Gil Meche, Opening Day Starter
I’ve been tinkering with this post for a while now, as occasionally people have written in to chide us for not writing it, and I beg your pardon.
We know the deal, Meche’s long history of inconsistency and frustration. Here at USSM, we thought Meche’s deal in Kansas City was crazy, and said so a number of times. Right now, it looks like everyone who said he had “ace stuff” and potential were right, and we were wrong.
Gil Meche today is 3-1 in nine starts (woo! KC offense!) with a 1.91 ERA. In 61 1/3rd innings, he’s been stellar: 47 K, 16 walks, 6 HR — it’s crazy. He’s getting later into games, too: his average is about 6 2/3rds each start, which is not super, but he’s not getting regularly chased out in the fourth and fifth.
But he’s not striking out more batters, and his home run rate is about what it was. What’s the deal, then? There are a couple reasons he’s been a lot more effective so far. One is under his control, and the other — well, I’ll get there.
His walks are way down. The last three years of his Mariner career, Meche walked about 10% of the batters who came to the plate, and so far he’s only walking about 6.5% — and that’s a walk a game. His best years in this respect – 2003-04 – he was at about 8.5% (conveniently, about halfway between this year and his 2005-2006 average)(not that that means anything).
The other is that Meche so far has been dramatically better at getting ground balls than he ever has. He’s running a 56.4% ground ball percentage. In 2006, it was 43%, and that’s a little higher than his career average. That’s huge. His whole career, he’s been a slight fly ball pitcher (.83-.97 G/F from 1999-2005), then in 2006 he ticked up a little bit into groundballing (1.11 G/F in ESPN’s stats). He’s at 1.98 now. Of pitchers with at least 40 innings thrown, he’s #9 in G/F ratio (Webb is at an unreal 3.81)
And that raises the real question: is that for real? Can that possibly be for real?
I don’t think so, and for two reasons. One, I haven’t been able to find a historical precedent for that kind of change. We can talk about pitchers who sucked for a while and then got better, but someone with that many seasons getting that much better, and not just better but so different in results?
The other is that there’s no good explanation for why this would be so. The stories I could find on Meche point to improved mechanics, particularly being able to repeat them. I’m always skeptical of these stories (if it’s that easy, why didn’t it happen at any time in his Seattle stint?) but what’s more, their purported benefit is in better velocity, location, and consistency. Not a new pitch, not a new approach, nothing of the sort — and if he had better location and velocity, you’d expect to see more strikeouts, which we’re not, and fewer walks, which we are.
Unless you want to argue that better location also means he can pound down in the zone, but (and I entirely admit this is subjective) having seen him and looked at some of his pitch charts, I don’t see it. That said, I don’t have systematic information, like 20% are up in the zone where 40% used to be, or anything of the sort, so feel free to offer more information on this if you can find it.
The end result is I look at this and think “I’m willing to concede that between the change in organizations and coaches, Meche could have found something in his delivery that was fixable — but even dramatic results from that don’t explain apparently unprecedented magnitude of the turnaround, and the incredible change to being a ground ball machine.”
So I don’t think this is sustainable. Meche may be better than the Meche we saw, even significantly so, but there’s no explanation that fills the gap between the Meche we saw and the results Meche has seen so far.