Five Questions: New York Metsby John Walsh
March 23, 2006
In 2004 the Mets finished at 71-91, 25 games behind the division champs, Atlanta (who else?). The front office went to work in the offseason and ended up signing Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran to long-term lucrative contracts. Last year they improved to 83-79, and this time they finished seven games behind the Braves. Besides the help from Pedro (quite a bit) and Beltran (not so much), the Mets benefited from the continued development of David Wright (who was the most productive Met on offense) and a solid year from Cliff Floyd.
This offseason GM Omar Minaya was very active again, adding slugger Carlos Delgado, catcher Paul Lo Duca and several other players. The Mets look strong on paper now, especially offensively, but there are some questions that need to be answered...
1. What should the Mets expect from Pedro Martinez in 2006?
Will he repeat his strong debut season as a Met, when he posted a 2.83 ERA in 217 IP or will he revert to 2004 form, when he posted a career-worst 3.90 ERA in his last year for the Red Sox? Actually, the difference in the two performances is smaller than it might seem. The one-run improvement in his ERA last season can be partially attributed to
- Moving from a hitter's park (Fenway) to one that is favorable to pitchers (Shea);
- Moving to a league where everbody bats. Pedro faced 75 pitchers or pinch hitters in 2005. He struck out 33 of them, walked just one and gave up zero home runs. That'll help the ol' ERA a bit.
One thing Pedro-watchers have been concerned about in recent years is his steadily declining strikeout rate. As you can see in the graph, his strikeout rate is on a very clear downward trend, and it even continued last year, when he was helped by facing pitchers.
There are two things to keep in mind though: 1) Pedro's peak was so high that even after declining for several years in a row, Martinez is still a pretty good strikeout pitcher—he was fifth in strikeout-per-nine-innings rate (K/9) in the NL last year; and 2) after several years of rising walk rates, 2005 saw a nice decrease in his walks-per-nine-innings rate (BB/9), the result of which was a very fine K/BB of 4.32, tops in the NL.
Is Pedro, now entering his age-34 season, going through that mid-life change that so many great pitchers experience, when they make up for reduced velocity by increasing control, using more brains than brawn to get batters out? I think that may be the case with Pedro at this point in his career.
I haven't said anything about Pedro's ailing toe, mostly because I haven't been able to tell from reports just how serious it is. If he's healthy, though, I would bet on Pedro to put up a very fine season. Perhaps, with an improved Mets offense, he might even get near 20 wins this year, something he hasn't done since 2002.
2. Can Billy Wagner fill the shoes of the departed Roberto Hernandez?
Ok, that's not a serious question, but there is a point here. The addition of Billy Wagner to the Mets' bullpen is clearly a big upgrade. But it's also true that Roberto Hernandez had a surprisingly good season as the Mets' setup man: 69.2 IP, 2.58 ERA, 61 strikeouts. Those numbers are fairly close to the ZIPs projection for Billy Wagner in 2006 (71 IP, 2.54 ERA, 82 K), so the addition of Wagner in some sense makes up for the loss of Hernandez.
Note that I'm not by any means advocating that the Mets should have kept Hernandez. Relief pitchers (except for a few elites) are notoriously inconsistent from year to year. Anybody remember Rheal Cormier's 2003 season (1.70 ERA in 85 IP)? How about Joey Eischen in 2002 (54 IP, 1.34 ERA) or Buddy Groom the same year (62 IP, 1.60 ERA)? There are tons of reliever seasons like these out there. Hernandez, going into his age-41 season, is not a good bet to repeat last year's performance.
So the 2006 bullpen will look a lot different than the 2005 version. Of the top three in innings pitched last year, Braden Looper and Hernandez have left via free agency, and Aaron Heilman looks like he may end up in the rotation. Mets GM Omar Minaya has brought in Wagner, of course, but also Duaner Sanchez, Jorge Julio and Steve Schmoll. Sanchez had an okay year in 2005, but his career ERA is 4.19 in 174 IP, mostly compiled while pitching half his games in pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium over the last two years. Jorge Julio had a great year for Baltimore in 2002, but the rest of his career looks like Rheal Cormier's. Actually, even including 2002, his career looks like Rheal Cormier's. Schmoll posted a 5.25 ERA as a 25-year-old rookie for the Dodgers last year.
In other words, none of these guys look like top-notch setup material, which is what the Mets will need to front Wagner and what you might have wanted in return for giving up two of the team's five starting pitchers, Jae Seo and Kris Benson.
3. Will Carlos Delgado put up the best offensive numbers ever for a Mets First Baseman?
He just might. In recent years, Mets first basemen have been downright woeful at the plate. In fact, they've been below the NL average for first basemen for the last six years in a row. Last year was particularly bad, with a motley crew putting up a .227/.305/.391 line. Compare that to the NL average for first basemen: .280/.364/.485. Actually, the top two in terms of plate appearances, Doug Mientkiewicz and Mike Jacobs, put up respectable numbers, but the Mets gave 228 plate appearances to Chris Woodward, Marlon Anderson, Jose Offerman, Miguel Cairo and Brian Daubach— I call them the Death Squad—who together posted a truly embarrassing 464 OPS. I'm wondering why Marlon Anderson got 67 plate appearances while playing first base and putting up a .159/.209/.206 line. How many guys struggle to slug over the Mendoza line? The Mets should avoid this problem in 2006, since they now have the capable bat of Julio Franco to spell Delgado when necessary.
Delgado's 2006 ZIPs projection has him at .287/.398/.535. The last full-time Mets first baseman to top 933 in OPS was John Olerud (OPS 1003) in 1998, and before that, well, nobody. I don't know if Delgado can top Olerud's 1998 performance, but I wouldn't be surprised if he did. Shea is known as a pitcher's park, but it's much harder on right-handed batters than it is on lefties. In fact, from 2002 to 2004, Shea actually helped lefties (slightly) for batting average and home runs.
4. Will Jose Reyes get a passing grade in Professor Rickey's class?
The Mets have hired Rickey Henderson as a special instructor, hoping he'll act as a private tutor to the Mets’ young leadoff hitter, Jose Reyes. Henderson has the credentials for such a position of course, being widely regarded as the best leadoff man in baseball history. Various commentators are talking about Henderson helping Reyes learn the ropes with regards to base stealing, pointing out the positive effect that Henderson had on Roger Cedeno when the two played together on the 1999 Mets. But does that really make a lot of sense? Reyes led the NL with 60 stolen bases last season and had a fine success rate of 80%. No, what Rickey is going to be preaching to Reyes is the gospel of on-base percentage. Reyes, as you probably know, does not excel at getting on base; he had a .300 OBP last season.
Once he gets on base, though, he does a fine job of getting around to score. I looked at the ratio of runs scored to times on base for all 2005 leadoff hitters (at least 500 plate appearances in the leadoff slot). Reyes ranked fourth (of 17 full-time leadoff men) in the majors in this measure (Jimmy Rollins, Johnny Damon and Grady Sizemore were the top three). When you look at runs per plate appearance, however, Reyes fares much worse; his ranking slips to 11th. Clearly, he needs more help getting on base in the first place rather than moving around the bases once he gets on.
Whether Henderson, who had a fabulous career OBP of .401, can teach Reyes how to get on base more often is anybody's guess. I tend to be a skeptic on such matters, but I would love to be proved wrong here. Reyes is an exciting player, and if he can get on base more often he'll be adding lots of value to the excitement. And the idea of Rickey Henderson, as the wizened old coach, imparting his knowledge to the youngsters, makes me smile. Some might say that Henderson's people skills leave something to be desired, as he is well known for never being able to remember anybody's name. The same defect didn't seem to hurt Casey Stengel much though.
5. Do the Mets have enough starting pitching to win the NL East this year?
The Mets’ offense has been clearly upgraded, as has the bullpen, but the starting pitching may be worse. Gone are Kris Benson and Jae Seo, aces not, but they are league-average (or better) pitchers. In their absence, the starting five look to be Pedro, Tom Glavine, Steve Trachsel, Victor Zambrano and the winner of the fifth-starter derby, either Aaron Heilman or Brian Bannister.
Pedro's health is an issue, Glavine is 40 years old and Trachsel is 35 and coming off a back injury that limited him to just six starts in 2005. Zambrano has been very inconsistent and Heilman, although he pitched very well out of the bullpen last year, has a spotty record as a starter. The 25-year-old Bannister is an interesting prospect, who posted a 13-4 record with a 2.74 ERA in 154.1 innings pitched in Double-A and Triple-A last year. He's pitched well in Spring Training thus far, and manager Willie Randolph is clearly considering him for the rotation.
As I mentioned above, the Mets closed to within seven games of the Braves last year, after finishing 25 games back in 2004. That's good news, but it doesn't end there. In 2005, the Mets scored 722 runs and allowed 648. Usually a team with that run differential would have a record of 90-72, or seven games better than the Mets actually did. The difference in the actual record and expected record can usually be attributed to chance and teams that are unlucky in a given year, and they usually see their luck change the following year. The Braves were also slightly unlucky in 2005, their expected record was 92-70, two games better than their actual 90-72 record. So, the Mets may be quite a bit closer to the Braves than their 2005 records indicated.
I'm guessing that if Pedro is healthy and the rest of the starting pitching holds up, the Mets should be right in the race for the NL East title.
References and Resources
ZIPs Projections are made by Dan Szymborski over at the Baseball Think Factory. The Mets predictions can be found here.
John Walsh dabbles in baseball analysis in his spare time. He welcomes questions and comments via e-mail.