Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, May 10, 2023 -- "Beat the Mets"

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter: Beat the Mets
Vol. 15, No. 35
May 10, 2023

With Max Scherzer scratched with a neck injury, the Mets started David Peterson last night and fell behind 7-1 in an eventual 7-6 loss, their 12th in 15 games. A team that started 14-7 is now 17-19 and eight games behind the Braves in the NL East.

Scherzer’s sore neck is just the latest problem the Mets have had with their $128-million starting rotation. Mad Max, Justin Verlander, Kodai Senga, Carlos Carrasco, and Jose Quintana have combined for 16 starts, 71 1/3 innings, a 5.17 ERA, a FIP above 6.00, and 0.0 bWAR. Investors in Theranos got a better return than Steve Cohen has for his money so far. Verlander and Senga are now taking regular turns, and we’ll see what happens with Scherzer’s neck -- a problem he’s had before, most famously during the 2019 World Series. Carrasco, sidelined with a bone chip in his pitching elbow, could return next week, and Quintana in July. “Injury optimism is not your friend,” says Scott Pianowski, but if you’re a Mets fan, you can at least hope the worst of this is behind you.

The replacements are killing this team. Peterson had pitched his way off the roster before being tapped last night. He now has a 7.68 ERA. Joey Lucchesi has a 4.43 ERA and a 5.24 FIP. The Mets have used nine starting pitchers, and none of them has a FIP below 5.00. Which brings us to one of those charts you don’t want to be in...

Extremely Expensive and Incredibly Bad (Worst starters FIP, 2023)

Athletics   6.41
Mets        5.85
Rockies     5.65
Royals      5.22
Red Sox     5.17

Sometimes it’s hard to figure out why a team isn’t winning. This isn’t one of those times.

Mets starters have thrown fewer innings than all but the Rays and Reds starters, and the Rays do that by plan with openers and tandem starts. Just two starting rotations have produced negative value by FanGraphs’ WAR calculations -- the Mets and the A’s. Remember, the Mets are paying five starting pitchers more than eight teams are paying their entire Opening Day rosters. They’re supposed to be winning by getting good starting pitching, and instead their rotation is better than only the Rachel Phelps A’s.

While the Mets relief corps, down Edwin Diaz, hasn’t been great -- 18th in ERA, 18th in FIP -- the leverage guys have been fine and the Mets aren’t blowing games. They’re 14-1 when they lead starting the seventh inning, and undefeated when winning starting the ninth. The loss of Diaz hasn’t changed their fate at all late in games. David Robertson has a 0.63 ERA and a 2.06 FIP. Drew Smith has moved into higher-leverage work thanks to a 1.93 ERA and 2.96 FIP. Adam Ottavino, the shakiest of the group, has a 3.46 ERA and 4.32 FIP.

The Mets don’t do the modern thing of making pitchers out of nothing at all. Fifteen actual pitchers have made at least one relief appearance for the Mets, and 11 of them have a FIP of at least 4.00. (In addition to Robertson and Smith, two pitchers with fewer than five IP ring the bell.) The Mets don’t have any young arms at all. Every pitcher to appear in a game for them this year is at least 25, and every pitcher with at least ten innings pitched is at least 27. This isn’t a one-off, either; last year’s Mets got just 27 2/3 innings from pitchers 25 and under. Megill and Peterson bolstered the class in 2021, throwing a combined 156 innings of bad ball.

The Mets, who went to the World Series in 2015 with a mostly homegrown starting rotation, haven’t had any success developing pitching since that Matt Harvey/Jacob deGrom group came through in the middle of the last decade. That’s how you end up with a $128-million rotation with an average age of “watches CBS” and less reliability than the 4 train on the weekend.

The offense hasn’t been good enough to make up for the pitching. The Mets are in the middle of the pack in runs and wRC+. The moves they made two offseasons ago that mostly paid off in 2022, signing Starling Marte and Mark Canha and Eduardo Escobar, have gone south in a hurry.

How The Turntables... (Marte, Canha, Escobar lines)

        PA   AVG   OBP   SLG   bWAR
2022  1589  .266  .336  .434    7.5
2023   322  .206  .278  .332   -0.2

Canha and Escobar have club options for 2024 that can be cheaply bought out. Marte, though is signed through 2025 for about $21 million a year, and he’s showing signs of collapse: He’s stopped hitting the ball hard, he’s losing speed, and he’s not getting to much in the field. Marte, now 34, is rapidly becoming a problem.

What is working for these Mets, what has been working for a long time now, is their homegrown hitting. Pete Alonso, Brandon Nimmo, and Jeff McNeil anchor the lineup, each having a typical season. Rookie Brett Baty has a .271/.338/.424 line and is making better contact that that: .293 expected average, .497 expected SLG, with an 11% barrel rate. Francisco Alvarez struggled in April with intermittent playing time. In May, he’s started six of the Mets’ nine games and was coming around at the plate -- .286/.375/.429 -- even before last night’s two-homer outburst. Now he has an 1178 OPS in 20 May PA.

With Baty and Alvarez performing well, it’s fair to wonder why the Mets don’t take the next step and bring up Mark Vientos. The 23-year-old has a .339/.431/.713 line at Syracuse, with a respectable 29/17 K/BB and no platoon split. For that matter, when does Ronny Mauricio -- .336/.371/.582 in his first exposure to Triple-A -- get a call? While it’s just one month of play for all involved, there’s a real case to be made that the Mets aren’t anywhere close to fielding their best roster right now. Their track record in producing major-league position players, which even extends to the double-play combination in Cleveland, should make them more confident about what Vientos and Mauricio can do for them.

We’ve seen Steve Cohen spend money and commit money, but we have yet to see him eat money. Can Billy Eppler get him to take that next step, paying players to not play for him, if it makes the Mets better? Cohen is certainly no stranger to the concept of sunk costs, and his willingness to accept them in baseball could be a real key part of this Mets season.

Realistically, though, it will be hard to turn over everyone. Francisco Lindor is a step down from his peak, yet still a five-win player and signed through the end of the decade. Mauricio, as good as he may be, isn’t moving him. Daniel Vogelbach has a .396 OBP since coming to the Mets last summer. Mark Vientos’s best hope is to platoon with him. Tommy Pham is the team’s only backup outfielder, and the best of a collection of bad options to serve as the backup center fielder. (The one irreplaceable Met right now is Nimmo, who has played 92% of the innings in center so far this year.)

The Mets, through the signings of Scherzer and Verlander, have defined their window as the 2023 and 2024 seasons. This is one of the oldest teams in recent baseball history, and the most expensive one ever built. Vientos and Mauricio are, like Andres Gimenez and Amed Rosario before them, more likely to be used as trade chips than as players. Whatever their future value, they can’t crack the current Mets roster as more than part-timers.

If the Mets can’t stop being chased out of games by the bottom of the fourth, though, none of this will matter. Verlander is back, Carrasco is almost back, Scherzer has served his suspension and we’ll see how his neck feels. The $128-million rotation has to start providing returns, or the only thing we’re going to remember about these Mets is their price tag.