By: Brian Mangan
(n.b. an abridged version of this column was published on MetsBlog last week)
The Mets starting rotation has pitched well in the early going in 2015, lessening the urgency for the team to look to the minor leagues for help. Nonetheless, top prospects Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz have been dominating in Triple-A, toying with advanced hitters in a hitter’s league, and appear ready to contribute today. With the Mets hot start having converted them into real contenders for a playoff spot, the team should be aggressive in making improvements. However, with the rotation having pitched so well, it’s not clear how or when there will be a spot for Syndergaard or Matz.
The Mets Rotation Has Been Really Good
The Mets starting rotation currently sits 2nd in the major leagues with a 3.02 ERA, blowing away the league average ERA of 4.06. They haven’t been overpowering, ranking 14th in strikeout percentage, but make up for it with control and by inducing ground balls. The staff is essentially lapping the field in BB/9 rate (thank you Bartolo Colon) by allowing a miniscule 1.64 walks per nine innings, and they are 7th in ground ball percentage. All in all, and the starting rotation is 9th in Wins Above Replacement (a little lower than their ERA thanks to some good luck and a friendly home park).
Just as encouraging is the fact that the rotation has contributed from top-to-bottom. The staff has been led, of course, by the scintillating Matt Harvey — who leads in just about every important category, including ERA, FIP, K/9, WHIP and WAR — but it has been far from a one man show. Every regular Mets starter has an ERA south of 3.86 and a FIP of 4.25 or better.
Most teams would be elated to get this type of production from their whole rotation, but with the Mets minor leagues bursting at the seams with pitching talent, questions arise as to how to use it. As such, the Mets #4 and #5 starters, Jon Niese and Dillon Gee, are under constant evaluation.
We Can Expect Niese and Gee to Remain Slightly Above Average
Gee and Niese have taken very different paths to their better-than-league-average ERA’s this year, but neither pitcher has been pretty in the early going. Niese has managed a 2.40 ERA, but has done it with ugly peripherals, striking out only 5.7 per nine and walking 3 per nine. He’s also allowed 3 home runs already, so he is saddled with an unpleasantly high 4.25 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching). Gee, on the other hand, has seen results in line with his peripherals, with a 3.86 ERA and 3.87 FIP. Gee has also failed to strike out many while walking too many, with 5.9 K/9 and 2.4 BB/9.
Ultimately, both players presently have a FIP somewhere around 4.00, and career ERA’s near the same figure, with Gee at a career 3.91 ERA and Niese at a career 3.82 ERA. Fangraphs projects that Niese and Gee will have ERA’s of 3.96 and 4.24 respectively from now until the end of the season. It is safe to say that barring some unlikely development, we know what to expect from both of these pitchers. They are a little better than league average.
Syndergaard and Matz Are Top Flight Prospects, and Ready
On an inning-per-inning basis, both Syndergaard and Matz were projected to perform better than both Niese and Gee at the start of this season. Fangraphs forecasted a 3.53 ERA for Syndergaard (second on the team, behind only Harvey) and a 3.84 ERA for Matz.
Their performances in the minor leagues thus far have done nothing to contradict those optimistic forecasts, as both have, so far, shown that they have mastered Triple-A. Matz has a 2.04 ERA and 38 strikeouts in only 35.1 innings, and has gone 6 innings or more in each of his last three starts despite pitch count limitations. Syndergaard has been even better, posting a 1.66 ERA with 26 strikeouts in 21.2 innings. He has also gone back-to-back starts of 7 innings, throwing no more than 100 pitches.
Not only do these two young pitchers excel in terms of performance, but they excel in terms of scouting and stuff. Steven Matz is a 6’2″ left-hander with a fastball which can top out around 97 miles per hour. Syndergaard, the right-hander, is even more imposing, standing a remarkable 6’6″ and 240 pounds. The scouting scale goes from 20 to 80, with 50 being average. According to Fangraphs, Syndergaard already has an almost-elite fastball, with a league average curveball and changeup that both project to be above league-average as well someday in the future:
These performances are even more impressive when you consider the how harsh the Pacific Coast League is on pitchers. Syndergaard currently sports the #2 ERA in the league and Matz the #5 ERA in the league, and they are #1 and #7 in the league in strikeouts. The average ERA in the Pacific Coast League is 1/3 of a run higher than it is in the National League, at a whopping 4.34.
Can Syndergaard and Matz Improve on Niese and Gee?
It is impossible to say how a pitcher will handle the translation from Triple-A to the major leagues, but both prospects have been better, at higher levels of the minors, than any of the pitchers currently in the Mets rotation. Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Niese, and Gee all experienced success in the minor leagues, but none of them were as dominant at the high levels as Syndergaard and Matz have been.
Nonetheless, it will be hard to unseat Niese or Gee for an unproven prospect while both pitchers chug along slightly better than league average. My guess is that Matz or Syndergaard (or both) will be called to the majors for a spot start in the near future, so that Mets talent evaluators can get a look at them against real competition while at the same time stealing an extra day of rest for Harvey and the rest of the staff.
Given the Mets hot start, it behooves the team to explore this option sooner rather than later. The improvement from Gee to Syndergaard, for example, is projected to be somewhere in the range of .50 to .70 runs per nine innings. Over 100 innings, the Mets could theoretically save 7 runs by making the switch, a savings that could be worth as much as a game in the standings. One game may be worth an awful lot this September.