Five Questions: New York Mets

The 2006 Mets came within a whisker of copping the National League
pennant and many are predicting another NL East crown for the New
Yorkers. I can’t deny, I’m a little more skeptical than many. Here’s why…

1. Any aces on this team?

Many prognosticators are focusing on the back of the Mets rotation
and rightfully so (I’ll address it myself in a minute), but I’m also
worried about the top of the rotation. You know, the “ace” and the number-two guy.

Tom Glavine posted an ERA+ of 115 in 198 IP last season. Those
are decent enough numbers, but they aren’t really ace material, are they?
That ERA+ was tied for 13th in the NL last year: tied with Clay
Hensley
and Jeff Francis, two other not-exactly-number-ones. The THT
projection system predicts a slight drop-off in ERA+ for 2007, to 111.
THT did not try to seriously project playing time in its first version, so I’ll
borrow playing time estimates from our friends at Baseball Prospectus. They see
Glavine throwing 175 innings in 2007. How likely is the 41-year-old to pitch that many innings?
Well, he has pitched 212.3, 211.3 and 198 innings the last three
years, so 175 seems within reach. On the other hand, over the last 20 years, only eight
41-year-olds have managed to throw at least 150 innings in the majors:

+--------------+------+------+------+-------+-------+------+------+
| Name         | Year | G    | GS   | IP    | ERA   | W    | L    |
+--------------+------+------+------+-------+-------+------+------+
| Johnson_R    | 2005 |   34 |   34 | 225.7 |  3.79 |   17 |    8 |
| Ryan_N       | 1988 |   33 |   33 | 220.0 |  3.52 |   12 |   11 |
| Clemens_R    | 2004 |   33 |   33 | 214.3 |  2.98 |   18 |    4 |
| Rogers_K     | 2006 |   34 |   33 | 204.0 |  3.84 |   17 |    8 |
| Moyer_J      | 2004 |   34 |   33 | 202.0 |  5.21 |    7 |   13 |
| Wells_D      | 2004 |   31 |   31 | 195.7 |  3.73 |   12 |    8 |
| Hough_C      | 1989 |   30 |   30 | 182.0 |  4.35 |   10 |   13 |
| Darwin_D     | 1997 |   31 |   24 | 157.3 |  4.35 |    5 |   11 |
+--------------+------+------+------+-------+-------+------+------+

I wouldn’t necessisarily bet against Glavine throwing 175 innings, but I don’t think it’s a
sure thing by any means.

The Mets number-two rotation stalwart is Orlando “El Duque”
Hernandez
. There are conflicting reports on El Duque’s
fecha de nacimiento
; some sources (e.g. ESPN) have him born on
October 11, 1969, while others (Baseball Reference, Retrosheet) place the big
event four years eariler. We may never know
how old he is, unless we can get some Carbon-14 dating measurements on
the guy, or simply chop him in half and count the rings.
THT’s projection for Hernandez is an ERA of 4.05 (i.e. above
average), and his estimated work load is 145 IP. The 145 IP seems high to me; El Duque has thrown
162.3, 128.3, 84.7 innings in the last three seasons. Still, even if
Glavine and Hernandez meet their performance and playing time
estimates, we’re talking about a combined ERA of 4.00 (in a park
favorable to pitchers) in 320 IP, which
doesn’t look too good for the #1/#2 combo of a pennant contender.

2. And what about the back of the rotation?

Well, after Glavine and Hernandez, we come to John Maine, Oliver Perez and,
probably, at this point, Mike Pelfrey. Maine made 15 starts for the
Mets last year and put up quite respectable numbers, thank you:

           IP    ERA    W-L    H/9    HR/9   K/9    K/B 
Maine,J    90   3.60    6-5    6.9     1.5   7.1   2.15 

Here’s the trouble: that Ryanesque hit rate (fewer than seven hits per
nine innings) does not seem to be supported
by a high strikeout rate. In fact, Maine’s BABIP was a paltry .228,
and you can be pretty sure that’ll be going up in 2007. The home run
rate looks pretty worrisome too. THT projects
him to an ERA of 4.20, which looks a little too good to me, but what
do I know?

Next we come to Oliver Perez, who has broken the heart of many a
fantasy baseball player over the last few years. Perez got everybody
excited back in 2004 when, as a 22-year-old, he went 12-10 with a 2.98
ERA and 239 strikeouts in 196 innings of work. Since then
Perez had managed to put up the following line:

Oliver Perez, 2005-2006
+-------+------+-------+------+------+------+
| IP    | ERA  | WHIP  | K/BB | W    | L    |
+-------+------+-------+------+------+------+
| 215.7 | 6.21 | 1.711 |  1.4 |   10 |   18 |
+-------+------+-------+------+------+------+

Yuck. Of course, the Mets are hoping that Perez can find some of the
old magic, but if I were a betting man, I think I’d put my money
elsewhere. By the way, there have been 22 major league players named Perez, but only
three players named Oliver.

The battle for the fifth starter gig appears to be over, with Mike
Pelfrey emerging victorious over his rivals, Chan Ho Park and
Aaron Sele, both of whom seem destined for the bullpen. Pelfrey
seems to me a reasonable choice for fifth starter: despite a rocky MLB
debut last year (ERA 5.48 in four starts), he has a solid minor league
track record and is young enough (23 this year) to do some on-the-job
learning. THT projects him to post an ERA of 5.09, which is not so bad
for a fifth starter these days.

3. Will the bullpen be the National League’s best again?

In a word, idoubtit. The Mets bullpen in 2006 had the best ERA, by far, of any National
League team. Check out the stats of the Mets top relievers (ranked by
IP):

Name      IP     ERA
Heilman   87    3.62
Oliver    81    3.44
Wagner    72.1  2.24
Bradford  62    2.90
Feliciano 60.1  2.09
Sanchez   55.1  2.60

That’s one fine bullpen performance, folks, but it’s one that I don’t
think the Mets can repeat in 2007. First of all, Oliver and Bradford have
moved on to other teams. The 30-year-old Feliciano, who had compiled a career ERA of
4.21 in 73 IP previous to last season, can be expected to suffer some
serious regression this year. THT projects his ERA at 4.62, which
gives you an idea of how flukey the system sees Feliciano’s
2006.

Next we come to Duaner Sanchez: you’ll recall that Sanchez was having
a fine season before getting injured in a car crash during the 2006
season. Willie Randolph and the Mets brass were none too happy when
Sanchez showed up at Spring Training 15 pounds overweight. Then Randolph
got really annoyed with Sanchez for hitting the snooze button on his
alarm clock a few too many times. A recent MRI has shown that Sanchez
will need another surgery on his shoulder, which should give him
plenty of time to sleep in over the next few months. In any case, he
won’t be a factor in the Mets ‘pen for at least the first half of the
season, maybe more.

Another key piece of the bullpen puzzle is Guillermo Mota, whom the
Mets acquired from the Indians late in the season last year. Mota went
3-0 for the Mets, giving up just two runs in 18 innings pitched. Good
work, but possibly tainted by performance-enhancing drugs, since Mota was subsequently suspended for
violating MLB’s drug policy and will miss the first 50 games of the 2007
season.

Newcomers to the Mets bullpen include Scott Schoeneweis (lifetime ERA
5.01) and Ambiorix Burgos, he of the 100+ mph fastball. Burgos’ arm
is certainly very interesting, but it’s all potential at this point,
since he seems to have little idea of where his pitches are
going. Burgos is the first-ever major league player with the name
Ambiorix. As previously mentioned, Sele and Park will probably be
long men, at least to start the season.

I think it’s inevitable that the Mets bullpen takes a huge step back
this year.

4. Is this offense great, or what?

It’s easy to look at the Mets lineup and be seduced: they have a fantastic
core of exciting young players that seem to have limitless
potential. I don’t need to tell you about Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes and
David Wright. We’re talking three superstars here—well, maybe that’s
jumping the gun on the youngsters a little, but not by much. Add with
Carlos Delgado, a bona fide offensive force at first base, and the
core of this offense is very solid indeed. But, three or four offensive
standouts does not a lineup make, so what about the other positions?

The Mets were 15th in the NL last year in production by second
basemen, as measured by OPS. Their problem was giving
around 300 at-bats to Kaz Matsui, Chris Woodward and Anderson Hernandez, before settling on
Jose Valentin, who OPS’d 867 while playing second base. That was quite a bit
better than expected for the veteran second baseman, and the Mets shouldn’t be
counting on getting an 850+ OPS from Valentin this year. To steal a
line from Lou Piniella, that would be like finding a wallet on Friday
and then counting on finding another one on Monday. Instead, the Mets
should concentrate on finding a platoon partner (Damion Easley might work) for Valentin,
who has always had trouble hitting lefties: 559 OPS against them in
2006, 585 career.

Doesn’t Shawn Green seem a lot older than 34? I dunno, maybe it’s because
his decline phase started in earnest several years ago, when he was
only 30, but he sure seems older than 34. Green put up an OPS of only
776 in 2006, his
first below-average performance in 10 years. When you consider he’s
playing an offense-first position in the field, that 776 looks even
worse. Now, a lot of folks are wondering if and when Lastings Milledge
will take over in right for Green, but THT’s projections see an even
better alternative: Endy Chavez. Now, essentially all of Chavez’s
advantage comes from the fielding projection, +10 runs for Endy, -13
for Shawn, so I generally take that with a grain of salt.

But there is another piece of information that has not been
incorporated into the projections and which favors Chavez: Shawn Green has absolutely the href="http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/best-outfield-arms-of-2006/">
worst outfield arm of anybody in the major leagues. And Chavez
has a great arm, although he didn’t have enough playing time to enter
into the study linked above. Usually a good or rotten arm is not
that big a deal, but the difference between these two, just in terms
of outfield throwing, was about two wins in 2006 (extrapolating Endy
to a full season). That’s a lot, and even if you throw in a good bit
of regression to the mean in projecting for this season, it’s still a
lot.

Now, I’m not saying that Chavez should necessarily play ahead of Green or
Milledge, but I’m sure that the Mets are very happy to have a backup plan
in case Green and Milledge both falter.

5. Any other thoughts?

The Mets ran away with the NL East last year, winning 97 games and
making it all look easy. However, keep in mind that the Mets’ run
differential, 834 scored and 731 allowed, suggest that they should
have won 91 games. Still good enough to win the division, but not in
a cake walk. Furthermore, as Dave Studeman wrote
href="http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/ten-great-pickups-by-omar-minaya/">
here, the 2006 Mets caught lightning in a bottle, not once, but
several times, getting better-than-expected performances
from Bradford, Feliciano, Valentin and several others. That’s unlikely
to happen again in 2007, and the Mets’ bottom line will suffer for
it.

Do I think the Mets will
walk away to a division crown
again this
year? No, I don’t think it will be so easy.
However, I still haven’t mentioned the name of one of the most famous
Mets of all: some guy named Pedro. Here’s the ace we were
looking for; unfortunately he’s recovering from shoulder surgery and
is currently expected back sometime when the fish are jumpin’ and the
cotton is high. Getting Martinez back for five to seven starts late in the
season, though, might be just what the doctor ordered to fend off the
Phillies or Braves, who are looking to take a division crown of their
own.

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