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September 29, 2008

Prospectus Today

The Morning After

by Joe Sheehan

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October 1, 2007:

If the history books declare this a Mets "choke," while glossing over the team that closed 13-4 and made up the ground that was left uncovered, it will be missing a huge part of the story. The Phillies won the NL East; it wasn't just handed to them.

After the games of September 10, 2008, the Phillies were 3½ games behind the Mets in the NL East, and four back of the Brewers in the NL wild-card race. Just like they did a year ago, they closed their season in style, winning seven in a row starting on the 11th-including a sweep of the Brewers-and finished 13-3 to win the NL East going away, clinching a tie Friday night, and the division Saturday afternoon. Their pitching and defense led the way, as they allowed three or fewer runs in 12 of of the 16 games. Or maybe their offense did, which scored at least six runs in ten of the games. In any case, you cannot write the story of the 2008 Mets without again acknowledging that they yielded the division to a team that played exceptionally down the stretch. The Phillies bullpen once again performed very well, capped at the end by Brad Lidge's perfect season in save situations, and while Ryan Howard is no MVP-and he is, I reiterate, a platoon player-his 1274 OPS in September is a big reason why he gets to keep playing into October.

Less explicable is the Mets' failure to close out the Brewers to win the wild card. There was no Rockies this year, no team winning 14 of 15 to catch the Mets from behind. At the close of play just nine days ago, the Mets were 2½ games ahead of the Brewers with eight to play. Their post-season chance was 87 percent, just shy of the team's high-water mark. The Brewers' chance that day, 15.6 percent, was its lowest since June 15.

It turned after that. The Brewers allowed 18 runs in seven games in going 6-1. You can't nod to that without acknowledging that they beat the Pirates three times, twice winning extra-inning games against minor league relievers, and were fortunate to play the best team in the league at the perfect time, when it had no stake in the outcome and was very close to its next meaningful series. Those circumstances helped, but also consider that they got three of those wins after being tied or trailing late, and that CC Sabathia started three games in eight days, the last two on three days' rest, and allowed a total of three earned runs. They played the teams put in front of them, and they went 6-1 to win 90 games, and while the context is worth mentioning, you can't use that context to dismiss the performance. The 2007 Mets closed the season with seven home games against bad teams, as good a context as you might hope for, and they failed. You have to win.

Perhaps 90 wins shouldn't have been enough. The Mets finished 3-5, and unlike the Brewers, they lost games late-three of the five losses over the last eight days came in the bullpen, as the problems holding leads and keeping games close that had persisted in the middle innings-and extended to the ninth in Billy Wagner's absence-repeatedly hurt them in the season's final week. They blew a 4-2 lead in the seventh to the Braves, blew two ties to the Cubs in a 9-6, ten-inning loss, and blew a 2-2 tie in the eighth yesterday to lose to the Marlins, 4-2.

Perhaps it is yesterday's loss that ties the strings and the bow on the gift box that was the Mets' 2008 bullpen. Jerry Manuel went to Scott Schoeneweis to start the eighth inning, and Fredi Gonzalez countered by using Wes Helms to bat for Mike Jacobs. When Helms launched Schoeneweis' third pitch over the left-field wall, not a single fan could have possibly been surprised. Schoeneweis has spent two years being eviscerated by right-handed batters, and it was Willie Randolph's inability to keep him from facing them in key situations that was the best reason-arguably the only reason-to let him go. Manuel did a better job of mixing and matching his relievers, most of whom have big platoon splits, but at a key moment, with the season in the balance, he rolled the dice and lost.

Manuel then brought in Luis Ayala, who went from throwing mop-up relief for the worst team in baseball to being the closer for a contender in a span of six days in August, the latter a job he was never qualified to do. As it turns out, Ayala's ERA with the Nationals (5.77) was a good match for his work with the Mets (5.50). He just happened to have a handful of good performances that caused the team to overrate him and treat him as a high-leverage reliever, a decision that bit them when he reverted to being Luis Ayala. Ayala immediately gave up a home run to Dan Uggla to make the score 4-2 and take away many of the Mets' options heading into their last two at-bats.

The Mets' bullpen simply asked too much from too many flawed pitchers. A good bullpen will have a couple of guys with large platoon splits who are generally asked to get guys out who they can get out. The Mets had, at times, four and five guys like this in their pen. That's a failure of assembly, something that can be blamed on management. On the other hand, the Mets' relievers who were supposed to be their full-inning guys were disasters, largely responsible for the bullpen's demise. Aaron Heilman turned in the worst year of his career; Duaner Sanchez came back from injury without his fastball; Wagner got hurt. That's a failure of the players.

The rotation collapsed as well. The only Mets starter to record a win in the team's last 11 games was Johan Santana. The only starters other than Santana to record wins in September were journeyman Brandon Knight, rookie Jon Niese, and Oliver Perez. When John Maine got hurt, the rotation immediately went from a strength to a question mark, even as Mike Pelfrey turned in a Maine-level performance. The real question here is the decision to count on Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez to share a rotation spot, rather than bring in more outside help. Martinez looks done, with D-level stuff that he's surviving on because he has a tremendous mind for the craft. Hernandez, of course, didn't pitch a lick all season. More pitching depth should probably be a goal for next season, although in fairness, I think we'll see a lot of roster turnover here in general.

Can the Mets' hitters be blamed? Only if you use a very short time horizon. The Mets scored 24 runs in the series with the Cubs, then just three over the weekend. That hurt Sunday, when a few extra runs could have made a big difference. Then again, the fifth and sixth batters for the Mets in their must-win 162nd game were Nick Evans and Ramon Martinez; that's a failure of construction.

The challenge for Omar Minaya this offseason is to construct a roster from top to bottom. Minaya has shown a deft touch with the frontline talent, making good free-agent signings and trades to help what is absolutely a championship-caliber core, benefiting from the presence of David Wright and Jose Reyes, of course. The Mets, however, have had weak benches and bullpens for two years, and shown a stunning lack of resilience in the face of injuries. The front office has to do a better job of backing up its core with good players around it in the lineup and behind it in the rotation and bullpen.

In the modern era, our focus on reaching the postseason can approach tunnel vision, so I think it's worthwhile to consider some context. For the second year in a row, the Mets will have a better record than an NL division winner. The combination of small divisions, an unbalanced schedule, interleague play, and a wild card create a lot of fuzziness about the term "better," the same way that three levels of short series can confuse people about "best." The Dodgers are five games worse than the Mets by record, and worse than that if you take caliber of competition into account. They're being celebrated thanks largely to the inability of their four opponents-by-dint-of-geography to assemble a team capable of winning 85 games. The Mets, or for that matter, the Yankees, didn't have that luxury.

As you place their seasons up against those of the Dodgers or the Twins or the Angels, you must consider all of the factors that go into the evaluation of a team's success, and not just the bright-line test of "making the playoffs." The quixotic structure of modern MLB shouldn't shape the discussion to the extent that it does; there are so many flaws in it that it has to be part of that discussion.

--

Over in the AL, the White Sox and Twins each lost two of three at home-the White Sox have quietly pulled as big a collapse as the Mets, closing 4-9-to force the White Sox to play their makeup game with the Tigers. If they win today at US Cellular Field, the Twins will travel to Chicago for a one-game playoff Tuesday, the winner of which will take on the Rays in the Division Series.

Is there really any scenario in which the Sox don't win today? They're playing at home, in a game they have to win, against a sub-.500 team closing out the most disappointing season in baseball. The Tigers have to fly in from Detroit to play a completely meaningless game that does little but push their offseason back by a day. They're starting Freddy Garcia, who has made all of two starts this year, and backing him up with a wretched bullpen.

The thing is…it's baseball. No one team is ever so big a favorite in any one game as to make the "upset" possible. For that matter, no team ever "upsets" another in the regular season. It's just not a term we use in this game. So despite having every edge you can find, the White Sox will be putting their season on the line. There is no such thing as a gimme in baseball, and that's what makes today so compelling. If the Sox lose, closing 4-10, including the last three of four at home to non-contenders, that's arguably up there with the Mets' 2007 and 2008 stories.

Gavin Floyd tries to stave that off today. Watch it with us.

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

Related Content:  The Who,  Mets,  Year Of The Injury,  Luis Ayala

20 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Aaron/YYZ

Joe, I love the light recently being shed on some of the competitive disadvantages in the current division alignments and scheduling. Can we expect an article this offseason to bat around ideas for fixing some of this?

Sep 29, 2008 11:03 AM
rating: 0
 
bldxyz123

I can't disagree more, since what it really does is shed more light on the incredible East Coast bias I keep seeing in many media outlets, Sheehan included. He wrote five times about K-Rod's unimpressive Saves record (once, twice would have been sufficient), and here he keeps throwing the NL West up as if this kind of thing never happened before.

I know Joe was perhaps 7 years old in 1981, but that doesn't mean we haven't known about the downsides of having more than one round of playoffs since the LCS began.

Play the hand you are dealt instead of whining about it.

Sep 29, 2008 13:27 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

The idea is directed less at the Mets and their fans--who certainly should both be disappointed--as it is at those who would fawn over the Dodgers and curse the Metropolitans. I find that to be a little silly, given that the difference between them is entirely the quality of the competition.

You can say that we "know" about this, but I fail to see that knowledge in the discussions of the two teams. I see praise for the Dodgers, and their 84-78 mark, and MVP discussion for a player with whom they were 30-24, and relentless criticism--some of it clearly insane--of the Mets and their best players.

Finishing in first place in a division of five teams in a 16-team league is quite often about having ugly friends. MLB created this scenario, and all I ask is that we acknowledge it and the reality that skewering the Mets while honoring the Dodgers is a little bit silly.

Sep 29, 2008 21:48 PM
 
Hoff

Two Words:
Barry Bonds.

Sep 29, 2008 11:07 AM
rating: -3
 
Charles Kurz

I am a diehard mets fan. I know there are players on the team now that probably used steroids and other illegal substances. And now I am as devestated as ever.

But I would rather this be our fate then to have us win with Barry Bonds. It would have been zero gratification, and mets history would be marked with a big huge astirisk forever. Not to mention, we could never brag to Yankees or Phillies fans about this hypothetic triumph without being met by laughs, jeers and constant reminders of how we cheated our way to success. And the thing about it is that they would all be right.

Sep 29, 2008 20:53 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

Do you feel like the 2006 NL East crown is also tainted for the significant contributions Guillermo Mota made to it, given that he was suspended IMMEDIATELY AFTERWARDS for testing positive for PED use? Did you wail in protest, write letters to the editor, hear the jeers that you "cheated [your] way to success"?

Or did you not care at all?

There is more evidence that a hero of that 2006 team used PEDs than there is evidence Barry Bonds did. So until you, and the many who feel the same way about Bonds but ONLY about Bonds, come to grips with that contrast, I'll feel free to dismiss all of your concerns as personality-driven blather.

Sep 29, 2008 21:53 PM
 
WAYNEJONATHAN

First, if you are using the "he was never caught by MLBs testing program" line, you are dead wrong- he tested positive for amphetamines in violation of league policy. If you are riding the victim train "he was treated unfairly" line, you are right: he was singled out by the media and fans. That doesn't make him any less of a cheater however.

Second, calling Mota a hero of the 2006 team shows that you don't follow the Mets very closely. Mota gave the team 18 innings and got 10 VORP, eg one win in a season where they made the playoffs easily; he also was largely responsible for an important postseason loss.

Sep 30, 2008 10:58 AM
rating: 0
 
Trieu

I agree with most of Joe's analysis (as usual), but his attempt at mollifying the Mets fanbase falls flat. Just because the Dodgers' season was rescued by its poor division doesn't mean that the Mets didn't fail. (Apologies for the double negative.) The Mets knew going into the season what the competitive geography was, and their mandate has to be to win 90+ games. Anything short of that is organizational failure, particularly given their core and their payroll.

Sep 29, 2008 11:23 AM
rating: 2
 
brianpsmith
(832)

Trieu makes a good point, but I just had to point out that where he says Joe is attempting to "mollify the Mets fans", last week a particularly snarky comment accused Joe of being a Mets hater. It's funny how our perceptions are colored by our own particular biases as fans.

Sep 29, 2008 12:09 PM
rating: 2
 
ScottyB

The Mets measure of success for 2008 was to "finish the unfinished business", overtake the Phillies, make the playoffs and do some damage- it was not to "be better than the Dodgers".
Joe, in most cases, I agree with you that playoffs=success no-playoffs(how do you make a not equals sign?)failure is overly simplistic. But not in this case.
The chattering masses here in NYC are excoriating the core players for not having grit, heart, guts, winnability, etc. This is ridiculous. As BP very aptly put it in an article a few days ago- the Mets pen was well below replacement level for the last 2 months of the season. As a result, the Mets lost at least 3-4 games they would have otherwise won, and that made all the difference.
I will now stab myself in the eye with a rusty spoon.

Sep 29, 2008 12:36 PM
rating: 2
 
BelongstotheReds

And right on cue, Buster Olney shows up to suggest that what the Mets really need is a sports psychologist to help David Wright perform better in the clutch. Oh my.

Sep 29, 2008 13:13 PM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

In his career, David Wright has hit better in August and September than in the rest of the year. In September 2007 and September 2008, as the Mets were trying to win a division, he killed the league.

People who have high-visibility roles for very large media companies are entitled to their opinions. Readers are entitled to look elsewhere for actual insight. Perhaps over time, enough people do, and the coverage at large media companies changes.

Until then, thanks for reading BP.

Sep 29, 2008 21:59 PM
 
xnumberoneson

Also fitting was the fact that the final out was recorded by Matt Lindstrom, who was traded after the 2006 season along with Henry Owens, Heath Bell, Royce Ring and Brian Bannister. Minaya killed the depth of both the bullpen and the rotation.

Sep 29, 2008 15:01 PM
rating: 2
 
october271986

Question: How much blame does the starting pitching get for this failure? Johan Santana and Mike Pelfrey were the only Mets starters to regularly get into the sixth or seventh inning. John Maine's injury was also a factor: when starters can't get deep into games, you need more bullpen help.
It seems to me the Mets were going to the bullpen too early and often - also a failure of construction.




Sep 29, 2008 16:19 PM
rating: 1
 
Pietaster07

xnumberoneson - I completely agree. As a huge Marlins fan with many Met fan friends, I keep having to remind them that Minaya traded two very good bullpen prospects for nothing much more than Justin Vargas and a couple single-A duds. It also doesnt get easier for the Mets, as we the Phillies will be just as good next year and the Marlins, IF healthy, could have one of the NL's best teams next year and best offense, provided they replace Jacobs low-OBP high-SLG, with McPhersons high-OBP and high-SLG.

Sep 29, 2008 18:53 PM
rating: 1
 
johnstolte

I agree completely with the fact that this is little more than an apology for a bunch of chokers. Of course if teams outside of the East Coast choke away a great chance to go to the playoffs, there must be extenuating circumstances, right?

I love this site and read it every day, but give me a break. The Mets didn't get it done, and neither did the Yankees. Perhaps they should raise the payroll to $300 million apiece and then they'll have a chance to compete.

Sep 29, 2008 20:29 PM
rating: -2
 
johnstolte

Should be in the East Coast, not outside. D'oh!

Sep 29, 2008 20:31 PM
rating: 0
 
tdierkes

Howard was decent against lefties in '07 and very good against them in '06...isn't there a chance his .294 OBP against them this year is the fluke?

Sep 29, 2008 21:38 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

Career: .231/.314/.471 with Ks in about 40% of his ABs. He's 28, so I'm calling that his level. Only in 2006 could he play for me against lefties, and we know that was his ridiculous peak year for everything, including a BABIP of .371 against LHPs.

Howard doesn't get there on defense and baserunning, so he has to do it with the bat. For a 1B, that can't be a .314 OBP. I suspect that, Mike Gonzalez aside, those numbers are worse against lefty relievers, especially good ones, which makes him a tactical nightmare.

He's a platoon player. This isn't Ryan Klesko, who was platooned from the start and never got a chance to prove he couldn't hit lefties. This is a guy who can't hit them well enough to play against lefties, a 790 OPS 1B with subpar defense and baserunning.

Sep 29, 2008 22:09 PM
 
Sophist

Howard hit .286/.368/.593 against LHP in the second half this year (7 HR) and an unbelievable .375/.405/.906 against them in September. He also had a 1.070 OPS against them in May. FWIW.

Sep 30, 2008 17:04 PM
rating: 0
 
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