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June 24, 2005

Prospectus Game of the Week

New York Mets @ Philadelphia Phillies, 6/22/05

by Jonah Keri

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RF Cameron
SS Reyes
CF Beltran
LF Floyd
C  Piazza
3B Wright
1B Mientkiewicz
2B Woodward
P  Zambrano

Mets announcers Ted Robinson and Fran Healy note that Mike Cameron isn't a typical leadoff hitter, given his power and high strikeout totals. Healy neglects to mention Cameron's .426 OBP heading into Wednesday night's game, or his annual high walk totals. He's a far sight better choice for the leadoff spot than Jose Reyes, who spent most of the season batting there before being moved to #2 for this game. Reyes was getting on base at a .286 clip heading into the game, which should make Mets fans wonder why he would ever hit higher than seventh. By contrast, franchise third baseman David Wright came into the game hitting .297/.390/.513. Managers' obsessions with having bigger bats in "RBI positions" rather than getting them as many times at the plate as possible costs teams handfuls of runs through the season. It's a common refrain here at GotW, but one we'll continue to harp on as long as managers continue to bat stiffs at or near the top of the lineup.

Neither Cameron nor Reyes reaches base against rookie starter Robinson Tejeda in the first. Carlos Beltran's hit-by-pitch accounts for the only baserunner of the inning as Tejeda extends his scoreless streak to 12 frames. Filling in for the injured Randy Wolf June 8 vs. Texas, Tejeda tossed five shutout frames in his first big-league start. When Wolf's injury was diagnosed as more serious--he's now headed for Tommy John surgery--the Phillies kept Tejeda in the rotation, despite the 23-year-old having just 28 1/3 innings above Double-A to his name. After watching Tejeda spin 5 2/3 more shutout innings against the A's June 17, the Phils have started to build up hope that they've found a capable replacement for the duration of the season. Starting pitching was already the team's biggest weakness before Wolf's injury, so there's no doubt that Tejeda needs to produce, or else the Phillies will be forced to make a move.

SS Rollins
CF Lofton
RF Abreu
1B Thome
LF Burrell
2B Utley
3B Bell
C  Lieberthal
P  Tejeda

Tejeda came into the game with 17 walks vs. 14 strikeouts in 20 2/3 IP. He's nearly matched by Victor Zambrano, with 41 walks against 46 strikeouts over 71 innings going into the game. Still, thanks largely to a low home-run rate (just four allowed in his first 12 starts), Rick Peterson and the Mets have started getting decent mileage out of Zambrano. That doesn't excuse the Mets jettisoning their best pitching prospect to get him, but it's a start.

Newly minted kajillionaire Jimmy Rollins--one of the richest .315 OBP hitters on the planet--starts the game by...getting on base! It's on an error by third-string second baseman Chris Woodward, though. (The play was clearly an error, with Woodward unable to field a very playable ball to his left, but the oft-complaining Healy wonders aloud why Rollins wasn't given a hit.) Kenny Lofton, who apparently thinks it's 1994 again judging by his .386 batting average and .456 OBP, lays down a perfect bunt single, smack between a charging Wright and a chasing Mike Piazza. Bobby Abreu works the count to 3-0...turn him loose!...no such luck, Abreu takes ball four. I turn to my viewing comrade, friend o' BP Mike Rice, and set an over/under on the length of Zambrano's outing. "He doesn't make it past the third and gives up at least four here," I nod confidently. Mike says he expects at least five innings, and the Mets get out of this giving up just one run after a double play.

Jim Thome then shows off his 20/20 vision, laying off every ball out of the zone and spoiling a series of darting Zambrano fastballs. Having thrown his entire arsenal of zigzagging pitches--Zambrano may have more natural movement on his pitches than any pitcher in baseball, a big reason for his perennially high walk rates--he gets Thome looking at a nasty curve. When Pat Burrell rolls over on a change-up, the Houdini act is complete--the Mets escape with no runs allowed. Swami Mike nods with satisfaction.

Meanwhile, Tejeda is making it look much easier. At 6'3", 188, Tejeda's long frame generates a free-and-easy motion, yet still delivers consistent mid-90s fastballs. He goes 93, 94, 97 to Piazza, then strikes him out on a 96-mph heater on the outside corner. Wright quietly grounds out to short. Mientkiewicz flies out to center after Tejeda baffles him with a 95-mph sinker...yikes.

Tejeda is also fascinating to watch because of his unusual pre-pitch routine. He holds his glove way out in front of him and over his head, making it easy for the center-field camera to pick up his pitch grips as he gets the catcher's sign. Healy and Robinson claim he'll have to change his motion to avoid giving away his deliveries. It's an interesting debate: Could a team spot the pitch from a faraway camera, radio it into the dugout, then inform the hitter in time for him to know what's coming? Would the hitter even want to know? What if the signal is for a slider away and the pitch is a fastball high and tight? Though it's hush-hush for now, a friend of mine is writing a book that covers this and other forms of baseball gamesmanship in great detail. Keep an eye out--the book drops in 2006, and it's a good one.

Bottom of the second and we get this doozy. Lowest NL starting pitcher ERAs in June (through June 21):

Pitcher            ERA
Chris Carpenter    1.16
Roy Oswalt         1.47
Victor Zambrano    2.49
Roger Clemens      2.50
Dontrelle Willis   2.51

Natch, Chase Utley quickly smokes a double to right on a high fastball. Utley is an emerging front-line player, already sporting a .310/.381/.535 line for the year. The Phillies did well to make room for him to play every day--they just chucked the wrong guy to do it (more on that later). David Bell does what he does best, making an out; that Utley advances to third on the weak grounder to short no doubt still warms Buster Olney's heart.

The Mets make a strange choice, opting to bring the infield in in the bottom of the second in a scoreless game in a hitters' park in a year that doesn't read 190x. Amazingly, the tactic appears to work, as Mike Lieberthal stings a one-hopper to Wright at third, setting up an easy out at home with Utley breaking to the plate. Only Wright holds up his glove to the ump to say that he caught the ball. After a few moments standing there frozen, everyone's safe, the run is in and Wright has made a bizarre and costly mistake. And the slow-mo replay...only makes him look worse.

The inning features more kooky plays. Tejeda bunts back to the mound. Zambrano charges and fires to Jose Reyes covering at second--only Zambrano's throw sails two feet left of second base, forcing an acrobatic force play at the bag by Reyes. Even when trying to cut down a baserunner Zambrano can't help but throw frisbee sliders. If he's not ahead of a batter with a chance to strike him out or induce a grounder, Zambrano is in big trouble with that kind of unpredictable movement. Tejeda then times Zambrano and his huge leg kick perfectly, taking off for second; he'd have taken the bag easily if not for Rollins' foul ball. A single moves Tejeda up, but the Phils settle for just one run when Lofton flies out.

Tejeda's top of the third: Woodward flyout to left, Zambrano flyout to left, Cameron strikeout looking at one of Tejeda's many terrific change-ups (which have some of that Pedro Martinez screwball action on them). Man, do the Phillies need this.

After the Phils go scoreless in the bottom of the third, though, the Mets strike back with a run in the fourth, on a Cliff Floyd opposite-field homer to left. It's one thing to see the park effect and other numbers on Citizens Bank Park. It's another altogether to see the way the ball carries to the short walls in left and left-center, as Floyd's homer and several other balls hit in this game show. Meanwhile Floyd is on pace to shatter his 2001 career high of 31 homers--if he can stay healthy. This is a bit like saying Ben Affleck's on his way to a distinguished acting career--if he can stop making films like Gigli and Reindeer Games.

Middle-inning notes:

  • Thome strikes out for the second time in the third, drawing boos from the notoriously demanding Philly fans. Did I say demanding? I meant fickle. Thome quickly draws cheers after his diving stop in the 5th preserves the 1-1 tie. He then gets a rousing ovation in the bottom of the inning after smashing a homer into the upper deck in right to make it 2-1.

  • When Beltran steps into the box to start the sixth, his line reads: .269 BA/.326 OBP. We knew Shea Stadium would eat into his numbers some, but wow. Look no further than Beltran's subpar performance--mixed with periodic reasons for it--if you want a reason the Mets are in last place in the NL East.

  • Healy questions the Phillies' decision to pull Tejeda after six innings--first time all game I've agreed with him. Tejeda threw just 67 pitches through six innings, an impressive 49 of them for strikes as a salvo against his reputation for wildness. He showed great command all game, never looked like he was exerting himself, and could well have gone eight or more. Though the Phillies reached Tejeda's spot in the order in the bottom of the sixth, the pitcher was already shaking hands in the dugout before the start of the frame, suggesting that he was gone even due up fourth that inning. Plus if Tomas Perez (.263/.321/.289) is the pinch-hitter, what are you really gaining? When the normally stellar Ryan Madson blew the lead in the top of the seventh, the point was magnified.

  • Floyd's leaping catch against the left-field wall with the bases loaded in a 2-2 tie to end the sixth was the best pressure play I've seen all year. Zambrano actually started running out to the outfield to greet Floyd after the play before stopping short and waiting for him, that's how big it was at the time. Just watched it again on TiVo--tremendous.

  • With Placido Polanco at .336/.386/.438 and Bell at just .257/.317/.343 with perpetual back problems, it's still puzzling why they dealt the former and not the latter. Polanco may have complained about playing time, but he had reason to do so given Bell's flaccid bat. Bell may be sitting on a nearly untradable four-year, $17-million contract, but that's a sunk cost. Yes, the Phillies are going for the late-inning relief combo of Madson/Ugueth Urbina/Billy Wagner, just as the Padres did to great success with Scott Linebrink, Akinori Otsuka and Trevor Hoffman last year. That still doesn't make Urbina a more necessary addition than a capable starting pitcher would have been. If that kind of player wasn't available, the Phillies could have instantly upgraded their offense by shunting Bell to the bench or cutting him outright, letting Utley and Polanco produce as everyday players.

The game gets decided in the bottom of the seventh. Sidearming lefty Royce Ring gets called in to face Abreu and Thome. After mixing sidearm curves in the 70s with 89-mph fastballs that suddenly look much faster to Abreu and to Thome early in the count, Thome reaches on a walk. Even with the walk, Ring looked good in hitting his spots. But Willie Randolph had already decided to play the percentages and have Aaron Heilman face Burrell. Another hidden downside to adhering to matchups is the need to pull pitchers from the game who've just fared well against live batters; in their stead you're calling in new blood, not knowing what the replacement may have facing live pitching that day.

Heilman doesn't have control, at least not on this day, as he plunks Burrell on a first-pitch curve that got away. The sizzling Utley quickly knocks in the go-ahead run, a Lieberthal single expanding the lead to 4-2. A third pitcher, Dae-Sung Koo, can't stem the tide, as Lofton's three-run double down the left-field line blows the game open. The Phils go on to win 8-4.

After the Mets return the favor Thursday afternoon, they sit seven games out of first, still in last place. It's hard to picture Omar Minaya standing pat, given his history. A deal for a veteran reliever seems a slam dunk given the erratic, if promising performances of the team's young, no-name relievers. Whether the Mets make a big splash and sell off top prospects for a big gun in an effort to climb back into the race remains to be seen.

The Phillies find themselves in second after their recent blazing homestand, 3 1/2 games out. There's not much here that's needed to be done. Having Thome naturally pull himself back up from his .220/.370/.382 (5.1 VORP) would go a long way toward minting the Phillies as legit contenders. If Thome rebounds as expected, the race could fall to Philly's young starting duo of Brett Myers and Tejeda to make or break the season. With only Ryan Howard left as likely trade bait that would attract value, either Myers needs to keep his ace-like season going, or Tejeda has continue his recent string of success--maybe both. The Nationals aren't playing .583 ball all year. This could get very interesting, very soon.


Set Your TiVos and VCRs: The next Prospectus Game of the Week will be Sunday, June 26, 3 p.m. ET as the White Sox and Cubs stage the latest chapter in the Windy City War. Mark Prior is slated to come off the DL to face 12-game winner Jon Garland. Hit channel 741 on DirecTV to tune in.

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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