The U Files # 45: Rotational Dynamics

As recently as 2000, the Mets won 94 games on the strength of their pitching staff. Since then, mismanagement has eroded all aspects of the Mets game. The biggest weakness of the 95-game losing 2003 Mets was the offense, however the team was below average in the area of run prevention as well. Some of this can be traced to below average fielding. Some can be traced to the fact that the Mets featured the worst fifth starter in the league.

The Mets did not feature one fifth starter, but five starters combined to pitch 178.2 innings, giving up 151 runs.







David Cone






Aaron Heilman






Jeremy Griffiths






Pedro Astacio






Mike Bacsik












Had the Mets produced an RA even as high as 5.30 out of this spot in the rotation, they would have given up 46 fewer runs, which is worth about 4 and a half wins.

The Mets seem set at the first four rotation spots with Jae Seo, Al Leiter, Steve Trachsel, and Tom Glavine. Trachsel can not be expected to allow so few runs as he did in 2003, but it's possible Leiter will be more effective. The Mets have made it public news that they intend to round out the rotation with a veteran starting pitcher from without.

Aaron Heilman, the former first round draft pick of the Mets, is left as an odd man out. He struggled due to an inability to locate his pitches, though he did demonstrate quality Major League stuff. The Mets are close to signing heralded pitching coach Rick Peterson, whose talents are well suited to curing Heilman's woes. However, the two will not be able to work during the regular season, as the Mets will not take the risk of allowing Heilman to pitch for the Major League team before he has demonstrated that he has worked out his control problems.

Options available to the Mets to fill in the starting rotation include free agents Kevin Millwood, Bartolo Colon, Sidney Ponson, and Kelvim Escobar; and pitchers Tony Armas Jr. and Freddy Garcia, who may be available via trade if not as non-tendered free agents. The wisest course for the Mets would be to look into any of the free agents who are not offered arbitration if they are to go the free agent route, more likely Ponson or Escobar than Millwood or Colon. The Montreal Expos may be forced to move Armas to clear payroll.

Millwood is one of the two most talked about pitchers on the free agent market. His career ERA is 3.78, which is raised by two injury affected seasons in 2000 and 2001, when he posted ERAs of 4.66 and 4.31. Coming off a 3.24 ERA in 2002 for the Atlanta Braves, Millwood's 4.01 ERA in 2003 is considered a disappointment. However, a close look at his 2003 indicates he pitched better than that ERA indicates. His strikeout rate, walk rate, and home run allowed rate are all better than the league average. While Millwood gave up 103 total runs, of which 99 were earned, his peripheral rates predict fewer runs allowed. His component runs allowed – runs calculated from strikeouts, walks, hits allowed, and home runs – is 95 total runs (of which perhaps 85 would ordinarily be earned). This gives him a component RA of 3.85 (ERA 3.45). This component RA is a better predictor of future ERA than actual ERA.

We can thus be assured that Millwood is a quality pitcher, and also a workhorse. He pitched 222 innings in 2003, 217 the year prior, and 228 in his banner year 1999. Even in 2000 he pitched 212 innings, while his performance was hindered by injury. Millwood made $9.9 million in 2003, and will be seeking comparable money (at least) as a free agent.

Colon sports a career ERA of 3.86 fashioned mostly in high run environments. He made $8.25 million in 2003. He has pitched at least 222 innings each of the last three years, including a 242 IP year in 2003. However, his stature leads to concerns about his ability to maintain his performance level as he ages. He is listed at 5 feet 11 inches, 240 pounds and has not lost weight since that measurement was taken. Whoever signs him will be assuming he can be the exception to the rule, at high cost.

Ponson is a pitcher who does not have an extended history of pitching effectively, who has done so recently. Pitching for the Baltimore Orioles (whose park is not the hitting paradise it is made out to be), his lowest ERA from his debut in 1998 through 2001 was 4.71. In 2003 he posted an ERA of 3.75 in a year split between the Orioles and San Francisco Giants. His peripherals support his posting an excellent ERA; he allowed only 16 home runs in 216 innings. If he has become a new pitcher, he can be had for a relative bargain.

Escobar has been used alternatively as a starter and as a reliever over his career. He also has been rather inconsistent over his career, posting ERA as high as 5.69 (1999, 174 IP) and as low as 3.50 (2001, 126 IP), excluding his debut year when he posted an ERA of 2.90 in only 31.0 innings. Most of his problems over the course of his career have stemmed from wildness; his career walk rate is 4.18. It would be something of a risk to sign him, though as with Heilman, he could be helped by Rick Peterson.

Armas is arbitration eligible, and it is possible the Expos will not be able to afford him (pending what happens with regard to other free agents and arbitration eligible players on the team). He has demonstrated unquestioned quality stuff, and flashes of the ability to strike out batters and limit home runs. As the common theme runs, his bugaboo has been control. He is another potential Rick Peterson project. It is a risk the Mets should not shy away from: if he does not work out, the Mets lose nothing. Armas will be eligible for free agency after 2005.

Garcia has been two different pitchers over his career. After a fine rookie year in 1999, Garcia posted ERA years of 3.91 and 3.05 in 2000 and 2001. Then, a pitcher who had enjoyed success largely due to his ability to limit home runs produced two years of 30 and 31 HR allowed, with ERA of 4.39 and 4.52. He is eligible for free agency after 2004, and is the risk with the least commitment required open to the Mets.

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