Prior to and then during the 2010 season, the Mets made a number of questionable calls. It began during the off-season, when the organization did little to address its thin pitching staff, and extended into the season, when manager Jerry Manuel decided to employ Mike Jacobs, who has little use on a major league roster, as his cleanup hitter. In the past few weeks the team has made an effort to correct a number of these errors. We learned of the latest move in the early hours of the morning, when ESPN New York’s Adam Rubin reported that 20-year-old Jenrry Mejia will depart for the minors, where he’ll resume his career as a starting pitcher.
Mejia opened eyes with his performance last season, when he blew through advanced-A ball before striking out more than a batter per inning at AA at age 19. Manuel was so impressed that he personally scouted Mejia during his stint in the Arizona Fall League. Despite Mejia’s poor results — he allowed 20 earned runs in 14.1 innings innings and walked 13 — Manuel came away impressed enough to consider Mejia for his major league bullpen. Debate and speculation abounded during spring training, but by the end Manuel decided to bring Mejia to Queens, where he’d serve as a bullpen weapon.
In terms of performance, Mejia fared well during his 18 appearances. He pitched 17.1 innings, facing 77 batters, striking out 14 and walking 8. A home run or two hurt his overall numbers, though he had three meltdowns while shutting down opponents five times. The problem, though, is that Manuel often called on him in low leverage situations. He pLI was just 0.84, hardly the stuff of a go-to setup man. Even though he did his job well, his impact on the team was limited. The decision to restart his career as a starter, then, makes sense.
His stuff, of course, will need honing. He threw 80.8 percent fastballs in the majors, and cannot lean on that pitch as frequently when starting. He’ll have to continue honing all of his secondary pitches, including his curveball, which he threw 10.1 percent of the time, and his changeup, which he threw 9.1percent. He also has a slider, which he didn’t use in the pen. The Mets will also have to see how his velocity and stuff plays as he stretches out. Pitchers typically add a few miles per hour while in the bullpen, so Mejia will have to survive with a little less zip on his fastball. The inclusion of his secondary pitches should help him adjust, but he’ll have to throw them effectively, which is no guarantee at this stage of his career.
Problems could arise if the Mets believe, as Rubin implies in his lead, that they can recall Mejia in just a few weeks. Long-term this is the correct call, but it also requires patience that the Mets might not have right now. In the majors he might prove ineffective as a starter. He has only 161.1 minor league innings, and probably needs more experience before the Mets can reasonably rely on him in the rotation. In the past 10 years only 18 pitchers have started a game at age 20. Eleven of those posted an ERA+ around or above league average, and even of those three pitched under 100 innings.
Employing a starting pitcher in the bullpen can be an effective teaching method. Earl Weaver broke in his pitchers this way. Instead of receiving feedback every five or six days and then anxiously awaiting atonement for a poor performance, pitchers can gain more frequent feedback in the bullpen. Said feedback can help them make adjustments more rapidly. That method, however, seems like a better idea for a pitcher who has already developed his secondary pitches to a reasonable degree. While the feedback might have helped Mejia’s development, the dormancy of his secondary pitches might have equally hurt it.
As Dave noted in the Mets organizational report, their management hasn’t demonstrated the ability to make sound, long-term decisions. Two straight collapses from the playoffs followed by an injury riddled disaster of the season can have that effect on a club, especially one as prolific as the Mets. There comes a point when management will make short-term moves in order to stay in place. Recalling Mejia this season would appear to be one of those decisions. The best thing for the long-term health of the organization might be for Mejia to take his lumps in the minors. That might be the only way he can buy enough time to more fully develop his repertoire and become a top of the rotation weapon for the Mets in the future.