02/22/2007 10:37 AM ET
Projecting the Mets' top three starters
As discussed, a look at market forecasts
By Michael Salfino / SNY.tv baseball analyst
John Maine has the inside track on the third slot in the Mets rotation after going 6-5 with a 3.60 ERA last season. (AP)

The consensus view of the Mets is great offense, solid bullpen and shaky starting pitching, with Pedro Martinez's status questionable for 2007 and a return to the mound not expected at all until after the All-Star break.

Various forecasting and projection systems are bearish on the prospects of 41-year-old Tom Glavine and 37-year-old Orlando Hernandez pitching as well for the Mets this year as they did in 2006. And the market is split on the relatively inexperienced John Maine, who has logged 133 2/3 big-league innings, most of them (90) for the Mets last year. Let's flesh out these projections, break down their performance in our key stats and determine the likelihood of this trio exceeding expectations in 2007.

Bill James, in the great Bill James Handbook that includes a bevy of enlightening statistics from our friends at Baseball Info Solutions, pegs Glavine to log 185 innings and finish 11-9 with a 3.89 ERA (101 Ks/62 BBs). Baseball Prospectus's famed PECOTA system, developed by Nate Silver, is markedly less kind to Glavine, giving him just 168 innings, a 10-9 record and a 4.03 ERA and a similar decline in K/BB rate. PECOTA determines which past players were most similar to current players. The current players are then predicted to perform as those past players actually did.

The Mets would take James' 3.89 ERA right now and expect Glavine to post a much better winning percentage given the depth of their lineup and ability to generate offense in ways both big and small. Both forecasts call for a decline in innings pitched, not unreasonable given that his 2006 total was less than in 2005. But I suspect PECOTA goes too far. I expect Glavine's innings pitched to be in line with the 2006 total. Both forecasters give Glavine a K/BB ratio similar to his pre-2006 Mets averages. But Glavine's better-than-2-to-1 ratio last year was his best since his 21-9 season for the Braves in 2000. Glavine seemed to look at that lineup and defense behind him in that big home park and cut down on the nibbling. Since that worked, why stop?

Let's give Glavine 200 innings of 4-ish ERA, 135 Ks, 70 BBs, and a 15-9 record given that his offensive support is likely to be in line with 2006 (5.91 runs per start, the seventh-highest total in the NL last year). Some interesting statistics on Glavine courtesy of the Bill James Handbook: his average fastball was clocked at 85.3 mph, not as slow as Greg Maddux, Livan Hernandez, Mark Redman or Kenny Rogers, and almost as fast as Barry Zito's (85.8 mph). Close Mets watchers will not be surprised to learn that Glavine threw the highest percentage of changeups in baseball by a mile (37.5 percent of all pitches).

PECOTA and James do not expect Hernandez to hold up physically despite El Duque logging his highest innings pitched total since 2000 and staying healthy for the Mets before tearing a calf muscle on the eve of the postseason. It looks prescient now that he's left camp to have his sore neck examined.

PECOTA gives Hernandez just 21 starts and 10 relief appearances. I can't see Hernandez pitching in relief at all unless he struggles mightily. And the PECOTA projection doesn't anticipate bad pitching: 137 1/3 innings of 4.13 ERA with 122 Ks against 51 walks, but only an 8-8 record. Does PECOTA think the Mets are scoring 100 fewer runs this year than in '07? James has Hernandez at 9-9 with a 4.14 ERA over 163 innings (136 Ks, 58 walks).

The Mets would take the 163 innings James projects right now. Again, even with a 4.14 ERA, El Duque is unlikely to pitch .500 ball given that Mets lineup. And I believe he'll beat those ERA projections. He averaged over one strikeout per inning and his 164 Ks in '06 were the most he ever logged in the Majors. So, it's hard to argue that Hernandez's stuff is fading. Hernandez's ERA for the Mets last year should have been 3.60 and that's right about what I expect in 2007 for as long as he's able to stay off the DL. Over the 163 innings James projects, that should be good for 12 or 13 wins out of 20 or so decisions. Note that Hernandez had a 3.00 ERA and allowed 1.02 baserunners per inning at Shea last year.

Outside of Oliver Perez, who I've written about here previously, Maine is the most interesting and difficult Mets starter to project.

Maine was a throw-in last year from Baltimore in the Kris Benson deal. (Give GM Omar Minaya an A-plus for that deal now that Benson is likely out for the year and given how the Mets turned Jorge Julio into Hernandez.) Maine ended up yielding just 69 hits in 90 frames and striking out over 7 batters per 9 innings against just 3.3 walks. But he yielded 15 homers and is viewed by most experts as being very lucky to sport a 3.60 ERA last year given the homer total and the Mets' success in converting balls in play into outs behind him (.221 average for hitters on balls in play versus Maine; .300 is average). The Hardball Times says that Maine's ERA with average luck and defense should have been about one run higher. But that assumes he wasn't unlucky in yielding homers. Maine allowed homers on about 15 percent of flyballs last year, 50 percent greater than average. This despite pitching half his games at Shea, which suppresses homers by 19 percent for lefties and 13 percent for righties from 2004-06, according to The Bill James Handbook. Maine was victimized by homers in excess of league averages for the Orioles, too. So perhaps bad luck isn't a significant factor in his rate. But the sample sizes in Baltimore are so small that I suspect lack of luck is likely a factor. Generally, there is significant fluctuation in this rate for pitchers.

James has Maine pitching 130 innings of 4.36 ERA. PECOTA gives Maine a slightly lower ERA (4.22), but fewer innings (119 2/3). James and PECOTA both project a 7-7 record. It seems like a .500 record is the default projection for any sub-200 inning pitcher with a middling ERA regardless of the team behind him.

I have no firm conviction of what Maine is going to do in 2007. But there is one substantive reason for Mets fans to be excited. Last year, only one starter in all of baseball held batters to a lower batting average plus slugging average on fastballs -- Roger Clemens. Maine's BPS allowed on fastballs was .529, Clemens's was .518.

I agree with those who state that the fastball is the most important pitch for a starter to master. Everything else builds off that foundation. And most of the other starters on the list behind Maine and Clemens are names you'd expect to see: Pedro Martinez, Carlos Zambrano, Chris Young, Brandon Webb, Anibal Sanchez, Jered Weaver, Scott Kazmir and John Lackey. There's not an unsuccessful pitcher in the top 10 in lowest BPS allowed on fastballs in either league.

Maybe Maine was lucky on a lot of those fastballs. Maybe many of them were smoked right to Jose Reyes or Jose Valentin or one of the outfielders. But I doubt that. It remains to be seen whether Maine can sustain his success with his fastball and become a top-end rather than back-end starter. But there is cause for optimism on the projection front for him and, more generally, for the top of this 2007 Mets rotation.

Michael Salfino is a nationally syndicated football and baseball newspaper columnist and regular contributor to SNY.tv.
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