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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

For Mets manager Luis Rojas, pitch counts are not the only way to judge stress on starters

Mets manager Luis Rojas during a spring training

Mets manager Luis Rojas during a spring training workout Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, in Port St. Lucie, Florida. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

PHILADELPHIA — These days, when it comes to pitch counts, teams believe less is more.

As in more of a chance to protect the starter in question, more of a safeguard against injury, more thinking ahead to preserve them for a long season.

To everyone else, less is just less, and seeing Jacob deGrom removed Monday night upon reaching 77 pitches — after manager Luis Rojas suggested pregame he was OK for 100 — was baffling.

So what happened? Was Rojas lying? Was deGrom hiding an injury?

 

None of the above.

As Rojas explained again Tuesday afternoon, when he talked about the 100-pitch mark for deGrom, it was in reference to the number he built up to in spring training. Rojas insisted it was not the goal for deGrom in the season opener, nor the cutoff point, and apologized for any confusion.

The manager insisted that deGrom’s performance was evaluated instead on an "up-down" basis, relating more to the stress level of each inning, something that the Mets’ decision-makers discussed as a group heading into his start.

When you also factor in the 10-day layoff due to the Nationals’ COVID-19 delay, the Mets wanted to err on the side of extra caution, and figured that six innings was enough, despite only throwing 77 pitches.

So what are we supposed to think about Mets starters? Do we have to recalibrate our pitch clocks to something below 100? Is the target now more like a 90ish number? Would it be way fewer for Marcus Stroman on Tuesday night against the Phillies?

Rojas insists that’s not necessarily the case. But judging by the way he kept retreating from that pregame 100-pitch limit for deGrom, for a second straight day, don’t expect the manager to stick by those proclamations in the future. It’s all about the "up-downs" now.

"That’s something I’ve been learning more and more," Rojas said before Tuesday’s game against the Phillies. "The stress of sitting down and coming back up. That’s what causes the stress in arms."

Clearly, Rojas didn’t come to this conclusion on his own. It’s an organizational guide map, born from the collaboration between the front office, the analytical department, the medical staff, the coaches and the pitcher himself. Right after getting another stellar performance flushed by the bullpen, deGrom didn’t bristle at the timing of his removal. He sounded totally on board, calling it the "right decision."

But if deGrom needed protecting Monday night, it was news to the Phillies, who were overjoyed when he was pulled. The rest of us were mystified, as well. DeGrom threw 11 pitches over 100 mph, including his final one, the 101-mph fastball that struck out Bryce Harper to end the sixth inning.

In fact, deGrom retired nine straight to end his outing, and if there were any signs of fatigue, they were invisible to the naked eye. But deGrom generates such easy heat, with near-flawless mechanics, that it’s hard to tell when he begins to get tired. Afterward, deGrom said it was difficult to put in consistent work during the COVID-19 delay because the Mets weren’t sure if the series in D.C. would resume or not.

The Mets were in a similar yet more drastic situation with deGrom a year ago, when they had to navigate through two spring trainings, sandwiched around a four-month shutdown of the sport. The difference back then was that starting pitchers didn’t get a full buildup like they normally did during the Grapefruit League, so the process had to carry over into the regular season.

On Opening Day 2020, deGrom threw only 72 pitches, despite allowing only one hit and striking out eight over five innings. The next time out, deGrom jumped up to 88 over six, then 104 over six as he settled into a more typical routine. Last season, deGrom surpassed 100 pitches in seven of his 12 starts, finishing with 112 and 113 in his final two.

Here in the 21st century, that’s not too bad. But just for the sake of comparison, I looked up a former Mets ace from the not-too-distant past by the name of Al Leiter. During the 2004 season, his final one in Flushing at age 38, Leiter averaged 108 pitches in his 30 starts and went over 100 in 22 of them. There were five times Leiter threw 120-plus with a max of 127, which he reached twice.

But those numbers feel like ancient history now. With a pitcher’s every movement tracked these days by bleeding-edge technology, the tiniest glitch or stress is exposed, and that sets off warning sirens. DeGrom never seemed to get close to that danger zone Monday night, in any sense, but that was the point. To make sure he didn’t, especially on Opening Day, with six months to go.

Just remember that the next time deGrom or Stroman or someday Noah Syndergaard vanishes en route to what is shaping up to be a three-hit shutout. The pitch count is only a guideline, not the rule.

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