PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The self-analysis began even before September drew to a close. As he prepared to head back home to Texas, where he once built himself up from a 21st-round Draft pick into a bona fide Major Leaguer, Dillon Gee sought to explain why he always performed better at the end of each season than at the beginning.
Gee's quest eventually took him to the weight room, where the Mets' strength staff offered a novel suggestion: maybe coming into Spring Training bigger and stronger every year was not the answer. Maybe Gee, despite his sport's culture of perpetual workout programs and ingrained machismo, would be better served scaling back his offseason strength work.
So rather than maxing out his weightlifting to bulk up for the summer, Gee spent the winter doing the same types of workouts he typically did in May, June, July. Why change?
His hope was to be in midseason form on Opening Day, a goal that this year seems more crucial than ever. The Mets recently named Gee their Opening Day starter, lining him up to pitch Monday against Stephen Strasburg and the Nationals.
"Pitchers, we're not like position players," said Gee, who punctuated his near-flawless spring with six hitless innings in his final Grapefruit League outing Wednesday. "We don't have to be big and strong to pitch good. You just have to find what's right for you to be able to maintain it, rather than having to fluctuate trying to find that sweet spot."
Gee's eyes drifted around the Mets' clubhouse when he said it. Top pitching prospect Noah Syndergaard, he noted, owns a different body type and a different set of goals; lifting as much weight as possible is what makes Syndergaard comfortable. Closer Bobby Parnell, by contrast, is lanky and lean. Heavy lifting is not as important to him.
Gee figures he is somewhere in between. During prior offseasons he would gradually add weight to his exercises, ultimately heading to Port St. Lucie in phenomenal shape. But it was unsustainable. The long grind of a season wore him down, forcing him to scale back his weightlifting as the temperature warmed.
This year, Gee maxed out his exercises at a fraction of what he once lifted. His body endured less stress. Last year, Gee arrived at camp under 200 pounds for the first time since his college days; this year, he flew to Florida comfortably over that mark.
"I was doing the same workouts, but I just tried to stick to a weight that I was going to be able to maintain," Gee said. "Now I'm at a weight and strength where I'm doing things that are maintainable while I'm pitching, rather than having to taper them down throughout the year. Now it's easy to keep it up. Last year, I felt like I had to lose muscle mass, lose some of the tightness before I started pitching well, and then it became easy to maintain it the rest of the season.
"This game, I feel like you're always trying to find something to make you better. But sometimes we have a tendency to maybe try to do too much to get better. It just comes with experience, finding what's best for yourself."
If the secret to success is that simple, the Mets will be thrilled. One of the worst pitchers in baseball last April and May, Gee was -- no exaggeration here -- one bad outing away from losing his job when he started at Yankee Stadium on May 30. He struck out 12 that night over 7 1/3 innings of one-run ball, sparking an 18-start run in which he went 9-3 with a 2.40 ERA. Only eventual National League Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw earned as many wins over that span with that low of an ERA.
The Mets took notice. At a charity event shortly after the season, chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon called Gee, Jon Niese, David Wright and Zack Wheeler the only Mets players with guaranteed jobs heading into February. When Niese, last year's Opening Day starter, began missing spring outings due to arm trouble, the Mets named Gee their March 31 starter over Bartolo Colon, the club's $20 million offseason investment.
"Bartolo is certainly as deserving as anybody," manager Terry Collins said while talking about the Opening Day nod given to Gee, who will become the organization's eighth homegrown Opening Day starter. "[Colon] won 18 games last year. But there's something about being in this organization, being a Met, and the job that Dillon has done the last three years in this organization, what he's done on the mound. I just thought it was his turn."
Gee jokes that he is the Opening Day starter "by default," knowing that even with another strong season, Niese, Wheeler, Matt Harvey and Syndergaard could all leap ahead of him on the Mets' depth chart one year from now. He's used to it, rarely having felt secure throughout his big league career.
But Gee also understands himself better than ever. He understands his body and the task at hand.
"I'm not worried about starting Opening Day," he said. "I'm not worried about where my career is going. I'm worried about the process that I have in place to pitch the best that I can. Whatever happens after that happens."