John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
The idea of a five-man starting rotation for the ages, as predicted by John Smoltz, among others, is but a memory now, with Matt Harvey gone and Steven Matz more mediocre than elite since his rookie season.
But the Mets might still have the best Big Three in baseball, if Jacob deGrom, Zack Wheeler and Noah Syndergaard all pitch with the dominance expected of them.
How far can that take them? Pretty darn far, if their history is any indication.
In fact, Big Three dominance is primarily what propelled the Mets to four of their five World Series appearances over the years. Only Bobby Valentine's overachieving 2000 team reached a Fall Classic with starting pitching that would be classified as good-but-not-great, led by Mike Hampton and Al Leiter.
As for the others, all four had brilliance at the top of the rotation, but it's possible the 2019 Big Three could prove to be the best in team history, which would also mean a better version of their own 2015 taste of October.
A little history, here, first:
In 1969 Tom Seaver won the Cy Young Award with a 2.21 ERA over 275 innings; Jerry Koosman was nearly as good with a 2.28 ERA over 241 innings; and Gary Gentry was a dazzling-at-times No. 3 with a 3.43 ERA over 233 innings.
In 1973 Seaver again won the Cy Young Award with a 2.08 ERA over 290 innings; Koosman was strong again as well, with a 2.84 ERA over 263 innings; and Jon Matlack pitched to a 3.20 ERA over 242 innings.
In 1986 it's hard to ignore Sid Fernandez's importance as the No. 4 starter, but the Big Three that year posted the second, third, and fourth-lowest ERAs in the league, behind only Astros' Cy Young winner Mike Scott: Bobby Ojeda was at 2.57 over 217 innings, Ron Darling at 2.81 over 233 innings, and Doc Gooden at 2.84 over 250 innings.
Finally, most recently in 2015, deGrom emerged as the ace with a 2.54 ERA and some memorable post-season grit; Harvey wasn't 2013-level unhittable but with a 2.81 ERA he pitched at a high level after Tommy John surgery; and then-rookie Syndergaard emerged as a high-velocity force with a 3.24 ERA.
None of those three reached 200 innings during the regular season, in part because they were all so young, in part because Harvey famously had post-surgery innings-limits, and mostly because pitch counts have changed everything over the last 20 years in baseball.
Indeed, it's unthinkable now for a pitcher to throw 290 innings in a season, as Seaver did in '73. Same goes for his 18 complete games that year _ or even the 12 complete games Gooden threw in '86.
All of which means that no starting rotation, or Big Three, can have the overarching impact on a team's season that they did in those days, as deep bullpens are so much more important now to success over 162 games.
But it doesn't mean deGrom, Wheeler, and Syndergaard can't set a new standard as a Big Three even in an organization with such a pitching-rich history.
It's a high-strikeout era, after all, and deGrom and Syndergaard have each had seasons averaging 10 or 11-plus strikeouts per nine innings, something Seaver never did, and Gooden did only in his rookie year.
Meanwhile, deGrom had his historic Cy Young Award season in 2018, setting MLB records for consecutive games allowing three runs or fewer, while pitching to a 1.70 ERA that was better than Seaver's best of 1.76 in 1973, and only slightly higher than the Gooden's incredible 1.54 in his 1985 Cy Young season.
And regardless of the state of deGrom's contract-extension talks, there's no reason to think he won't have another excellent season.
"He wants to be the best," is the way pitching coach Dave Eiland puts it.
DeGrom aside, what could separate this Big Three in terms of franchise history is the potential for both Wheeler and Syndergaard to have ace-like seasons.
Wheeler did it in the second half last year, pitching to a 1.61 ERA over 11 starts, meaning he was even better than deGrom during that stretch. And in Spring Training, so far, that dominance has carried over, making Wheeler look primed for a big season as he heads for free agency.
"There was nothing fluky about what Zack did," Eiland told me in Port St. Lucie a couple of weeks ago. "He always had the talent. He just needed to learn to pitch inside more, make hitters uncomfortable, and command his stuff a little better. Once he saw some results his confidence took off."
And then there's Syndergaard, whose early-career strikeout dominance diminished last season in part because, as he admitted early this spring, he "fell in love" with his two-seam sinking fastball, and rarely went up above the belt to get swings and misses.
He's determined to change that this season, and though Eiland told me Syndergaard doesn't have the "arm whip" of deGrom and Wheeler to throw the high fastball as they do, "It's important that he throws that four-seamer up and in: he'll get some swings and misses, but he'll also keep hitters from diving out at his two-seamer."
The bottom line is that the Big Three seem to be positioned for a memorable season. If anything, all Eiland asks is that they continue to deliver on his mantra to throw inside on hitters - or pitch with attitude:
"I keep telling them: 'the whole world knows how talented you guys are. Now show them you can be (cutthroat SOBs) too.'"
Ok, so he used a less reader-friendly word, but you get the idea: if that once-exhilarating thought of an all-time great five-man rotation has gone by the wayside, it's certainly still in play for the Mets' Big Three.