Steven Matz, Michael Wacha
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

The New York Mets have a starting rotation dilemma, but they should avoid deploying a complicated solution.

Thomas Hall

Heading into this spring, the New York Mets knew that they would have a controversy involving their pitching staff. That problem cries out for a solution.

Among others, one of the many ideas that’s floating around is the potential for a four-man pitching rotation coming out of spring training.

Earlier this week, Joel Sherman of the New York Post suggested that the Mets could utilize the fifth spot in their rotation based on matchups throughout the 2020 campaign. Meaning, first-year manager Luis Rojas and his staff would be forced to determine whether Steven Matz or Michael Wacha would be best suited to throw against a specific lineup.

Sherman also notes that the Mets could use relievers Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman as openers every fifth day as well. In that situation, either Matz or Wacha would then follow from out of the bullpen.

Currently, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Marcus Stroman, and newcomer Rick Porcello are all locks to break camp in the starting rotation. Since the Mets have three off-days within the first two and a half weeks of the regular season, they could skirt by on just a four-man pitching rotation.

After their day off on April 6, the Mets are slated to play 13 games in a row before their next off-day. So, that stretch is where the Mets will need to determine how the final spot in their rotation will be utilized.

While platooning both Matz and Wacha based on matchups is a nice idea, in theory, it’s not a suitable long-term solution. For most pitchers, a consistent routine can help lead to a successful performance throughout an entire season.

Without a regular routine, most pitchers find it difficult to get into a smooth rhythm, making them feel out of sync with their repertoire.

When it comes to Matz, the left-hander has been much more effective throughout his career when pitching on a regular schedule. On five days of rest, the 28-year-old hurler has produced a 3.06 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 1.3 HR/9, .236 OPP AVG, 23.1% strikeout rate along with a 7.2% walk rate over 34 career starts.

On six or more days of rest, Matz recorded a 5.15 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 1.6 HR/9, .287 OPP AVG, 19.5% strikeout rate and a 12.9% walk rate over 22 career starts. While some of his best results have come with an added day of rest, they’ve also occurred when he’s been on a consistent schedule.

As for Wacha, some of his best production has come when he’s pitched on four days of rest. Over his 69 career starts, he’s created a 3.86 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 1.0 HR/9, .258 OPP AVG, 20.8% strikeout rate along with a 7.3% walk rate.

When the right-hander has thrown on six or more days of rest, his ERA (3.76), OPP AVG (.240) and WHIP (1.23) have all dropped. But, his strikeout rate decreases by 1.9% while both his walk rate (8.3%) and his HR/9 (1.03) have each endured slight increases.

Based on his career metrics, it appears that Matz would be best suited to control the fifth spot in the rotation at the start of the regular season. Since he’s been more effective on five days of rest, placing him at the back of the pitching staff would allow the Mets to play him on that schedule through the first two and a half weeks of the season.

In this situation, Wacha would need to be moved into the bullpen coming out of spring training. After those two and a half weeks have passed, Rojas and the Mets would need to utilize a six-man rotation to keep Matz on his current throwing program. But, having that many pitchers in the starting rotation would likely cause their other four starting pitchers to begin feeling uncomfortable and out of sync.

Since both a six- and a four-man starting rotation doesn’t make sense for the Mets, they’ll need to choose between Matz and Wacha for that fifth and final spot. While general manager Brodie Van Wagenen has mentioned that both pitchers are considered starters, Wacha should be the one who begins the season in the bullpen.

Over the last two seasons, Wacha’s four-seamer has lowered in velocity and it has also been falling vertically a lot more as well. Since the 2017 campaign, his heater has lost 2 mph off its average velocity and it has also dropped 2.4 inches more from its release point.

As a result, the veteran’s fastball produced a .324 AVG (.050 increase from 2018), .578 SLG (.171 increase), .572 xSLG (.048 increase), .408 wOBA (.067 increase), 13.7% strikeout rate (3.2% decrease) and a 12.0% whiff rate (4.6% decrease) last season.

During the 2019 campaign, Wacha made five appearances out of the bullpen and he saw the velocity on his four-seamer increase back up to 94 mph in four of those five outings. Furthermore, his heater was also averaging between 94-96 mph during his first outing this spring.

If we exclude his first relief appearance from last season where he allowed three home runs in just one inning, Wacha then produced a 2.87 FIP, 3.29 xFIP, 1.29 WHIP, 0.8 HR/9, 20.8% strikeout rate and a measly 2.1% walk rate over his last four relief appearances.

Based on these results, there’s a chance Wacha could be more effective as a reliever rather than a starting pitcher in 2020. So unless Matz severely struggles as a starter, the Mets should move the former Cardinals pitcher into their bullpen.

Along with Wacha, the Mets would also have Gsellman as someone who could throw multiple innings from out of the bullpen. If any of New York’s starting pitchers were to suffer an injury, both of those arms could be utilized in that spot until the injured player returned.

While nothing is determined just yet, this seems to be the best route for the Mets to take involving their unusual pitching rotation issue. Although one thing is for sure, having lots of pitching depth has rarely ever been a bad thing for MLB teams.