An attempt to make sense of the Mets pitching issues in the World Series
One of the things that made the Mets starting pitching so successful in 2015 – specifically their young starters in Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard – is their ability to power their way through a lineup by throwing one strike after the next with their 95+ mph fastballs.
Now suddenly in the World Series, that tactic is no longer effective.
It started on Tuesday night in Game 1 with Harvey, who by all accounts pitched really well. His line wasn’t pretty – he allowed three runs in six innings. But he effectively only allowed two runs, as the first run he allowed was not at all his doing.
But his strength – as it’s been since the day he came up in 2012 – has always been to pound the strike zone with his electric fastball and power slider with an occasional change-up and now a power curve ball.
That repertoire and game plan earned him the Sporting News Comeback Player of the Year Award in 2015 as he went 13-8 with a 2.71 ERA in 189 innings in his first year back from Tommy John Surgery.
By all accounts, it was a remarkable year for Harvey from a pitching perspective.
Now, he certainly hasn’t had his best stuff consistently in the postseason, but he has pitched well enough to win each of his three postseason starts. He won two of them.
But for the first time in his entire career on Tuesday, Harvey looked stunned out on the mound in the first inning, as if lightening had struck the pitchers mound at Kauffman Stadium.
Harvey – who knew full well how good the Royals were at hitting hard fastballs – was doing what he could do to avoid deviating from his strengths in the first inning. He was being aggressive and fearless with his fastballs, and making pitchers pitches down in the zone, but also pitching backwards and utilzing his off-speed regularly for the first five innings.
That fearlessness is part of what of what makes Harvey so good.
But the Royals were squaring up on them none the less. And not just the pitch to Alcides Escobar which was certainly more hittable than it should have been (but also should have been caught with total ease).
He was locating his fastball with that classic pinpoint control Harvey has become known for, utilzing his slider and change-up more often than he has in most any other start in his career, yet the Royals still had a clue against him.
Case in point – he threw 30 fastballs which averaged 95.5 mph on Tuesday night. 21 of them went for strikes, and got the Royals to swing at 16 of them.
But the Royals put ten of those pitches in play, and only got two swings-and-misses on mostly well located pitches, indicated by the two hits they got against his fastball.
Then there was deGrom in Game 2, who for the first four innings looked brilliant. Much like the previous game in which Harvey had trouble getting misses on his fastball, deGrom also dealt with the same relentlessness from the Royals, and an equivalent level stunned disbelief
He threw more fastballs (53) than Harvey did on Tuesday (30). But like Harvey, deGrom couldn’t get the Royals to miss against his fastball – he got zero swings-and-misses on his four-seam and two-seam fastball, although as was the case against Harvey, the Royals only notched two hits against deGrom’s fastballs the entire night.
Remember, the Royals are notorious for being a great fastball hitting team – they were the best such team in baseball at hitting 95 mph or higher, they had the best contact and lowest strike out rates of any team in the league in 2015.
They’re an excellent offensive team.
But the stats suggest neither deGrom or Harvey got beat by their fastballs. Only four of the 11 hits Kansas City has against these Mets starters are off of fastballs.
The problem is, neither pitcher could put the Royals away with the fastball, forcing them to come in with off-speed instead and the Royals have been ready each and every time.
In the fifth inning on Wednesday, two of the three run scoring hits came on off-speed from deGrom. In the sequence to Mike Moustakas, deGrom was working him away with his fastball, but as had been the case all night long with the Royals, they did nothing but waste really good pitchers pitches, pitches deGrom has always been able to induce swings and misses with or otherwise weak contact the other way.
And that’s really the concern. It’s one thing for a team to be really good at hitting hard fastballs. It’s something different when a team is able to hit hard fastballs that are well located.
Simply put, when two of the best pitchers in baseball combine to strikeout four of the 50 batters they face, that’s an alarming problem which is difficult to combat.
In deGrom’s case on Wednesday night, his fastball command wasn’t the problem, although that’s what he and the manager attributed his struggles in the fifth inning to.
“I felt like my stuff was good. I just wasn’t locating very well,” he said.
“We gave Jake some extra rest and he came out and was looking good and all of a sudden balls were in the middle of the plate,” Terry Collins said.
His velocity and stamina didn’t seem problematic either.
The problem was he couldn’t fool the Royals with quality fastballs down and excellent off-speed stuff even when he pitched backwards.
The sequence to Moustakas was very telling. If deGrom can’t get a swing-and-miss on one of the 98 mph fastballs Moustakas fouled off – one of which was above the belt and away, the other was down and away – he immediately becomes beaten. That outcome becomes inevitable.
And the more off-speed pitches a pitcher throws, the more likely he is going to hang some. DeGrom was no exception to that rule in the fifth inning.
“They did exactly what people said, and they put the ball in play,” Collins said.
But even in the sixth inning when Hansel Robles had taken over, he spotted a 98 mph fastball on the inside edge to Alex Rios, and he turned on it like it was 88 and down the middle and drove it all the way to the left field wall for a very loud out.
It’s as if the Royals know what is coming and when. That’s not to say they were stealing signs – rather, Mets pitching might be too predictable, are giving something away, or possibly a combination of the two.
But in the end, the Royals are doing what they always seem to and what they were billed for: they make contact, foul pitches away, stay in at-bats and force mistakes.
“We don’t swing and miss,” Royals manager Ned Yost explained Wednesday night. “We put the ball in play, and we find ways to just keep putting the ball in play until you find holes.”
An argument could certainly be made both Harvey and deGrom threw too many strikes to a team that hits fastballs so well. To an extent, that makes sense. The Royals are an aggressive team and the Mets have to elongate their swings to slow their bats down and at least induce softer contact.
Terry Collins is a proponent of that idea.
“Not everything has to be a strike,” Collins explained. “You’ve got to move it around. You’ve got to change speeds, give them something to look at. If you continue to pound the strike zone, they’re going to put it in play, and that’s what they did.”
But that presents another problem.
All year long, Terry Collins has praised Dan Warthen for getting his pitchers to pound and command the strike zone, and they’ve done a tremendous job in doing so. They issued the second-fewest number of walks in all of baseball in 2015.
Now all of a sudden, the Mets shouldn’t throw strikes?
The bottom line is the Mets strength in their starting pitching – hard throwers who throw strikes – is being crippled by a team who hits hard throwers who throw strikes. After all, two of the best pitchers in baseball have thrown the ball really well in the first two games in this series, but were totally neutralized by just that.
And it’s a lot to ask for these pitchers – who have all had phenomenal seasons – to start fighting left-handed all of a sudden.