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March 12, 2007
Hope and Faith
How the New York Mets Can Win the World Series
Will talks with Jim about the Metropolitans' chances on Baseball Prospectus Radio. Click to download the mp3.
First and foremost: the 2007 Eastern Division title belongs to the Mets.
To assume that the only team to win 90 games in the league--first order or actual--is going to come all the way back to the pack is folly. Perhaps a case can be made for the Braves--who underachieved last year--moving ahead of New York to grab the title, but there is no way that two National League clubs are going to outstrip the Mets this coming season. Therefore, at the very least, then, they will be the wild card team. Regardless of how they get there, the trick is playing past game number 162.
The starting pitching question
No discussion of the Mets' chances in 2007 can begin anywhere else than their starting pitching. It's the top topic on everyone's list in any Mets preseason analysis. Let's understand one thing: as bad as you think their starters are going to be this year, how much worse can they possibly be than they were last year, when the team still managed to win 96 games? This is a club that had as its second-most active starter the pedestrian's pedestrian, Steve Trachsel. He made 30 starts, only 13 of which were of the quality variety. Now departed, is he really going to be that hard to replace?
The absence of Pedro Martinez is another reason cited for the Mets downturn this year. How many games, exactly, is not having him going to cost the team? If he comes back at midseason as anticipated and makes his full complement of starts from that point forward, they can count on him for 16 starts. That's just seven fewer than last year, and let's not forget that last year was his worst effort ever by far. Replacing that particular version of Pedro Martinez will not be as daunting a task as it might have been at one time.
On top of that, the Mets relied on the following men for a combined 17 starts last year: Dave Williams (5), Victor Zambrano (5), Jose Lima (4), and Geremi Gonzalez (3). In only four of those games (three started by Williams) did the team surrender under three runs. On the whole, they gave up 104 in those 17 starts (88 if you chuck a Williams blow-up on September 8) and still managed to go 9-8.
The bottom line is this: the Mets don't need great starting pitching to win like they did last year. As long as Tom Glavine approximates his 2006 performance and John Maine carries on as he did after being installed in the rotation last year, the team will be able to score enough to overcome its weakened starting slate. Yes, seeing the name Chan Ho Park penciled into a rotation is enough to make any sane fan reach for psychotropic drugs, but if he gets smacked around early he won't last any longer in the rotation than Lima or Gonzalez did last year. We continue to focus too much on spring rotations. Maybe one per league per year survives intact throughout any given season. Maybe.
A team that scores as much as the Mets do can absorb these sorts of slings and arrows, as they proved last year. Sure, an Oliver Perez revival would be nice, but it's not mandatory as long as Orlando Hernandez makes 25 to 30 starts and slightly betters the Steve Trachsel experience. Mike Pelfrey and, perhaps later on in the season, Philip Humber have every possibility of making competent contributions.
Consider that 2006 Mets starters threw the third-fewest innings in the National League. If you think it's counter-intuitive for a good team to be among the leaders in relief innings pitched, you're right.
Looking at innings pitched by starters over the past five seasons (2002-2006), the top 10 National League teams in that category averaged a 92-70 record, while the bottom 10 averaged 74-88. (For comparison, the 10 teams clustered around the average of 951 innings were right in between with their average won-loss as well, going 83-79.) Still, though, there are exceptions in the lesser group. The absolute lowest figure of the period (862 2/3) was posted by the 2003 Astros, and they managed to win 87 games. They would have done a lot better than that, but they missed their projection by seven games. Among the National League team seasons since 2002, the '06 Mets rank 68th in the number of IP they got from their starters.
The bullpen saves the day?
The Mets outstripped their run projection by about eight third-order wins last year. Having the best bullpen in the league was a major contributing factor to this situation. Scarier than their starting situation are the departures of key bullpen components Darren Oliver, Chad Bradford, and Roberto Hernandez, as well as the continued failure of Duaner Sanchez (2.80 WXRL) to take his rehab seriously. Can closer Billy Wagner (5.96) and key set-up man Aaron Heilman (3.27) repeat their efforts from a year ago?
Moreover, will new guys Scott Schoenweiss, Jorge Sosa, and Ambiorix Burgos make good the absence of the men who made the pen what it was last year? To have Hope & Faith, you're just going to have to believe they will in spite of some projections that are a little less than encouraging.
The Mets allowed 731 runs last year, third-fewest in the league. It would be unrealistic to assume they're going to be that stingy again this year. How much more of an assault can they absorb and still win enough games to carry the day? Mets starters allowed about five runs per nine innings pitched last year, a middle-of-the-pack number. They threw 918 2/3 innings. Figure less effectiveness this year and, with it, naturally, fewer innings pitched. Let's be pessimistic and say they add a quarter-run to their average. That's 5.25 runs allowed in 900 innings. The bullpen will have to pick up that slack in innings pitched. Let's also pessimistically assume they're not quite as good. Last year, they allowed 3.64 runs per nine innings while throwing 542 2/3 frames. Let's add a quarter-run to that average and up their innings contribution to 560. Now the team has surrendered 767 runs on the season. If the offense can hold the line at 834 runs (also third-best in the league), that projects to about 88 first-order wins, a drop-off of three from 2006.
Is this going to be good enough to win the division or the wildcard? Probably not. But a bullpen that surrenders under four runs per nine innings would still be one of the best in the league, if not the best. Given that, the good bullpen mojo comes into play and the Mets win games that teams with lesser pens do not. Suddenly, they're now in the low 90s, and that does much to guarantee a postseason spot.
Making it up on offense
All of that's with the offense in a holding pattern. The truth is, they can score more than they did last year. No, it is not reasonable to expect Carlos Beltran to improve on his monster year, but there's no reason that he can't approximate it if he's healthy. PECOTA says .282/.377/.529, which still makes him a must-have for any team, fantasy- or reality-based. Jose Reyes gave the Mets the most production out of the shortstop position in the league last year, but is at an age where improvement is expected, rather than just hoped for. Ditto David Wright, who has some insane bad-ass years in his future; there's no reason to believe that 2007 isn't going to be one of them. While Carlos Delgado will never get back to the .364 EqA of 2000, it is not unreasonable to expect him to slap another 20 points on last year's .307 figure.
Where else can additional runs come from? The two positions where the Mets got subpar production last year were left field (.250/.330/.407, about 15th out of 16 teams) and second base (.244/.300/.406, about 14th). Left has been addressed with the addition of Moises Alou, who even playing three-quarters of the time as a nod to age (40) is going to upgrade the position considerably.
The second base positional figures shown above are a bit misleading. The departed Kaz Matsui and Chris Woodward and the utilitized Anderson Hernandez combined to go .218/.272/.300 at the position in a little over 260 plate appearances. Any quality the position had came courtesy of Jose Valentin. His 2006 campaign has all the earmarks of a lightning-in-a-bottle situation, and expecting an encore goes beyond the realms of Hope & Faith. A midseason transition to a more productive hand will likely be necessary.
Similarly, catcher Paul Lo Duca is not a realistic bet to repeat his fine 2006, but a VORP of 15 to 20 (down from last year's 27.2) is still good enough to make the middle bunch of starting catchers in the National League.
That leaves right field, where the Mets got a respectable .281/.337/.470 showing last year. Endy Chavez's best play happened to come while playing in right, and the departed Xavier Nady also upped the count there which leaves this question: can Shawn Green possibly improve on that line this year? That's pretty much what he hit at Arizona two years ago, albeit in a friendlier hitting environment. PECOTA likes Lastings Milledge to approximate that line (.288/.359/.471) given a full season of play, so it's nice to know he's there when Green continues his fade.
Does an additional 25 runs sound crazy from this talented lineup? That's about one per week. If they can play it like that and the pitching and defense are at 767 allowed, the first-order projection would be 90 wins. If they add more runs than that, or the prevention department really comes through and approximates last year's showing, that projection gets into the mid-90s before any close-game luck considerations are brought into play. If that happens, the Mets will coast again much like they did last year.
To the finish line
While a regular season proposition must be justified, projecting the postseason is truly a matter of Hope & Faith for even the most loaded team. With that in mind, taking care of business in October will be easy for the Mets. By then, Pedro Martinez will have returned in the guise of his old self and will be joining Tom Glavine for a one-two punch supported by the always-crafty-in-October El Duque and the suddenly-unhittable John Maine. Beltran will rediscover his inner 2004 playoff self, and Delgado will be driven mad by his desire to play in a World Series and go bughouse in the qualifying rounds (even more than last year). Ray Durham, added at the trading deadline to shore up second base, will be a key contributor, while Reyes' and Wright's presence will make no pitching assignment easy. The bullpen will continue its wonderful work, and Julio Franco will become the oldest man in history to hit a walk-off World Series-clinching grand slam.
Will talks with Jim about the Metropolitans' chances on Baseball Prospectus Radio.
Click to download mp3 (5.9 MB)