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Want Amazin'? Try the Mets

by Keith Glab, BaseballEvolution.com
May 4, 2007

Tony and Asher have each taken stabs at what are some of the most remarkable statistical feats of this young season.  Now it's my turn.  I see a pitching staff that was universally picked to implode this year currently leading the major leagues in ERA.  Yes, Kyle Lohse is a surprise.  But is he more surprising than the combined efforts of the New York Mets pitching staff?

The Mets not only boast the best ERA in the majors, but there are only two teams within half a run of that 3.00 mark (Dodgers and A's at 3.26).  Only the White Sox have allowed fewer hits than the Mets.  All of these numbers hold true through Friday despite Chan Ho Park having made a disastrous spot start earlier in the week. 

Mind you, the fact that the Mets bullpen is performing well is not such a surprise.  They were dandy last year, and in the offseason they effectively replaced Chad Bradford and Darren Oliver with Ambiorix Burgos and Scott Schoenweiss.  However, after losing Duaner Sanchez for much of the season late in spring training, the best the Mets could do to replace him was Aaron Sele.  Sele, who briefly enjoyed two fine seasons after Voros McCraken's famous article about DIPS but who has been bad to terrible in the five plus seasons since, is currently the only Met reliever with an ERA over 3.75. The Metropolitan bullpen is even better than most predicted, if fairly thin and susceptible to injury.

But no, the real shock is their starting rotation.  The one anchored by two 40-somethings once Pedro Martinez was ruled out until July.  The one that resorted to using the likes of Alay Soler, Jeremi Gonzalez, Dave Williams, Victor Zambrano, and Jose Lima for a combined 32 starts last year.  The one rotation in baseball that looked like it would actually miss Steve Traschel when he left.      

That rotation has been the second best in baseball to the Oakland Athletics' group, and the front four have simply been lights out.  Let's take a closer look at this motley crew of overachievers.

 
Glavine: 3-1 3.27 

Tom Glavine

It's easy to forget that Tom Glavine began his Mets career by going 9-14 with a 4.52 ERA, 82 strikeouts, and 66 walks in 2003.  Since that time, he's gone 42-35 with a 3.62 ERA, 367 strikeouts and 206 walks, or 29-14, 3.24, 212/95 since the All Star break of 2005.  I must confess to being one of the parties who thought that Glavine was done at the start of 2005, when he ended the first half of the season with a 4.94 ERA and just five more strikeouts than walks.  But the probable  first ballot Hall of Famer turned 41 in March and appears able to fly past 300 wins.  It was a joke at the beginning of the season when we all realized that he would be the Mets' #1 starter.  Now Omar Minaya is the one who is laughing.

 
Hernandez: 2-1 2.53 

Orlando Hernandez

The Cuban of unknown age has gone from being one of the most overrated pitchers in baseball to one of the most underrated.  It always bothered me that everyone (most egregiously, Joe Torre himself) considered him the #1 pitcher on the great Yankees teams of the late 90's and early 00's despite the fact that he never led the team in strikeouts nor ERA and only once led in wins and innings (1999).  No one cared that he allowed 34 home runs in 2000, or that he went 16-20 with a 4.62 ERA for the 2000-2001 Yankees, clubs that even Jason Grimsley and Jay Witasick could post winning records on.  No one except Lou Piniella seemed to notice that he has never been a good pitcher against left handed batters, NOT EVER, because lefties can pick up his dynamic arm slots earlier and feast on his mediocre stuff.

But when he missed the 2003 season due to injury, the funniest thing happened.  Yankee fans and management alike began questioning his age, durability, and pitching acumen out of nowhere.  All he did next year was pitch the greatest 15-game stretch of his career.  But them Yankees already had it in their heads that he was done, so they did not bother to look at his numbers.  They dumped him, and since then, the White Sox failed to put him on their 2005 ALCS and World Series roster despite his baffling no outs bases loaded escape versus the Red Sox in the ALDS.  The Diamondbacks essentially exchanged him and two of their best pitching prospects for Jorge Julio and Orlando's talentless hack of a brother, Livan.  The moral here is that whatever Yankee fans think, the opposite is likely true. 

Hernandez was then scrutinized as being counted on to anchor the Mets' rotation this year, and perhaps that's partly justified given that he currently resides in his second home, the disabled list.  But he did give the Mets a great chance to win in four of his five 2007 starts thus far.  He has again exceeded expectations, and while he won't finish the season with a 2.53 ERA, he will finish the season with more than two wins.

 
Maine: 5-0 1.37 

John Maine

Maine won the NL Pitcher of the Month Award for April on account of his dominating the universe.  He had been the ray of hope in the rotation on account of his being young, promising, and effective in 2006.  Those aren't high standards, but he was certainly the only Met who fit those criteria.  In the minors, Maine has averaged 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings pitched and put up a 3.24 minor league ERA.  What in the name of Curt Schilling were the Orioles thinking when they traded Maine along with Jorge Julio for Kris Benson, founder of the Overpaid Pitchers Movement?  Anyway, Maine will certainly not finish the season undefeated, nor with an ERA under 1.50, but he should be good now and great in a couple of years.

Oliver Perez

 
Perez: 3-2 3.41 

This is the man who I dubbed "The baseball player you would most want to build your franchise around after Albert Pujols" before the 2005 season.  Over the next two seasons, Perez would go 10-18 with a 6.22 ERA, 138 walks, and 43 home runs allowed in 215.2 innings of horror.  It may seem unlikely that Perez won as many games as he did, considering he pitched primarily for a lackluster Pittsburgh offense.  But in his seven victories in 2005, Perez allowed just 28 hits, four homers, and 21 bases on balls over 43 stellar innings.  He also stuck out a whopping 52 batters during that span en route to a 2.30 ERA.

Clearly, the potential was still there, but something wasn't quite right.  The trend continued at the start of '07 as well, with Perez walking seven batters before the conclusion of the third inning during his second start.  But if you take away that debacle, Perez is 3-1 with 34 strikeouts, 3 walks, and a 2.73 ERA.  Even looking at his complete stats, Perez stands 6th in the NL in strikeouts, and all of the pitchers ahead of him have started one more game than he has.  Oliver Perez embodies the error of everyone (including myself) focusing on the potential for disaster in the Mets' rotation rather than the potential for success.

Mike Pelfrey

 
Pelfrey: 0-3 6.75 

And then there's Mike Pelfrey, who embodies the justification for everyone's worries.  He is simply one of the most promising prospects around, throwing a high-90's four-seamer and a mid-90's sinker.  He then unfairly compliments those with a solid changeup, though he does need to work on a consistent breaking pitch.  Point being, if you had told me that Pelfrey would be 0-3 with a 6.75 ERA through his first four starts, I'd have told you that the Mets would be struggling to stay in fourth place ahead of the Nationals.  The fact that this young man has not yet reached his potential and that the ballclub is still tied for first place in the surprisingly good NL East scares me.  The Mets have allowed fewer runs than anyone, scored more than anyone outside of Florida (have the Marlins developed an Aridator to counter Colorado's Humidor?), and they still have room to get better (see Carlos Delgado's sub-.200 batting average).           

There are still some causes for concern.  The injury to El Duque and subsequent tanking of Chan Ho Park has cause the team to bring up reliever Lino Urdaneta, he of the infinite major league ERA and patently unimpressive minor league numbers.  One-year wonder Jorge Sosa will take Hernandez/Park's spot in the rotation for the time being, which means two rough spots in their rotation until Pelfrey figures out a breaking ball or Hernandez applies enough Ben Gay to pitch again.

But the Mets definitely have the resources to pick up a pitcher or two midseason if need be.  They will effectively acquire two in Pedro Martinez and Duaner Sanchez returning from their injuries.  This makes their plan of going with risky starters with upside genius.  Only three of them really needed to pan out, as they will team up with Pedro and possibly a trade deadline acquisition down the stretch.  And how much better for them to have three dominant starters for that pairing than five competent and overpaid innings-eaters, one or two of whom would become superfluous by August?    

But the main upshot of all this has to do with the Mets' pitching coach.  Most people will tell you that the best pitching coach in baseball is either Dave Duncan or Leo Mazzone, and they are certainly two of the best ever.  But if you take a look at what Rick Peterson has done with the Mets and with the Oakland A's before them, you realize that his name needs to be mentioned alongside those older pitching coaches.  Not only has Peterson ostensibly fixed Oliver Perez, gotten John Maine to realize his potential quickly, and extended Tom Glavine's stellar career, but take a look at what's happened to Oakland's Big Three since he left the A's.  Mark Mulder has been alternating between injured and not particularly effective, Tim Hudson may have been harmed by Leo Mazzone's meddlings before apparently righting his ship this year, and Barry Zito has declined from one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball to merely a solid innings-eater.  Oh, and Rich Harden has become the Mark Prior of the American League.

Rick Peterson is indeed something special.  Imagine what he could have done with Scott Kazmir...  




Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Keith resides in Chicago, Illinois and can be reached at keith@baseballevolution.com.

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