps taken in a positive direction for the future. Maine and Perez give the Mets 2 solid young building blocks for their rotation. Pedro looked good enough after his return to offer hope that he can be effective next season. Pelfrey and Humber still have promise, and Kevin Mulvey should be in the mix, also.
Next: the position players.