Why the New York Mets provide a glimpse of the future

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Change is always slow. There is almost always something standing in the way of progress.

Baseball is all about its traditions and sometimes they hurt the game and its players. The New York Mets are about to break with tradition when they put six starting pitchers into play.

They are not the first MLB team to experiment with a six-man rotation. The 2012 Atlanta Braves tried it for a few weeks when right-hander Kris Medlen was brought out from the bullpen in late July. It ended quickly when veteran righty starter Ben Sheets was placed on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation a month later. In Nippon Professional Baseball, Japan’s highest level, six man rotations are standard.

The St. Louis Cardinals discussed the possibility of using six starters in order to control the innings of their young starters, lefty Michael Wacha, and right-hander Carlos Martinez. But veteran starters lefty Lance Lynn and righty John Lackey protested since it would take them out of their normal routine.

Even the New York Yankees talked about the possibility of six starting pitchers before 2015 Spring Training began but stuck with the traditional five-man rotation.

A big reason why the Mets are turning to the new format is to limit the innings of righty aces Matt Harvey, last year’s NL Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom, and top rookie pitcher Noah Syndergaard.

Syndergaard reportedly has his innings capped at around 160 innings, deGrom’s near 180, while Harvey, returning to the team after missing all of 2014 because of Tommy John surgery, will have his innings capped somewhere around 180 innings.

In addition veteran starter Dillon Gee returns to the Mets lineup this week after rehabbing a groin injury. Gee’s return and the rapid development of the big flame-thrower Syndergaard, has New York turning to a six-man rotation for the foreseeable future. The Mets have been looking to trade both Gee and veteran lefty starter Jonathon Niese, so they will get their starts. Despite what others say, the six-man rotation is a good idea.

The Mets' pitchers may need some convincing. Pitchers in general are creatures of habit and hate anything that will disrupt their schedule. Earlier in the season, a scheduling quirk gave Matt Harvey a week in between starts.

On May 1st, Harvey pitched seven shutout innings versus division rivals the Washington Nationals. His next start a week later Harvey gave up three runs, all earned, in six innings, against fellow divisional opponent the Philadelphia Phillies. Harvey said after the game he felt sluggish and didn’t quite have the same energy as he would have on his normal rest.

Manager Terry Collins gave a rather blunt explanation to the young starters why this new strategy is a good idea. Collins told the group they could either pitch four or five innings maximum, be placed on the disabled list for a month with a phantom injury, or go along with the six-man rotation.

In prior years, Mets pitchers, like Harvey in 2012, righty Zack Wheeler (Wheeler tore an elbow ligament in Spring Training this year and is out for the season) in 2013, and deGrom have each been shut down when their limits were reached in early to mid-September. This year is different. With the Mets contending for a playoff spot, they want to have all of their pitchers ready and available come October.

Back in September of 2012, the Washington Nationals made the very controversial choice of shutting down their right-handed ace Stephen Strasburg before the playoffs began, after he had reached his 160 innings limit. Strasburg underwent Tommy John surgery in late 2010 and didn’t come back until September of 2011. Washington lost in the divisional round to the St. Louis Cardinals in five games, after finishing the regular season with baseball’s best record.

In retrospect, Washington could have gone to a six-man rotation to avoid the Strasburg shutdown. For a large part of the season, the Nationals had left hander John Lannnan pitch for their AAA affiliate Syracuse Chiefs after Lannan lost the fifth starter’s spot to righty Ross Detwiler in Spring Training that season.

Lannan had been in the starting rotation for the previous four seasons, pitching 180 or more innings in three of those four years. Had Lannan been in the rotation as the sixth man, it likely would have given less starts to Strasburg, and allowed him to pitch and maybe win in the playoffs.

Speaking of Washington, at full strength they are another team that could, and should, use a six-man starting staff. When the Nationals inked veteran right-hander Max Scherzer to his mega contract of seven years worth $210 million, they moved Tanner Roark to the bullpen.

Roark was one of Washington’s best pitchers last season, going 15-10 while posting a 2.85 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in almost 200 innings during his rookie year. With both Doug Fister and now Stephen Strasburg on the disabled list, now comes a time for Roark to show he belongs in the rotation along side Scherzer, Strasburg, and lefty Jordan Zimmermann.

Having six starters in a rotation may seem unconventional and unwise, but it likely is the way of the future. There were similar cries back when five-man rotations became the norm in the 1970’s and 80’s about how it was going to throw pitchers off rhythm and make them more prone to injury.

Initially that might be the case, as it was with five starters, but as time goes on it will only help.

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MLB Playoffs
New York Mets
Washington Nationals

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