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Narrow Left Wing Conspiracy

Mike Pelfrey’s been re-signed [1], so that’s a load off our minds. If we didn’t have the tall wonder’s shortcomings on which to dwell, what starter’s lack of progress would obsess us ahead of Spring Training?

Jon Niese’s probably, which seems a little quick, considering he’s only 25 and has yet to make more than 30 starts in a single season. Non-pitching injuries seem to have a nasty habit of finding and disabling him, the latest of them a right-side muscle strain [2] that knocked him out in August last year. Before departing for the year, he was more competent than dominant most outings, maybe a little shy of real consistency. His ERA (and ERA+) was off a bit from 2010 though his WHIP was a little better than it had been. Overall, his pre-injury 2011 indicated a Mets lefty starter who has the potential to improve.

But history indicates he’s doomed. It’s not his history, mind you, but the history of homegrown, lefthanded Mets starters.

By having been around for fragments of 2008 and 2009 and most of 2010 and 2011, Jon Niese moved up to No. 3 on the all-time Games Started list where southpaws of purebred Met pedigree are concerned.

Meaning? Meaning the Mets have been a little lacking in signing and developing lefthanded starters just about forever.

Put another way, there was Jerry Koosman, with 346 starts between 1967 and 1978; there was Jon Matlack, with 199 starts between 1971 and 1977; and now there’s Jon Niese with 64 starts since 2008.

Kind of quiet there for approximately three decades, wasn’t it?

This isn’t a trend. It’s a chronic condition of some sort, though I have no idea how it came about. It spans ownerships, front offices, papacies…how is this even possible? How could this be it? Is there a deep-seated organizational allergy to lefties? Does looking for another Tom Seaver mean indulging the Pelfreys longer than waiting out the Nieses? Is the dictionary definition of “sinister” [3] taken overly literally in Flushing?

I didn’t have to guess Koosman was No. 1 on this list and I was pretty certain Matlack was No. 2. Yet as I got to thinking about Niese and who might have directly preceded him as a mainstay homegrown lefty starter around here, I realized there had been basically nobody since the aforementioned Koosman and Matlack were traded well over thirty years ago.

There have been other lefty starters, of course, but nobody the Mets drafted, groomed and brought to the majors on their own. The closest pitcher matching that description was Sid Fernandez, in that the Mets acquired him after he’d had a cup of coffee with the Dodgers and kept him at Tidewater for half a season before recalling him in 1984. But that’s not really the same thing. Los Angeles did the spadework on Fernandez — and even if you want to say, “Yeah, but he established himself with the Mets,” we’re still talking about a guy who came up 28 years ago and hasn’t pitched for the Mets since 1993.

Niese isn’t just astoundingly high up there among homegrown lefty starters, he’s pretty lofty among all Mets lefty starters in terms of most games started, according to Baseball Reference:

1) Koosman, 346; 2) Fernandez, 250; 3) Al Leiter, 213; 4) Matlack, 199; 5) T#m Gl@v!ne, 164; 6) Al Jackson, 138; 7) Bobby Ojeda, 109; 8) Oliver Perez, 91; 9) Johan Santana, 88; 10) Pete Falcone, 86; 11) Frank Viola, 82; 12) Jon Niese, 64 (one ahead of non-mainstay Glendon Rusch).

The rules state you can import your pitchers, so there’s nothing illegitimate about employing the Leiters, the Ojedas, even the Ollies if you have to. But should you have to to the exclusion of your own guys? Shouldn’t you have your own guys? Shouldn’t you be able to raise a lefty from scratch to take a hundred or more starts in your rotation every now and then after a half-century? By modern standards, that’s three seasons and change if you stay healthy. If Niese can avoid strains, tears and worse, you’d think he should pass that veritable milestone some time in 2013.

You’d think. But it’s obviously not that easy if you’re a starting pitcher who used your left hand to sign your first professional contract with the Mets. If that’s your story, let’s just say you’re going to be pretty disappointed if you were hoping to be a part of a large lefthanded complement.

Before Niese, the most oft-used post-Matlack homegrown lefty starter the Mets had was 6’ 5” Pete Schourek, who took the ball 47 times to varying degrees of success between 1991 and 1993. He was here and gone before reaching Niese’s current age, with Dallas Green giving up on him the first chance he got (as he tended to do with young players). Schourek landed in Cincinnati and enjoyed a sharp upturn in fortunes, finishing second in the 1995 Cy Young voting, thus giving credence to the old saying about not giving up on lefties too soon. Pete was never very good after that, but kept pitching in the majors for the Reds, the Astros, the Red Sox, the Pirates and the Red Sox again until 2001, giving credence to yet another old saying, that if you’re a lefthanded pitcher, somebody will take a chance on you.

Who rounds out the Homegrown Lefty Top Five behind Koosman, Matlack, Niese and Schourek? I could have given myself as many guesses as he had Met starts — 36 — and I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t have come up with Eric Hillman, a contemporary of Pete Schourek’s, both for era (1992-1994) and height (6’ 10”). Hillman was as tall and as lefthanded as Randy Johnson…and that’s where the comparison ended. Nevertheless, Eric parlayed his 4-14 Met tenure into three years in Japan, including one season playing for Bobby Valentine on the same Chiba Lotte Marines squad that included future Mets Julio Franco and Satoru Komiyama.

I wouldn’t have come up with Hillman, but he’s half the answer, tied for fifth in this category. I wouldn’t have come up with the other half, either: Tug McGraw, not much remembered as a starter, despite a few intensely memorable [4] outings among the 36 Met appearances he made in a non-relief role between 1965 and 1974. From Tug doing what he wasn’t famous for, you have to drop down to the 20 starts made by Bill Pulsipher in three star-crossed stints (1995, 1998, 2000). From there, it’s 1994-1995 Met fizzler Jason Jacome, with 13 — starts, not minutes…unless you want to count Greg A. Harris, who was a righthander in 14 Met starts in 1981, yet was continually mentioned as ambidextrous, and much later in his career threw lefty and righty in one game just to say he did. Hisanori Takahashi started a dozen games with his left arm in 2010, and he hadn’t pitched for a major league team before the Mets, but he spent ten prior seasons with the Yomiuri Giants of Japan’s Central League, so he doesn’t count as a homegrown Met lefty starter any more than Harris or Fernandez. And we can’t in all good faith count Mr. Tie [5], Rob Gardner, who made 21 starts for the Mets in 1965 and 1966. He came to the majors as a Met, but was originally signed by the Twins, so there’s another non-decision we reluctantly shift to Rob’s record.

So that’s eight lefthanded pitchers — Koosman, Matlack, Niese, Schourek, Hillman, McGraw, Pulsipher, Jacome — who meet the seemingly not onerous criteria of signing with the Mets originally and making as many as ten starts with the team following their initial big league promotion. By any measure, only the first two of those names qualify as what you’d call long-term Met rotation stalwarts. Niese is an unfinished product and a not altogether known commodity, given that he’s had only 64 starts…yet in a sense, he’s the closest thing we’ve had to a Koosman or a Matlack since Koosman and Matlack.

Talk about a lefthanded compliment.