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Gil Meche and the Breakout Season

Here's one I've been hearing for what feels like forever. If reputation were everything, Meche would already be preparing his Cooperstown induction speech, because listening to Mariner officials and team broadcasters, you'd think he has the stuff that dreams are made of. Remarkable, then, that despite his otherworldly arsenal, hitters have torched him to the tune of a .261/.339/.430 batting line and a 4.70 ERA. Why, it must be only a matter of time before Gil figures everything out and finally becomes the ace the Mariners thought they always had.

Is it true? I'd say we've all been conditioned to think so. In every start he makes, we keep hearing about Gil fulfilling his potential, gaining some consistency to go with what's purportedly a million dollar arm. But I, for one, have grown tired of it. It's high time we take a closer look to see if Gil is really on the verge of breaking out.

The first order of business is to figure out where all this talk is coming from. Why Gil? What makes him so special? The answer lies in the fact that, nine years ago, he was a first-round draft pick. Clearly, nearly a decade ago, somebody saw a lot of potential talent in Meche's right arm, the same talent that we have yet to observe in the Majors. So that's the heart of the matter. We're putting a lot of weight on the opinions of the same talent evaluators whose "prizes" of the 1996 draft include Meche, Denny Stark, and Jeff Farnsworth.

So is the fact that his talent and potential are routinely talked up by suits and broadcasters unique to Gil? Hardly. Here's a partial list of pitchers taken in the first round of the same draft:

Kris Benson
John Patterson
Adam Eaton
Eric Milton
Nick Bierbrodt

Every one of these guys has gotten the same treatment, Benson and Eaton in particular. Their reputations don't match their performance records because a lot of people are still clinging to the idea that they looked really good nine years ago.

Of course, that Gil was chosen so high in the draft isn't the only reason he's looked at so fondly. He was pretty effective out of Everett's rotation the year after getting selected, and then he took off in 1998, striking out more than ten batters per nine innings with A-ball Wisconsin. Although his control was spotty (3.81 BB/9), he threw hard, he missed bats, and dammit, he just looked like a pitcher. And so it was decided - Meche and Ryan Anderson (who also struck out a ton of batters on the same Wisconsin pitching staff) were the aces of the future.

From there, though, things only went downhill. Meche's strikeouts took a hit while his walks remained a problem. Rushed to the Majors, he put up a 0.82 K/BB over 85.2 innings in 1999, yet still showed enough ability to stick around and break camp on the 2000 roster. He came out looking like a better pitcher, but then he shredded his shoulder and missed nearly two full years of action while rehabbing. The fact that he was even able to come back at all is incredible, considering the rate at which labrum surgery tends to put pitchers out of commission.

Since returning from what really was a serious, career-threatening injury, Meche has been handled...strangely by the organization. After spending the second half of the 2002 season pitching ineffectively in San Antonio, Meche was tossed into the Major League rotation and allowed to make 32 starts despite a recent medical history that would've made Jim Andrews sick to his stomach. Predictably, he wore down over the course of the season, and even at the start of 2004 he didn't look quite right. The organization grew weary of Gil's antics and demoted him early in the summer, even thought it was their own fault for expecting so much out of the guy so quickly. He came back looking like a different pitcher, but somewhere between October 2004 and April 2005 the light switch turned off and Meche regressed into one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball. Everything about him went south, including his health, as he suffered from patellar tendinitis, shoulder tightness, and dead arm at different points of the season.

And now Gil's back for one more go-round before becoming a free agent. Will this finally be his breakthrough season, or is he doomed to a career of Estes-esque overpaid mediocrity?

In short, the latter looks way more likely. Just look at a collection of potential indicators that a guy might be on the verge of taking his performance to the next level:

Gradually improving control of the strike zone. Meche's walk rate has increased each of the last three years while his strikeouts took a plunge between 2004 and 2005. Perhaps more importantly, at no point in his Major League career has Gil Meche shown the ability to both rack up the strikeouts and limit walks. When he's doing one of them, he's not doing the other. There's probably a connection between the two that explains why this is so.

Pitching lower in the zone. Meche has always been an extreme flyball pitcher, with a career GB/FB of 0.92. It's never varied from this mark by more than 0.09 over a full season. When he had his supposed "rejuvenation" in the second half of '04, Gil was even more flyball-friendly, which is a difficult characteristic for a pitcher to overcome, particularly when he has so many other problems.

Becoming more efficient. In 2004, Gil Meche threw 18.0 pitches per inning, second-worst in the Majors. In 2005, he threw 18.0 pitches per inning, worst in the Majors. There's no positive trend here. Even in 2003, when he was at his best, he still ranked in the bottom quarter.

Pitching better against same-handed batters. It's not just the lefties who're teeing off on Meche. His K/BB against righties has dropped from 3.32 to 2.35 to 0.75 over the last three seasons. If a right-handed pitcher can't succeed against right-handed batters, then he's got some major problems to work out.

Improving in the early innings of the game. A lot of times you'll see a pitcher struggle out of the gate, throwing a lot of pitches in the first few innings and making it difficult to reach the seventh. Gil? Getting worse. Looking at K/BB in the first three innings between 2003-2005 again, he's gone from 2.06 to 2.22 to 1.18. There was a little improvement in 2004, but like practically everything else, it went to hell in 2005.

I shouldn't need to keep going, because by now the point should be pretty clear - in looking at his recent performance record, I see absolutely no statistical indication that Gil Meche is about to take off and have his big breakthrough season. All the trend arrows are pointing in the wrong direction. They could turn around just as quickly as they reversed the first time, but it's not like Gil had an established baseline as a successful Major League pitcher prior to 2005, so he needs to do more than simply revert to 2003 or 2004 form. Think of it this way: if the typical Gil Meche was at "0", with acehood being at "3", the 2005 Meche was a "-1". So in 2006, not only does he need to take that one step forward to get back to where he used to be, but he needs to take another few steps beyond that to achieve what so many people have expected for so many years. That's a lot of work for a guy to do in one year.

Gil does have one thing working in his favor, though - he just turned 27 in September, and since he essentially missed two years due to injury, you could say that his "pitching age" is closer to 25. Not that there have ever been any real decisive studies showing that a younger pitching age really means anything, but much of a guy's success comes from his experience, and Gil doesn't have as much as your standard 27 year old. While he's through developing physically, there's still the potential for a lot of mental growth with Gil, which could help him immensely on the mound. He always seems to come off as kind of thin-skinned and lacking confidence, which aren't the kinds of attributes you look for in a successful starter.

It's worth noting just how quickly Gil was able to turn things around in 2004. After spending less than two months working with Cal McLish and starting for the Rainiers, Meche came back to the Mariners a different pitcher, allowing more fly balls and recording fewer strikeouts, but significantly reducing his walks at the same time. Although the "new Meche" wasn't nececessarily a good one (his second-half FIP was still in the mid-4's), he still made a fairly dramatic change over a pretty brief period of time, suggesting that he's still moldable, so to speak. And a lot of this goes back to his pitching age - with less experience under his belt, along with a ton of what broadcasters like to call "adversity," Meche is still reasonably impressionable, to the point where, if he's sucking, you can totally change things up and try to get him pitching differently. That's rarely a good idea with most guys, who have established routines and pitching mechanics, but it's not like you're running the risk of losing a quality pitcher forever by doing that with Meche. You keep trying things out until you find something that works, because the alternative is that he stays how he is, and he keeps on sucking.

Ideally, the Mariners would be able to get Meche back to where he was in Wisconsin, but here's the problem with that - it's entirely possible that Meche's early mechanics, the same ones that made him a first-round draft pick and successful young pitcher in A-ball, directly led to his injury problems. That's the risk you run when you bring in good pitchers with funky deliveries - you just hope that they're able to avoid going under the knife, because you know that trying to smooth the kinks out might change who they are as a pitcher. I don't know what Meche looked like seven years ago, so I'm just throwing this out there as a possibility, but it's worth considering.

Ordinarly, a guy like Meche would be project #1 for a team's pitching coach, but with Felix and Pineiro hanging around, he might get bumped down to #3 on the list of priorities for Rafael Chaves. Nevertheless, where it felt like Meche and Bryan Price had a less-than-ideal relationship, everyone seems to get along with Chaves and obey his instructions. For that reason alone, I'd say that Meche should stand a better chance of improving in 2006 than he would were Price still around.

How much of an improvement will it be, though? And can you really say that Meche still has the talent that made him a #1 pick when he's undergone a major shoulder operation that ruins many a pitcher's career? It might be enough just to try and get Meche back to where he was in 2003 and let him enter free agency as something of a sleeper, but honestly, I think a lot of the upside is gone. Statistically, he looks hopeless, and even if you just look at Meche as a talented arm without paying attention to the results, it seems probable that he left at least a fraction of his ability on the surgeon's table when he had his labrum repaired. And if that's the case, then what's the best-case scenario here? That Meche ends up turning in a bunch of full seasons like the half-season he had in 2004, when he was a flyball-prone pitcher with a low walk rate? Is an FIP around 4.50 really worth all the hassle?

Gil Meche, like many pitchers his age, has the potential to be better than he currently is. As a former first-round draft pick who showed a lot of ability in the low minors, he probably has a little more than most, although given his medical history, exactly how much he has left is debateable. By themselves, these are good things, and they bode well for Meche's future, but baseball's history is littered with guys who never lived up to their ability, and looking at how Meche has performed in the Majors to date, he's already well on his way to joining them. I do think he'll improve. I do think there's a chance that, some time down the road, he turns into the next Esteban Loaiza. That said, I think there's a much better chance that he just lives out his days as another Brett Tomko, and while that's not awful, nobody was pointing to Tomko as one of the impact starters on the free agent market this past winter. So in the end, sure, Gil Meche has the potential to have a breakout season. But a breakout season for Gil Meche is a standard season for most everyone else, and that just isn't worth the anticipation.