In 2016, the Mets’ season-opening rotation was Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz and Bartolo Colon, the over-40, overweight outlier among a group of young, dynamic, hard-throwing hurlers. The Mets’ plan was for Colon to move aside in midseason for Zack Wheeler, still another young pitcher with overpowering stuff who presumably would be ready to go after Tommy John surgery in the spring of 2015.
That is not how it turned out.
By end of the season, the rotation was down to Syndergaard, Colon, two unheralded minor league call-ups — Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman — and revolving candidates for the fifth spot. Harvey (thoracic outlet syndrome) and deGrom (ulnar nerve irritation in an elbow) had season-ending operations; Matz eventually had surgery to remove bone spurs from his elbow while he recovered from rotator-cuff irritation in his shoulder. And Wheeler never made it back to the majors because of problems in his rehabilitation.
Matz, Harvey, deGrom and Wheeler are all expected to be at spring training in February. “Am I confident they’re all going to be 100 percent?” Alderson asked rhetorically this week. “Well, that would be unrealistic to believe.”
But what he does know is that the Mets are committed to taking steps to have a 2017 rotation — maybe without Colon, who is a free agent; maybe with either Lugo or Gsellman — that can endure the wear and tear of 162 games.
Thus the tactics he outlined Tuesday, some of which the Mets have used before but all of which may be used more insistently in 2017.
“We have to do them,” Alderson said of those strategies. “It requires a certain amount of prior planning. It requires a certain amount of discipline. It requires buy-in, not just from the front office and the field staff, but also the players.”
In 2015, the Mets employed a six-man rotation at times and also had pitchers skip starts as the team tried to limit, as best it could, the number of innings thrown — in particular by Harvey, then in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. Not everyone was happy with the change in routine.
That did not surprise Dave Dombrowksi, the president of the Boston Red Sox, who said this week that starting pitchers are creatures of habit who often view six-man rotations suspiciously and simply do not want “to wait that long’’ to make their next start.
“All of them are so much into a routine that, for example, they have an off day and have to pitch on the sixth day, a lot of guys don’t even want that,” he added.
Some past studies by baseball analysts have found little improvement in performance or health when starting pitchers have an extra day of rest. Injuries still seemed bound to happen.
“It’s never going to change, because your arm is not meant to throw the ball this way,” said Dombrowski, mimicking an overhand throw. He also imitated an underhand throw and added, “It’s meant to throw it like that.”
Dombrowski also noted another basic obstacle to six-man rotations: supply. “It’s difficult enough to find five starting pitchers, let alone six,” he said.
There is also this: Even if a team can come up with six starters, the least talented one will inevitably take away innings from the ace and reduce his impact on the season.
And yet, Alderson countered, “if you’re taking away one start over the course of the season or two starts,” and it helps keep a pitcher rested and his earned run average lower, “I think that’s a trade-off that most players would take.”
Alderson is not the only general manager making these calculations. Across baseball, teams are trying to figure out just what might work in keeping their prized pitching arms from breaking down.
“It’s amazing, because we’ve never been as medically advanced as we are now,” said Neal Huntington, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ general manager. “We have never been as proactive or aware of protecting, and yet the injuries continue to increase.”
Last season, the Los Angeles Dodgers built even more rotation depth than the Mets and had to use it all. While 12 Mets pitchers made starts last season, 15 pitchers did so for the Dodgers. Only the rebuilding Atlanta Braves had more, with 16. And the Dodgers and the Mets were the only teams in the top 10 in starters used that reached the playoffs.
Dodgers General Manager Farhan Zaidi said his club had considered many possibilities for improving the health of its pitchers. Is limiting pitch counts the answer? Or is it using spot starters to buy rest for everyone else? What causes more risk: 100 pitches an outing or five starts in a row without extra rest? Should bullpens take on more workload to ease the pressure on starters?
“The nice thing is, in baseball, there’s a lot of data available,” Zaidi said. “Almost any question you ask, you can access information that can help you figure out how true it is or not. This is a big issue for us and a big issue for everybody.”
Determining when a pitcher is nearing fatigue could be the biggest key. The advancement in tracking technology allows teams to measure the quality of each pitch, the spin rate of the ball and its velocity, from start to start. The Pirates, among the most progressive teams in medical care of players, have had players wear devices to keep track of their energy consumption and heartbeats to monitor fatigue, and in turn, determine rest.
But perhaps the root of the pitching-injury problem is deeper. Despite advancements in preventive care, medical treatment and conditioning, not all pitchers, muscles, ligaments, shoulders or elbows are anatomically the same. Pitching mechanics could be an underlying issue, too.
“I don’t know if what is defined as good mechanics is the same for every pitcher,” Zaidi said. “I can think of numerous examples of pitchers that I have scouting reports of over the last decade where somebody said this guy is an injury risk because of his mechanics and those guys stayed healthy. And then you have guys who had pretty mechanics and you thought they were lower risk, and they got hurt.”
While the baseball industry wrestles with all this, teams will continue turning to rest to help. Alderson said that a few years ago, the Mets had even proposed what he called a “no-fault disabled list” that was rejected by other teams and doctors.
Such a disabled list, Alderson said, would be for pitchers “who were just tired and needed a week to 10 days as opposed to waiting until a guy has a diagnosed injury.’’
“Why not put him on a list for a week to 10 days and they skip a start or two starts and they’re ready to go again?” he asked.
No doubt, other questions will also be asked as the 2017 season gets underway and the Mets and other teams do what they can to prevent pitching injuries and brace themselves for the ones that will occur anyway.