The Mets’ rotation was one of the best in baseball, lost its anchor in deGrom, and immediately sunk.
The story of the 2021 Mets rotation is one best told in two parts. In the first half of the season, the team’s core of starting pitchers was the best in baseball, at least statistically speaking. It was fortified by three pitchers who were performing at the top of their game and were incredibly fun to watch. In the second half, injuries, fatigue, and general regression resulted in the rotation essentially falling apart, which coincided with the team’s second half collapse.
The rotation was a major weak point heading into the offseason. The club has just finished the abbreviated 2020 campaign on the outside of the playoff picture, and the rotation was a major reason why. Despite another terrific year from the best pitcher in baseball, the rotation boasted a woeful 5.37 ERA overall. With that in mind, the Mets went to work, offering Marcus Stroman, who had opted out of the previous season, a Qualifying Offer (which he thankfully accepted). They followed that up by acquiring Carlos Carrasco from Cleveland in the Francisco Lindor deal. They famously whiffed on a truly ill-advised attempt to sign Trevor Bauer, and responded by signing Taijuan Walker to a two-year contract. They also focused on depth in a way that we had not seen them do in quite some time, acquiring Joey Lucchesi in a three-team deal from the Padres and picked up Jordan Yamamoto. All in all, the rotation was shaping up nicely heading into the year.
For a while, it looked like their hard work had paid off, despite some bumps along the way. Before throwing a pitch in a Mets’ uniform, Carrasco tore his hamstring in spring training, which wound up costing him almost four full months. For a club that was already without Noah Syndergaard, who was recovering from Tommy John surgery, this was a tough blow, but their big three held things together.
Jacob deGrom, Stroman, and Walker shot out of the gate and kept the team afloat while the offense was struggling. Despite the Carrasco injury, the Mets’ rotation excelled early on, and a number of postponements allowed them to mostly skip over the fifth spot while using Lucchesi sparingly. At the end of April, deGrom, Stroman, and Walker boasted ERAs of 0.51, 1.84, and 2.14, respectively. Meanwhile, David Peterson and Lucchesi, who rounded out the rotation, were pitching to ERAs of 5.59 and 9.00, respectively. This trend continued pretty much through June. By the end of May, the big three had a collective ERA of 1.70, while the rest of the rotation sported a much more unsightly 4.99 ERA. That group mostly consisted of stalwarts Peterson and Lucchesi but also included sporadic outings from Yamamoto and a group of openers.
This kept going through June. By the end of that month, the Mets boasted three pitchers in the top ten in the NL in ERA: deGrom (No. 1, 0.69 ERA), Walker (No. 9, 2.38 ERA), and Stroman (No. 10, 2.45 ERA). Peterson was essentially up-and-down, and Lucchesi had started to come around before he went down with a torn UCL in the middle of the month, which required Tommy John surgery and prematurely ended his season. Despite the team needing to start literally Jerad Eickhoff at times, their rotation still topped all of baseball at month’s end with a 2.88 ERA, and the Mets held a season-high lead of 5.5 games in the National League East at various points throughout the month.
Two things happened at the start of July that unfortunately served as turning points. The first is that deGrom made his final start against the Brewers, which was not known at the time. He pitched seven strong innings, and the Mets came back to tie it against Josh Hader in the seventh and win it in the eighth. There was even talk of him getting a start on short rest before the break, which never materialized. Then, Walker was named to his first career All Star team, and appeared in the game. While this was in no way to fault for his second half struggles, it served as an unfortunate line of demarcation between his All Star first half and his horrific second half.
Putting aside the implications on the rotation and the team’s playoff hopes, deGrom’s injury was truly unfortunate because it deprived fans and, really, all baseball lovers of what could have been one of the most historic seasons of our lifetime. When he went down, he was pitching to a 1.08 ERA, which ended up being the single best ERA by any starting pitcher with at least 90 innings in a season. It’s hard to predict how he would’ve performed during the second half, but it’s the kind of thing we will only be left to ponder years down the line.
In that early July stretch, the team also lost Peterson and would not get him back. The club was left to scramble and ended up adding Rich Hill and Trevor Williams before the deadline. Both pitched admirably, although their contributions were far from enough to save a team that needed more. Without deGrom, who could regularly be relied upon to stop losing streaks, spare the bullpen from overuse, and hold up the entire rotation, the bullpen eventually was called upon far too often, as the remaining semblance of the rotation struggled to go beyond five innings. Relievers who had been pitching far better in the first half saw their numbers decline, and the starters, who had not thrown many innings the previous year, had to go well beyond where they should have in order to give the team a chance to win.
In that span, Tylor Megill made his debut, and became one of the more unexpected feel-good stories. He performed about how you would expect an inexperienced starter to, turning in some great outings and some subpar ones. He had some great moments—including his ten-strikeout, seven inning performance against the Yankees—and some bad ones—most notably, his outings against the Giants and Cardinals. Still, while he should not be guaranteed a spot and would best be served as depth next year, it’s hard to discount his contributions to the 2021 rotation, which badly needed his emergence in the second half.
Without deGrom, the rotation struggled mightily post-All Star break. After posting a 2.98 ERA before the break, Mets’ starters owned a 4.99 ERA after the break. A huge reason for that decline was Walker’s fall, as he posted a 7.13 ERA in the second half following his 2.66 ERA in the first half. Hill gave you about the production you would have expected, and Williams provided some unexpectedly solid outings after arriving from the Cubs. Noah Syndergaard even made a couple of brief appearances at the tail end of the year, allowing two runs in two innings in what could be his final outings in orange and blue.
Carrasco also made his long-awaited debut, but he was did not provide close to the level of production you would have anticipated from him under normal circumstances. It’s hard to truly fault him for this, as he was didn’t have a proper spring training or a full rehab assignment—the club brought him up and had him stretch out at the major league level. Still, his addition could have been a big boost to a floundering team, and instead his contributions mostly helped accelerate the team’s slide. He was specifically bad in the first inning, often putting his team behind before even getting a chance to bat. Hopefully, that is not something that continues in 2022, as he figures to be a key figure in that rotation.
Through the ups and downs, the one person who continued pitching well was Stroman, who never really wavered despite the ship sinking around him. Stroman pitched to a 3.36 ERA post-break after posting a 2.74 ERA in the first half. He ended their year making a league-leading 33 starts and pitched five or more innings in his final 15 outings. He was the picture of consistency and undoubtedly earned himself a nice payday in the offseason.
All told, the rotation finished the year with a 3.89 ERA, a 4.03 FIP, and a 12.0 fWAR. Their ERA landed them seventh in the NL, while their FIP was fifth in the league. Those numbers aren’t bad, but considering the stark contrast in performance in outputs from the first three months versus the last three months, it’s unfortunate nonetheless. It’s difficult to expect any rotation to overcome the loss of a pitcher as good as deGrom, and we’ll be left to wonder what could have been, but that’s baseball. The Mets enter another offseason with a rotation full of question marks, as they will be left to determine how they can best protect against a similar fate next year.