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The Mets starting rotation had an inconsistent April

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Syndergaard and deGrom excelled, but the rest faltered

MLB: New York Mets at San Diego Padres Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

As April comes to a close, the New York Mets continue to lead the pack in the National League East, and their 17-9 record is fourth-best in all of baseball. While the Mets have lost seven of their last 12 games after a torrid 12-2 start, there are still plenty of reasons to feel excited and optimistic about this team.

With that said, it’s hard not to worry about the starting pitching. The back end of the rotation have been largely ineffective and have failed to pitch deep into games, which has taxed the bullpen. After finally getting the five homegrown starters together in the rotation, the results have been disappointing.

Steven Matz, who was named the third starter out of spring training, had a rough month. In five games, Matz went 1-2 with a 4.98 ERA and hasn’t recorded more than 16 outs in any start. The Long Island native hasn’t completed six innings in 13 consecutive outings dating back to last July (the Mets are 4-9 in those starts) and has failed to pitch five full innings seven times during that stretch.

Out of 132 pitchers who’ve thrown at least 20 innings this year, Matz ranks 101st in ERA, 117th in FIP (5.44) and 123rd in fWAR (-0.1). He also has an alarmingly high BB/9 ratio (4.15) and HR/9 ratio (2.08). Following his latest rough outing, Mickey Callaway seemed to express concern over the southpaw’s recent performance and would not commit to his rotation spot long-term. The latest news on Matz is that his next start has been pushed back due to upper back stiffness, which is an additional concern given his extensive injury history.

Matt Harvey’s struggles following surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome have been well documented. After tossing five scoreless innings against the Philadelphia Phillies in his season debut, Harvey allowed 14 earned runs over his next three starts. He ranks 115th in ERA (5.76) and 107th in FIP (5.10). His velocity has been steadily declining, as his fastball has dipped to 92-93mph. Harvey is attempting to rejuvenate his career out of the bullpen, and he should see opportunities to reclaim a rotation spot at some point this year. However, it’s hard to expect Harvey to be a reliable major league starting pitcher again after watching his decline over the past three seasons.

Zack Wheeler was brilliant in his first start against the Miami Marlins and became the first Met starter to pitch into the seventh inning in 2018. Since then, he’s fallen back into his usual inconsistent pattern, although his last start in San Diego was certainly an improvement over his two prior appearances. His struggles date back to 2017 (he missed all of 2015 and 2016 after Tommy John Surgery), as he failed to pitch more than five innings in eight of his 17 starts and finished with a 5.21 ERA, a 5.03 FIP, and a 4.18 BB/9 ratio. His troubles with walks have defined him since his debut, as his career 4.10 BB/9 ratio has prevented him from consistently pitching into the sixth inning.

Jason Vargas, who was signed over the offseason to add a veteran presence to the young rotation, had a disastrous season debut over the weekend. Vargas, who missed most of April after suffering a non-displaced fracture in his non-pitching hand during spring training, allowed nine earned runs in three-and-two-thirds innings on Saturday. Most of Vargas’ pitches sat over the middle of the plate, and the San Diego offense took advantage.

Vargas, a 2017 All-Star, won 18 games for the Kansas City Royals but had a steep decline late in the year. He went 12-3 with a 2.62 ERA in the first half but bottomed out after the All-Star break and went 6-8 with a 6.38 ERA. While it’s foolish to judge a player off of one start, his second-half numbers are concerning. If Vargas can come anywhere close to those first-half results and serve as a Bartolo Colon-style veteran who can be an innings-eater and mentor the young starters, he will prove to be a valuable asset.

This brings us to Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom, who have given the Mets everything they could have asked for and more. Syndergaard has been masterful, walking only five batters while striking out 46. He ranks fourth of all qualified starters in FIP (2.17), fifth in fWAR (1.2), and ninth in K/9 (11.94). His arsenal of pitches has only gotten better and has been the talk of social media, as he has mixed his 98-100mph fastball with a sinker that has topped out at 98mph and a slider that has reached 93mph.

In his last start against the Cardinals on Thursday, he went seven-and-one-third innings while striking out seven and allowing one earned run. With the Mets in line for a series-clinching win, the defense and bullpen squandered the lead in the seventh inning en route to a deflating extra-inning loss.

As good as Syndergaard has been, deGrom has been even better. He ranks fifth in FIP (2.31), fourth in fWAR (1.4), 10th in ERA (2.06), and 15th in K/9 (10.98). Over his last three starts, he’s pitched 21-and-two-third innings, recorded 30 strikeouts, and allowed only three earned runs (including zero runs in his last two starts). In two of those three starts, the Mets failed to come away with the victory. The Mets wasted a 6-1 lead in the eighth against the Nationals on April 16 and a 3-0 lead in the eighth in Atlanta on April 21, which is inexcusable.

The Mets simply cannot afford to squander games started by their two aces, because the results over the next three games are far from guaranteed. The Mets have arguably the best 1-2 punch in baseball (a point that MLB.com highlighted before the season), and both are at the top of their games. The Mets, who won Syndergaard’s first five games and deGrom’s first three this season, must continue to close the deal when their aces are pitching as well as they are.

In looking at the starting pitchers’ overall April performance, it has become clearer than ever that Syndegaard and deGrom starts are must wins. The offense will not struggle all season long, and the bullpen will have its ups and downs, but the starting rotation’s question marks may linger. Outside of potentially moving Seth Lugo or Robert Gsellman into the rotation, which is not optimal given their success in the bullpen, or calling up someone like Corey Oswalt or Chris Flexen to start, there are few internal options. It’s also highly unlikely that the Mets have anywhere near enough to land a quality starting pitcher in a trade.

Wheeler, Matz, and Harvey may never provide anything more than frustratingly inconsistent performances with a dazzling start or two mixed in. While it would be great to see them consistently pitch like the superstars they’ve shown they could be, the Mets cannot rely on it. Syndergaard and deGrom, on the other hand, are already there and are only getting better with every game. That’s why it is imperative that the Mets do not make a habit out of wasting their starts.