September 21, 2006
An Important Start
Monday night, the Mets clinched their first division title since 1988, an anticlimactic event that had been coming since around Memorial Day. The Mets are the best team in the National League this year, and at their best, maybe the best team in baseball.
Of course, the dependent clause takes center stage right now. Heading into October, it's an open question whether the Mets of 92-59 and a 13 ½-game lead are necessarily the same as the team that opens the postseason in two weeks. The lack of pressure on them for three months has allowed them to play with lineups, rest players and generally be less concerned with wins and losses than with setting up their postseason roster. That approach has led to considerable rest time for Pedro Martinez, who has been on the disabled list for the better part of ten weeks with assorted leg injuries. The presence or absence of Martinez hasn't changed the Mets' fortunes in-season-they're 60-39 with him active, 32-20 when he's on the DL-but it makes a major difference in how they set up for the postseason.
Martinez's start last Friday-his first since August 14-didn't do much to assuage fears. He didn't have velocity or command, and he lasted just three innings, allowing four runs. He's had two good starts since June, and he has just two tune-ups remaining before the Division Series opens.
The Mets' starting rotation is the team's weak spot under the best of circumstances. If they have a representative Pedro Martinez, their rotation is a bit above average, and they have a starter who can go up against a Chris Carpenter in the first game of a playoff series and not be an underdog. Without Martinez, the rotation looks very weak:
IP ERA BB SO HR Tom Glavine 186.0 3.92 59 122 22 Steve Trachsel 159.2 4.96 75 78 23 John Maine 79.0 3.42 25 61 14 Orlando Hernandez 150.1 4.85 55 147 21Tom Glavine started the year with a high strikeout rate and a low ERA. Both numbers have been moving towards the mean since May. His strikeout rate in his last 19 starts is 4.9 K/9, and his ERA is 4.78. Steve Trachsel could be the first pitcher in memory to start a playoff game despite walking more batters than he struck out the regular season. John Maine rode an unusually low home-run rate to a strong July, but as that number has risen-10 homers in 46 innings since-he's become less reliable. Maine is carrying a very low BABIP (.227) as well, suggesting that he's been fortunate on balls in play. Orlando Hernandez has the reputation as a postseason hero, and was one as recently as last year's Division Series. His peripheral stats are as strong as any of the Mets' options. The problem with El Duque is that he has a massive lefty.righty split, more than 300 points of OPS, and that figure is consistent with his career pattern. Any team that can get five or more lefties into the lineup--all but the Dodgers, basically--could knock him around.
Another factor working against the Mets is that they can't go to a three-man rotation. If Martinez pitches, they can choose among Trachsel and Maine for the last slot, but they will have to use four starters throughout the postseason. The age of their staff mandates it. If Martinez isn't available, what you see above is the postseason rotation, and it is not impressive at all. Without Pedro Martinez pitching at his established level, the Mets go from a favorite to advance to the World Series to just another team in a muddled NL playoffs.
That's not to say that it's hopeless. As Nate Silver pointed out, a good defense and a strong closer are key to postseason success, and the Mets have both of those things. In fact, the Mets' bullpen is the best in the NL headed into October, deep, versatile and perfectly capable of handling the short starts that seem inevitable. Remember, deep and effective bullpens covering for average rotations keyed a number of recent Yankee champiionships, as well as the 2002 Angels and a big part of the 2004 Red Sox run.
The recent addition of Guillermo Mota has made an already strong crew that much better. I mention Mota because the story behind the Mets claiming him, as reported by Joel Sherman in the New York Post, is worth reading. This was an example of how performance analysis and skills analysis-stats and scouts, beer and tacos-worked together to improve a baseball team.
Mota has allowed one run in 13 1/3 innings as a Met, and helped to make the loss of Duaner Sanchez a non-issue. Aaron Heilman hasn't been quite as effective this season, but he's been good; personal favorite Heath Bell has a 34/10 K/BB in low-leverage work (and honestly, has little chance of making the postseason roster). Chad Bradford and Pedro Feliciano form a terrific tactical tandem in front of the set-up guys, and they all lead back to Billy Wagner and his power in the ninth inning.
Make no mistake: Mets' playoff games are going to drag. They are going to score a lot of runs and they are going to make a lot of pitching changes in trying to protect leads. Style points don't matter in October, though; wins do. Without an effective Martinez, the Mets are reasonably positioned to pick up the 11 wins they'll need to hang another banner at Shea Stadium. With him, they're the favorites. We'll have a better idea after tonight's game which of those scenarios is most likely.