By Mike Steffanos
The battle for the fifth starter's job includes a couple of veteran pitchers who have shouldered a heavy workload in the past, Freddy Garcia and Livan Hernandez.
By even the most exacting definition, Garcia was an absolute horse in his time with Seattle and the White Sox. He pitched over 200 innings in 33 starts as a 24-year-old rookie with the Mariners in 1999. The next season he fell back to 124 innings, but then rebounded for 8 straight seasons of 200+ innings.
From 1998 with the Marlins through 2007 with the D-backs, Livan Hernandez reached the 200 inning mark in 9 of 10 seasons. The one he came up short was 1999, when he combined for "only" 199 2/3 innings with Florida and San Francisco. In that decade he exceeded 210 innings eight times, 220 six times, 230 five times, 240 three times and pitched 255 innings with les Expos in 2004. That makes Garcia look like a slacker in comparison.
Of course both of these pitchers are not what they once were, but I keep hearing about how either one of these guys would be a worthwhile innings eater in the fifth starter slot for the Mets.
I'm all for starters who eat innings and keep the bullpen from wearing out in August. The thing is, though, I'm not convinced that neither Garcia -- dreadful in two spring training starts -- nor Hernandez will actually be able to chow down on very many of those tasty innings.
The problem is that neither pitcher is as effective as they once were when they were pitching deep into ball games. I liken this to what happened with Steve Trachsel at the end of his career.
In 2004, his last full season with the Mets before hurting his back, Trachsel started 33 games and notched 202 2/3 innings -- an average of 6.1 innings per start. He struck out an average of 5.2/9IP and walked an average of 3.7/9IP. He allowed almost exactly a hit per inning, and his 4.00 ERA made him a slightly better than average pitcher -- to my mind, the very definition of an innings eater.
After missing most of 2005 with back surgery, Trachsel started 30 games for the 2006 Mets, but only managed 164 2/3 innings, an average of 5.5 per game. He walked almost as many batters as he struck out (78-79), while his hits per 9 innings rate rose to over 10.
To my mind, the difference between the two Trachsels was the 2 or 3 mph he lost off the fastball. Never a power pitcher in his best days, he was forced to become a nibbler to get by. Time after time he was staked out to big leads by the offense, which scored a ton of runs for him that year, yet still needed to be removed after barely surviving the 5 innings required for a win.
Trachsel actually managed 15 wins despite an ERA of close to 5, but that said a lot more about his offensive support than his pitching. He no longer had the weapons to be an average starting pitcher, and he was no longer able to consume the innings.
Even finesse pitchers like Trachsel, Hernandez and Garcia need to command a fastball with enough on it to force hitters to respect it. If they do, they can utilize all of their weapons. If not, they're forced to try to nibble for the corners, which inevitably leads to falling behind in the count and being forced to throw that diminished fastball over the plate. The formula leads to high pitch counts per inning and less effective innings overall.
Livan Hernandez, who often threw for very high pitch counts when Frank Robinson managed the Nationals, didn't even average over 6 innings per start last season, despite his almost indestructible right arm. He didn't pitch well enough to warrant it in stops in Minnesota and Colorado.
He's always given up his share of hits, but last year opposing batter managed an astounding 257 hits in only 180 innings pitch, mashing his meatballs for a .342/.375/.520 batting line and an ERA of over 6. Unless a manager has a death wish, he's not going to leave a pitcher in games to absorb that sort of beating. I find it rather astounding he was actually allowed to start 31 games.
My point here isn't to knock Hernandez or Garcia. They've had fine careers and both have been key parts of championship teams. My point is that, no matter how impressive his track record was, you can't expect a pitcher to eat innings for a contending team unless he has the stuff left to do it.
Garcia has looked awful this spring, with neither command nor any pop at all on his fastball. Hernandez has looked better, but his fastball hasn't shown much so far. You can dazzle with your pitching repertoire for a while, but they'll catch up to you if you don't have the heater to keep hitters honest.
I haven't given up hope on either guy, but one of those ancient right arms is going to have to show more than we've seen so far to give me hopes of a true innings eater at the bottom of the rotation. What I see right now is two veterans who will struggle to last long enough to qualify for wins.