Friday, August 5, 2011

The Mets' Unlikely Pitching Savior

Friday, August 5, 2011

ATLANTA—On the day that would determine whether professional baseball was in his future, Dillon Gee went swimming.

It was the final day of the 2007 draft and Gee, then a junior at the University of Texas at Arlington, hadn't been picked. But rather than follow the draft online, as most players do, Gee spent the day wading in the pool and flipping burgers on the grill in his buddy's backyard.

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Dillon Gee pitches against the Pirates in Pittsburgh on June 10. Gee has emerged as a potential All-Star, going 7-0 with a 3.05 ERA so far.

"I figured well, if I get picked, I get picked," Gee said. "If I don't, I don't. I'm not going to sit here and fret over it."

If Gee frets over anything, the Mets have yet to discover it. On the mound and in the clubhouse, he seems perpetually at ease, a man seemingly without a care in the world. It is his most distinctive trait, and it is part of what has made him an All-Star candidate in his rookie season.

Through nine starts and three relief appearances this season, Gee is 7-0 with a 3.05 ERA, and the Mets are undefeated when he starts. He will look to remain unbeaten Wednesday when he starts against the Atlanta Braves. But even if he fails, he has already vastly exceeded expectations.

Since 2000, only one other rookie has opened the season with a winning streak or seven or more games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Jered Weaver started 9-0 for the Los Angeles Angels in 2006. But Weaver was a top prospect, a former first-round draft pick.

Gee (pronounced JEE) was the 663rd overall pick. He signed with the Mets for just $20,000. His career was nearly cut short by a torn labrum in his shoulder in 2009. And as recently as 2010, he was installing air conditioners in the offseason to earn extra money.

Yet here he is, the Mets' best pitcher at the moment, looking as relaxed as he did that day by the pool.

"It's not so much the way he pitches," teammate R.A. Dickey said. "For me, it's much more his state of mind when he's out there. He just looks very unflappable and very consistent mentally. He doesn't get shaken or rattled easily. It's a real mature way to be, and I think it's going to help facilitate him being up here for a while."

Gee's style of pitching mirrors his state of mind. It's nothing to get overly excited about. He throws his fastball at a pedestrian speed of 89.5 mph, on average, according to the baseball statistics site His strikeout rate (6.4 strikeouts per nine innings this year) is good but not exceptional.

So how is he plowing through the National League? Luck is part of it. Only 24.4% of batted balls against him have fallen in for hits this year, the fourth-lowest rate among N.L. pitchers with at least 60 innings pitched. But there are other factors that are more sustainable.

For one thing, Gee, a 25-year-old right-hander, has a deep enough repertoire to keep hitters guessing. He throws mostly fastballs, changeups and curveballs. And he recently learned how to throw a cutter, which has replaced his slider as his fourth pitch.

"You pick a pitch in any count, and he believes he can throw it," manager Terry Collins said.

Staying out of unfavorable situations hasn't hurt, either. According to the scouting service Inside Edge, Gee has fallen into three-ball counts only 16% of the time, 4% below the major-league average. He has retired the first batter of an inning 74% of the time, 7% above average.

"That's just always what I've been taught growing up," Gee said. "Just work fast, hit your spots and let the game go from there."

With that, Gee shrugged, leaned back in the chair by his locker and resumed scanning his iPad. He had another start to prepare for, another chance to show, yet again, that he belongs. He has come too far, against all odds, to let all this slip away.

But he's not about to get all worked up about it.

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