Mets Chemistry and Continuity
It seems like all the pundits are trying to look smart by picking the Phillies or the Braves to win the NL East, based on the changes those teams made to “improve” their respective squads. The prognosticators point to the additions of Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano to the Braves’ bullpen as indicative of why the Braves will win more games in 2007, and praise the Phils for adding Freddy Garcia to their starting rotation. Furthermore, they point to Omar Minaya’s “disappointing” offseason as evidence that the Mets will take a step backward.
Let the predictors outsmart themselves … they seem to have discounted an incredibly valuable aspect of the 2007 Mets: continuity.
While it’s true that Omar was unable to land Daisuke Matsuzaka, Kei Igawa, Barry Zito, Jeff Suppan, or any other starting pitcher this past winter, it didn’t necessarily make the offseason a failure. One positive that came out of the winter was that the 2006 NL East Champion roster returned mostly intact — the only players lost were Cliff Floyd, Chris Woodward, Michael Tucker, Chad Bradford, and Darren Oliver. In other words, the roster retained everyone except one guy who played half a season, two bench players and two bullpen guys. The Opening Day lineup was nearly identical to the one that breezed through the NLDS and nearly won the NLCS. How many other teams can claim that kind of continuity?
Part of the reason there weren’t significant changes to the roster was simple — change wasn’t needed! The Mets were that good. Why mess with success? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
There’s something to be said for retention — and change is not always better. In all sports, championship teams tend to be the ones that keep a core of players who practice winning habits. Turnover tends to be low, and the core players instill the team’s winning values into the few newcomers. Look at any team that was successful over a period of 3-5 or ten years and you will notice consistency in the roster. For example, the Montreal Canadiens of the 1960s and 70s, the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s, the Yankees of the 1990s — all these teams had very little turnover from one year to the next, and as a result cultivated a winning culture.
The Mets are following the same plan. Omar and co. have assembled an outstanding group of ballplayers who are both talented and know how to win — i.e., through preparation, attitude, and execution. Playing together for a year, they’ve learned to trust each other, lean on each other, and pick each other up. They’ve also followed team-first formulas that result in wins — for example, Paul LoDuca dropping a sac bunt, Carlos Beltran lifting a sacrifice fly, and David Wright making contact on a hit-and-run. The small things can be executed with the confidence that the next guy will also do his job, and everyone can focus on their small tasks that, when accumulated, create a victory.
Not to be discounted is the improvement of overall team defense, simply by staying together. We’re already seeing the benefits of keeping Jose Valentin and Jose Reyes around the keystone — they each know exactly where the other will be when turning double plays. Similarly, Carlos Delgado knows exactly which way David Wright’s throws tail, depending on where he fields the ball. Wright, in turn, is learning how much ground to the left he needs to cover, with Jose Reyes next to him. Reyes and Valentin know how far into the outfield they need to be to set up for cutoffs for Beltran, Green, and Chavez. Paul LoDuca knows whether a particular pitcher has the time and skill to field a particular bunt and throw out the advancing runner. These are all seemingly small things, but when they’re all added up, can mean the difference in a dozen ballgames over the course of a season. Anyone who watched the Atlanta Braves play every day from 1991-2005 can support this claim.
In the first two games of the 2007 season, the Mets did not win via spectacular means. Despite their supposedly overpowering lineup, there were no dramatic homeruns nor a string of exta-base hits. Rather, they worked cohesively — as a team — in both grinding out runs and preventing the opponent from scoring. Good pitching, strong defense, team hitting — a boring formula, but it works.
In the meantime, the new players on the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves are being introduced to their respective programs, getting a handle on what their new managers’ expect from them, learning the habits of their new teammates, and generally trying to fit in to their new surroundings. While the “new and improved” Phillies and Braves work out the kinks and try to build a team chemistry, the old and familiar, unchanged Mets will be quietly racking up wins.