The New York Mets find themselves in a unique position when compared to the rest of the teams in baseball. It is almost a full month into the season and the Mets still have an ongoing battle between David Peterson and Joey Lucchesi to determine who will be the number five starter for this team, at least until Noah Syndergaard returns around the All-Star break. The frontrunner is Peterson, especially after his ten strikeout performance versus the Phillies, and he will look to keep it that way until Carlos Carrasco returns from a hamstring injury.
Carrasco is expected back around the beginning of May, giving both Peterson and Lucchesi about three more starts to determine who will get the final rotation spot. This is almost like an extended Spring Training. However, the stats will still count. So will the wins and losses. There also won’t be roster hopefuls sprinkled into the lineup weighing them down. It is a higher leverage “spring training” with a potential roster spot on the line. With the Mets eventually having seven strong candidates at starter, they can and should limit the innings of players with injury histories. That means this can be a full season job even when Syndergaard comes back, as the Mets can choose to give Taijuan Walker, Carrasco, and Thor days off to keep them healthy. Furthermore, both Peterson and Lucchesi have minor league options left, meaning that a rotation spot may not be the only thing on the line, but also a roster spot.
As mentioned above, Peterson is the frontrunner to be the fifth starter until Syndergaard’s return. The case for Peterson is that he is coming off an extremely strong rookie season, one which surprised most fans. Peterson was one of two Mets pitchers who were consistently good in 2020. He went 6-2 and posted a 3.44 ERA over nine starts. He posted a respectable 4.52 FIP, weighed down by his lack of strikeouts in 2020. So far in 2021, the strikeout rate has jumped. Peterson got roughed up in his first start, but still struck out five batters over four innings. In his second start, Peterson looked a lot better, giving up one run on three hits while striking out 10. His slider looked particularly filthy, as he struck out four while giving up only one hit on the pitch. This rise in strikeouts could be contributed to how Peterson has used his pitch arsenal this year, throwing his four-seamer less this year and his slider and sinker more. Despite the rough first start, Peterson still sports a 2.42 xFIP and 2.44 SIERA.
The case against David Peterson is that he seemingly overperformed last season. He had a 5.11 xFIP and 5.26 SIERA. Peterson’s curve spin rate was in just the 11th percentile, while his fastball spin and fastball velocity were just 14th and 36th percent, respectively. It is hard to see this changing much, as the early numbers from 2021 don’t reflect much change. Regression from 2020 is likely, although with Peterson changing up his pitch usage, this regression can be limited. Peterson also allowed a lot of hard contact over his first two starts this year. The positive around both this and those poor numbers from last year is that both came in small sample sizes, which should lower the worry around them. With Peterson being the frontrunner, the ball is in his glove to stay as the fifth starter.
Lucchesi’s first start of the season resembled more of a spring training start or an ‘opener’ role than a full start, but it was solid. Lucchessi threw 55 pitches over three innings, giving up three runs on four hits while striking out three. These numbers look a bit better when considering that this game was played at Coors field. It was actually Lucchesi’s second appearance of the year, as he made his Mets debut in a relief role against the Phillies. In that game, he pitched two innings, giving up just one hit and striking out three. During these two outings, it seems like Lucchesi is becoming a two-pitch pitcher, which can be good or bad. He has been relying on a sinker, which is averaging a mile per hour more velocity than in previous years, and a curveball, which currently has a 50% whiff rate. He also has sprinkled in a cutter, using that pitch 4.4% of the time. This arsenal, especially relying on just two pitches, would work better in a relief role than a starter role.
The main case for Lucchesi is that he has arguably been the better pitcher this season, granted in a smaller sample. In those five innings of work, Lucchesi has posted a 1.36 FIP. He is also in the top ten percentile for most of the “X” stats, which should mean he will be capable of keeping it up. He is in the 93rd percentile for xERA, xWOBA, and xSLG, while being in the 90th percentile for xBA. Lucchesi also has had a very underrated career, something the Mets front office definitely noticed when they acquired him from the Padres as part of a three team trade. He has a career 4.23 ERA, 4.17 FIP and 3.98 xFIP. With Lucchesi already having a bullpen appearance, he could be favored to stick with the Major League team if the Mets do decide to send one of these two pitchers down when Syndergaard returns.
The battle for this final starter spot is far from over. It is entirely possible that both maintain a roster role when Carrasco comes back, with one in the rotation and one in the bullpen. Peterson seems the favorite to keep the starting job, but Lucchesi could pitch his way into the role. However, this gig could definitely carry past Syndergaard’s return, and Lucchesi might be more fit to help the Mets rest some starters. Either way, spring training part two is on for Peterson and Lucchesi, making this something to keep an eye on over the next few weeks.