What Is Gil Meche?
Another day, another good start from Gil Meche, resulting in a Mariners win. With the performance today, he lowered his ERA to 3.83 for the season and has been essentially annointed the team’s current ace by the coaching staff, as he will start the first game after the all-star break.
What a difference a month makes. After his May 30th start, Meche had a 4.87 ERA, a 5-6 record, and less than stellar peripherals. On a per 9 inning basis, he was allowing 1.28 homers, 4.39 walks, and 7.51 strikeouts. The K’s are nice, but everything else is poor, leading to the mediocre run prevention. At that point, we’d seen two more months of the typical Gil Meche.
Since June 5th, he’s started 7 games and pitched significantly better. In those 7 games, he’s thrown 45 innings, posted a 2.39 ERA, and the improved run prevention is matched by improved ratios. His HR/9 has been 0.80, his BB/9 a much improved 2.79, and his K/9 has held steady at 7.37.
You can see the improvement in his Fielding Independant ERA as well. In his first 11 starts, his FIP was 4.84, almost perfectly matching his 4.87 ERA. In his last 7 starts, his FIP has been 3.64. His ERA of 2.39 is over a run lower than you’d expect based his normal peripheral numbers, but a 3.64 FIP is nothing to be sneezed at, and is a marked improvement.
So, what has Meche done better the last 7 starts to lead to this improvement?
Two things, quite simply: He’s throwing more strikes and keeping the ball in the yard. The decrease in walks has kept runners off the bases, and the lack of home runs allowed have kept the ones that have gotten aboard from scoring. However, it is quite rare to see a pitcher simultaneously put the ball over the plate significantly more often and cut his home run rate nearly in half. Generally, strikes equal long balls, unless you just have awesome unhittable stuff, and Meche does not. Looking at the numbers as a percentage of batters faced, we see the following pattern:
First 11 starts: BB – 11%, K – 19%, HR – 3%
Last 7 starts: BB – 8%, K – 20%, HR – 2%
Less walks, slightly higher strikeout rate, less home runs. It is rare to see a pitcher simultaneously throw more strikes, put the same amount of balls in play, and still cut his home run rate. As we’ve discussed previously on the site, historically, we’ve seen no evidence of starting pitchers being able to sustain HR rates lower than their FB rates would suggest. Essentially, if Meche’s new found ability to keep the ball in the yard is real, it’s going to show up in his GB/FB%. If this is a repeatable skill, his recent run of home run stinginess will be accompanied by a raise in GB%. Let’s see if thats true:
First 11 starts: 42% GB rate, 36% FB rate
Last 7 starts: 41% GB rate, 44% FB rate
Well, that’s not what we wanted to see. He’s cut his HR rate in half despite a significant uptick in balls hit in the air. Looking at it another way, we see his HR/FB rate was 13% in his first 11 starts, but is just 7% in his last 7 starts. 11% is the league average, which pitchers have shown to regress towards over time. Pitchers in Safeco will post slightly lower HR/FB rates due to the home park, making 10% more of a realistic marker. So, he’s basically been 3% high in his bad stretch and 3% low in his good stretch.
It’s pretty obvious that his current style of performance is unsustainable, however. That isn’t to say the results aren’t sustainable, but he won’t continue to get these kind of results pitching this way. If he wants to keep posting a 2.39 ERA (or anything below 3.5, really), he better start missing a lot more bats and getting a lot more groundballs in a hurry.
Good Gil Meche is throwing the ball over the plate a lot, missing bats at a slightly above average rate, and keeping the ball in the yard. You won’t find starting pitchers who have sustained that kind of profile for a long time – if you’re not missing bats a lot and you’re throwing strikes, you’re going to get taken deep more often than this.
So, realistically, even if Gil Meche continues to throw like he has his last 7 starts, and does not regress back to what he was in the 123 major league starts that came before it and say he’s not that good, he still can’t sustain his performance with the way he’s pitching. Either the walks are going to go up or the home runs are. He’s not going to be able to keep both at their currrent low rates. It’s not a repeatable skill.
That isn’t to say Gil Meche can’t pitch well. If we put the HR/FB rate back to 10% for the rest of the year, and assume that he’ll continue to post 8% walk and 20% strikeout rates, that can be an effective enough pitcher. Noah Lowry, last season, posted numbers almost exactly identical to what Meche has posted in his last 7 starts, and he ended the year with a 3.78 ERA, 4.05 FIP, and 4.34 xFIP.
That’s what Gil Meche’s last seven start skillset projects out to. Not many walks, some homers, and enough strikeouts to make him valuable enough to pitch in the middle of a decent rotation. If Gil Meche continues to pitch like he has since the calendar turned to June, a performance similar to what 2005 Noah Lowry put up is about what we should expect.
If Gil Meche reverts to previously established form and throws like he has from 2000 through May of this year, well, he’ll be significantly worse than that.
All that to say, no, Gil Meche has not turned a corner. He’s not an ace, and he’s not pitching like one. He’s a back-end starter having a nice run aided by some performances that are unsustainable.
Edited to add: Should have included this in the original post, but this isn’t the first time we’ve seen Gil Meche become this kind of pitcher. In the second half of 2004, he ended the year with a 13 start run that saw him pitch very similar to this. Because his HR/FB rate was 12% in that run, his ERA was 4.02, but the style was very similar.
It obviously was not sustainable. This is nothing new – Meche has done this before. It’s just not a recipe for long term success.