Why the Mets are starting Max Scherzer in Game 1 and holding Jacob deGrom. Does the decision make sense?

For every headline writer and every fan, for most of the season, there have been two choices for describing the New York Mets’ pitching plan in a crucial moment: Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom, or Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer. Yet with the playoffs beginning Friday, and the 101-win Mets backed into a best-of-three wild-card series against the San Diego Padres, manager Buck Showalter is reportedly going with Door No. 3: Scherzer and then we’ll see.

That flips the existing order of the two aces, and leaves deGrom’s next start up in the air, technically. The idea, per the New York Post’s Joel Sherman, is to hold deGrom until the Mets face an elimination game in the wild-card series. If they sweep, great, deGrom will pitch Game 1 of the NLDS against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The factors and considerations that led to this decision — and that will inevitably follow as the postseason unfolds — are endlessly complicated. We can’t know everything that went into the strategy, but we can break down what it might signal, and how it affects the Mets’ chances of navigating a daunting road to the World Series.

What goes into Mets’ choice between Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom?

Heading into the crucial series against the Atlanta Braves that turned into a season-altering failure, the Mets lined up their rotation so that it went deGrom-Scherzer-Chris Bassitt. Once the Braves clinched the NL East and Game 162 was rendered meaningless, the Mets kept deGrom out of Wednesday's scheduled start and could have rolled right into a repeat of the Atlanta alignment for the wild-card series against San Diego.

So why change it? There are a few possibilities, and they get tangled up fast.

The big unknown that definitely matters here is health. Both deGrom and Scherzer have been managing injuries. For deGrom, it’s a blood blister on his throwing hand, which has apparently developed during a stretch where he's looked mortal, allowing three or more runs in four straight starts. For Scherzer, it’s an oblique that has sidelined him on two different occasions this year. Perhaps the Mets think there is something to be gained from giving deGrom more time before his next start.

A related but not completely overlapping consideration is how Scherzer, deGrom and Bassitt react to different amounts of rest between starts. This isn’t so much about the wild-card series — everyone will have had five or more days rest — but, at the risk of putting the cart before the horse, it starts to matter quickly if the Mets advance.

Scherzer’s career numbers show no significant difference on the traditional four days rest compared to the en vogue five days rest. If you narrow it to the past five seasons, however, Scherzer defies contemporary wisdom:

  • Scherzer, 4 days rest: 2.16 ERA in 56 starts since 2018

  • Scherzer, 5 days rest: 3.17 ERA in 50 starts since 2018

Bassitt aligns with the growing MLB trend toward more rest (and normal human nature). He has performed better with more rest throughout his career.

  • Bassitt, 4 days rest: 4.12 ERA in 44 career starts

  • Bassitt, 5 days rest: 3.26 ERA in 49 career starts

His numbers with 6+ days of rest are even better, but largely irrelevant to postseason planning.

The picture is more complicated for deGrom. He has been several different pitchers in his career. Since 2018, when he turned into a batter-eating monster, there is little difference between his numbers on four vs. five days rest. Even within that stretch, there’s a divide. His average fastball velocity leapt from 96.5 to 99 mph prior to 2020, and his track record of health began getting spotty. Looking at that more limited sample — he has made a total of 38 starts in those three years — the rest looks more important.

  • deGrom, 4 days rest: 2.68 ERA in 17 starts since 2020

  • deGrom, 5 days rest: 2.22 ERA in 11 starts since 2020

In 10 starts with six or more days rest over that stretch, part of which accounts for games coming off the IL, deGrom has a ridiculous 0.78 ERA.

After stumbling into a wild-card series, the Mets must decide how to deploy their aces, Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
After stumbling into a wild-card series, the Mets must decide how to deploy their aces, Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Can the Mets really eliminate the wild-card disadvantage?

When you combine those top-level numbers with the thought that maybe deGrom could benefit from extra rest after a rough patch, you can start to see the case for Showalter and company’s reported plan.

The fact that the Mets fell behind the Braves in the NL East necessitates and complicates this planning. If they advance to the NLDS, they will have to play at least five, and as many as eight, baseball games in 10 days. The first goal is to have Scherzer and deGrom pitch as many of those games as possible without compromising their elite effectiveness. The second goal is to limit the number of starts required from the back of the rotation — in this case either Carlos Carrasco or Taijuan Walker.

If the Mets’ grand plan works — a phrase that, yes, looks ridiculous even as I type it — then Scherzer and Bassitt sweep the Padres in two games. That would allow them to turn the tables on the vaunted Los Angeles Dodgers and enter the NLDS with their deGrom-Scherzer one-two punch ready to go despite the wild-card hurdle. A two-game Mets wild-card sweep would set them up like this:

  • NLDS Game 1: deGrom on 10 days rest

  • NLDS Game 2: Scherzer on 4 days rest

  • NLDS Game 3: Bassitt on 5 days rest

  • NLDS Game 4: Walker or Carrasco, presumably well-rested

  • NLDS Game 5: deGrom on 4 days rest

It would be a gigantic win! Turning the rotation over in this specific way heading into the NLDS would go a long way to eliminating the advantage the Dodgers gain with a bye. Teams in those cushy top seeds are already at least a little concerned about how they will manage the excess time off the new playoff format provides, and what effect it might have. Surely facing the Mets' top three pitchers in order wouldn’t help.

Of course, the question is whether aiming for that ideal version of the world is worth it. You can already hear the talk radio callers bellowing that Showalter and the Mets' front office got too cute when the Mets drop one of the games against San Diego.

On the immediate matter of who to start in Game 1, I have to side with the thrust of the Mets’ strategy. Starting deGrom in Game 1 sets him up for more starts on four days rest, and pushes Scherzer into a more fluid schedule that may call for an extended break between starts or eliminate his ability to be available out of the bullpen at crucial times, like in NLDS Game 5.

That may be particularly unappealing given Scherzer’s contention that his playoff injury struggles in 2021 were a product of not pitching enough after his move to the Dodgers. His theory sounds a bit dubious — and the Dodgers told The Athletic he was largely in control of his workload — but his numbers, against all normal logic, support the idea that he might be better when kept on the traditional schedule.

The more questionable part of the supposed plan is holding deGrom out of Game 2 in the event of a series lead. When you line up the possibilities, the worst scenario for the Mets that doesn’t involve being eliminated by the Padres is losing Game 2. The pitfalls would include squeezing deGrom's schedule and knocking both aces off schedule for a theoretical NLDS Game 5.

Ultimately, the Mets have more information than we are privy to about the status of their aces. Maybe aiming for their idealized rotation is merely a byproduct of getting deGrom back in peak form. Maybe all of this should serve as a reminder that Bassitt and his fellow No. 3 starters around the league might be equally as vital to their teams’ cause.

Watching Scherzer and deGrom work can understandably make perfection seem attainable. But as the Mets are painfully aware, plotting for perfection doesn’t necessarily help achieve it. When something as unpredictable as October baseball lies ahead, there will be unforeseen consequences to every decision. The one almost unimpeachable decision, if he’s physically ready, is sending deGrom to the mound. He gives the Mets the best chance to win. And it’s the winning that creates the wiggle room.