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May 25, 2010

Prospectus Hit and Run

Meet the Mets

by Jay Jaffe

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After losing a taut pitcher's duel to the Yankees on Friday night, the Mets salvaged some dignity by taking two out of three to claim the upper hand in the CitiField segment of this season's Subway Series. The wins push them a step or two beyond last week's multiple crises, buying embattled manager Jerry Manuel a bit more time to turn his ballclub around, though he's hardly out of the woods. With the ravenous New York media momentarily quieted, it's a fine time to inventory what's gone right and wrong for the club thus far, and what solutions are available.

The Mets are 22-23, in last place in the NL East, but just five games out of first, and closer to the top than their crosstown rivals. It's been an uneven ride, to say the least. After losing eight of their first 12, they won 10 of 11 and briefly captured first place, then turned around and promptly dumped 13 of 18 to tumble into fifth, where they remain despite having taken three of their last four. They've actually outscored opponents by 10 runs, but a 5-11 record in one-run games means they're 1.6 wins below their first-order Pythagenpat. That they're meandering around the .500 mark isn't surprising, at least to PECOTA, which pegged them for a 79-83 season. Neither is the fact that their mediocrity has been so noisy, given the turbulence which has surrounded the latter day Omar Minaya regime. From their late-season collapses to their myriad injuries to star players to their public relations ineptitude, rarely does a dull moment pass in Queens.

As a team, the Mets are allowing 4.2 runs per game, the sixth-best mark in the league, albeit one which owes at least something to their offense-suppressing home environment; they and their opponents are averaging exactly 4.0 runs per team per game there, compared to 4.6 on the road. Even with their various injuries, the rotation is sixth in the league in SNLVAR, while the bullpen is sixth in WXRL. Take those two standings together and the Mets are actually fourth in combined win expectancy behind only the Padres, Cardinals, and Giants. The staff is fourth in the league in strikeout rate (7.7 K/9) but last in walk rate (4.5 BB/9), and they haven't been helped by a defense which ranks 11th in raw Defensive Efficiency (.685) and 13th in PADE (-3.3 percent).

The front of the rotation is essentially sound. Johan Santana is pitching about as well as he did prior to last year's season-ending surgery, which is to say a step down from his AL heyday. His 3.41 ERA would be his highest full-season mark, and his 7.0 K/9 his lowest, but even so, he's eighth in the league in SNLVAR, and 10th in Support-Neutral Winning Percentage (.609). Mike Pelfrey (2.86 ERA, .605 SNWP) has added a splitter to his arsenal and increased his strikeout rate by a full K per nine (to 6.2) while getting slightly more ground balls (55.2 percent, up from last year's 52.3 percent). SIERA approves of the 2010 model, shaving a half-run off his estimated mark (4.08, down from 4.57). Though the gap between his SIERA and his actual ERA indicates that he's over his head at the moment, he's emerged as the Mets' number two starter.

The rest of the rotation is an outright mess, starting with the ever-maddening Oliver Perez, who was exiled to the bullpen last week thanks to an unsightly walk rate (7.9 per nine). Season-ending surgery to correct patellar tendinitis and enable him to clean up his mechanics hasn't helped; he's still capable of driving anyone watching him to the brink of homicide, and his three-year, $36 million dollar deal looks more like a sunk cost every day. Additionally, Jon Niese and John Maine both hit the disabled list last week, the former with a hamstring injury, the latter with shoulder weakness and a ridiculous amount of drama. Niese (4.79 ERA, .451 SNWP) has been serviceable at best, though his SIERA mark (4.20) suggests he's capable of better. Maine (6.13 ERA, .401 SNWP) may have talked his way out of town; generally a decent pitcher when healthy, he has just 49 starts over the past three seasons.

It's not like such problems couldn't have been foreseen, as that aforementioned trio combined for 34 starts and a 5.31 ERA last year, with more DL days than innings pitched (193 to 173). As such, it's absolutely unconscionable that a club with aspirations of contention didn't do more to shore up their rotation this winter by at least acquiring a bona fide inning-eater, a problem that's apparently contagious. How long until the zombie Russ Ortiz shows up clamoring for brains or innings? Making matters worse, Minaya even lost Nelson Figueroa via waivers at the end of spring training; he made 10 starts with a .503 SNWP last season, third on the team. Two hitters added to the 40-man roster at the time Figueroa was punted, Mike Jacobs and Frank Catalanotto, are both already history, furthering the embarrassment.

Having failed to do their winter homework, the Mets will likely need to bolster their rotation via trade to further their aspirations. Roy Oswalt is out of the question, as his no-trade clause can prevent exile to a dysfunctional outfit such as this. A willingness to take on salary could protect them from dealing top prospects like Mejia, Fernando Martinez, or Wilmer Flores and open the door to the acquisition of someone like Kevin Millwood, Jake Westbrook, Ben Sheets, or Ted Lilly, if not Cliff Lee (whose price tag will be higher), but it isn't clear that the Wilpons, who forced the team to trim about 15 million (10 percent) off last year's Opening Day payroll are prepared to do that.

For the moment, Perez's spot is occupied by R.A. Dickey, who in his knuckleballing guise (a 4.93 ERA in 182 2/3 innings from 2008 onward) has yet to demonstrate that he's more than replacement-level filler, however well-intentioned. Niese was replaced by Hisanori Takahashi, an undersized 35-year-old southpaw from Japan who was stellar in his turn on Friday. Despite a lack of velocity, Takahashi's herky-jerky delivery and deep off-speed repertoire (changeup, slider, curve) have caused hitters fits. He's whiffing 10.7 hitters per nine, and assuming he's good for around 100 pitches like he was against the Yankees, he may wind up as this club's answer to John Ely, to stick with the Dodgers parallel. Maine's next turn, which doesn't fall until Saturday thanks to the schedule gods, will likely be taken by either Patrick Misch or Raul Valdes. Valdes, another southpaw, is the one with more upside, a 32-year-old Cuban import in his first major-league season. Decent in low-leverage relief work, he's striking out 10.3 per nine; he threw five solid innings of long relief after Maine's five-pitch implosion (5 7 3 3 1 6 in 80 pitches, with two bequeathed runners scoring). Misch, a more definitively Quadruple-A entity (4.79 career ERA in 156 innings), managed a .527 SNWP in seven starts last year despite striking out just 2.2 per nine (!) in that capacity; he's riding a 15-inning scoreless streak at Triple-A Buffalo, and last threw on Thursday.

Because of the rotation's troubles, they've thrown just 60.5 percent of the team's innings, the second-lowest rate in the league besides the Pirates. Which means that the bullpen's been asked to carry a disproportionate load, the second-heaviest in terms of innings, and the heaviest in terms of appearances (151, or 3.4 relievers per game) and appearances on zero days rest (54, 10 more than the number two club, the Reds). Viewing bullpen via the lens of leverage:


Pitcher                G   IP    LEV    WXRL    FRA
Francisco Rodriguez   21  23.0  1.59   0.945   2.27
Ryota Igarashi         8   7.0  1.59   0.154   1.60
Hisanori Takahashi*   16  26.0  1.57   0.577   3.76
Pedro Feliciano*      27  19.3  1.37   0.339   2.63
Fernando Nieve        26  22.0  1.37   0.521   4.84
Jenrry Mejia          21  20.0  1.14  -0.318   3.68
Raul Valdes*          14  25.3  0.91   0.196   4.03
Manny Acosta          12  12.0  0.61  -0.187   2.80
*: Left-handed

Despite ever-expanding jowls that suggest he's still hoarding nuts from last winter, closer Rodriguez has put up better peripherals than last year and has converted eight out of 10 save opportunities, a relatively small number for this time of year. He didn't even get his first save opportunity until the 11th game of the season (that 20-inning epic), or collect his first save until the team's 16th game. As such, he ranks just 14th in the league in WXRL. Interestingly, Manuel has used him to get two saves of more than three outs, two more than he got in 2008 under Angels' manager Mike Scioscia, or last year with the Mets.

The sidearming Feliciano leads the league in appearances, no surprise given that he's done so in each of the previous two seasons. The problem is that he's facing more righties than lefties, something he's managed to avoid in each of the past two years; they're getting on base at a .458 clip. Fellow lefty Takahashi, who pitched both short and long relief before joining the rotation, certainly earned his way there. Among the righties, Ryota Igarashi, another Japanese import, got knocked around by the Yankees on Sunday in his first outing back from a four-week hamstring-induced vacation. He's a power arm who should hopefully be able to serve as one of Manuel's late-inning options. Nieve is the first puzzler; used as something of a ROOGY to complement Feliciano (the two have followed one another 13 times), he counts as one of Manuel's odd fetishes. He has just one fewer appearance than Feliciano, though his performance hardly merits it, as he's yielded three homers and 15 unintentional walks to go with 16 strikeouts in 22 innings.

Then there's Mejia, a 20-year-old rookie who counts as another one of Manuel's fetishes, not to mention evidence of the team's win-now desperation. He came into the year as the team's top prospect, a five-star power arm who split last year between High-A and Double-A. While he's got great stuff and hasn't embarrassed himself, both he and the organization would be far better served by his continuing his development as a starter somewhere in the high minors rather than pursuing the brief courtship Manuel undertook in spring training. Particularly troubling amid the small sample sizes is his reverse platoon split, something that didn't manifest itself in the minors. Lefties are just 5-for-27 against him, but righties have hit him at a .327/.435/.500 clip, a sign that he needs more seasoning.

The bottom line is that while stocked for lefties, the Mets' pen is woefully thin from the right side. Perhaps Perez could take a page from Maine's facetious suggestion and start working righty? Scaring up Elmer Dessens, who took Maine's roster spot and promptly blew Friday's game open, isn't the answer. Hard-throwing Bobby Parnell, currently languishing at Buffalo, is probably worth another spin, and perhaps Sean Green will eventually be both healthy and useful (he's out with a stress fracture in his rib) but again, a true solution probably lies beyond the current org chart.

Turning to the offense, as a team the Mets are hitting .248/.310/.386, numbers that rank 12th, 14th, and 12th, respectively, in a 16-team league. Things aren't quite that bad overall, however; they're 10th in the league in scoring at 4.4 runs per game, and 11th with a .257 True Average. They're getting above-average production from three of the four corner positions, and two of the four up-the-middle positions.

At first base, charismatic 23-year-old rookie Ike Davis (.290/.398/.477, for a .313 True Average) has made everybody forget about the insufficiency of their winter plans to replace the departed Carlos Delgado. Despite just 10 games of Triple-A experience, Davis has sparkled both with the bat and the glove; his three over-the-railing catches have prompted the Brooklyn Cyclones to arrange to give away an upside-down bobblehead in honor of their distinguished alumnus. His play has rendered moot the disappearance of the injured Daniel Murphy, not to mention the team's brief but idiotic dalliance with Jacobs. The Mets are 18-14 with him in the lineup.

At third base, David Wright is hitting .261/.368/.490 with eight homers, only two behind last year's aberration. His .307 TAv is about the same as last year, but his performance is surrounded by bad optics in that he's whiffing in 31.6 percent of his plate appearances and on a 216-strikeout pace, this from a player who until last year had never whiffed more than 118 times in a year. And yes, his beaning of last August 16 does appear to be a point of inflection:


Split        PA   AVG/ OBP/ SLG    K%
2009 pre    497  .324/.414/.467   21.1
2009 post   121  .239/.289/.367   28.9
2010        190  .261/.368/.490   31.6
Total post  311  .252/.338/.440   30.5

The strikeouts appear to be taking a toll on Wright; at times, his body language is like one giant cringe. Even so, there's really not a ton to complain about his production. His .286/.351/.531 showing with runners in scoring position is down from his 2004-09 split (.302/.392/.491) but hardly unproductive; among the regulars only Angel Pagan and Rod Barajas have a higher OPS marks, albeit in considerably fewer opportunities. Furthermore, Wright's second on the team and 26th in the league in OBI%. While his struggles may be grabbing headlines, he's hardly the offense's biggest problem.

In left field, Jason Bay is producing a re-run of Wright's uneven 2009 campaign, or at least he was prior to Sunday night, when his two homers doubled what he'd managed in the season's previous 44 games. Having raised his slugging percentage 43 points in one game, he's now hitting .307/.395/.472 for a .304 True Average—exactly the same mark as when he bopped 36 homers for Boston last year. That should quiet at least some of the complaints regarding the team's marquee pickup of the past winter, but even if it doesn't, he too is hardly the biggest concern.

The Mets are also getting above-average production from Barajas (.260/.289/.551 for a .287 TAv); he's got a team-high 10 homers but has walked just four times. Filling in for the absent Carlos Beltran, Pagan is hitting .285/.351/.424 for a .285 TAv, and while it took Manuel a couple of weeks to figure out the folly of starting Gary Matthews Jr. ahead of him, he's now started 31 of the last 33 games in center field, compared to just six of the first 12. With Beltran at least a month away and quite possibly no longer able to patrol center field given the state of his knees, Pagan's play has taken on increased importance; luckily, he appears to be up to the task.

On the other hand, Jose Reyes (.222/.266/.284, .207 TAv) has been the biggest drag on the offense, and while Manuel gave up on the idea of hitting him third after 20 games, the reality is that his performance has been inadequate no matter where he's hit. His Line Drive percentage (17.4) is well down from last year's mark (20.9), and his .252 BABIP is 55 points below his career mark. The second base situation has been a dud as well. Luis Castillo is hitting .250/.338/.292 (one double, two triples, whee). Hampered by a bruised heel, he's yielded to Alex Cora, who has hit like Castillo Lite (.239/.325/.313). Worse, Manuel has automatically and unimaginatively plugged whichever of the two he's using into the number two slot; more on that in a moment.

The other hitter who's been downright awful is Jeff Francoeur (.211/.273/.362, .242 TAv). The folks hyperventilating over him walking eight times in the first 12 games have been notably silent as he's hit .150/.197/.240 with four walks (one intentional) in 117 plate appearances since then. That's not just a crater, it's a hole that goes all the way to China; by comparison, the team's pitchers are hitting .160/.200/.173. More than 3,100 plate appearances into Frenchy's career, it's clear that he'll never learn the strike zone adequately enough to play full time, though his career .298/.340/.480 mark against lefties suggests a reasonably productive short half of a platoon. As to his complement, Manuel has an on-hand option in lefty Chris Carter; the team also has supersub Fernando Tatis available to work into the mix. Carter has just 16 PA since being recalled on May 10, while Tatis has just 47 all season, a surprisingly small number for a handyman who resurrected his career with a .289/.352/.458 showing while filling in at the four corners in 2008-2009. Eventually an available Beltran could take over this spot, but until he starts a rehab assignment, the Mets may as well wait for Godot.

Given this mismatched collection, how best to rearrange the lineup? The Mets have gotten a combined .243/.311/.331 from their top two slots, numbers inflated by Pagan's strong showing (.286/.333/.462 in 100 PA) as the leadoff man. While both Reyes and Castillo have track records for tablesetting, Manuel could easily lose his job waiting for them to come around. One option would be to restore Pagan to the leadoff role and let Reyes find his groove lower in the lineup. As for the number two hitter, even if Manuel can set aside his burning desire to sac bunt—the Mets rank a close third in the league in positional sacrifices this year, after leading the league last year, and ranking second the year before, when he took over at midseason—there's no obvious candidate, but he'd do better to slot a bona fide hitter in there. Wright might be a risk given his current contact woes, but—conjecture alert—perhaps moving from a mid-order run production spot will have a positive psychological impact and get him a steadier diet of fastballs. Follow that with Bay (another option for second unless his power stroke has fully returned), Davis (who until recently had been underutilized in the sixth spot), the right fielder, Barajas (to take advantage of his pop), Reyes, and Castillo, and there's a pretty good chance the Mets could score more runs while giving time for their ideal leadoff man to find his stroke.

On the other hand, Reyes has had three multi-hit games out of his last four, a sign he may be coming around, and he's also second on the team in Equivalent Baserunning Runs despite a dearth of times on base, suggesting at least that his wheels are healthy (for what it's worth, the Mets actually lead the majors in EqBRR). Given the media scrutiny with which any move in his lineup slot might be greeted, a less radical option would be to leave him in place, with Pagan second, followed by Bay, Davis and Wright, Barajas, and the right fielder, perhaps followed by an experiment with the pitcher batting ahead of Castillo, whose semi-respectable OBP and infinitesimal slugging percentage makes him the type of target for such a move.

For this flawed club to contend, the Mets will need to catch some breaks, particularly in the health department (Beltran, Niese, Maine), and they'll need their brass to think outside the box in providing alternatives to patch their holes, Minaya in scaring up at least one starter and another righty for the bullpen, Manuel in shuffling the deck and curbing the counter-productive smallball tendencies which make him look busy without adding productivity. Sac bunts and pithy quotes to the media ain't gonna cut it, Jerry.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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