Sunday, April 1, 2012

With Santana Back, Should The Mets Go To A Six-Man Rotation?

After much speculation over the past few weeks, the Mets have announced that Johan Santana will indeed be the team's Opening Day starter.  He will followed in the rotation by R.A. Dickey, Jonathon Niese, Mike Pelfrey and Dillon Gee.

Because the Mets have three off-days during the first 15 days of the season, Santana will be starting every sixth day for most of the month of April.  Barring any rainouts, Santana will not have to start on the more traditional fifth day until April 28 in Colorado.  But once the calendar hits May, the Mets will go through their longest stretch of the year without any scheduled off-days, playing 20 games in 20 days from May 11 to May 30.  Santana would have to make four consecutive starts on only four days rest during that time frame.

Will Santana be ready for the extra work once May comes around?  For that matter, what about the rest of the starting rotation?  The Mets might not have to answer these questions if they consider what I'm about to say. Perhaps the time has come for the Mets to go to a six-man rotation.

Earlier this week, Chris Young was signed by the Mets to a minor league deal to give the team some much-needed depth in the starting rotation.  Although Young is still recovering from the shoulder injury that put the kibosh on his 2011 season, he is hopeful that he can be ready by June.  If not, his contract contains language that would allow for his release should he not be on the Mets' major league roster by June 1 and July 1.

So let's say Young is ready to make his season debut in June.  The Mets are not going to put him out there every fifth day and expect a complete game from him every time, but they are going to make him a starter.  This is where the six-man rotation comes into play.

With a six-man rotation, Chris Young would get extra rest, occasionally going up to a full week between starts if there is a scheduled off-day in the mix.  Last year, Young threw 103 pitches in his Mets' debut on April 5.  He then came back on four days rest and threw 108 pitches in his next start.  He was on the disabled list soon after.  Once he returned from the DL, Young threw 88 pitches in only 4⅔ innings on April 26.  In his next start, also on four days rest, he threw 97 pitches.  That 97th pitch was the last pitch he'd throw for the Mets in 2011.

If you blinked, you missed it.  This was Chris Young's only start as a Met at Citi Field in 2011.

Clearly, Young will need more time between his starts if he wants to finish the season on the major league roster.  But he won't be the only pitcher who could benefit from pitching in a six-man rotation.

Johan Santana is the obvious first person you'd think of who would be better served by pitching every sixth day.  Since he would be going every fifth day during the aforementioned 20-games-in-20-days stretch, it would behoove the Mets not to wear him out before the All-Star Break if they want to be sure he's still healthy by the break.  Pitching as part of a six-man rotation would give Santana a better chance of staying strong throughout the season.

Also, Jonathon Niese has never pitched more than 200 innings in a season.  Since becoming a regular member of the starting rotation in 2010, Niese has started each season strongly only to fall apart at the end.  In 2010, Niese was 8-5 with a 3.33 ERA and 1.33 WHIP in his first 23 starts, which included his near-perfect game on June 10.  Over his final seven starts, however, Niese was awful, going 1-5 with a 7.57 ERA and 1.96 WHIP.  Opposing batters hit .345 against him and reached base at a .419 clip over his last seven starts, as opposed to a respectable .262/.324 split over his first 23 appearances.

It was more of the same for Niese in 2011.  Over his first 20 appearances (which included one relief effort), Niese went 9-7 with a 3.73 ERA and 1.25 WHIP.  After July 16, Niese made seven starts, going 2-4 with a 6.46 ERA and 1.64 WHIP before spending the final month of the season on the disabled list.

In a six-man rotation, Niese wouldn't hit the proverbial wall so early in the season and could actually finish the season strongly, which would boost his confidence and stamina for future seasons.  The same could be said for another young starter in the rotation, Dillon Gee.

Dillon Gee led the team with 13 wins, but things got a little hairy for him at the end of the season.

Gee started his rookie season on a high note, going 7-0 with an impressive 2.86 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in his first 13 appearances (10 starts).  But Gee was a shadow of his first-half self after that breakthrough start, going 6-6 with a 5.51 ERA and 1.58 WHIP over his final 17 starts.  If Gee were to get an extra day of rest between starts, which a six-man rotation would allow him to do, his first-half success could stretch well into the second half.

Mike Pelfrey has never had any type of injury history.  In fact, he is one of only two starters to make 30 or more starts for the Mets in four consecutive seasons during the 21st century (Tom Glavine did it five straight years from 2003 to 2007).  That being said, with Pelfrey's consistency for being inconsistent, perhaps the Mets would like to see him on the mound fewer than 30 times in 2012.  A six-man rotation would solve that problem.

That brings us to R.A. Dickey.  The force has been strong with the knuckleballer ever since he joined the Mets in 2010.  Although Dickey owns a losing record (19-22) in two seasons with the Mets, he has been the team's most consistent starter during that period.  His 3.08 ERA and 1.21 WHIP are more indicative of what he can do on the mound than his won-loss record.  But being a knuckleball pitcher also gives Dickey an extra edge.  He doesn't need as much rest between starts since his signature pitch isn't very taxing on his arm.  That might also work to his advantage in a six-man rotation.  How so?  Dickey can pitch in relief between starts.

It's not unusual to see knuckleball pitchers come out of the bullpen when they're not starting.  Dickey has had a relief appearance in each of his two seasons in New York.  The recently-retired Tim Wakefield made it a habit in Boston.  In 17 years with the Red Sox, Wakefield made 430 starts and 160 relief appearances.  Wakefield won 87 games after his 37th birthday.  Hall of Famer Phil Niekro won 173 games after he blew out his 37 candles.  Why is that age important?  Because that's how old R.A. Dickey is now.

 R.A. Dickey could stand tall for the Mets as a starter and as an occasional reliever.

Knuckleball artists can pitch often and be successful at an advanced age.  R.A. Dickey can start every sixth game and can be used as needed between starts to help the injury-prone starters (Santana and Young) stay healthy, as well as helping the young starters (Niese and Gee) stay fresh so they can be productive for the entire season.  Using Dickey out of the bullpen on occasion would also solve the problem of how many pitchers the Mets should carry.  With six starters, that would only leave five spots in the bullpen should the Mets decide to go with 11 pitchers and a six-man bench.  But with Dickey doing double duty (say that five times fast) as a starter and reliever, the Mets could still carry six relievers or they could opt for an extra bench player if they felt the need to do so.

Most teams frown upon going to a six-man rotation.  But then again, there was a time when teams didn't want to use a five-man rotation, choosing to go with four starters at a time.  Times and injuries have changed over the years and perhaps the six-man rotation is the way of the future.  But for the Mets, the future might be the present.

If Johan Santana wants to stay healthy for a full season, if Chris Young wants to pitch in the major leagues again, if Jonathon Niese and Dillon Gee want to be productive for an entire year and if Mike Pelfrey doesn't want to get his @$$ handed to him, perhaps Terry Collins should consider going to a six-man rotation in 2012.  It's been too long since the team has been consistent for an entire year.  Perhaps this would help move the team achieve a modicum of consistency that they've sorely lacked since they moved to Citi Field.

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