The remains of the season: Mets edition

As of Wednesday, July 30, the Mets are in first place by a nose.

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It wasn’t too long ago that the Mets were New York’s whipping boys. They were playing poorly on the field and not really thinking clearly in the office. Most notably, they dragged their feet before finally firing manager Willie Randolph. The New York media had a cow because the timing of Randolph’s firing wasn’t convenient for them. Hell hath no fury like a New York writer scorned.

Would you believe that was just a month and a half ago? The perception of the Mets has certainly made a 180; makes you think they hired one of those Madison Avenue firms to control the crisis. (Wilpon on the phone: “Get me Don Draper!”) Well, something has been going right for the Metropolitans. Since hiring Jerry Manuel as their interim manager, the team has gone 24-14, including a 5-2 record against their newest arch-nemesis, the Phillies.

Here’s a graph of how the Mets have done it, with ten-game averages of wins (the top line with the yellow boundary), runs scored and runs allowed:

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Maybe firing Rick Peterson was more important than firing Randolph. Since coming under the tutelage of new pitching coach Dan Warthen, the Mets have allowed 4.13 runs a game, which is 0.5 runs per game less than the previous management’s record.

The offense has pulled its weight, too, though the change hasn’t been as dramatic. Under Manuel, the Mets have scored 5.16 runs a game; under Randolph, they tallied 4.8.

Did Manuel and Warthen really make a difference? Got me. But the Mets have righted themselves just in time for the pennant-chasing season.

Runs Allowed Per Game

So Far This Year: 4.48
THT’s Preseason Prediction: 4.32

After all of the swings and misses, the Mets’ defense (fielding and pitching) is slightly worse than you would have expected it to be coming into the season. On the field, the Mets’ gloves have been 11 plays above average, which is good but not great. Jose Reyes has been a surprising disappointment in the field, bobbling more balls than usual and posting the second-lowest Revised Zone Rating among NL shortstops. According to John Dewan’s plus/minus system, he is 23rd among all major league shortstops in plus/minus plays. He was 5th and 7th in 2006 and 2007, respectively. And the combination of Damion Easley and Luis Castillo at second has made no one forget Frank White.

However, Carlos Beltran is still a superb center fielder and Brian Schneider has been an upgrade behind the plate. The unfortunate injuries to Ryan Church and Moises Alou have resulted in more playing time for Endy Chavez, who has continued his outstanding play in the outfield (he’s fourth in major league right field plus/minus plays). So, overall, the results have been mixed (let’s not talk about Marlon Anderson in left field).

On the mound, I keep hearing about disappointments like Johan Santana and John Maine, but it’s hard to spot them when you compare each pitcher’s ERA to his preseason projected ERA (courtesy of Marcel the Monkey, labeled mERA):

                 W  L   ERA    mERA    Diff
J Santana        9  7  2.93    3.31   -0.38
J Maine          9  7  4.13    3.98    0.15
O Perez          7  6  4.02    4.53   -0.51
M Pelfrey        9  6  3.67    4.83   -1.16
A Heilman        1  4  4.60    3.62    0.98
B Wagner         0  1  1.96    3.48   -1.52
D Sanchez        5  1  3.97    3.77    0.20
P Martinez       3  2  6.25    3.83    2.42
J Smith          1  3  3.56    4.31   -0.75
S Schoeneweis    1  2  3.02    4.58   -1.56
N Figueroa       2  3  5.12    #N/A    #N/A
P Feliciano      2  2  4.10    3.64    0.46
C Vargas         3  2  4.62    4.95   -0.33
J Sosa           4  1  7.06    4.50    2.56
C Muniz          1  1  5.68    4.50    1.18

Santana’s ERA is actually 0.4 runs better than projected, though that initial projection was created when he was still in the American League. Changing leagues is probably worth 0.4 to 0.5 runs a game, so he’s pretty much spot on.

And take a look at Mike Pelfrey. His ERA is more than a run lower than projected. The big guy seems to have found himself recently, posting monthly ERA’s of 5.35 (May), 3.52 (June) and 1.75 (July). I have a feeling his ERA won’t go lower in August but, hey, you never know.

His secret? Well, I spent some time poring over his PITCHf/x data and looking at horizontal and vertical movement, speed, yada, yada, but you know what the key has been? Strikes. When he has thrown at least 65% of his fastballs for strikes, he’s allowed only 2.25 runs per game. Less than 65%, he’s allowed 6.94 runs per game. Here is his percent of fastballs thrown for strikes per month:

April: 65%
May: 65%
June: 64%
July: 71%

Sometimes it really is that easy. If Pelfrey and The Enigma That is Oliver Perez keep pitching well, with Maine and Santana continuing to do their thing, the Mets will do very well indeed.

No, the major mound disappointments have been Pedro Martinez and El Duque Hernandez. Pedro has tried his best to come back from rotator cuff surgery, but he hasn’t been the old Pedro and injuries have eaten away at his durability and effectiveness. Marcel figured Hernandez would be good for 148 innings and a 4.41 ERA, but he hasn’t pitched at all. There’s a good chance he won’t take the Shea mound again, let alone any major-league mound.

So, what are the keys to the Mets’ success the remainder of the year: Pelfrey throws strikes, the good Oliver continues to show up, Pedro find his health and pitches well, John Maine avoids serious shoulder injury. Yeah, that’s all. But possible, definitely possible.

The bullpen? Man, your guess is as good as mine. The Mets have their arms lined up, but the arms haven’t been quite up to snuff lately. Duaner Sanchez hit a dead arm period—let’s hope that’s all it was. And Manuel hasn’t shown any creativity in his bullpen use; he continues to use Billy Wagner (by far his best reliever) in conventional save situations.

Honestly, I wouldn’t look for too much from the Mets’ bullpen; it will be solid but not dominating.

Runs Scored Per Game

So Far This Year: 4.93
THT’s Preseason Prediction: 4.95

You can’t say that the offense hasn’t been up to snuff. It has pretty much delivered exactly as planned. Carlos Delgado‘s early season slump had Met fans worried, but he has erased those fears and actually put Mets management into an unexpected quandary: Should they pick up his $16 million option for next year or pay $4 million to get out of it? Even with that terrible April and May, Delgado has only 10 fewer Runs Created than Mark Teixeira.

Here’s a table of how well each player has performed relative to his preseason Marcel projection, using Gross Production Average as the yardstick.

Player          AB    GPA    mGPA    Diff
J Reyes        451   .289    .268    .020
D Wright       412   .306    .310   -.004
C Beltran      401   .279    .284   -.005
C Delgado      392   .280    .278    .002
L Castillo     245   .247    .253   -.007
E Chavez       244   .223    .252   -.028
B Schneider    225   .225    .238   -.013
D Easley       218   .233    .250   -.017
R Church       205   .294    .274    .021
F Tatis        156   .298    #N/A    #N/A
M Anderson     121   .181    .261   -.080
R Castro        98   .284    .262    .023
A Pagan         91   .249    .256   -.007
R Casanova      55   .246    .258   -.012
M Alou          49   .272    .285   -.013

At this stage, Delgado is right about where we expected him to be. I hear people saying that Beltran hasn’t really been hitting yet. On the one hand, his GPA is only slightly below expectations. On the other hand, he has just 15 home runs so far, two years removed from his 41-HR season. A surge from Beltran is possible, but Met fans shouldn’t feel let down if all he does is continue to play his excellent all-around game.

As on the pitching front, the problems have come from playing time. Moises Alou has been the El Duque of left field. Everyone figured he would miss a lot of time, but hardly anyone predicted that he would miss the entire season. And Ryan Church was off to a sensational start with the Mets before his concussion—an injury that provided an important “learning opportunity” for the Mets.

Fernando Tatis has been this year’s Jose Valentin (2006 edition), providing surprising production when the Mets were least expecting it (yet sorely needing it). Believe it or not, he’s third on the Mets in WPA, despite his limited playing time.

But here’s what I want to ask you: Who’s leading the Mets in Runs Created? Beltran? Nope. Wright? Delgado? Nope. Nope. Jose Reyes is. Or try to answer this one: Who’s leading all major league shortstops in Runs Created? Hanley Ramirez? Nope. Derek Jeter? Jimmy Rollins? Nooo! It’s the same guy, Mr. Jose Reyes. Reyes has quietly (if anything can be done quietly in New York) put together a heck of a season, on track to set personal highs in both OBP and SLG. But you haven’t heard much about it, have you?

Here’s what I think. No one wants to talk about how well Reyes is playing because they still haven’t forgiven him for last September. In fact, many people probably think he’ll slump again this September cause, well, that’s how they think of him. It’s a shame, really. Jose Reyes is the best batting shortstop in the majors right now. If he could only find his glove game again, he’d be the best, period.

The keys to success: Obviously, the Mets could use another bat in the corner outfield. Manny is Manny and so is Barry Bonds, but either one of those batters could make a big difference. I certainly don’t expect Delgado to maintain his July stats (.372/.461/.745) and Reyes will probably chill a bit, too. But Beltran could certainly pick it up a notch (as could David Wright).

The Remaining Schedule

Starting August 1, the Mets will have 53 games remaining, 28 at home and 25 on the road (Good thing. They’re 32-20 at home, 26-29 on the road). They play the Braves, Nationals and Marlins nine more times and the Phillies five more times. Get this: they have seven games remaining against the Astros, whom they have not yet faced this year. They play most of their games on the East Coast, except for quick swings to Houston and Milwaukee. The home games and the games against the Astros would seem to favor New York a bit.

The Mets will finish the season with a seven-game homestand: four games vs. the Cubs and three games against the Marlins. Those will be tough games; the Cubs may be locked with the Brewers for the NL Central lead, and there could also be a Wild Card slot at stake. The Marlins will have a chance to once again torment Mets fans at the end of a season. And this time, the Marlins could be the direct beneficiaries of their efforts.

And if you want something to be nervous about, here it is: the Mets are 2-7 against old nemesis Atlanta this year, with nine more games against them.

References & Resources
Fixed the snide owner reference after publishing the article.

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