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August 8, 2006

Prospectus Game of the Week

New York Mets @ Florida Marlins, August 3, 2006

by Derek Jacques

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We're back with a special second helping of Game of the Week, a little leaner and meaner than usual, as we check in on the NL East, where the division runaways, the New York Mets, face the fourth-place Florida Marlins, at Dolphins Stadium.

For the Mets, the season has turned into an exercise in avoiding complacency and injury. While a 13 game division lead in early August does not guarantee a playoff spot, it's pretty darned close. The Postseason Odds Report has the Metropolitans with a 99.49% chance of winning the division, 99.83% of making the playoffs. So the Mets are trying to avoid any more bad cab rides, at least until October.

The Marlins are listed as having about a 5% chance at the playoffs, which is worse than any team in the NL West, but roughly comparable to the Phire Sale Phillies and the indecisive Brewers. Barring a huge collapse, however, the Marlins' season has to be considered a great success. Really, anything short of 100 losses would have to be considered a success in Southern Florida. The Marlins have survived an off-season salary dump in which the club was picked clean of most of its players with major league experience, with the notable exception of two alumni from the 2003 World Champions--tonight's starter, Dontrelle Willis, and the team's third baseman, Miguel Cabrera. The Mets were one of the vultures pecking at the carcass of their division rival, coming away with a starting first baseman (Carlos Delgado) and catcher (Paul Lo Duca) in separate deals. So in some ways you can say that the fates of these two teams have been intertwined.

Enough philosophisin', let's see some lineups:

Mets                                Marlins
                       EqA    VORP                        EqA   VORP
Jose Reyes, SS         .280   33.9  Hanley Ramirez, SS    .274  26.0
Paul LoDuca, C         .277   21.4  Dan Uggla, 2B         .283  29.9
Carlos Beltran, CF     .330   56.3  Mike Jacobs, 1B       .291  21.7
Carlos Delgado, 1B     .301   27.3  Miguel Cabrera, 3B    .333  53.0
David Wright, 3B       .305   35.6  Josh Willingham, LF   .277  11.4
Jose Valentin, 2B      .279   16.9  Jeremy Hermida, RF    .270   7.5
Chris Woodward, LF     .228   -2.6  Cody Ross, CF         .243  -1.2
Lastings Milledge, RF  .243   -1.7  Miguel Olivo, C       .272  15.4
Pedro Martinez, P      .098   -0.7  Dontrelle Willis, P   .124   0.4

Starting Pitchers
                    W-L  ERA   IP    SNLVAR   SO/9   RA+   SN Rank
Pedro Martinez      8-4  3.59  107.7   3.3    9.45   1.22  (17)
Dontrelle Willis    6-9  4.57  147.7   2.3    5.85   0.95  (23)
The Marlins are a team of surprises. Most of the hitters in their lineup are outperforming their PECOTA projections, be it by a little--Mike Jacobs, Miguel Olivo, and Cabrera are between their 60th and 75th percentile projections--or a lot, like Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla, who are blowing the doors off their 90th percentile projections. The lineup's soft spot has been identifying a player to put between Josh Willingham and Jeremy Hermida in the outfield. One suspects that Cody Ross, who is playing with his third team this season, is not the guy. Still, the Florida lineup is an effective unit, and its elder statesmen--Willingham and Olivo--are all of 27 years old, with low service time. This bodes well for the future.

One through six, the Mets' lineup is one of the strongest in the game. Jose Reyes--who just signed a four year contract extension that buys out his arbitration years--has come back to earth after a burning-hot June when he hit .373/.420/.618. Jose Valentin is the coup of the lineup, a player given up for useless after a couple years of declining batting averages in Chicago, and a year of association with the DePodesta regime in Los Angeles. Valentin came to the Mets as a spare part--a utility guy who could play third, short, or the outfield. Given a starting assignment after the Mets' first options at second were injured or ineffective, Valentin, at second base in the majors for the first time in twelve years, has played magnificent defense (123 Rate) and basically provided everything the Mets imagined they would get from Kazuo Matsui.

The pitchers are two of the most high-profile guys in the National League, and don't need much introduction, so we'll deal with them in context of the game. First pitch from Dontrelle Willis to the newly-extended Reyes is hit to Reyes's opposite number, Hanley Ramirez. Ramirez backhands the ball, but his bad throw gets past Jacobs to allow Reyes to reach base. Since we're watching on SNY, the Mets' new cable network, this gets Keith Hernandez chirping about the Marlins' glovework, noting their high error total and saying "It's not like you have a bunch of defensive wizards out there."

Next up facing Willis is Paul Lo Duca. Everyone is waiting for his post All-Star swoon, but so far, he's hitting .397/.453/.500 since the festivities in Pittsburgh. LoDuca hits one right on the screws, and right at Hermida in right. This brings up the most dangerous Met, Carlos Beltran. Beltran's a clear MVP favorite, finally bringing a performance worthy of his over $100MM contract, after a weak season in 2005. Willis saws Beltran's bat in two, both the ball and the head of the bat heading toward Ramirez, who gets the force at second. If Beltran had hit that ball a little harder, or not been as quick getting out of the box, the Marlins would be out of the inning with a double play. However, after a five-pitch walk to Carlos Delgado, David Wright pops his second pitch from Willis out to Hermida, ending the threat.

Now it's Pedro Martinez's turn to face the Marlins lineup. Martinez has bad memories of Dolphins Stadium, as earlier this year he slipped and fell in the visitor's clubhouse, suffering a hip injury which has haunted him most of this season. Like Willis, Martinez doesn't throw over the top; when Martinez was younger, there was a violent whiplike action to his delivery, as if his right arm couldn't quite keep up with the powerful twist of his body. I don't have video of vintage 1997 Pedro Martinez anywhere nearby to compare, but I suspect that his motion is that same delivery, just slowed to three-quarters speed. For those of us who are used to seeing Pedro, the one-named menace of Montreal and Boston fame, hurling lightning bolts in the high nineties, it's somewhat shocking to see 86 MPH on the radar gun, and realize that that's Martinez's fastball now.

That 86 miles per hour comes with a lot of movement, and it's enough to put away Hanley Ramirez, who looks at strike three leading off the bottom of the first. His double play partner and fellow rookie, Dan Uggla, bats next and he falls behind Martinez 1-2, as the veteran pitcher feeds Uggla an assortment of curveballs. Martinez makes a mistake, however, coming inside with a changeup that Uggla smacks in the leftfield corner for a double.

This brings up onetime Met Mike Jacobs. Jacobs started the season abysmally, posting a .192/.310/.370 April, but has since bounced back into shape. Nonetheless, Martinez dissects him with changeups inside and fastballs away and out of the strike zone. The result is a strikeout, which brings up the lineup's most dangerous hitter, Miguel Cabrera. After a seven-pitch duel, Cabrera catches a hold of a curve, blasting the pitch to deep left-center, where Beltran makes a nice leaping grab at the wall. Inning over.

In the second, the Mets get a leadoff hit from Jose Valentin, but the bottom third of the lineup--infielder Chris Woodward playing left, minor league call-up Lastings Milledge, and Martinez--all conspire to strand him. With one out in the bottom of the frame, Jeremy Hermida doubles off Martinez, but he, too is stranded. The pitchers' duel heats up in the third, as both aces retire the side in order. In the top of the fourth, things get a little dicey. South Florida emits a collective gasp on Carlos Delgado's grounder to the right side, which is fielded by Uggla. Uggla's throw to Willis, covering first base, sends the pitcher flopping to the ground hard on his throwing arm, as he stretches to keep his foot on the bag. Willis dusts himself off like it's no big deal, but goes on to surrender consecutive singles to Wright and Valentin, the latter's second hit from his much weaker side of the plate. Just when things get exciting, however, Woodward grounds one to Cabrera, who goes around the horn for the double play.

After Martinez strands Cabrera on first base in the bottom of the frame--collecting two more strikeouts, to give him seven whiffs on the game so far--the Mets mount another threat in the fifth inning. Willis falls behind Milledge 2-1, giving the rookie a 92 MPH fastball over the plate, which Milledge hits on a line into the left-center field alley, a double. With no outs, it's Martinez's job to bunt Milledge to third, a job he accomplishes on the second try, even though Jacobs, who was charging, would have had a play at third had he been able to keep his balance--the first baseman wound up diving for the ball, and only being in position to make a play at first. The Marlins' threat level rises when Jose Reyes walks on five pitches, making it first and third, with just one out. Up comes Lo Duca, who fouls off two pitches, and then bounces into a 4-6-3 double play.

In the top of the sixth, Martinez is cruising. He gets a grounder back to the mound on his first pitch to Ramirez. Uggla, who hit a double in the first inning, strikes out on three pitches--the second straight time he's done so. Everything is going really well until Martinez throws a breaking ball to Jacobs, which was supposed to dive out of the strike zone, low and inside, but instead just hangs in the strike zone. Jacobs hits the ball a ton, good for a high, majestic home run. Retiring Cabrera is a small consolation, given that the Marlins are now up, 1-0.

In the top of the seventh inning, Martinez is out of the game, with the venerable Julio Franco pinch-hitting for him with one out. Franco was unavailable to start today's game because of "flu-like symptoms." Even so, resident BP Mets expert Jason Grady notes that Franco and Willis are not an ideal matchup, since Franco has a hard time with inside heat, and that's Willis's preferred method for pitching to righthanders.

For a while, it looks like things are going to play out that way. On a 1-2 count, Willis throws the fastball, at the knees and over the inside corner, nothing Franco can do but watch it go by…ball two. The charitable term for Mike Reilly's strike zone this game is "variable." On 2-2, Willis comes back with the exact same pitch, and in the interest of (momentary) consistency, Reilly again calls it a ball.

You can see that Willis is steaming mad. On a 3-2 count, Willis again goes for the inside corner, but winds up catching much too much of the plate, and Franco takes it to the opposite field. The ball goes straight through a charging Hermida, skipping past him all the way to the wall. When the dust has settled, Franco's standing on third base, with a single and a two-base error credited to Hermida. Reyes grounds one to the right side, ensuring that the run scores from third with one out, and the Mets tie the game, 1-1.

In the bottom of the seventh, elder statesman Roberto Hernandez takes over for Martinez. Hernandez was a quick pickup by GM Omar Minaya, made on deadline day after the Mets second-best reliever, Duaner Sanchez, suffered a season-ending injury just the night before. Minaya's trade was a good one--the Pirates traded Hernandez along with onetime ace lefthander Oliver Perez, and Minaya only gave up Xavier Nady in return--but it set off the chain reaction where Chris Woodward is playing left field and murdering rallies the way Jason Voorhees slaughters camp counselors. For a 41 year-old, Hernandez still throws heat, his fastball is in the mid-90s, but it's also straight as a rail. Still, it's good enough to retire Josh Willingham, Hermida, and Cody Ross in order.

Make of that what you will.

In the top of the eighth, Willis is still on the mound, with 110 pitches on the counter. Again, he creates some unnecessary excitement, issuing a leadoff walk to Beltran. But Willis gathers himself together, and rights the ship, overmatching Delgado, who fouls off the first three pitches before swinging through a slider for the strikeout. Willis then falls behind 2-0 to David Wright--who has singled against the lefthander in his last two at bats--before inducing the young slugger to hit one back to the mound, which Willis converts for the 1-6-3 double play, the Mets' third double play of the game.

In the bottom of the eighth, Aaron Heilman is on the mound. Heilman was probably the best reliever in the Mets pen last year--our reliever tools have it as a toss-up between Heilman and Hernandez, with the former having a slight edge in Adjusted Runs Prevented, the latter having the edge in WXRL. This year, Heilman's been mediocre, with a 4.04 ERA and decent but not great peripherals. He faces Miguel Olivo, who has quietly put together a stronger-than-expected season. Despite that fact, he still bats eighth, behind Cody Ross. Olivo's a hacker who likes to swing at the first pitch, a factoid the announcers are discussing just as Olivo grounds a ball through the left side.

With Olivo on, Alfredo Amezaga comes on to pinch-bunt for Willis. To his credit, Amezaga lays down a picture-perfect sacrifice, a bunt that lays dead between the mound and the plate, forcing LoDuca to field the ball. So there is a man on second for Hanley Ramirez, who is 0-3, and was fairly manhandled by Pedro Martinez--two strikeouts and a groundout to the mound. Obviously, Heilman sees "Ramirez" on the scoreboard and thinks that Manny Ramirez has been traded to Florida. He walks Hanley on four pitches. Heilman then completely devours Uggla, striking him out on three pitches, starting with the same inside strike at the knees that Reilly refused to give Willis earlier. This means that Uggla, after his first inning single, got the hat trick on nine consecutive strikes.

Heilman's got nice stuff--his fastball is hitting 95 on the gun, and has good movement. But he seems afraid of contact, with frustrating results when--1st and 2nd, two outs--he walks Jacobs on four pitches. To face Miguel Cabrera. Right now, some Mets fans must wish Heilman was the one who'd gotten the late-night munchies on Sunday night. Heilman's first pitch to Cabrera is an inside fastball, which Cabrera turns on for a hard-hit double down the third base line. Two runs score easily, and Jacobs is sent home despite the fact that he's dead meat on the throw to Lo Duca…which is dropped as Jacobs' slide kicks the ball out of the catcher's glove.

With the score 4-1 in favor of the Fish, the rest is anticlimax. Heilman gets a squibber from Willingham to retire the side, and Joe Borowski comes out of the pen to finish off the bottom half of the Mets lineup, in order. And that's your ballgame.

This weekend, we'll catch up with the Dodgers and Giants in the NL West, and we'll be watching the matchups to try and bring you the best game possible. Keep your eyes peeled to the Prospectus Newsletter for more information.

Derek Jacques is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can reach Derek by clicking here or click here to see Derek's other articles.

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

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