By Taryn “The Coop” Cooper
I guess “revered” is an operative term, because I rarely hear anyone ever singing his praises. However, given how the Mets pitching staff has operated, it surprises me that no one is more vocal about his mentoring.
Perhaps there is that old adage that coaches don’t really matter and blah blah blah. But at the end of the day, we need to examine the work of evidence under Warthen’s tenure and realize that the Mets’ pitching staff is not getting any better. In fact, they may have gotten worse.
Prior to Warthen’s tenure, Mets fans were regaled with Rick Peterson, with his Ketchup on his Ice Cream philosophy and butterfly words of wisdom. Yet, his pitching staff kind of overperformed to the extent that he made “aces” out of John Maine and Oliver Perez in 2007, and I say that term pretty definitively because Maine and Oh Pea both gave credit to his tutelage.
Perhaps the Mets were looking for the new Tuscany Tile when shying away from his hardwood floor philosophies. After all, when newly anointed ace of the staff Johan Santana wasn’t flooring the competition (though it was documented he had usually a first-half swoon…plus his numbers weren’t THAT bad), rookie-ish Mike Pelfrey didn’t seem to warm up to him (and being “home grown,” that doesn’t fly no matter what goodwill Peterson had brought in), and guilt-by-association (that “association” being with Willie Randolph who was fired in June of 2008), it was evident that the Mets might have needed a change.
And when the pitching staff started to perform decently under new pitching coach Dan Warthen, perhaps Peterson’s approach was outdated and they needed more of an old school type.
Yet, if you look at the overall performance of the Mets’ pitching staff, not just the starters but even in relief, they’ve pretty much been inconsistent or have not grown. Save the Cinderella story of R.A. Dickey in 2010, who was really self-made, the starters have either regressed, underperformed or stayed at the same level. I will be analyzing the starters who have performed under Warthen since he took over and for more than one season (Chris Capuano gets a reprieve, for now).
Let’s look at Jonathon Niese, who made a total of eight starts in 2008 and 2009, before succumbing to injury. He had a break out year in 2010: while his overall 9-10 record wasn’t that great, he boasted a 4.21 ERA, 173.2 IPs, 1.463 WHIP and 7.7 K/9. While his record is a bit better, with 11-11 in 27 games starts with 157.1 IPs, his ERA has gone up to 4.40, 1.411 WHIP and 7.9 K/9 (the 2011 stats are as of Tuesday night’s debacle against the Phillies, which later revealed he was pitching with a strained rib cage…well of course he was).
We could point and argue that “Well, Niese isn’t projected to be an ‘ace’” or that “his numbers have progressed…slightly.” Technically, they have, but as we’ve discussed on the Kult of Mets Personalities podcast numerous times, this is a kid who “gets it.” He doesn’t appear to be a head case on the mound, he may have a hiccup now and then, but he learns from his mistakes. Being an innings eater is one thing, which Niese could potentially be. However, at this point eating innings is not enough on a staff that desperately needs a young kid to rise to the occasion and grow, rather than stagnate.
Johan Santana, John Maine and Oliver Perez, the three pitchers whom Warthen inherited from Peterson who were not rookies, could unfairly be categorized here since they all their host of issues (Johan not being healthy, same with Maine and Perez just being a head case), but you can’t help but notice a few things. One is that Maine had a notable regression from 2007 to 2008 that could have easily happened because he was started to wear down but also because the league was starting to figure him out. Santana though was worrisome; however, he had been hurt a lot and it’s easy to point that with the types of injuries and surgeries he’s had, he may not ever be the same.
But Oliver Perez is a curious case for sure. Now, we all know dating back from his Pittsburgh Pirates days that he was erratic yet showed flashes of electricity at times. This was evident when he started with the Mets. Although Rick Peterson had infamously said that he could have fixed Victor Zambrano in five minutes, it looked like his reprieve would have been Perez’s breakout 2007 season where he won 15 games. As Peterson noted on our show, Perez needed a swift kick and to get back on the regime he had him on. Clearly, whatever Warthen was doing was not working. There’s talent in Perez; unfortunately, we’re still paying him to not play for us, and Warthen gets a pass because of Perez’s known “million-dollar-arm-ten-cent-head” issues. Who knows what working with Rick Peterson would have done for him later on (maybe a larger Scott Boras-negotiated contract…).
Look no further than the “crown jewel” of the Mets organization (I use that term lightly – there just seems to be a lot invested in a home grown talent, especially one in a pitching role), Mike Pelfrey. I have made no bones that I am a Mike Pelfrey fan, but it’s mostly because like most folks, I always like to see a home grown pitcher succeed. To say he’s been inconsistent is putting it mildly. I am willing to toss aside his years in 2006 and 2007 simply because I feel he was too young and unseasoned to be taken seriously. I wonder how much that rushing has impeded his development, personally, but it’s neither here nor there. In 2008, he had a breakout year where he won 13 games and pitched 204 innings, with a 3.72 ERA, 1.360 WHIP and 4.9 K/9. Actually, his low strikeout ratio was troublesome, but the Mets were winning games he started, so that’s a plus. Then came a nosedive in 2009, going 10-12 and 5.03 ERA, 184.1 IPs, 1.514 WHIP and 5.2 K/9. Pelfrey seemed to shake off that bad year by going 15-9 with a 3.66 ERA, 204 IPs, 1.377 WHIP and 5.0 K/9. Again, his WHIP was a little too high for my liking, and his strikeout ratio was troublesome. But he wasn’t giving up a lot of runs, and maybe just maybe he was over that hump.
Clearly, he’s regressed again in 2011. Some people might point to that “he’s just not that good, Coop.” I think the talent is there, but a) he was rushed to save the butts of some highers-up and b) he hasn’t had decent guidance. I mean, how hands off does Warthen need to be, especially when dealing with the guy who has the future hopes and dreams pinned on him?
Chris Capuano may get a reprieve for only pitching part of one year under Warthen’s tutelage. Yet, Rick Peterson figures into this equation a bit because he spoke so very highly of Capuano’s “stuff” on our podcast in February. Capuano worked with Peterson in 2010 while they were both in Milwaukee, where he had a 4-4 record in 9 games started, 3.95 ERA, 66 IPs, 1.303 WHIP and 7.4 K/9. Capuano is certainly a back of the rotation innings eater type and not an ace, and he stayed the course in the few games he started in 2010 with Milwaukee. He’s also stayed the course this year with the Mets, yet his ERA has gone up significantly. This could be due to the number of games he’s pitched over 2010. He’s also has a propensity of giving up the long ball.
Perhaps Warthen is concentrating too much on having his starters be innings eaters, since clearly the bullpen hasn’t been much to write home about either. However, it’s evident that while these pitchers are in the NL East and at CitiField (which was “supposed” to be pitcher friendly), having a rubber arm simply is not enough. If the young guns are not progressing and may even show signs of REGRESSING, staying the course simply is not going to work.
Whether it’s Rick Peterson replacing him or whatever, Dan Warthen just can’t be the guy going forward to coach the pitching staff. This team needs some stronger starters, and barring trading for super-aces which we know doesn’t always work out (i.e. Johan Santana), he’s not getting the most out of what he’s been given. And isn’t that the very definition of what a pitching coach is SUPPOSED to do?