Five Questions: New York Metsby John Walsh
March 18, 2008
W-L: 88-74, second in NL East
Runs: 804, fourth in NL
Runs Allowed: 750, seventh in NL
Pythagorean Record: 86-76
Last season, starting around the middle of September, the Mets .... Wait. I did not come here to write about the past. Let's talk about 2008, okay?
1. What is the meaning of Johan Santana?
It's all been said, hasn't it? How much ink has been spilled, how many typewriter ribbons consumed*, how many toner cartridges replaced in writing about the Mets' acquisition of superstar lefty Johan Santana this offseason. Well, not enough, to my mind, which is why I'm adding my voice to the chorus (or maybe it should be mob).
*I'm betting you haven't thought about typewriter ribbons in a while, am I right? The other day my family and I were visiting friends, when I noticed tucked away on a bookcase an Olivetti manual typewriter. I brought it to the attention of my six-year-old daughter and asked her if she had any idea what it was. None, none at all. It was the first time she'd ever seen one. She was eager to try it out, but, alas, it was not working. It had one of those half-and-half red/black ribbons, which allows you to type in two different colors.
Lots of folks have made estimates of how much Santana will be worth to the Mets in 2008 and you can get as complicated as you like, but I'm going to keep my estimate very simple. Santana is basically replacing Tom Glavine in the rotation. The Hardball Times Season Preview 2008 projects ERAs of 2.83 for Santana and 4.49 for Glavine. Assuming, 200 IP for both pitchers (an approximation, to be sure, but it doesn't matter much), I get Santana saving 37 runs compared to Glavine, which translates to nearly four extra wins.
Those four extra wins will certainly come in handy, especially considering the degree of uncertainty hovering over the rest of the rotation. Not that they aren't good—there is an awful lot to like about having Pedro Martinez, John Maine, Oliver Perez and Orlando Hernandez as your No. 2 to No. 5 starters.
I'm a Pedro-believer—I think if he can stay healthy, he will be among the better pitchers in the NL this year, say in the top 15 or so. Some folks still mention Maine's lack of stuff, but according to my pitch f/x analysis, he throws a fastball that averages 92-93 mph, which is nothing to sneeze at. He struck out 8.5 batters per nine last year, which is well above average for starting pitchers. His stuff looks pretty good to me. Oliver Perez and El Duque have question marks regarding consistency and health, respectively. Mike Pelfrey is on hand to fill in (or take over) when needed.
2. What can we expect from Billy Wagner?
Well, I threw myself a batting practice fastball here, since it's pretty obvious what we can expect. Here's what the Mets closer has done the last five seasons:
+------+------+------+------+------+------+ | Year | TEAM | IP | ERA | WHIP | SV | +------+------+------+------+------+------+ | 2003 | HOU | 86.0 | 1.78 | 0.87 | 44 | | 2004 | PHI | 48.3 | 2.42 | 0.77 | 21 | | 2005 | PHI | 77.7 | 1.51 | 0.84 | 38 | | 2006 | NYN | 72.3 | 2.24 | 1.11 | 40 | | 2007 | NYN | 68.3 | 2.63 | 1.13 | 34 | +------+------+------+------+------+------+So, the Mets should probably expect around 70 innings, an ERA in the mid-twos and a WHIP somewhere around 1.10. And, of course, the usual 30-40 saves.
You know something? Billy Wagner is simply one of the top two or three relief pitchers of his generation. Maybe you did know it, but somehow Wagner doesn't seem to have the cache' of some other top closers. I had a look at all relief pitchers who have pitched at least 500 innings since Wagner's debut year, 1995. This gives me a sample of 99 pitchers. Here are Wagner's ranks in various key pitching categories:
ERA: Second (behind Mariano Rivera) WHIP: First K/9: First H/9: Second (behind Troy Percival) BB/9: 24th HR/9: 29thNote that he was even in the top third of relievers in BB/9 and HR/9, which is pretty impressive for a high-K guy like Wagner, who lives by the high fastball. In case you're interested, he also ranked third in saves over that time. You could certainly make a good case for Wagner being the second best reliever of this period, after Rivera.*
*I noticed when looking at these numbers that Rivera leads all relievers in keeping the ball in the park, with a miniscule HR/9 of 0.46. That's quite a bit below the next best reliever (Robb Nen at 0.58 HR/9) and is even more impressive when you consider he's doing it with essentially one pitch. I need to start looking at Mariano's cutter using the pitch f/x data (although, Mike Fast has already had a look.)
The rest of the bullpen in 2008 should be solid. Last year the Mets were middle-of-the-pack in bullpen ERA, but remove Guillermo Mota and Aaron Sele (please) and add Duaner Sanchez (although there are health issues with Duaner, of course) and the 'pen should improve in 2008.
3. Will the real Jose Reyes please stand up?
If the previous question was a BP fastball, this one is a bat-splintering cutter from Mo Rivera. Reyes, after an excellent 2006 and a hot start to the 2007 season, somehow slumped miserably over the second half of the season. His poor play was exacerbated by the sensation that the young shortstop was having motivational problems. You know, failing to run out ground balls and stuff like that.
On Aug. 12 last year, Reyes walked and homered in five trips against the Marlins, pushing his OPS to .837, which was almost identical to his 2006 OPS (.841). The rest of the way, Reyes turned into Pedro Feliz without the power (.215/.292/.325). As the Mets were melting down in September last year, Reyes was the player most obviously struggling and, in fact, bore much of the blame for the Mets' collapse.
A common complaint against Reyes during this period was that he was very prone to popping the ball up in key situations. Indeed, during a mid-September series with the Phillies, who swept all three games by the way, Reyes seemed to pop out every other time up (in reality, he popped out four times in the three games, still a frustratingly high number). Here's a breakdown by month of Reyes' pop-out propensity, along with this OPS:
+-------+-----+--------+--------+------+ | month | PA | inPlay | PopPct | OPS | +-------+-----+--------+--------+------+ | 04 | 120 | 0.78 | 0.042 | 1038 | | 05 | 126 | 0.74 | 0.048 | 697 | | 06 | 123 | 0.77 | 0.073 | 829 | | 07 | 126 | 0.86 | 0.064 | 770 | | 08 | 139 | 0.83 | 0.101 | 733 | | 09 | 131 | 0.79 | 0.137 | 612 | +-------+-----+--------+--------+------+ inPlay - percentage of PAs resulting in ball in play PopPct - percentage of PAs resulting in pop-upHey, it wasn't just our imagination, Jose really did pop out a lot in the last two months of the season.
Was he pressing while in the depths of his slump, swinging at pitches he normally wouldn't? Well, a quick look at the Retrosheet data shows that he actually swung at fewer pitches in September:
+-------+-----+------+----------+ | month | PA | NP | SwingPct | +-------+-----+------+----------+ | 04 | 120 | 414 | 0.42 | | 05 | 126 | 456 | 0.43 | | 06 | 123 | 436 | 0.47 | | 07 | 126 | 450 | 0.44 | | 08 | 139 | 495 | 0.47 | | 09 | 131 | 475 | 0.40 | +-------+-----+------+----------+This is not conclusive, of course, since pitchers may have been giving him little to hit if they thought they could get him out that way. A more detailed study using detailed pitch f/x data might shed some light on this.
* I say "worrisomely," because anytime a player feels he has to apologize or explain himself after hitting the ball off the center field wall—well, that seems worrisome to me.
4. Is this the trainer's room or a M*A*S*H unit?
Injuries are the Mets' biggest concern going into the start of the '08 season. Let's see, we have would-be starting left fielder Moises Alou out four to six weeks with a hernia. Then we have Carlos Delgado's hip impingement, although it's not clear which is more worrisome: Delgado's feeble hip or his feeble bat*.
*I'm not referring to Delgado's horrible spring (the last I looked he was hitting .111 or something, but that means next-to-nothing), but to his 2007 performance, his worst since becoming a regular player in 1996. Delgado's 2007 line of .258/.333/.448 was well below that of the average NL first baseman (.284/.365/.481). Delgado is at an age (36 this season) where many players hit the steep part of their decline phase.
Luis Castillo and Carlos Beltran are, apparently, still recovering from off-season operations. Beltran, at the time of this writing (March 15), has played the field in his last two spring training games, so it appears that he is coming around. I am hearing that Castillo will play for the first time this weekend.
Oh, we're not done yet. We still have catcher Brian Schneider's balky hamstring, Ryan Church's collision with Marlon Anderson and I can't even remember what's wrong with Endy Chavez or Jose Valentin (something, though). Orlando Hernandez has some sort of owie that's caused him to abandon that cool knee-lift windup thing he does. Let's hope that the altered mechanics doesn't reduce his effectiveness.
And finally: Duaner Sanchez is still working his way back into top form after missing all of the last season because of injuries sustained in an auto accident during the 2006 season. I recently read he feels he's at 97 percent full strength, which would certainly be good news for the bullpen.
5. Is lack of depth going to be a problem?
General manager Omar Minaya was very active this offseason, as we all know, turning some of the team's best prospects into major league ready players ("major league ready" is rather an understated way of describing Johan Santana, isn't it?). But is the thinning out of the farm system going to come back to haunt the Mets given the spate of injuries that has hit the club this spring?
Of the five outfielders on the official Mets depth chart, only one, Damion Easley, has not been banged up this spring. Not yet on the chart, but certainly in the picture, is Angel Pagan, who is having a nice little spring training and is rumored to be in the running for holding down the fort in left while Alou is out. Other rumors have the Mets looking to trade for somebody to fill in for Alou.
If this had happened last year, which it did, of course, the Mets had Lastings Milledge and Carlos Gomez to plug holes. These promising outfield prospects, however, were dealt away in the Ryan Church and Johan Santana deals, respectively.
The Mets are also a little thin at first base: The backup first baseman, according to the chart linked above, is, well, nobody. On the other hand, second-string catcher Ramon Castro is probably as good as first-stringer Brian Schneider, if the latter cannot open the season. Likewise, Pelfrey would make a solid fifth starter if Pedro or El Duque need reinforcements. The bullpen is also quite deep, especially if Sanchez is back at full strength. In fact, one could imagine the Mets dealing a bullpen arm to shore up the outfield corps.
Also, keep in mind that Minaya has a good track record when it comes to plugging holes when necessary.
6. Bonus question: how will the Mets do in 2008?
I think they will win the division, and that's not just because I'm a fan. I picked the Phillies to win the division last year* (and received some e-mail that was so nasty, I at first thought it was intended for Brattain), but I'm comfortable going with the Metsies this year. They will have to overcome the health problems that are looming, or at least most of them, but if they do, they will be very tough to beat.
*Just so I won't be accused of tooting my own horn, I will say that my predictions last year were among the worst ever. I picked the Rockies to finish dead last in the NL West, while I had the juggernaught St. Louis Cardinals taking the NL Central. I also had the White Sox second in the AL West, which was, ummm, slightly incorrect.
References and Resources
Some of the best baseball writing on the Internet, or anywhere for that matter, can be found on Joe Posnanski's blog. Not only is Joe's writing insightful and oftentimes hilarious, he also does that cool thing with the asterisks, which I have borrowed* for this piece.
*Some might not call it borrowing, but stealing, but that obviously depends on your point of view. Was Lennon ripping off Dylan with "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" or was he paying him homage?
John Walsh dabbles in baseball analysis in his spare time. He welcomes questions and comments via e-mail.
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