Thursday, May 27, 2010

Takahashi Might Be Pitching Well, But...

Hisanori Takahashi stepped into the Mets rotation and has been spectacular in his two starts, shutting down two explosive offenses in the Yankees and Phillies. With six scoreless innings against the Yankees last Friday and six more against the Phillies on Wednesday, Takahashi lowered his ERA to 2.13, while upping his record to 4-1.

The Japanese southpaw has been a Lefty Luthor to the Supermen wearing the jerseys of last year's pennant winners. More importantly, he has made Jerry Manuel a believer in his ability to give the Mets quality starts, something that could not be said for the man he replaced in the rotation, Oliver Perez.

I have been quite impressed with Takahashi's recent performances and would like to think that his stretch of outstanding starts will continue past his last outing against the Phillies. However, before giving him the keys to the castle, let's remember that just last year, we were also singing the praises of a starter that was tearing it up in his first few starts. Just like Takahashi, this pitcher was moved from the bullpen to the starting rotation and was asked to shut down the powerful Yankee lineup. Then, he continued to face teams with potent offenses and pitched beyond expectations. Unfortunately, his streak of good fortune ended almost as quickly as started and now he's back in the Mets bullpen. Who am I talking about? Fernando Nieve.

After pitching two scoreless innings of relief against the Washington Nationals last year on June 6, Fernando Nieve was called upon to make an emergency start against the Yankees on June 13. The game was played less than 24 hours after Luis Castillo gift-wrapped a Yankee victory with his infamous dropped pop-up. With all the momentum shifting over to the Yankees, Nieve was given the ball and was asked to stop the bleeding He ended up pitching 6.2 innings, holding the Yankees to two runs on four hits. That was the only win picked up by the Mets against the Yankees all year.

Given another start against a high-quality team, this time the Tampa Bay Rays, Nieve followed up his victory against the Yankees with an even better performance against the Rays, giving up one run and three hits in a 5-3 Mets victory.

In his third start, he faced the National League Central division-leading St. Louis Cardinals and pitched six shutout innings, again allowing only three hits in an 11-0 blowout of the Cards. That gave Nieve three wins in three starts against upper-echelon teams. In those three games, his ERA was a microscopic 1.45 and he held opposing hitters to a .154 batting average.

For all intents and purposes, it appeared as if the Mets had found themselves a starting pitcher from out of nowhere that they could depend upon to pitch effectively and deep into ballgames. Even I was sold on Fernando Nieve, as I wrote a number of blogs for Mets Merized Online on The Three Fernandos (Nieve, Tatis and Martinez). Alas, Nieve could not continue his success past those three starts.

Over his next three starts, Nieve came crashing back down to Earth, losing to the Brewers, Phillies and Reds. In those games, Fernando's ERA was 5.40 and opposing batters hit an alarming .403 against him. Despite the fact that he was clearly not the same pitcher he was over his first three starts, Jerry Manuel gave him another start against the Atlanta Braves. That was the last time Nieve would pitch for the Mets in 2009, as he injured himself while running to first base in the second inning.

Do I expect Hisanori Takahashi to fade as quickly as Fernando Nieve did last year? I don't think he will. For one thing, Takahashi has an impeccable ability to throw strikes. In his starts against the Yankees and Phillies, Takahashi has pitched 12 innings and has only walked one batter. In those two games, he has thrown a total of 195 pitches, of which 138 were strikes. That's better than 70% of his pitches going for strikes.

In Nieve's first three starts last year, as great as they were, he still walked nine batters in 18.2 innings. Over those three starts, he threw 318 pitches, of which 188 were strikes. That's only 59% of his pitches going for strikes. Nieve was effective over those starts because he gave up few hits. Once he started giving up hits, combined with the walks, that led to his three-game losing streak.

Hisanori Takahashi has the potential to be an effective #3 starter in the Mets rotation. Since he's constantly throwing strikes, he stands less of a chance to suffer a meltdown such as the one Fernando Nieve went through last year after his third start. However, just because Takahashi has been shutting down potent offenses now doesn't guarantee long-term success. Be happy that he's giving us great pitching at a time when the Mets need it the most, but be wary because as wonderful as Takahashi has been, it can all come crashing down. Just ask Fernando Nieve.

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