Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Sixth Starter Could Be the Savior of the Season

Can Rafael Montero save the Mets' season as a starting pitcher?  (Photo by Brad Barr/USA Today Sports)

When Jonathon Niese takes the hill today for the Mets, he will continue a pattern that hasn't been seen much in Flushing over the past few years.  Niese, Dillon Gee, Bartolo Colon, Zack Wheeler and Jenrry Mejia have been the only pitchers to start games for the Mets through the team's first 36 games.  That kind of stability is something that's becoming quite rare in today's game.

Last year, the Mets were forced to use a sixth starter in their 22nd game, when Shaun Marcum replaced the ineffective Aaron Laffey in the rotation.  In 2012, the Mets only needed 15 games before a sixth starting pitcher (Miguel Batista) was required.  The year before that, it was in game No. 14 that the Mets went to sixth starter D.J. Carrasco.  And let's not forget 1997, when the Mets used six starting pitchers in their first six games (Pete Harnisch, Mark Clark, Bobby Jones, Dave Mlicki, Rick Reed, Brian Bohanon).

The last time the Mets went past 36 games using only the pitchers in their original five-man rotation was 2010, when they played 40 contests until needing R.A. Dickey to fill in as a starter in game No. 41.  Before that, you have to go back to 2002, when they didn't need starter No. 6 until the midpoint of the season (Game No. 81).

Where do those teams rank as far as Mets squads that didn't need a sixth starter are concerned?  Let's take a look at the ten teams in franchise history that went the deepest into the season on just five starting pitchers.

Sixth Starter
Game #
First Five Starters
Sid Fernandez
Gooden, Viola, Cone, Whitehurst, Darling
Mike Bacsik
Leiter, Trachsel, Estes, Astacio, D’Amico
David West
Gooden, Ojeda, Darling, Cone, Fernandez
Kevin Kobel
Koosman, Espinosa, Zachry, Bruhert, Swan
Bob Apodaca
Seaver, Matlack, Lolich, Swan, Koosman
Tommy Moore
Seaver, Matlack, Koosman, McAndrew, Parker
W. Whitehurst
Cone, Saberhagen, Fernandez, Young, Gooden
R.A. Dickey
Santana, Maine, Niese, Pelfrey, Perez
Harry Parker
Seaver, Matlack, Koosman, Tate, Webb
Gee, Colon, Wheeler, Mejia, Niese

Only nine times in team history have the Mets gone more than 36 games into a season without requiring the services of a sixth starter.  But by this time next week, the 2014 Mets might be surpassed by just five teams in this regard.

There has been speculation that Jenrry Mejia may be moved to the bullpen soon.  If so, the Mets will have to trot out a sixth starter for the first time this season.  But will it happen before the 2014 team can move further up the above chart?

With the way the Mets have been promoting young starting pitchers to the major leagues over the past two seasons (Matt Harvey in 2012, Zack Wheeler in 2013), it seems as if the 1991 squad will continue to be the Mets team who went the longest without requiring a sixth starter.  But take a look at the list above.  Other than the 1973 Mets, no team on the chart made the postseason.  And no team posted a better record than the 1989 squad, who went 87-75 that year.

The Mets have won 88 or more games in 14 different seasons.  They made the playoffs in six of those campaigns.  (The '73 squad that went to the World Series finished the year with an 82-79 record).  But in all of the years the Mets won 88-plus games, they needed to go to a sixth starter fairly early in the season.  Most of the Mets teams that used just five starters deep into the season failed to generate much success in the standings.

Is it possible that the use of five starters and only five starters wears down those pitchers to the point that the team can't remain competitive deep into the summer?  Past history has shown that good Mets teams have used other starting pitchers early in the season, which has curbed the workload of the top five guys in the rotation.  Or is it just coincidence that this is the case?

The 2014 season is still in its first few chapters, but it will be interesting to see how the book on the team's starting pitchers shapes up.  How those pitchers are used could very well determine how the season's final chapter will be written.

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