Even with Matt Harvey succumbing to Tommy John surgery last October, the Mets expected solid production from their starting staff in 2014. New York's starters have largely held up their end of the bargain thus far, posting a 3.70 ERA through August 19, good for eighth in the National League.
Zack Wheeler continues to develop into the frontline pitcher most expected him to be. With a strong finish, Jacob deGrom could very well earn National League Rookie of the Year honors. However, two longstanding members of the rotation—Jon Niese and Dillon Gee—have not enjoyed the same degree of success in 2014, suffering through inconsistency and injury. While many continue to point to Niese's left-shoulder issues and diminished velocity as a prime reason for his struggles, Gee's problems have been more perplexing.
Since his major league debut in September 2010—a 4-1 victory over the Nationals that saw the right-hander toss seven innings of one-run ball—Gee has been a fairly consistent hurler for the Mets, compiling a 37-32 record and an ERA of 3.88. A strong rookie campaign in 2011 that included a 13-6 mark to go along with a 4.43 ERA in 30 appearances (27 starts) turned him into a rotation mainstay entering 2012. He responded with another solid year, posting a 4.10 ERA and a FIP of 3.71 and xFIP of 3.54. Unfortunately surgery to remove a blood clot in his right shoulder limited Gee to just 17 starts, leaving many to wonder how he would rebound in 2013.
The early answer was not encouraging. A horrific first two months that featured a 2-6 record and 6.34 ERA in 10 starts left Gee's rotation spot in jeopardy. With the whispers getting louder that he would be moved to the bullpen, Gee responded with the best start of his career against the Yankees on May 30, hurling 7⅓ innings of one-run ball and striking out a career-high 12 batters. The outing served as a springboard for Gee, who went 10-5 with a 2.71 ERA over his final 22 starts, numbers that put him among the top pitchers in the league and earned him the 2014 Opening Day nod from manager Terry Collins.
A strong spring turned into a hot start as the Cleburne, Texas native compiled a 2.73 ERA over his first eight starts this season, winning three of his four decisions. However, a back injury that was thought to be minor kept Gee out of action for two months. He returned on July 9 with a strong effort against the Braves, before his troubles began. In seven starts since, Gee is 0-5 with a 5.71 ERA spanning 41 innings. Walks (17) and home runs (eight) have been the prime culprits during the losing streak, which stands at five games after Tuesday's loss to the Athletics.
A closer look inside the numbers reveals some interesting facts. According to Fangraphs, Gee is throwing his fastball a career-high 60.6% of the time and neglecting his far-more-effective changeup, which he has thrown at a 15.2% clip. Pitchers like Harvey or Wheeler who enjoy the benefit of 95 mph heat can afford to do this and get away with mistakes. With an average fastball of 89.1 mph in 2014, Gee cannot, particularly when he is surrendering more than a homer every nine innings. His over-reliance on his fastball this season seems to have caused him the most trouble.
Opposing hitters have hammered line drives 33.3% of the time off Gee's fastballs in 2014, helping to elevate his BABIP in such instances to .368. He's also induced a career-worst 3.9% of batters to swing and miss at his heater, which makes it even more curious why he is eschewing his off-speed pitches for his below-average fastball.
No one will ever confuse Gee with an ace, but it's entirely possible that he has become somewhat overrated, at least among Mets fans. Discounting his five-start cup of coffee in 2010, Gee has only pitched to an xFIP better than his actual ERA once (2012), suggesting that his numbers aren't quite as good as they may seem. Again discounting his five starts in 2010, Gee has accumulated an ERA+ of 83, 93, 99, and 92 since 2011. Anything below 100 is by definition below average.
This is to take nothing away from Gee. Unless a team is fortunate enough to experience what the Braves of the 1990s did with Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Greg Maddux, starters in the mold of Gee are extremely valuable to a rotation. Perhaps his recent struggles after a strong 30-start stretch is just Gee regressing to the mean. No matter the reason, he is still a valuable commodity to have, but maybe expectations of what type of pitcher Gee is should be tempered by what the raw data says.