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April 6, 2005

Prospectus Game of the Week

New York Mets @ Cincinnati Reds, 4/4/05

by Jonah Keri

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We're live from my couch, basking in the warm glow of TiVo, the greatest invention since...anything, pretty much. Jon Miller and Joe Morgan are on the call, broadcasting from Cincinnati, home of the traditional Opening Day. Miller is one of the best announcers in the business, blending a smooth voice, his trademark "two!" (for double plays) and "safe!" calls, and an ever-present ability to smoothly bring analytical context to game situations. Despite his visible public persona as ESPN's #1 color commentator, Morgan is still underrated as a player--he has a legitimate case for being the best second baseman of all time, right there with Rogers Hornsby and Eddie Collins. He's also one of the biggest whipping boys around for the stathead set, mysteriously forgetting the heads-up baseball he played his whole career and preaching counterproductive game strategies and bizarre pet theories to his TV audience. This should be fun.

Barely a minute into the broadcast, Morgan is in playoff form. First he takes the Reds to task for batting Ken Griffey Jr. second, saying he should be a middle-of-the-order hitter with his ability. OK, fine. And then: "Griffey's due for some good luck...I think you'll see Griffey hit 40 or 50 home runs this year." Uh, the same guy who tears his hamstrings if he so much as contemplates the works of Kant, the same Griffey who hit 41 homers...in the last three years combined? If you squint really hard, you can see a fruit basket by Morgan's side in the press box, with the inscription: "The check's in the mail, Your Old Pal, Ken Griffey, Sr."

Mets lineup:


SS Reyes
2B Matsui
CF Beltran
C Piazza
LF Floyd
1B Mientkiewicz
3B Wright
RF Valent
P Martinez
Mike Cameron is out due to a left wrist injury. BP's Will Carroll has been pessimistic about Cameron's health throughout the spring--he'd be a significant loss if he's out for any length of time. In what figures to be an airtight NL East this year, the downgrade from Cameron to Eric Valent or promising-but-raw rookie Victor Diaz could be enough to cost the Mets a ticket to October.

In fact, the Mets, more than any other team, will need to overcome injuries to succeed this year. Pedro Martinez's shoulder alone could make or break their season. Jose Reyes' hamstrings are an ongoing concern. Mike Piazza breaks down a little more every year. Cliff Floyd is a very good player who has been and will be overpaid just about every year of his career, as his employer expects more playing time than he'll ever deliver. It's a wonder Morgan hasn't pegged Floyd for the Triple Crown, or maybe a Nobel Prize in nuclear physics.

For whatever reason, I don't think I'd ever seen Kazuo Matsui hit before this game--he must have been injured the few times I watched the Mets last year. His stance resembles Hideki Matsui's in some ways, with the lefty crouch, the bat kind of upright, and a big swish at the ball as it nears down on the plate. Of course, everyo...

Matsui cranks a homer to right, way over the wall, 1-0 Mets. I was about to write that everyone and their dog has made their case on the BP site, arguing that Matsui will have a big second year stateside, turning the same trick of his Yankee namesake by doubling his home-run total and raising his production across the board.

Morgan again. He says that Carlos Beltran earned a lot of money with his playoff performance last year. Did he really? Wouldn't he have gotten the big bucks just for being the most complete young player in the game, just now coming into his prime? The problem with these types of research questions is that finding a control group isn't really feasible. There's no alternate universe in which Beltran didn't lay waste to playoff pitching last fall, following a big regular season in which he continued his upward trend line. Do teams really pay more money because they think a player who hit .400+ with a bunch of homers one October is somehow inherently a better playoff or clutch performer than the next guy? Would Neifi Perez? suddenly earn $5 million per if he went 20-for-42 in the '05 playoffs? Does the opposite hold true if a star player lays an egg one post-season? I'd love to hear from the masses on this one.

Reds lineup:


2B Jimenez
CF Griffey Jr.
1B Casey
RF Kearns
LF Dunn
3B Randa
SS Aurilia
C LaRue
P Wilson
John Miller describing Sean Casey: "Casey last year hit .324 with 24...yeah, 24 home runs. He had a big year last year for the Reds!" Unfortunately that's as good as it's likely to get for Casey and the Reds. He has a track record of injuries that can't be ignored, and doesn't supply enough power to be an elite first baseman, .300+ average or not. Morgan notes that Casey is underrated because he doesn't do a lot of other things well beyond hit, including not running well. Yes, because Mo Vaughn and Jim Thome anchored the U.S. 4x400 team at the 2000 Olympics.

The Reds put two on in the first, and Piazza goes out to talk to Martinez. We're looking at the best-hitting catcher of all time and a pitcher who, when all's said and done, could be the best of all time, given his untouchable 1997-2003 peak. Would Piazza be known more for run-ins with Roger Clemens and locker room gossip then his amazing career if this were the '50s? Would Martinez elicit more "Who's Your Daddy?" chants than nods of appreciation at his amazing ability if he pitched in the days of Lefty Grove? Then again, quiet dignity and New York have never gone all that well together.

Miller notes how Adam Dunn is one of just two Reds with 100 walks, runs scored and RBI in a season, the other being...Joe Morgan. He then says how last year Dunn did something no one has ever done: strike out 190 times in a season. So close to catching on to one of the game's 10 best players, but then they've got to get in the little strikeout dig.

Right on cue, Dunn crushes a Martinez fastball to Lexington, 3-1 Reds. With Adrian Beltre tearing the league apart last year and Dunn blossoming into a superstar with the Reds, can we call the BP cover jinx dead and buried yet? If not, would anyone object to a new cover boy next year?

Reds fans: "WHO'S YOUR DADDY?!" There's something hilarious about Reds fans mocking Pedro Martinez in the first inning of the first game following a 76-86 season. Let's see if he responds and throws a no-hitter the rest of the way or something.

Yup. It's the bottom of the second and he's starting to whiff everyone in sight. First two pitches to Jason LaRue: huge, looping, unhittable curve, then a nasty cutter that darts out of the zone like a slider. Martinez strikes out LaRue on a 94-mph, letter-high fastball. Looking.

With the strikeouts, Martinez's pitch count is also starting to rise. Miller points out how he's up to 43 pitches in the second, going to deep counts on almost everyone, and how 100 pitches has been a warning sign for him in recent years. When did pitch counts hit the mainstream this hard? USA Today has detailed breakdowns of them, announcers as sharp as Miller all the way down to the John Kruks of the airwaves routinely discuss them. Pitch counts have crossed over to the mainstream, after being largely the province of anti-pitcher abuse zealots and discussion boards for so many years. It's amazing how concepts pushed hard for years can seep into the minds of the masses, without anyone noticing how we got there.

Random tidbits observed during this game: Rich Aurilia is just the fourth Opening Day shortstop the Reds have had in my lifetime... Piazza wears his sunglasses around his neck when he's batting. Does anyone else do this? Isn't that uncomfortable? Couldn't they bop you in the head when you're sliding? Unless this is some sort of progressive new trend; next up: batting gloves on your nose... I've said it before, but D'Angelo Jimenez is going to be a big spark plug for the Reds' offense. I stand by my .285/.370/.450 prediction... Miller tells an interesting anecdote about how he and Morgan did a spring training game in Port St. Lucie a decade ago, where Paul Wilson dominated for the Mets, looking like the next Clemens--they showed an old Sports Illustrated photo of Wilson and the rest of Generation K, which must have made Mets fans cringe. Somewhere there's a poster of Dallas Green wearing the orange NY script, a set of darts poking into his visage.

Beltran hits a monster home run to near straightaway center, tying the score at 3. Meanwhile, Martinez is burying the Reds. Since the Dunn home run, there's been no contact: seven strikeouts, one walk. He may not have the consistent mid-90s velocity he once had, but his curve looks better than ever, his change-up is absolutely untouchable, and he's become a master of throwing pitches exactly where they need to be, when they need to be there. In the Neyer/James Guide To Pitchers, Rob Neyer names Martinez's change as the fifth best of all-time, behind Stu Miller, Jean Dubuc, Ed Lopat and Jamie Moyer. Moyer has been a master of the pitch since breaking through from potential washout to front-line pitcher in his early-to-mid 30s. Given how tantalizing Martinez's change looks--in person or on TV--I'd have loved to see Miller, Dubuc and Lopat throw theirs.

More notes: David Wright takes a low, inside pitch, and smashes a rope all the way to the wall in right for a double. If he's going to hit for that kind of power to the opposite field, Wright could be an even bigger star than his lofty reputation suggests... Miller notes that Martinez's career ERA is 2.71, best among active pitchers. He then points out the disparity between Pedro's ERA and league standards, how impressive his numbers are for a big hitters' era. See that's what you want in your baseball announcer--he shows you that don't need the Great Unified Theory Of Baseball to make a point on air, instead explaining a valuable concept such as adjusted ERA to an audience that will understand, appreciate and hopefully take the point to heart. Making the complex easy to understand is a long-time Miller forte... Joe Randa strikes out. Of the last 10 hitters Martinez has faced, he has nine Ks and one walk, still no contact, as no one can hit the not-quite-Jean Dubuc-quality change-up.

Bottom of the fifth. Martinez gets another K to lead off the frame. This time Piazza called for a change-up, Pedro shook him off and blew another fastball right by LaRue. He then fans Wilson and Jimenez, striking out the side for the third time in five innings. He ends the inning at 87 pitches, with his spot in the order potentially coming up in the top of the sixth if the Mets put a couple runners on. You'd hope they'd lift him at that point if a pinch-hitter has a chance to knock in the go-ahead run. Martinez will always be on a pitch count in the Rick Peterson regime, even the most durable pitchers rarely last too long in their first start of the season, and Martinez isn't much of a hitter. Stay tuned.

Omar Minaya, in an interview with roving reporter Sam Ryan, on signing Martinez in the off-season: "He bought into our plan, which is to bring in the best players possible." Good plan.

And here we go. First and third, two outs, tie game, top of the sixth, and the Mets are letting Martinez bat. Why? There's no way he goes more than one more inning. At the rate he's going (17+ pitches an inning), he'll easily pass 100 by the end of the sixth, and the Mets won't leave him in beyond that. A big hit could decide the game right here, while the best you can hope from Martinez is that he gets through the sixth scoreless. He grounds out to short, rally squandered. This was the inertia move, not the smart move. Martinez goes walk, double play, groundout in the sixth, meeting the best-case scenario. The Mets yank him.

The Reds received a fair bit of favorable press this off-season, centered largely around the investments made to supposedly upgrade the pitching staff. We've already pointed out the folly of giving Eric Milton a three-year, $25.5 million contract. But is Kent Mercker worth a two-year deal at age 37, good last two seasons or not? Since when has signing David Weathers been a huge boost to a ballclub? If anything the Reds' pitching looks nearly as suspect as it was before, only now it's a fair bit more expensive. The Mets cash a run off Stormy Weathers, started by a Jose Reyes leadoff double; based on the way he flew into second, both there and on another double the next inning, Reyes looks pretty well recovered from last year's leg injuries. A Cliff Floyd two-run, opposite-field shot off Mercker makes it 6-3 Mets. Mets' new acquisitions, through seven innings: Beltran: 3-for-4 with a homer, double, single; Mientkiewicz: 2-for-3 plus a HBP; Martinez: 6 IP, 12 K, 2 BB, 3 H, 3 R.

This inning provides a glimpse into the damage that can be wrought by playing small ball. After Reyes' double, Willie Randolph had Matsui bunt to third. One-run strategies can be effective, but the Reds' pitching is suspect at best, there's three innings left to play, the heart of the order is coming up, and Matsui himself is a capable hitter. In a tie game in the ninth, this is a viable move; in the seventh less so. At least the bunt served a purpose--Beltran starting for second, stopping, then getting picked off proved to be a major blunder when Piazza and Floyd went double-homer behind him. The three-run lead may well hold up, but hopefully Randolph learned an early-season lesson in how to wreck a potentially huge inning.

After the Reds score a run to narrow the gap to 6-4, Ryan Wagner stakes an early claim for the title of best reliever in the Cincy pen, his comparatively paltry salary be damned. The highlight comes when Wagner throws his obscene slider to Reyes. The pitch so befuddles him that with the pitch a foot inside and at his shoetops, Reyes swings and misses at it--and gets hit on the foot with the pitch.

After an impressive scoreless eighth thrown by Mets' finesse lefty Dae Sung Koo and a scoreless top of the ninth, the game heads to the last of the ninth with the Reds still down 6-4. Austin Kearns swings at the first pitch and loops a single to right off Braden Looper. Dunn comes up, representing the tying run. The fans are on their feet, cheering for the first time in several innings...OH! Another bomb to right! Low fastball over the plate, same pitch he killed off Martinez.

Looper looks rattled, but goes to 0-2 on Randa. Then the count runs full to 3-2...and Randa smashes the next pitch over the left-field wall. Ballgame, 7-6 Reds.

As the fans jump out of their seats, going nuts on a beautiful sunny spring day in Cincinnati, it occurs to me what a great tradition the team still has going. While MLB schedules Yankees/Red Sox tilts or season-opening summits in Japan, Opening Day in Cincinnati still means something. Fans lined up in the freezing cold in February to buy tickets to this game, selling out the joint in less than 10 minutes. Now they can go home happy, knowing their team is in first place, and Griffey's still got a shot at his 50.

--

For the next edition of Game of the Week, we hit Las Vegas. Game TBA, but the plan will be to place my first-ever bet on a major-league game at a Vegas casino, then watch the proceedings and try to earn a little poker money. If you have suggestions for a good pitching match-up or hidden edge to exploit among this Saturday's games, drop me a line here. I'll let you know how your bets fared next week.

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

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