Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Let's Go Mets

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, October 2, 2008:
This year was hard, but last year was harder. Such are the crumbs on which Mets fans, bred for heartbreak by their National League ancestors in this town, must feed.

Yankee fans, accustomed to greatness, were stunned once it became clear they would have to yield their playoff seat, assured for 13 consecutive years, to the upstarts from Tampa Bay. But philosophically they chalked up the outcome to a rash of injuries, over-reliance upon unproven pitchers, and a new field manager. Next year, in a new stadium, with C.C. Sabathia every fifth (or fourth) day will be different, they tell themselves

The same might be said for the Mets, who stumbled into an odd symmetry with their rivals. In their final year at their doomed ballparks, each club finished with a record of 89-73, more or less on merit. Statistical analysts rely upon baseball’s “Pythagorean Theorem,” a formula that estimates a team’s winning percentage given their runs scored and runs allowed. (Tracked historically over all of baseball history, trust me, it works.) In its rough form, precise enough for this discussion, it awards an extra win beyond the breakeven point (81-81 over a full season) for every ten runs scored beyond those given up. The 2008 Mets scored 799 runs and allowed 715, yielding a predicted record of ... 89 wins and 73 losses.

The Yankees’ run differential (789 scored, 727 allowed) predicts a mark of 87-75 ... so they marginally outperformed their talent level. A thorough review of the Yankees’ season and their objectives for 2009 awaits another day. Suffice it to say here that their problem is NOT, despite what you may read elsewhere, pitching. In 2008 they allowed 50 fewer runs than in 2007 but scored an amazing 179 fewer.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Mets pitchers yielded 35 fewer runs this year than last while scoring about the same (804 to 799). The earth shuddered whenever manager Jerry Manuel waved to the bullpen, but once Billy Wagner went down with injury, there really was no choice but to play an out-by-out matchup game for the last three innings of any game that John Santana didn’t start. Even pitchers of previously demonstrated ability like Pedro Feliciano, Aaron Heilman, Joe Smith, Luis Ayala, Scott Schoenweis, and Duaner Sanchez blew up from overuse. Of those just named, the first four finished among the top seven in the league in appearances, with Feliciano heading the list at an absurd 86 games.

Santana led the league in ERA, and with adequate bullpen support would easily have won 20 and perhaps the Cy Young Award, rather than finishing 16-7, 2.53. But the other starters must shoulder their share of the blame for not going deep enough into the game to lessen the late-inning pressure.

The Yankees’ Mike Mussina, who at age 39 became the oldest man in baseball history to win 20 games, has an interesting theory as to what is expected of a pitcher in the high-scoring post-expansion era, when complete games have become rare and a notional “quality start” (six runs pitched with three or fewer runs scored) has become a reasonable management goal. Mussina told Tyler Kepner of the Times this week that good pitchers win half their starts, i.e., that the combination of their losses and no-decision games do not exceed their victories. “He has done that almost precisely,” Kepner wrote, “going 270-153 in 536 career starts.” In 2008 Moose won 20 of his 34 starts while losing only nine.

By that measure of success, Santana came close with 16 victories in 34 starts (the bullpen blew nine games in which he departed with a lead). But look at the record of the Mets’ other principal starters:

Oliver Perez won 10 of his 34 starts
Mike Pelfrey won 13 of his 32
John Maine won 10 of his 25
Pedro Martinez won 5 of his 20

And yet ... for all the pitching failures, the Mets allowed fewer runs than all but five other NL clubs, and four of those made it into the playoffs. General Manager Omar Minaya should welcome help from faraway places (like Kansas City), especially in the closer role (KC’s Joakim Soria is a stud; try not to grind your teeth about Ambiorix Burgos), but don’t blow up this staff.

A further recommendation: rehire Jerry Manuel to manage. In the games after Willie Randolph was shown the door, the Mets went 55-38, a .591 clip that translates to a full season record of 96-62 (the Phils finished at 92-70).

Patient readers may be scratching their heads by now — so how did this team, with three players who scored 110 or more runs (Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, David Wright) and three who drove in 110 or more (Beltran, Wright, Carlos Delgado) — ever lose a game, especially in the months when Wagner was around? Here comes the distressing part: after them, no Met drove in as many as 50, and only Church (with 54) scored that many. The Mets could be pitched to in the late innings. The catching platoon of Brian Schneider and Ramon Castro did not hit. Second base was a black hole, with 38-year-old reserve Damion Easley and Argenis Reyes combining with creaky Luis Castillo to create the weakest output at this position in the majors (the endearingly energetic but hopeless Reyes, in 110 at bats, had neither a double nor a triple while batting .218). In the final four games of the season, the Mets’ starting second baseman was 35-year-old September callup Ramon Martinez, who had been in the minors all year long. The Phils, meanwhile, put Chase Utley in their lineup every day.

Reyes, Wright, Beltran, and Carlos Delgado gave the Mets a “big four” arguably unmatched in baseball in 2008. But in their wish to depart Shea Stadium with a bang rather than a whimper, Minaya bet big on experience, notably with Moises Alou, Pedro Martinez, Oliver Hernandez, Easley and Castillo. The unexpectedly rapid development of Mike Pelfrey eased the pitching miscalculation while the out-of-left-field arrival of Fernando Tatis addressed the lefthanded tilt of the Met lineup that Alou’s re-signing had been intendeded to offset. But Tatis’s late-season injury, when added to the ineffectiveness of Ryan Church after his return from post-concussion syndrome, furthered by the season-long deterioration of the prematurely aged Castillo, led to a further reliance upon rookies and retreads.

Not to knock the contributions of Daniel Murphy, Nick Evans, Robinson Cancel, Brian Stokes, et al. — but with the possible exception of Murphy, who will work this fall in Arizona to smooth his play at second base, the future fortunes of the club will not depend on any of them. Minaya needs for 2009 the same thing he needed at the beginning of this season — a righthanded bat in left field, and it would be naive to look to Tatis or Evans for that. In 2008 twelve men started at least one game in left. (Remember Andy Phillips? Chris Aguila? Brian Clark? Angel Pagan? Trot Nixon?) This cannot be repeated.

While you’re at it, Omar, get another starting pitcher — or two, if some team is willing to overpay for Perez, whose chronic midgame wildness renders him at best a Number Four man in a rotation. Get a hitter to play second base or catcher — simply decide where defense is more important. Typically the greater need for defense is behind the plate, so it might be prudent to retain Schneider. Will Murphy play second base deficiently? Yes. But limited range at that position is a Met tradition, with Ken Boswell, Wally Backman, Tim Teufel, Carlos Baerga, and Edgardo Alfonzo in his later years.

Should you pick up Delgado’s option? Of course. It will cost $12 million, but a buyout will set you back a third of that, so his effective cost in 2009 will be $8 million, a price at which no free-agent alternative will be found. If Pedro wishes to come back on a one-year deal for that amount, roll the dice and re-up, hoping that the models of Jamie Moyer and Mussina will inspire Pedro to remake himself yet again.

As I said, on to the Yankees next time. But Omar, if you want to talk about any of this, give me a call.

--John Thorn


Blogger Stuart Shea said...

Excellent piece. I love reading this kind of on-point, on-the-scene analysis. I now know 100% more about the Mets than I did.

1:52 AM  
Blogger Matt said...

John, will you be appearing in Ken Burns' 10th inning of Baseball?

3:08 PM  
Blogger John Thorn said...

Yes, unless I fall to the cutting room floor between now and airdate in 2010 ... which is always possible!


3:15 PM  

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