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The Mets Pitching Staff Went From Great To Garbage In The Blink Of An Eye

To say it’s been a challenging season in Queens would be an understatement. Originally slated to contend for the NL East crown, the 2017 New York Mets currently sit in a tie for third place, 7 games below .500 and a whopping 11 games back of the first-place Washington Nationals. The team has been accompanied by a near-constant stream of off-the-field controversies, and its playoff chances are rapidly approaching zero. Even the club’s jolly anthropomorphized baseball has turned belligerent.

At the core of New York’s on-field frustrations has been the performance of its pitching staff, which not so long ago was gracing Sports Illustrated covers and inspiring meditations about the ideal way to build a modern baseball team. The fireballing days of Noah Syndergaard — who hit the disabled list with a torn muscle in early May — and cohorts are a distant memory, and those stars have been replaced by fill-ins who barely register on the radar gun and a beleaguered bullpen asked to shoulder a historic workload. (In their latest outing, the Mets burned through five pitchers — a normal amount by the team’s recent standards — just to yield 11 runs against the Pirates.)

Just how much of a pitching drop-off have the Mets endured this year? Last season, New York led all clubs in the wins above replacement (WAR)1 it received from its pitchers, with the 39th-best tally any team had in a season since 1901. This season, they rank sixth to last in baseball in pitching WAR, putting them on pace for the team’s worst showing on the mound since 1996. On a per-162-game basis, that makes for the fifth-biggest year-to-year decline by any MLB pitching staff since 1901:

PITCHING WAR PER 162 GAMES
YEAR TEAM SEASON PREVIOUS SEASON DIFFERENCE
1 1968 Reds 6.8 27.2 -20.4
2 2004 Diamondbacks 8.2 26.9 -18.7
3 1998 Marlins -2.5 16.1 -18.7
4 1915 Athletics -4.7 13.9 -18.6
5 2017 Mets 6.2 24.6 -18.3
6 2012 Phillies 16.5 32.7 -16.2
7 1997 Padres 6.5 22.2 -15.7
8 2000 Astros 9.0 24.3 -15.4
9 1957 Indians 10.2 25.3 -15.1
10 1982 Twins 0.3 15.0 -14.8
Few pitching staffs have ever collapsed like the 2017 Mets

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, Fangraphs.com, chadwick-bureau.com

Some of the teams ahead of the Mets on that list had their excuses: The 2004 Diamondbacks traded Curt Schilling to the Red Sox over the previous offseason, and the 1998 Marlins engaged in one of the most notorious talent dumps in baseball history.

The Mets made no such trades. The rotation’s lone offseason departure was 44-year-old Bartolo Colon, a loss that seemed more than mitigated by the late-season emergence of Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo, plus the return of a healthy Zack Wheeler. If anything, the team appeared to have more pitching than it knew what to do with. Even after adjusting for the inevitability of injuries, it seemed unthinkable back in spring training that New York’s pitching would be only a tad better than that of, say, the ghastly Cincinnati Reds.

But the notion of the Mets having “too much pitching” sounds absurd in hindsight. After injuries to Syndergaard, Lugo, Steven Matz and closer Jeurys Familia,2 to go with an underperforming campaign by Matt Harvey, the Mets are on track to get about 13 fewer WAR from their staff this season than what was conservatively expected in spring training. (Even after accounting for what has been a surprisingly decent offense, that would make this the sixth-most-disappointing season in Mets history in terms of actual team WAR delivered compared to preseason expectations, and the worst in that department since 2003.3)

For a team predicated on great pitching and just enough hitting to get by, it’s hard to win when the former ends up being worse than the latter. And although the Mets’ numbers could improve when they get some of their injured pitchers back, it probably won’t be enough to save the team’s fortunes this season.

The extent to which any of this was preventable — and, if it was, who should be blamed for it — will be debated for years. The team’s training staff is a popular target, but my colleague Rob Arthur found that although the Mets have had more than their share of ailments, they’re hardly the league’s most snakebit team on the injury front. It’s even worth wondering, as New York Magazine’s Will Leitch does here, whether the DL was the inevitable destination for a group of hurlers built specifically to throw the ball just about as hard as any staff ever has. Either way, they always say that young pitchers will break your heart — and these Mets couldn’t embody that axiom more if they tried.

Footnotes

  1. I’m averaging together the versions of this stat found at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com.

  2. Matz and Lugo haven’t pitched a single game this season.

  3. Interestingly, the statistical list of New York’s most disappointing seasons — 1972, then 1992, 2003, 1991, 1977 and 2017 — matches up very well with this subjective list generated by celebrated Mets blogger Jason Fry.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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