With Zack Wheeler’s arrival Tuesday, the Mets will spend some time utilizing a six-man rotation designed to afford Dillon Gee and Jon Niese a little extra rest to straighten out some tendinitis issues. That won’t last forever, however, and at some point, either Gee, Jeremy Hefner or Shaun Marcum will head to the bullpen. It’ll be a few more starts from each before a decision is made, but I’m going to assume Marcum bounces back and stays in the rotation. For this post, I want to examine and compare Gee and Hefner based on their performances through today. (Note: Hefner’s numbers reflect his performance as a starter and do not include his one inning in relief.)
The numbers at a glance clearly favor Hefner. Gee’s edge in both FIP and xFIP are tied to his edge in strikeouts and walks, but we can see that Hefner’s done a much better job inducing weak contact and keeping opposing hitters off base.
There are a few things to keep in mind, however. While Hefner has been relatively consistent throughout the year, Gee’s season has been split in two. His miserable beginning has been somewhat offset by a torrid stretch recently. If he can keep it up, after three more stats for each, the numbers may even out slightly.
There’s also the issue of that abnormally high BABIP for Gee. His worst BABIP in his short career came last season at .301. What’s the reason for such a high BABIP? His batted ball rates jump out at me. He’s allowing more line drives and fewer ground balls this season, and more well-struck balls lead to more hits. His hits-per-nine at 11.2 is considerably higher than any other season in his career. It again should be noted the stark difference in recent Gee and early Gee, but it bears noting that batters have been teeing off on him this season.
Hefner’s low BABIP, while at first glance could be misconstrued as luck because he seems to have an issue with the long ball, doesn’t strike me as a surefire “regress to the mean” candidate. He’s got the fourth-lowest line drive rate amongst qualified starters in all of baseball and his contact rates bear a striking resemblance to those of Hisashi Iwakuma, one of the best pitchers in the game this season. Of course, Iwakuma keeps the ball in the park a bit better and has a remarkable 6.21 K/BB, hence his dominance.
The final thing I want to bring up in defense of Gee is the recent revelation that he’s been pitching with flexor tendinitis around the forearm area. It makes you have to wonder how much that played a part in his early season struggles and his ability to snap off a good slider. His best pitch in 2012, the slider has yielded below-average results this season. His pitch f/x run value is nearly four runs lower than last season and Gee has lost around one mph off all his pitches from the year before. Gee admitted that during his recent gem against the Cardinals, his forearm tightened up in the second inning and that he probably couldn’t have made that start on regular rest had two consecutive rainouts a week ago not pushed him back a few days.
I’m concerned about the tendinitis issue in both Gee and Niese, and before Gee goes out there and pitches for his job, it might serve both him and the Mets well to debate skipping his start entirely after the turn through the rotation that includes Tuesday’s doubleheader. During the turn after that, the Mets might also think about skipping Niese.
The one thing I hope doesn’t factor into the decision, its bullpen credentials. Being able to handle a relief role is a nice plus, sure, but a starting pitcher is far more valuable to a team than a set-up reliever, and my hope is that the decision is based solely on who the better starter is, not who the better reliever is. Before the Mets can make a decision on whether Gee or Hefner moves to the pen, it behooves everyone to get Gee healthy and see how long he can continue stringing together dominant performances.
It’ll be a tough decision, but it’s a good problem to have.