Amazin’ly Average (so far)

With a day off today, the Mets have time to reflect on losing six of their last seven games. Things could look pretty pretty crappy right now. 

But a day off is also a good time to put something in a broader picture: it’s nothing short of miraculous that the Mets were in a position to lose six of seven games and still have a 32-29 record in the middle of June. 

This team could have folded a long time ago. What reasons could they have had for throwing in the towel and calling it an inevitable losing season? 

  • Ike Davis, supposed to be a core part of our lineup, has arguably been the worst hitter in baseball this year with a .162 average. 
  • The Mets have a bullpen ERA of 5.46. The next highest ERA in MLB? The Cubs at 4.41. According to sources at the Elias Sports Bureau, that’s like really, really bad. 
  • In March, more people would have thought Omar Quintanilla was a new dish at Taco Bell instead of the team’s latest shortstop for the last stretch of time. 
  • Mike Pelfrey. Season-ending surgery. Remember him?
  • Jason Bay is still the Jason Bay of the Mets. He’s hitting .197. 
  • Andres Torres, who has played 38 games this season in primarily centerfield, is hitting .209. 
  • The Mets may need to move the fences in another 20 feet if Daniel Murphy wants to start knocking it out of the park. In 232 at-bats, he has yet to homer. 
  • The Mets have a run differential of -19. 
  • The team ace, Johan Santana, began the season returning from a shoulder surgery people were unsure he’d ever recover from.

The fact that they are above .500 despite all of this is incredible. 

This year, the NL East was meant to be a race between four teams, with the poor ‘ole Mets limping their way to another rough finish. In March, don’t you think everyone other than a Mets fan would have laughed at the notion that they’d be above .500 at this point in the season? What if you told those people they’d be above .500 given everything up there? 

Before the season, 50 ESPN writers made predictions for the MLB season. Not one of the 50 said the Mets would win the NL East or claim either of the wild card slots. Each of the other four teams in the division received plenty of mentions in the predictions. 

And right now, the Mets are pretty average. And average isn’t acceptable, in the long run. Nor does it mean the Mets will be average at the end of the season—they could be better or worse. 

But, take a look at the lineup they’re trotting out there on a daily basis, the stiff competition in the NL East, the injuries, the pitching—isn’t it pretty goddamn amazin’ that the Mets are average at this point? 

And Ike Davis won’t hit .162 all season. The bullpen can’t have a 5.46 ERA all season (they can’t be that bad…right? right?). Daniel Murphy will probably end the season with a home run and an OPS above his current mark of .690, because he’s just a better hitter than that. 

Maybe Omar Quintanilla will be a recognizable name among Mets fans by the end of the season because the dude is hitting .314 with a .956 OPS. 

And Johan’s arm is only going to get stronger. 

It’s pretty awesome that the Mets are in a position to compete right now. Between the disastrous bullpen, major holes in the lineups and injuries to critical players there was a lot of room for this team to be dreadful. Miserable. Terrible. God awful. 

Yet here they are. 32-29. 

A lot of these problems can be fixed over the next couple months—at 32-29 the Mets have a legitimate shot of winning the NL East or a Wild Card birth. With everything that has hit the fan so far this season, that’s pretty freakin’ amazin’. 

A Reminder to Believe

I rarely have trouble believing. 

But with the Mets, particularly in the last couple years, reasons to validate those beliefs have been few and far between. Not that believing needs validation—the funny thing about faith is that it needs no justification—but it’s nice every once in a while. Otherwise, us fans might go and build a golden calf or something. 

The start to this season is has been an uplifting moment, reminding me why I believe. Whether the Mets finish 162-0 or 4-158, stretches like these are a taste of the deliciousness of fandom. 

And what’s best about the 4-0 start is how it is so antithetical to the pessimistic same-‘ole-Mets narrative that grows louder seemingly every season. 

Let’s take a game-by-game look at the Mets four wins to start the season: 

  • Game 1: Mets 1, Braves 0 - In his first start in over a season, Johan Santana throws five shutout innings, but leaves the game without a lead. Classic Mets, not giving Santana run support and ruining a day that should have been his glorious comeback. David Wright goes hitless in his first two at bats. Same ‘ole Mets, same ‘ole Wright of the last couple seasons. But wait—Wright notches an RBI single in the next inning, giving the team a 1-0 lead. The Mets have nowhere near good enough a bullpen to maintain a 1-0 lead, it’s just a matter of time until they blow it. Four relievers, three of whom were newly acquired in the off-season, combine to allow two hits and zero runs as the Mets win on opening day. 
  • Game 2: Mets 4, Braves 2 -No way the Mets can keep this up. The offense just isn’t good enough. Who cares about moving the walls in, this team just doesn’t have any power. Lucas Duda went hitless in the opener and isn’t actually a MLB hitter. Wright might have gone 2-for-4 in the opener, but as Keith Hernandez always says, Wright is only at his best when he’s going the opposite way and his RBI single was to left field. First inning, Wright homers the opposite way to right field. Fourth inning, Duda homers. Seventh inning, Duda homers again. Only one of the two jacks would have gone out at the old Citi Field. After R.A. Dickey allows just two runs in six innings, and the bullpen combines for three scoreless frames to make the Mets 2-0. 
  • Game 3: Mets 7, Braves 5OK, this has been nice but sweeping the hated Braves to start the season? Laughable. And is Ruben Tejada seriously going to lead off? That dude looks like he belongs more in the nine slot. Through six innings the Mets led 7-0. Unlike last game where they were carried by the longball, the Mets rally for all their runs, led by a 4-for-5 performance from Tejada in which he hits two doubles, registering two RBI and runs scored. And through six innings, Jon Niese has a no hitter going. It gets broken up in the seventh and after two unearned runs, and the Braves rally themselves back into the ballgame, down just 7-5 after eight innings. Classic Mets, pitcher takes a no-no into the 7th inning and we’re not even going to give him the win. The bullpen finally decides to blow a game, and it’s after a no-hit bid. Of course. Like the previous two games, Frank Francisco tosses a scoreless ninth while striking out the last batter he faces, giving the Mets a 3-0 start.
  • Game 4: Mets 4, Nationals 3 - Mike Pelfrey on the mound? The question isn’t winning or losing, it’s losing by how much. Pelfrey allows a run in the first inning and two more in the third, giving the Nats an early 3-0 lead. Told ya so! Just wait for the wheels to REALLY fall off. The Mets tack one on in the third and rookie Kirk Nieuwenhuis launches a bomb in the fourth, knotting the game up. Oh of course, tie this game up just to give us hope and break our hearts. The Mets WOULD do that. Pelfrey regains his composure, and grinds out more scoreless ball through 5.2, while the bullpen picks it up without allowing a hit for the remainder of the game. Daniel Murphy knocks home an RBI single in the ninth to a chorus of “undefeated” chants at Citi Field as the Mets move to 4-0. 

Now, the italics there, that wasn’t me. I’m not the self-loathing type. I wouldn’t be a fan, particularly of the Mets, if I didn’t have the capacity for irrational optimism. 

Those italics, however, are the narrative of what some people usually assign to the Mets. Maybe fans don’t actually do that and it’s just people on the radio but you hear it over and over again—same ‘ole Mets.

Everything the Mets could have done to shake our hope and keep us from believing in these first four contests, they have done the opposite. 

I’ve always remembered to believe, but these four games made me remember why. 

Forks in the Road

One heavily discussed topic of late is how a number of players on the Mets have something to prove. If not something to prove, they are in a nebulous area where it is unclear whether they deserve to be starters, platoon players, bench players, or some combination of the three. 

Unfortunately one of those is Daniel Murphy, who regularly looks uncomfortable in the field but was showing why he belongs in the bigs with his bat this year, hitting .320 in just under 400 ABs prior to going down for the season with a leg injury. 

Another one is Mike Pelfrey. Once a top draft pick and an annual tease on the hearts of Mets fans, he sometimes looks like he could be a very good middle of the rotation starter and innings-eater, while sometimes the 6-foot-7 righty looks more lost than talented.

A third is Angel Pagan who had a miserable start to the season hitting .159 in April prior to hitting the disabled list. He has been inconsistent since but has the potential to hit well from both sides of the plate, be athletic in the field, steal bases and provide pop as he has shown with long balls in two consecutive games entering play yesterday. 

Which directions could these three guys go? Below is a career comparison - a favorable one and an unfavorable one - for each of these three players, showing how these three players with their skill-sets could head in such different directions.

Daniel Murphy

Jason Philliips (unfavorable) - Remember him? He played the majority of the Mets’ games at 1B in 2003 and catcher in 2004. At 27 years old in 2003, he batted 5th in about half of his plate appearances and finished the season hitting .298 with an .815 OPS. Middle-of-the-order linchpin of the future, right? Wrong - in 2004, he hit .218 with a measly amount of power and was subsequently traded to the Dodgers for the man, the myth, Kazuhisa Ishii. Like Murphy, he was never particularly deft in the field but led fans to ignoring that through his strong 2003 season that seemingly showed he was a good enough major league hitter to make up for it. Hopefully Murphy is a better hitter - and he probably is - but the risk still exists for putting too much faith in a guy who hasn’t played a full season and doesn’t have a definite position.

Dmitri Young (favorable) - Now, not everybody would like to be favorably compared to Dmitri Young, the man who is listed on FanGraphs as weighing 298 lbs. Realistically though, if Murph’s career ends up like Young’s, he and fans should both be happy. In the 10-year span from 1998-2007 with the Reds, Tigers and Nationals, Young played above 100 games in eight of those seasons. Twice, he was an All-Star and regularly hit near .300 with an OPS above .800. In the 2003 season with the Tigers, he hit .297 with 29 HRs and a .909 OPS - numbers I think any fan would take from a full season of Murphy. Like Murphy, Young was a poor fielder with no clear position, playing 1B, 3B, LF and RF but made up for it by being a consistently good hitter. 

Mike Pelfrey

Kris Benson - Once upon a time, Kris Benson was the first pick of the MLB draft. With an ERA lower than 4.00 just once in his career, he was still always able to sell teams on the fact that he had potential, and stayed in the league through last year because of that. Every time he made a good start, he was finally starting to scratch his potential but every time he pitched poorly it was some catastrophic regression. Realistically, it probably just meant he was mediocre through and through. Pelfrey as he is now is a servicable Major League starter, just like how Benson was for the majority of his career. But people always expected Benson to be more because he was a top pick and the same has happened to Pelfrey - even if he may be a decent back of the rotation starter, he may never be the opening day front line guy that the Mets once expected him to be. 

Derek Lowe - Lowe’s career has been many places, and Pelfrey’s career path will never follow it exactly. Lowe was an elite closer in 2000, and transitioned to being a full-time starter afterwards. That said, as a starter Pelfrey ideally could end up like Lowe. He has had his ups and downs as a starter - 21 wins in 2002 with a 2.58 ERA with only 14 in 2004 at a 5.42 clip - but has always been a reliable rotation piece since then even if he hasn’t been an ace. I don’t think even the most ardent of the Big-Pelf-Optimists expect him to be an ace, but if he could be the type of sinker-balling-innings-eater-who-gets-the-job-done-even-without-striking-guys-out type of pitcher that Lowe has been for the Dodgers and Braves since 2005, he’d be an important part of any winning Mets club.

Angel Pagan 

Coco Crisp - Crisp is far cry from a bad player, but he is also a distance away from what many expected he could be. Once a big up-and-comer for the Red Sox and then the Indians, he has never turned out to be more than talented, athletic, but mediocre. He hasn’t hit more than 10 HRs since 2005 or knocked in more than 60 RBIs. He’s a very good defender, which makes it worth putting him in the lineup everyday. Pagan isn’t quite there yet defensively - he often takes bad routes and misplays balls - but he may get there with his athleticism. Yet, in terms of skills at the dish Pagan will ultimately be a disappointment if he cannot have a better career at the plate than Crisp. He showed the potential for being better last season, but with his regression in 2011 it seems far from a sure thing. 

Shane Victorino - Love him, or more probably hate him because he’s on the Phillies, Victorino embodies a lot of qualities that Pagan could and should if he reaches his potential. Although Victorino had a down year last year at the plate, from 2006 though this year he has effectively used his athleticism at the plate and in the field. He won a Gold Glove the last three seasons and consistently seems to hit a touch below .300 with some pop and speed - 10 or more HRs  and 25 or more SBs every year since ‘07. Ignoring their differences in grit and intangible qualities, if Pagan could become the type of defenisve and offensive threat that Victorino is, which he seems to have the tools to do, Pagan would have a great career. 

__

Fair or unfair, couldn’t Murphy, Pagan and Pelfrey go in those respective directions? Maybe through moves (or lack of moves) by the Mets during the 2011 off-season, we’ll see which direction Alderson and the front office thinks these players will go. 

Follow @andrewlbeaton on Twitter

Spy in the Press Box

One of my favorite baseball books I read as a kid was, “Moe Berg: The Spy Behind Home Plate.” If you aren’t familiar with the tale of Moe Berg, he was a major league catcher in the 20s and 30s, serving as a spy for the CIA afterwards. 

Saturday night, I felt like Moe Berg. Well, not really - but let me explain.

For reasons unrelated to Hot Foot, I had a press pass to Saturday night’s Mets-Angels game. The work I had to do was easily accomplished before the game started, so the rest of the evening I was able to just take in the experience from press row, the view behind the glass. 

To start off with, I had to make something clear to myself before I went to the game: even though I was credentialed, I am still clearly a fan. Going to one game with a press pass didn’t mean I was selling my fandom - even though my work was done, I was going to experience the entire press shabang for the novelty of, “hey, when am I going to be able to do this again?” 

The way I solidified this to myself, I wore my lucky Mets tube socks beneath my khakis and button down, so even if I were disguised as press, I still knew underneath I was a fan. Despite the white socks under khakis, I still felt overdressed among the other media types. 

For the record, these are the same lucky tube socks that were written about in Sports Illustrated, and the same socks that - when worn - have never resulted in a Mets’ loss. Thus, the outcome of Saturday night’s game was decided as early as when I got dressed in the morning. (For the record, this isn’t the type of thing I claim after the fact - I tweeted before the game that I was wearing the socks. They are very powerful, but I fear wearing them too often…you can’t stop them, you can only hope to contain them.)

Some parts of having the press pass were naturally awesome as a fan. Getting to see all the players just hangout in the locker room? Incredible - it made the human element of the game realer than it ever has been. The locker room itself is very nice, where the players hangout with their iPads, iPhones and the such. As a tournament Scrabble player, it was very tempting to offer players help in their games of “Words with Friends” but I figured that would be bad form and I held myself back.

Similarly, being on the field before the game and hanging out in the dugout was a phenomenal experience. I got to watch Fred Wilpon chat up Terry Collins behind the batting practice cage. Probably the coolest part was getting to watch the players go through drills. Outfielders had to shag fly-balls and hit cutoff men, just like on a high school baseball team. Hitters in the cage had to lay down bunts, with discerning coaches watching closely from the foul lines. My favorite was watching Chip Hale stand at 2B with a bat, and nail choppers to Lucas Duda standing at first, helping him with short hops and picking the ball. Clever. 

In the dugout, I became friendly with some of the reporters who were all interesting and happy to see a new face. There is an intriguing dynamic between the players and the press, where for the majority of the time the media-type are flies on the wall, while depending on one’s closeness with specific players can insert himself into the mix more often. Kevin Burkhardt for example, who does an outstanding job as the field-reporter for SNY and will undoubtedly do great things with his career - is clearly well respected and liked by the players, which allows him to banter and chat with them in a way that other journalists wouldn’t attempt to in the dugout.

Interesting side note - the players’ food spreads are obviously off-limits to the press. But there was a definite unwritten code that writers can take from the boxes of gum in the dugout. I saw almost every writer do it. Gotta wonder how weird things like that develop. They have cheap food options available to the press, but if I’m at Citi I’m going to take advantage of the awesome vendors. So yes, I waited 20 minutes for Shake Shack. It was worth it, and I was still back in my seat for the first pitch. 

Oh, did I mention my seat? I didn’t have a section number, a row number or a seat number - I got to sit in the press box. The view - although it’s through windows that open nearly all the way vertically - is fairly good. It’s on the 5th level - the same one with the luxury boxes and the annoucers’ booth - slightly up the left field line from home plate. But, let me tell you, as a fan there was nothing worse than the atmosphere inside the press box. 

Like I wrote on Twitter during the game, being in the press box was like being in purgatory. I was at the game, but not really. It’s the middle ground between being at the game physically, but not emotionally. You’re at the game, but watching through glass. The Mets score and you see and feel the crowd cheer, but you can’t do so yourself. I was antsier than a 3-year-old with chicken pox. 

Here’s a brief list of things I wanted to do, that I would do in the stands at a normal game, that I couldn’t from the press box:

  • Sing the national anthem
  • Cheer/Clap
  • Throw peanut shells on the ground
  • Spit sunflower seeds
  • Pay too much for beer*
  • Give nasty looks to fans of the opposing team
  • Do the wave
  • High-five strangers

Let me tell you, there was no worse feeling for me than seeing Carlos Beltran’s 460+ foot home run that landed at the back of the Shea Bridge, only to look around and not be able to high five the strangers sitting around me, as is completely customary to do in the stands of a game after something like that. I felt like a traitor. Probably like how Ice-T felt when he started playing a cop on television. My younger self would have despised it. Hell, my present self did. 

I went down to the locker room after the game, because hey, if I had the press pass I was going to ride it for what it’s worth. It was great getting to see the players joke around after a win, see them poke fun at each other and be normal people. Josh Thole teased Ruben Tejada about his luggage. Jose Reyes made fun of Jason Bay for showering so quickly. Scott Hairston and Willie Harris brought their kids in. I loved it, I ate it up. 

Unfortunately, the rest of the press, the beat writers, saw right through that. Many of them are great writers, who I was thrilled to meet…some of their columns I read religiously. But, they’re there just churning out a story. They all huddled around Mike Pelfrey’s locker until he walked in, waited until they got their quote and then moved to Carlos Beltran’s. Then Reyes’s. Just to crank out some post-game copy.

Thank god I’m back home now to read it - even if I do write professionally one day, I never want baseball to become a chore. 

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: August 9

The Good

There isn’t much that I’d define as “good,” but how about we go with “encouraging” instead? Let’s apply that to the fact that General Manager Omar Minaya has decided to infuse a touch of youth onto the roster. I don’t know if there’s anybody who doesn’t like Alex Cora, but we all know he wasn’t going to start the amount of games necessary for his vesting option to kick in, and he wasn’t very effective anyway. Jesus Feliciano is a guy who I’ve never seen swing so hard to hit a ball 6 feet in front of him. The Mets welcomed Ruben Tejada and Fernando Martinez back to the Majors, and Luis Castillo has been delegated to a bench role. Is this the answer? No. But it is encouraging that some young guys are here to play.

The Bad

Can anybody answer what the hell’s going on with Mike Pelfrey? Anybody? Bueller? I remember how, after a month of a half into the season, Small Pelf was a part of early Cy Young and All-Star game discussions. Any discussion concerning Pelfrey now pretty much always starts with “I don’t know…” Why? He’s a guy with all the talent in the world, and clearly has the ability to be an extremely effective pitcher. His fall from grace this year has been nothing short of alarming, and if the Mets are going to at the very least make the last two months of the season remotely interesting, they need him to return to form.

Other problems with the team pretty much all concern the heart of the order. I’m talking about Carlos Beltran, David Wright, and Ike Davis. This trio are 11-62 over the last week, with Ike responsible for 6 of those hits. Together, they have 3 RBI. If you’re head didn’t just completely explode, and I hope it hasn’t, you’re probably thinking that that is completely unacceptable. Because it is.

The Ugly

Jose Reyes has been absolutely brutal with the glove - and more confusingly, his arm - last week. The only thing that’s worse than Reyes making an error is the fact that it seems as if it always leads to at least a run, and usually more.

Someone needs to teach Jerry Manuel how to use a bullpen. After walking Chipper Jones in the Mike Pelfrey game, why he was left in to pitch to Brian McCann, who already had 2 hits on the day, is beyond me. How about leaving him in long enough to hit a batter with the bases loaded to force in a run? The only thing I’ve been able to say whenever the manager makes a mistake like that is: “Oh, Jerry.”

Then, there’s this:

Seven Players Total Over $100 Million In 2011

Looking ahead to the offseason, I have totaled up the numbers of the contracts for players that are on the books for next season. The most interesting part of it is the fact that it only takes seven players for the Mets to exceed the $100 million mark.

Johan Santana: $22.5 million

Carlos Beltran: $18.5 million

Jason Bay: $16 million

David Wright: $14 million

Oliver Perez: $12 million

Francisco Rodriguez: $11.5 million

Luis Castillo: $6 million

The Mets total payroll for 2010 was only about $126 million!

Not only is this a starting point for the offseason, but the Mets still have to figure out what to do with four key players in Jose Reyes ($11 million club option, $500,000 buyout), Pedro Feliciano (FA), Angel Pagan (Arb. Eligible), and Mike Pelfrey (Arb. Eligible).

Whether it be Omar Minaya or a new general manager, they are going to have the huge task of finding ways to remove some of these high-priced veteran players that should not be on the team (Perez, Castillo, etc).

The Mets can choose to non-tender Jeff Francoeur, as he earned $5 million in 2010 in arbitration and will again be arbitration eligible this year. John Maine’s $3.3 million will almost certainly be off the books next season as well. The Mets also still owe $1 million to Gary Matthews Jr. in 2011.

It’s quite simple. The Mets have their work cut out for them this offseason. Fans are demanding changes and something will need to be done.

Man-Crush of the Week: Mike Pelfrey

When the 2010 baseball season began, Mets fans everywhere were worried about a few different things (injuries, the bullpen, management). The biggest hole of the team, however, was agreed upon everywhere: it’s the rotation, stupid. Pitching wins in baseball, and with a bullpen that’s still, for all intents and purposes, an unknown, it was imperative for at least 2 starters not named Johan Santana to do well for this team to compete. We got great starts in the last week from both Johan and Oliver Perez, but I want to focus on a guy that we’ve all been rooting hard to succeed: Mike Pelfrey.

He had a very solid 2008 with 13 wins and a 3.72 ERA, but faltered in 2009, with an ERA of 5.09. It’s likely that the drop-off was because of the increase in innings the year before, but fans still felt rightfully concerned when Big Pelf himself was to take the hill in 2010.

In the last week, we saw Pelf wear a couple of hats, throwing 7 strong, shut-out innings on April 15, with 6 strikeouts and more importantly, 0 walks against a tough Colorado team in the tough-to-pitch-in Coors Field.

Enough for a Man-Crush already, considering his ERA on the year after that game was 1.38.

But he decided to go above and beyond, wearing his Closer hat.

In Saturday’s amazing 20-inning marathon against the Cardinals in Busch Stadium, Pelfrey lobbied to be put in and finish the game after Francisco Rodriguez, gassed after warming up no less than 400 times, faltered in the 19th. He took the mound and earned his first career save.

Might he have put it all together? Of course, we need to see more, but so far he’s looking like the guy the Mets need as a complement to Johan Santana. And for that, Mike Pelfrey’s my Man-Crush of the Week.

Temps Cool, Bats Catch Fire: Mets 8 - Nationals 2

It’s funny. We were 3 games into the season and already there was panic amongst the Met fan base. And can you blame them? After an utterly lost 2009 season, the Mets needed to get off to a fast start, and so far it hasn’t looked like that was going to happen. Citi Field’s been described as a morgue by many last night, and the crowd tonight appeared to be sparse as well. The Mets needed a shot in the arm, and didn’t get one. They got 3. Here’s what I took out of tonight:

  • Since John Maine's poor start on Wednesday, the starting pitching has looked better, with Jon Niese last night, and Mike Pelfrey tonight. Pelf spread 4 hits out over 6 innings, with 4 strikeouts. The 4 walks, hopefully, will lessen in his next start.
  • David Wright and Alex Cora made a couple of stellar defensive plays in the 4th and 5th innings to stop the “Natinals” from even sniffing any momentum.
  • I’ll admit it. When Big Pelf fielded the grounder back to him with his bare hand and walked the next batter on 4 pitches, I thought we were about to witness another meltdown.
  • 4 homers! In 1 game! And it only took 2 guys! Jeff Francoeur and Rod Barajas showed their power strokes, while Wright… well, he went into his trot, so that has to count for something. The Situation approves.
  • Jenrry Mejia, in his second appearance, pitched a 1-2-3 inning to end the game. An encouraging bounceback.
  • Get Mike Jacobs off the team. Also, I like Ike (Davis).
  • Finally, finallyJose Reyes is back in Citi Field. I can’t wait for him to actually take the field tomorrow. It’s going to be a fantastic sight.

The 3 shots in the arm, the performance by Pelfrey, the power hitting, and Reyes making his first appearance are what I hope helps this team find, what Willie Randolph would call, a “nice little rhythm.”