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Dan Warthen’s contributions to the Mets shouldn’t be forgotten

Dan Warthen’s Mets tenure ended poorly, but his prior contributions to the team shouldn’t be forgotten.

New York Mets v Miami Marlins Photo by Steve Mitchell/Getty Images

After a historically ineffective season for what was expected to be a good pitching staff, pitching coach Dan Warthen was reassigned in the Mets’ organization and ultimately chose to leave to join the Texas Rangers. The team decided it was time for a new approach after such a disappointing and injury-ridden season for the starting pitchers. Mets starters prevented runs at least effective rate in team history in 2017, posting a 5.14 ERA and league-adjusted 124 ERA-, both of which are the worst in Mets history. Mets starters allowed baserunners at the second-worst rate in Mets history last year with a 1.48 WHIP, behind only the 1982 starting staff. The major culprit in the poor performance was injuries, as key pitchers Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz, Jeurys Familia, Seth Lugo, and Robert Gsellman all either missed time or pitched compromised with injuries.

New manager Mickey Callaway has shown a lot of forward thinking in regards to injury prevention for pitchers, talking about having the pitchers wear specialized Motus sleeves during workouts to measure the stress on their elbows, which Warthen apparently wasn’t much of a believer in. Callaway wants the players to fill out daily logs recording their sleeping and nutritional habits and will have players submit daily urine samples to make sure players aren’t dehydrated. It represents some degree of a philosophical change for a team that has been decimated by injuries and is trying to evolve with their athlete maintenance strategies, which had been lagging.

The 2017 season was unquestionably a disaster injury and performance wise for Mets pitchers, and how much of that should be blamed on Warthen is debatable. The organization as a whole—not just Warthen—must take the hit for allowing Noah Syndergaard to start three days after complaining that he couldn’t lift his arm above his head due to pain on a Thursday in late April. Syndergaard blew out his lat that Sunday.

A similar critique about how the organization handled Matt Harvey’s season should also be leveled at everyone involved. Harvey, who was coming off his second major surgery in three seasons, was scheduled for a start on Friday, April 28th, and went about his regular routine that week in preparation of a Friday night start. When he got to the ballpark at 10 am that Thursday, the team made a surprise request, asking Harvey if he would start Thursday’s 1 pm game in place of the aforementioned Syndergaard, who was scratched. Harvey, who came to the park unprepared to pitch, had a noticeable drop in fastball velocity and was very ineffective in that start after pitching effectively in his previous four starts off the surgery. Worse, it was revealed later in the season that the Mets didn’t realize that Harvey was pitching with back and shoulder muscles that had significantly atrophied after his thoracic outlet syndrome surgery, which was impacting his stamina and performance. These are fairly egregious organizational errors that should extend further than just the pitching coach.

While the 2017 season was historically poor for the Warthen led pitching staff, there was a lot of excellence during Warthen’s tenure with the Mets that shouldn’t be forgotten. Warthen was a major contributor in the development of several key pitchers that had the Mets on the brink of a championship in 2015. Multiple Mets pitchers dramatically outperformed their peak projections as prospects working with Warthen, with components of the development including significant increases in fastball velocity and Warthen teaching new pitches. In 2015, Warthen tweaked Noah Syndergaard’s two seam grip after his call up, which helped give him a sharply moving fastball to cover up for a four seamer that was a little straight. Syndergaard had so much success with Warthen’s two seamer that he completely ditched throwing his four seamer in 2017 and called himself “stupid” for not doing so earlier. The running movement at 99 mph is difficult for any hitter to barrel up:

Warthen taught the same modified two seam grip to Jeurys Familia, which ultimately turned into an incredible moving power sinker that caused tons of weak contact. Familia evolved into a top reliever with tweaks and guidance from Warthen, with Warthen’s two seam grip at the forefront. This centered camera angle of a 98 mph Familia two seamer shows just how nasty the movement on the fastball is:

Familia was Warthen’s biggest success story among relief pitchers to debut with the Mets during Warthen’s tenure. From 2014-2016, Familia’s 2.20 ERA spanning 233 IP was 10th best in the majors among qualified relievers. His 2015 season was one of the five best reliever seasons in Mets history by baserunner prevention (1.00 WHIP), and one of the eight best reliever seasons by ERA (1.85). Familia—using two seam, slider and splitter grips all taught to him by Warthen—played an important role in getting the Mets to the World Series in 2015, and his dominant pitching was a huge reason why the Mets got past the Dodgers in the 2015 NLDS. Familia threw 5.1 innings of shutout ball and held Dodgers batters to a .000/.000/.000 slash line. His finest moment came in the deciding Game 5 in Los Angeles, where Familia entered to start the 8th inning in a 3-2 game. He pitched two innings, faced six batters and retired all of them to send the Mets into the NLCS.

The most famous and talked about pitch in the development of Mets pitchers was the vicious Warthen slider, which gave Mets pitchers a new out pitch that they didn’t have in their minor league arsenal. The highlight of the pitch was its hard velocity, which often had Mets pitchers’ sliders touching the low 90s. It should be mentioned that the pitch has been put into question about how safe it is on pitcher’s elbows. The team even asked some of their more injury prone pitchers to cut back on the usage of it as a precaution. Warthen maintains that the pitch shouldn’t be particularly more stressful on the elbow than a fastball, because it’s thrown with the same arm action as a fastball. There is no extra or unusual tweaking of the wrist or elbow; the pitcher grips the baseball with an off grip to the right of the horseshoe and the release of the fingers creates a tilted spin axis that causes the slider movement. Here’s a close up of a Jacob deGrom slider release from his hand:

The fastball-like release of the pitch further helped its effectiveness by creating deception.

Matt Harvey was the first of this group of Mets pitchers to make dramatic improvements in the big leagues under Warthen, starting with the Warthen taught hard slider. In addition to the slider, Harvey also added a large jump in fastball velocity once he began working with Warthen. In the 2011 Future’s Game at Chase Field, Harvey’s fastball sat at 94.5 mph in a one batter relief appearance. One year later, during Harvey’s MLB debut in the same stadium in Arizona, his fastball sat 96.5 mph in a five inning start, a two mph jump. By 2013, Harvey’s fastball was sitting 97 mph and topping out at 100 mph, a roughly 3 mph increase in max fastball velocity. In addition to the elite velocity, 2013’s version of Harvey flashed one of the most obscene and ridiculous hard sliders in recent memory. Ferocious hard sliders, like this 92 mph slider that future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera has no chance on in the 2013 All Star game:

The added slider and increased fastball velocity, plus big jumps in command and control, were components of Harvey evolving from a projected 2-3 starter as a prospect into an unquestioned high end ace in 2013. 2013 Harvey had a full pitch mix that was among the handful of the best in the sport. His second breaking ball, a more vertically dropping hard curveball, was almost as nasty as his ridiculous slider:

Harvey’s weakest pitch in the minors, his change up, improved significantly under Warthen. In his 2013 season, Harvey held hitters to just a .440 OPS on his change up with 0 home runs allowed and only one extra base hit allowed while getting hitters to swing and miss at his change up at an above average rate. He could both throw it for strikes...

...and get hitters to chase it down in the zone:

Harvey’s fastball command also improved under Warthen, frequently nailing his spots. Catcher John Buck’s glove barely moves here as Harvey paints upper 90s heat on the black:

Harvey’s Warthen guided 2013 season is among the greatest and most dominant single seasons in Mets history for a starting pitcher. Harvey prevented baserunners at the best rate in Mets history with a 0.93 WHIP in 2013, edging out Tom Seaver’s 0.95 WHIP in 1971, which ranks second. Harvey’s adjusted ERA- of 64 in 2013 was 7th best in Mets history, slightly behind Tom Seaver’s 1969 season. His Fielding Independent Pitching of 2.00, which takes into account strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed, was third best in Mets history behind only Dwight Gooden’s 1984 season and Tom Seaver’s 1971 season.

Jacob deGrom’s development into an ace under Warthen was highly unexpected based on his skillset in the minor leagues. Prior to his rookie season, deGrom’s minor league pitch arsenal had him ranked as the 14th best Mets prospect on Amazin Avenue’s top 25 list. deGrom never showed enough in the minors to be ranked as a top 100 prospect on any mainstream outlet. After posting an 18% strikeout rate in the PCL prior to his 2014 call up, with it at 17% in the Eastern League in 2013, deGrom’s strikeout rate shot up to an excellent 25.5% as a rookie in the big leagues after his 2014 call up. He came to the big leagues in May 2014 with a slider that sat around 85 mph and by May 2015, the pitch had jumped to an average velocity about 90 mph, a five mph improvement. Similar to Matt Harvey, the hard Warthen taught slider, along with a big jump in fastball velocity, were major components of deGrom’s development into an ace level starter under Warthen. deGrom often flustered hitters with outstanding pitch sequencing that left them with little idea of what was coming, and the 96+ mph heat helped him pitch up in the zone where he could strike batters out with hard four seamers.

deGrom’s performance in Game 1 of the 2015 NLDS against the Dodgers is borderline legendary, with his velocity peaking at 99 mph en route to striking out 13 of the 27 batters he faced over seven scoreless IP in a 3-1 win over Clayton Kershaw. He followed up Game 1’s shoving with a gutty performance in the clincher where he didn’t have his best stuff yet still managed to get through six innings of two run ball with 7 strikeouts. It’s unlikely the Mets advance to the NLCS without deGrom.

It wasn’t just Harvey and deGrom who benefited from the Warthen taught slider. Most of the Mets’ key pitchers began utilizing the pitch to one degree or another. Jeurys Familia upgraded from a mid 80s slurve to a 90 mph sharper slider that was an excellent second pitch to his mid 90s power sinker. Robert Gsellman went from striking out 13% of batters in the Eastern League in 2015 to striking out 23% of batters in the big leagues after his 2016 call up in part due to a dramatically improved slider. Seth Lugo impressively held a stacked USA team to three runs with seven strikeouts in just under six innings in the 2017 WBC on the back of a sharply improved slider.

And, of course, one slider stands out above all of them. Noah Syndergaard uncorked a 95 mph slider in a start against the Royals in April 2016, one of the most impressive pitches a pitcher has ever thrown. Royals manager Ned Yost was speechless after the game, telling reporters, “There is no man alive who could have hit those three sliders he threw to Morales. I don’t think I have ever seen a 95 mph slider. George Brett was in here and I asked him if he could have hit that, and he said no way.”

Syndergaard continued terrorizing the league with hard sliders the rest of the season, generating a 27% swinging strike with the pitch, almost double the league average. He sat nearly 92 mph with it, roughly two mph faster than the next hardest average slider velocity for starting pitchers.

Syndergaard, like Harvey, deGrom and Familia before him, flourished with tweaks and guidance from Warthen. While Syndergaard was an elite prospect—peaking at the #9 overall prospect in baseball on Baseball Prospectus’ pre-2015 list—Syndergaard flashed signs of generational type pitching in the big leagues that was a dramatic improvement from his time in the minor leagues, and Warthen was a key contributor in those developments. Syndergaard did not have a hard slider in the minor leagues, instead utilizing a high 70s to low 80s curveball as his breaking pitch. Syndergaard’s vicious two seamer is Warthen taught, which Warthen had him tweak in a bullpen session three starts after his big league debut. Syndergaard added fastball velocity in the big leagues under Warthen with roughly a 1.5 mph jump from the minor leagues. Syndergaard’s change up also improved tremendously under Warthen, with strong jumps in pitch command and movement, giving him another weapon to help keep hitters from hunting his hard fastball. The centered camera angle shows the nasty late movement on this 92 mph change up:

Had the Mets been able to finish off the Royals in 2015 and win their third championship in franchise history, Warthen’s time with the team would probably be remembered more fondly in the present. The Mets had the lead in the 8th inning in four of the five games against the Royals and very realistically could have walked out of Citi Field on November 1st with a giant new trophy to add to the Mets Hall of Fame had things broken right in those late innings. But unfortunately, the pitchers didn’t hold onto those leads. Familia botched a quick pitch and left a flat sinker up in the zone in the 9th inning of Game 1. Tyler Clippard had two killer walks in the 8th inning on Halloween that fueled the Royals’ big inning. Harvey couldn’t entice Lorenzo Cain to chase a 3-2 slider and then ran out of gas in the 9th inning on Nov. 1. The loss in the World Series was crushing, but Warthen was part of the reason why the Mets were there in the first place.

Warthen’s tenure with the Mets ended poorly, and there’s an argument to be made that it was time for a change in leadership for the pitchers. Some of the same pitchers that Warthen helped elevate to great heights have since decayed with injuries, most notably Harvey, who may continue to struggle due to the horrid thoracic outlet syndrome. But Warthen also played a large role in one of only five teams in Mets history to win a pennant. When 81 year old Bill Giles handed the Mets their National League championship trophy in 2015, he said, “I have never seen so many fine young pitchers in my life”. The peak didn’t last nearly as long as we thought it would, but Warthen helped create an electrifying pitching staff that fueled the team to a pennant, and that shouldn’t be forgotten.