Thursday, May 18, 2006

Start The Man
By Ben Valentine

If people read my baseball posts here at Sportszilla, they will realize at least five things about what I think.

First, John Patterson is the second coming.

Second, Chien Ming Wang isn’t.

Third, Barry Bonds might be a cheating louse, but I don’t care.

Fourth, a Victor Zambrano punching bag would make a great birthday gift for me.

And finally, Aaron Heilman is the Mets second best pitcher and should be in the rotation.

Judging by the title, this is going to be about the last item on the list.

I’ll start with the basics. So far this year, Heilman has picked off where he left off last season, posting a 8.44 K/9 and 3.33 K/BB ratio with a very good 1.69 ERA. Now common sense would indicate that on a team that is starting Jose Lima and Jeremi Gonzalez, a guy who posts numbers that good, has starting experience and isn’t one of your top two relievers, should be in the rotation. But of course, common sense doesn’t seem to exist in Flushing these last few years. How else can you justify trading a stud lefty who throws 95 mph for a 30 year old enigma with an elbow problem? (For those of you who are confused, see the fourth thing you should realize about me)

But I’ve been running out stats over and over again with Heilman. So rather than repeat myself, I’m taking a different approach. It’s time to dissect the fallacies which are keeping this talented pitcher out of the Mets rotation and show why they were indeed that, fallacies. Once again we’ll start out with the broad, basic, generalizing statement which we’ve heard from manager Willie Randolph, General Manager Omar Minaya and anyone who defends this move:

He’s more valuable out of the pen than as a starter

So I’ll give the basic response. One pitcher throws 70 quality innings. The other throws 170 quality innings. Which is more valuable? There’s a reason relievers don’t win Cy Youngs often and why set up men never do.

But he can affect the game more often if he pitches every day than every fifth day

Except Heilman doesn’t pitch everyday. No reliever does. That’s why they only throw 70 or 80 innings. Anything more and just about any baseball enthusiast will tell you they’re being “overworked”. Last season Heilman threw 108 innings. However, he made seven starts, which accounts for the huge chunk of those “extra” innings. Right now, and the Mets are using him a lot, he’s on pace to throw 87 innings. So that in the end equates to having him affect two or so more games per week than he would if he were a starter. But of course, his affect on those games is much smaller, being that he throws just an inning or two, plus he may come in with a two or three run lead, when a lot of guys could do the job.

Therefore the choices are:

have Heilman maybe affect three games a little

or

have him definitely affect one game a lot.

I’ll take the one game.

But the rotation is the strongest area of the team. The bullpen is the weakest

I beg to differ. Duaner Sanchez isn’t as good as he was in the first month of the season, but he’s a solid setup man. Billy Wagner is a fine closer. If your starters can go seven innings, you shouldn’t need more than that. Of course when you’re throwing out Jeremi Gonzelez, Jose Lima and Brian Bannister, you’re just happy to get five quality innings out of them, so your bullpen is more important. If Heilman were in the rotation, that would be one day less the Mets would have to tax that pen, since Heilman should be able to go six or seven consistently once he gets back into the rotation.

Secondly, the Mets rotation isn’t as strong as people make it out to be. Pedro is still one of the game’s best. But after that it’s shaky. Brian Bannister’s 2.89 ERA has fooled a lot of people into thinking he’s been very good for the Mets to this point. He’s been anything but. This season Bannister has struck out a meager 4.50 batters per nine and has a pathetic .82 K/BB ratio. When you also throw in that he is an extreme fly ball pitcher (.89 GB/FB), then it becomes obvious he has been very lucky to this point. You can get by dancing in and out of trouble for a few starts but eventually it will catch up with you. Unless something changes dramatically, and judging by his minor league statistics, that would have to be an increase in his K rate, Bannister will soon start getting shelled. He may well end up looking worse than even Jose Lima.

Update: And now Bannister won't be coming back so soon. He left his rehab start today after just five pitches. So more Lima time is on the way.

Tom Glavine’s start this season on the other hand, has not been due to luck or smoke and mirrors; his peripherals are very good. Going into his start against St. Louis Tuesday, Glavine was striking out 7.59 batters per nine and had a 2.65 K/BB ratio.

The problem for the Mets and Glavine is that there is next to no chance this actually lasts, unless the lefty suddenly decided to start juicing this offseason. The last time Glavine posted a K/9 above 5.00 was back in 2002! With strike out to walk ratio, it’s even worse. Glavine hasn’t managed to post one above 2.00 since 2000, his last 20 win season. I hate to be the voice of complete pessimism, but this will not continue. What happens when the K rate declines? The Mets hope Glavine can be as effective as he was in 2005, but we shall see. Then of course, there’s Steve Trachsel, who was a decent three starter, but at his age is drifting towards the fourth or fifth guy to this point. In summation, the Mets rotation is at best two and a half men deep. Unfortunately you need five guys in this day and age.

On the other side, the Mets have guys who should be able to do a decent enough job as the seventh inning man. Heath Bell is pitching well enough at AAA. In 15 innings this season he has struck out 26 and walked just three, with a 1.15 ERA. Doesn’t he deserve a chance at the bigs more than Gonzalez or Lima? Heck as much as Met fans hate him, Jorge Julio’s strong peripherals suggest he’s not nearly as bad as people think. This season he’s striking out 14.73 batters per nine while posting a 3.73 K/BB ratio. His high WHIP and ERA suggest he’s been more the victim of bad luck than anything else. And even if those options don’t float your boat, there’s always the trade market. A seventh inning guy shouldn’t cost you much, but a good starter will cost you Lastings Milledge, Mike Pelfrey or both.

Why mess with a good thing?

Because while on the surface things appear dandy, they really aren’t. I’ve just detailed how the Mets rotation isn’t as good as it has pitched so far. The problem will not be solved when Brian Bannister gets back and as I’ve shown, it might be exacerbated. That’s like saying “I feel great now, so who cares if tests show my arteries are 90 % blocked?” The fact is this will become an issue sooner rather than later. Instead of thinking of it as messing with chemistry, think of it as a pre-emptive measure to salvage the situation before it hits crisis point.

But who says Heilman can start?

That of course is an unknown. He’s never had consistent success as a starter before. On the other hand we haven’t seen him as a starter since his success as a reliever. If he can’t pitch as a starter, then he can be moved back to the pen. The Mets really don’t have much to lose there.

On the other hand the Mets have plenty to lose by sending out Lima, Gonzalez and/or Bannister out there every fifth day; games and lots of them. And remember right now, not one but two of those three get to pitch every fifth day. Should Pedro, Glavine or Trachsel go down, all three are in there.

That’s Jose Lima… who hasn’t posted an ERA under 4.00 since 1999. And has posted just one under 4.50 in that same time. (And that was pitching at Dodger Stadium)

That’s Jeremi Gonzalez… who has posted a sub 4.00 ERA once in his career, with Tampa Bay in 2003. And who at 31, isn’t getting any better.

And then of course there’s the aforementioned Bannister. Remember, 4.50 K/9, .82 K/BB ratio. 1.39 WHIP. 2.89 ERA. Which of those numbers doesn’t belong?

So, still think putting Aaron Heilman in the rotation would be messing with “a good thing?”

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow man, way way off on the Heilman thing. First and foremost, the Mets have to deal with Lima for only one more start. Bannister is back for the Phillies and Maine isn't far away. Those two pitchers can fill out the bottom of the rotation just fine and Lima time will be over.
Second, all this hype for Heilman to starts ignores one key aspect, he had his chance and he stunk. Heilman as a starter is 5 and 13 with a 5.75 ERA. That's a fact. Last year, when Heilman started he had one good outing and a string of so-so starts going no more than 6 innings at best. Plus you also ignore the fact that you have to stretch Heilman out first and by the time that happens Bannister and Maine are back again. So basically you weaken the bullpen two times over by taking a capable 7th inning guy out and forcing the bullpen to pitch even more innings. Heilman isn't the answer. The answer is patience and health. The Mets rotation will get healthy and they'll go another winning streak again.

12:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Give the guy a shot! They should have done this to begin the season with.

12:49 PM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

Anonymous #1-

Lima has one more start for now, but I doubt the Mets rotation will be completely healthy the rest of the way.

Secondly, Bannister, as I showed, has been lucky rather than good. His K/9, K/BB ratio, WHIP, and GB/FB ratio all suggest a guy with a mid 4.00's ERA or higher. Unless he improves drastically, he will start getting shelled. He might improve, but it wasn't as if he was pitching any better when he ended up on the D/L.

Maine might be decent. He might not. We don't know. Of course he's had chances to start and hasn't done much with them either. But unlike Heilman he's never had big league success. Also, if Heilman's reliever peripherals were out of line with what he had done as a starter, I might agree. But he's always been a good strike out guy who had trouble with control. The difference between Heilman pre 2005 and him now is that he is walking less people while keeping a high K/9.

Stretching him out had crossed my mind. But right now, the Mets are getting 5 innings from Lima, Gonzalez and Bannister. Heilman at the start should be able to give them the same thing. With the pen there's no reason they couldn't use Bell or Julio. If you don't trust Julio, use Maine out of the pen. Or like I said, trade for a middle reliever.

Health isn't the main issue for the Mets rotation right now. Outside of Pedro and maybe Glavine, it's just not that talented. Will moving Heilman work guarenteed? Of course not. But the potential benefits are too large to pass up. Ask yourself this; how many teams would trade their third starter for a 7th inning guy?

2:59 PM  

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