Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.
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Game 33: Win

Mets 13 Phillies 4

Batting coach Rick Down delivered an aggressive strategy during his pregame talk with the lineup, and the Mets were obviously listening, as they exploded for 16 hits and 13 runs. By the third inning, they had given Tommy Glavine a ten-run lead, and from there on Glavine pitched on autopilot en route to his 280th career win.

Compounding the Phils’ difficulties was their inability to field the ball, as they made four errors, all leading to runs. In contrast, the Mets were nearly flawless, with David Wright, Jose Reyes, and Kaz Matsui all executing web-gem worthy plays during the game. Reyes and Kaz combined on a fantastic double play in the first, which Kaz made look easy. In addition, I want to point out that tonight was another evening where I witnessed Carlos Delgado make some really nice scoops. All I heard about Delgado was that he was nearly as bad as David Ortiz in the field; however, I’ve so far been pretty happy with his performance at first. Sure, he’s no Gold Glove candidate, and his range is limited to balls hit right at him, but he really hangs in there and picks the ball well on short throws. With his bat, I’ll take his scooping as a bonus.

Some notes:

Jose Valentin’s value to the team continues to sink. In the eighth, he was on deck when Kaz Matsui attempted to score on a sac fly, and would have been tagged out if the catcher had not dropped the ball. Where the heck was Valentin? His role was to be directly behind home plate, shouting direction to Kaz as to whether he should slide or come in standing. Instead, Valentin was busy pine-tarring his bat or trimming his mustache or who knows what. Sure, it’s a tiny detail when you’re up by ten runs, but the size of the lead doesn’t mean you stop playing winning baseball. If it were a one-run or tied ballgame, and Matsui gets thrown out because he doesn’t slide, it’s Valentin’s fault.

Jose Reyes hit the only Met homerun of the game, and he did it from the right side. From the left side, he looked absolutely awful, swinging defensively even when ahead on the count, and waving at poor pitches.

Jorge Julio pitched another scoreless (but not adventureless) inning, though he “only” struck out one.

Heath Bell made his first appearance of 2006, and gave up one earned run on three hits, while striking out two with a vicious forkball. While watching the inning on SNY, I was ticked off to hear negative comments by both Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez, who seemed very down on Bell’s performance. They made references to Bell being very successful at AAA, but not able to put it together at the ML level. Did either of these kumquats notice that the Mets had a ten-run lead? You pitch differently when you have a huge lead: you throw strikes early and often (Tom Glavine referred to this strategy during an in-game interview, so I didn’t pull it out of my butt). As a result, you are going to give up some hits here and there. The one thing you don’t want to see is a pitcher being too fine and giving up walks. So Bell was doing his job, throwing strikes (20 pitches, 14 strikes, btw), a few Phils stroked some hits, and the dynamic dimwits are all over him.

Hernandez and Darling, by the way, might be the worst broadcast duo in Mets history. The only ones worse were the occasional three-inning episodes of Hernandez and Tom Seaver. Thankfully, Hernandez has backed off a little on his condescending, self-serving, holier-than-thou comments, but he still has too much negativity and anti-Met attitude. Some may say it’s Keith trying not to be a “homer”, but I think it is what I call the waybegone phenomenon: a player who can’t let go of his own past success, to the point where he cannot give credit to anyone succeeding today. He constantly points out everything that every Met is doing wrong (which is my job, by the way), and compares their performance to back when he was playing. That’s nice insight once in a while, but when it is your total MO, it gets a little old, fast. Further, as quick as Hernandez is to bash a Met, he’s just as quick to give credit to opposing players. I guess that’s where he’s trying to be objective/impartial. Whatever … it’s easy to mute the TV, which I normally do.

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Game 32: Loss

Phillies 5 Mets 4

Everyone has been so concerned with the Atlanta Braves, yet the Phillies are now right in the Mets’ rearview mirror at only three games back. Tonight’s game was an example of what happens when a good team (the Mets) runs into a red-hot team (the Phillies): everything seems to go right for the hot team, despite the best efforts of the good team.

While it’s true the surging Phils are establishing themselves as a team to be reckoned with, this game is nothing to be concerned about. SO many things fell into place for the Phillies: the near-catch by Nady that turned into a triple; the dropped catch by Burrell that turned into a forceout at 2B; the awful strike-three call on Kaz in the eighth; the triple by Dellucci in the ninth, which was fair by about three-tenths of an inch; and of course the misplay by Heilman on the swinging bunt by Abreu that ended the game. If any of those plays go the Mets way, the Mets probably win.

Despite all the balls bouncing the Phillies’ way, the Mets did not bury themselves, but instead phought back, phorcing a blown save by Philadelphia closer Phlash Gordon. What the Mets are showing this year is that, no matter the circumstances, they will be competing, and will not go down easy. Theirs is the tenacity of a champion.

With the emotional outcome of this game, don’t be surprised if the momentum carries over into game two, and don’t panic if the Mets drop another one. It’s early in the season, and over the long haul, it looks like the Mets will be the dominant team in the East.

However, I would like to slap poker-faced Pat Gillick, who before the season was telling anyone who would listen that he absolutely did not expect the Phillies to compete for first place this year. Sorry, pandering Pat, we see right through the ruse: you have an up-and-coming team THIS year, and no amount of self-pity will excuse you if the Phillies fall short.

This promises to be a fun and exciting summer !

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Shortening the Game

Mets Rely on the “Crisco Corps”

Mets throw Crisco at the competitionOmar Minaya’s plan in 2006 is to “shorten the game”, and through the first 31 games of the year, the plan has been followed exactly. The starting pitcher goes five or six innings, followed by the LOOGY-ROOGY-LOOGY combo of Oliver-Bradford-Feliciano, then Sanchez and Heilman handle the 7th and 8th, then Billy comes in to save the day.

Occasionally, Tommy Glavine or Pedro Martinez will mess with the plan by pitching seven or eight full innings. To combat this deviation, Mr. Willie simply compresses the plan, by having Bradford face a righty in the 8th, then either Feliciano, Oliver, or Heilman face a lefty, then bringing in Sanchez to get the third out before Wagner finishes. Luckily, this only happens once or twice a week, as the remainder of the starting rotation — Trachsel, Zambrano, Bannister, Lima — have done a great job being moderately effective for five innings, and consistently faltering in the sixth.

The Mets are currently in first place, 21-10, so the plan is quite obviously working. However, there is this little part of me — call it extreme pessimism, fear of the Mets curse, or what have you — that the Plan to Shorten the Game has a few flaws.

First of all, it’s hard to find a World Series Champion Team that relied almost exclusively on this type of pitching strategy. There was the 1975 and 1976 Cincinnati Reds, better known as “The Big Red Machine”. Though they started an All-Star or future Hall of Famer at nearly every position on the field, their starting rotation was mediocre at best. Manager Sparky Anderson employed a radical strategy at the time, which was to pull his starters at the first sign of struggle, and hand the game over to his very deep, fairly talented bullpen. He pulled his starters so quickly, he earned the moniker “Captain Hook”. For example, he’d take a guy out after only five or six innings, even though he had a lead and pitched well. Only two of his starters managed to garner 200 innings by the end of the year. In the mid 1970s, this strategy seemed pure nonsense, but Sparky’s lack of talent with the starting five left him few other options.

If you told someone in 1975 that Sparky’s seemingly nonsensical strategy would be the norm 30 years later, they’d think you were crazy. Few would believe that, with all the improvements in nutrition, conditioning, muscle building / training, and the emerging understanding of proper mechanics, pitchers would pitch LESS than they were at the time. Logic would suggest that the multitude of advances would allow a pitcher to throw more pitches in a game, and be more effective. Though it was true that the bullpen was becoming an increasingly more imporant facet of the game, Sparky’s quick hook was seen more as desperation than strategy.

Yet here we are today, and it is a rarity to see a pitcher throw 200 innings in a season. And it is completely normal for a relief pitcher to appear in 70+ games, as Rawly Eastwick did in 1976. That said, Omar Minaya has taken to the idea of pushing the envelope even more, but how far can he push and still be successful?

Looking at the last 100 years of WS Champs, it’s hard to find a team as dependent on the bullpen as the Red were in those years, so it’s nearly impossible to evaluate whether this is a good plan. The ’84 Tigers were similar — and also managed by Anderson — but they still had some true workhorses in Jack Morris, Dan Petry, and Milt Wilcox. As quick as Sparky was to draw the hook, his ’76 Reds starters completed 33 games, while Morris and Petry combined for 16 completes in ’84. In comparison, it would be surprising to see the entire Mets staff complete 16 games over a three-year period.

The 2002 California Angels are probably the best example, and seem to match Omar’s blueprint. But is it smart to follow a plan that produced a World Champion only three times? Is there perhaps a reason why more teams have not followed this strategy?

There is a very conclusive reason why Championship teams are not built by the bullpen first, and it was exemplified by the Washington Nationals last year: the bullpen will burn out, and when that happens, you’re left with a huge hole because the starters are conditioned to go no further than the fifth. The Mets might be able to avoid a breakdown if Sanchez and Heilman were used separately, and if a Mets starter could complete a game say, once a week or once every two weeks. However, so far Sanchez and Heilman have very often been used in the same game, and it’s doubtful we’ll see more than three complete games the entire season. At the rate the Mets are going, there will be five pitchers logging 80 games by the end of the year: Wagner, Heilman, Sanchez, Bradford, and Julio. In contrast, that ’02 Angels staff had only one pitcher — Ben Weber — pitch in more than 60 games.

The Mets’ brass might argue that the relievers will be appearing less as the season wears on, as the starters will theoretically stretch out more innings. However, I do not see any sign of this happening. For one, Pedro will be protected, and rarely given the opportunity to go past the 7th. Though Glavine could potentially be an innings-eater, there isn’t any other starter who can plausibly log 200 innings. Steve Trachsel barely did it in 2004, but that was before his back injury and when he was on the right side of 35. Brian Bannister is averaging just over 5 innings per start, and seemed to be regressing before his injury. With Victor Zambrano out for the season, the Mets find themselves without a third starter, and there’s no way the current options — Jose Lima, John Maine, Jeremi Gonzalez, Darren Oliver ??? — can be counted on to provide the type of quality starts that will lessen the bullpen’s load.

It seems dangerous to assume that the Mets’ bullpen — regardless of how “strong” it is — will be able to shoulder the load when the starting pitcher won’t get past the 5th inning in at least 60% of the games. Add to that the fact that the two “workhorses” of the staff, Glavine and Martinez, don’t figure to complete more than five games between them, at best. More likely, we’ll see a Nats-like breakdown of the bullpen sometime after the All-Star break. Even if the pen somehow manages to remain effective through September, will they have enough left in the tank to get through a playoff series? Here it is early May and Mr. Willie handles sixth-inning lefty-lefty matchups like it’s the seventh game of the World Series; what will he do when it IS the World Series? Pull a Billy Martin-Sparkly Lyle move and bring in Wagner to close out the game in the fourth inning?

So if indeed the Mets’ bullpen is destined to burn out, what can be done to remedy the situation? First, don’t rely on the strategy of “shortening the game” for every single game. Let Glavine finish what he starts on occasion, or at least let him pitch eight innings when he’s going well. Do the same with Pedro, specifically in games where he’s performing with a low pitch count. Next, move Aaron Heilman to the rotation, as soon as possible, and condition him to go 7+ innings per start. Why Heilman? Because the Mets current options to fill VZam’s spot have no history of showing the skill nor the wherewithal to suddenly become a 7+ workhorse — and all are over 30, not at an age where improvement is likely. Heilman, on the other hand, clearly has the skills to succeed at this level, and combined with his youth, has the potential for 7+ inning strength. Sure, it’s no guarantee that Heilman won’t become another 5-inning starter, but isn’t it worth finding out? He completed most of the games he started in college, and averaged close to six innings per game in his minor league career (and keep in mind that he was a #1 draft pick, thus limited to the Mets’ organization’s asinine 100-pitch limit; if not for the century mark, he well might have gone deeper into games). In short, he is an unknown quantity, with good upside, and the potential to be a legitimate #3 starter. Why pass on that and instead start guys like Lima, Gonzalez, and Oliver, who are way past their peak years, and never showed the ability to eat innings, even in their prime? (OK, Lima was a legit ace at one point, but that was nearly ten years ago.)

Until the Mets rethink their game-shortening strategy, the “Crisco Corps” is fated to slip and slide by summer. I really hope I’m wrong.

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It’s NOT Lima Time

If Sunday’s massacre is any indication, it is clearly NOT Lima Time, nor should it ever be.

However, the issue was not Lima’s performance, but rather, the Mets’ brass believing that Lima would perform at a higher level.

Last year, Lima set a Major League record for pitchers who started at least 30 games by attaining an ERA of 6.99. For those of you who have difficulty with math, this number means that Lima gave up an average of seven runs for every nine innings he pitched. He was the worst pitcher on the worst team in baseball. So was it remarkable that Lima was available as a free-agent in the offseason?

No, what was remarkable was the Mets taking a flyer on him. More remarkable, was the amount of innings they gave him in spring training, taking away innings from promising youngsters such as Heath Bell, Royce Ring, Jason Scobie, Blake McGinley, Anderson Garcia, and Henry Owens. As it turned out, his spring training ERA was 8.59, which of course earned him a roster spot at AAA Norfolk (though he was surprised he did not make the Big League team).

At Norfolk this year, Lima pitched in six games, managed only 30 innings, gave up five homers, and had an ERA of 5.05. If you’ve been following along thus far, then you won’t be surprised that these numbers earned him not only a promotion to the Mets, but a start against the Atlanta Braves. (Meantime, Jeremi Gonzalez, whose 3.03 ERA and 30 Ks lead all Norfolk pitchers, continues to toil in AAA.)

After looking at what Lima has accomplished in the last 14 months, and considering his career ERA (5.21), just what are Omar Minaya and Co. thinking? How could these professional evaluators of baseball talent think that Lima would somehow outperform those numbers at the Major League level?

It’s quite clear that the only thing Lima brings to the table is a stunning wife, and we have yet to see her in a sundress. Someone needs to slap Omar in the face, or throw a bucket of cold water over his head, or something, to get him to see the reality of the situation. Otherwise, we’ll be seeing a guaranteed loss every fifth day, until Brian Bannister returns from the DL.

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Game 31: Loss

Braves 13 Mets 3

This game was over before it started. Their two previous wins notwithstanding, there couldn’t be anyone in the Mets’ dugout who thought there was a chance of beating John Smoltz — three days’ rest or not — with Jose Lima on the mount.

Even if Smoltz showed up at the game with his right arm in a sling, I’d think the Mets would have a tough time expecting a win with Lima as their starter.

Lima performed exactly as expected: five innings, seven hits, four walks, five runs. Bartolome Fortunato came in to wave flames on the fire, and added some gasoline to insure detonation. His line: one and one-third innings, two walks, six hits, eight runs, all earned. The amazing part is that he managed to give up all that on only 43 pitches. Quite efficient, eh?

Hmm … were there ANY bright spots? Well, Carlos Beltran hit another homer, and went 2-4. Hopefully his hot hitting will stay after the day off on Monday.

And thank goodness for that off day, and the off-day next Monday; they should help keep Lima from the mound for an extra turn or two.

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Maine’s Thumb

In my post analyzing John Maine’s first start as a Met, I mentioned that Maine looked pretty good, but was surprised he didn’t throw more curveballs. Well, here’s the explanation:

<< Maine ... started Tuesday against the Nationals even though he had felt a "pop" in the finger when he threw the final curve of his bullpen warmup. "I didn't do anything but throw it," Maine said Saturday before leaving for a trip to Port St. Lucie, Fla., where he will rehab the finger. "I can't believe this. I've never missed a start in my life, not even in high school. Now this. "I just felt it pop. And it was sore. I threw one curve in the game. It was terrible ... and it hurt." >>

I’m not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing. It’s bad, because he is unable to pitch. But maybe it’s a good sign that Maine could pitch as well as he did without the use of a vital pitch in his repertoire. It says something about his ability to battle, and it would suggest that he’ll be a much stronger starter when he’s able to throw all his pitches.

With the possible DL of Victor Zambrano looming, Maine just might get a second chance, even after Brian Bannister returns from his own DL stint.

How remarkable would it be, if both Jorge Julio and John Maine turn out to be key cogs in the Mets’ machine in 2006? All the pundits calling for Omar’s head after the Kris Benson deal would surely be silenced.

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Game 30: Win

Mets 6 Braves 5

If you were to hear the following statements just two weeks ago, would you believe them?

1. Victor Zambrano would pitch 1 1/3 innings, strike out three, and you would be disappointed that he had to leave the game.

2. Bartolome Fortunato would not only be on the team, but would get a win vs. the Braves in a game where Tim Hudson was the starter.

3. Kaz Matsui would come through with the biggest hit of the game.

4. Jorge Julio would be the hero at the end of the game, collecting his first save of the year, against the Braves, just one day after earning his first win of the year, also against the Braves.

It was a crazy game, in a lot of ways, and its level of rarity had much to do with the 14-inning grinder of the night before. If nothing else, this 3-game series has already shown that the Mets are not only the more mentally tough team, but definitely the deeper team, especially with the pitching staff. Who would believe that the Mets would prove to have the better arms between these two teams? And the crazy thing is, the Mets still have Heath Bell rotting away in AAA!

There were so many fantastic things about this game, not the least of which was the Mets burying the Braves ten games behind them. For one, Kaz Matsui had a huge hit, in front of the Shea faithful, and has thus laid the first layer of bricks to the wall of endearment of the NY fans. I truly believe that Kaz’s continued progress, combined with evolving confidence and ensuing fan support, will propel him to near stardom. There’s no doubt he has immense physical skills, and he seems to have great instincts. His main issue has been game-time execution, and I think a lot of his failure had to do with a lack of confidence and the negativity of the fans. With a dose of confidence, and the fans cheering him, he will come up with several more big hits in 2006.

Just as important was the performance of Jorge Julio. Only two weeks ago, I had called for his head, begging the Mets to send him to Norfolk (though I did believe he had the stuff to make it at this level, eventually). Julio has done a remarkable turnaround, gaining a bit of confidence with each outing. Last night, the Mets needed him to perform, and he did. Today, they once again had no one else to turn to, and he did it again (albeit with a bit of tension). Though it’s true he came quite close to blowing the game, in the end he didn’t, and the fact that he hung in there to finish off the save should mean a lot going forward.

There is one thing that scares me about him though: he does not do well once people reach base. If no one gets on, he’s absolutely devastating, and seemingly untouchable. However, once a runner gets on, he’s a train wreck. I don’t think it has anything to do with pitching from the stretch — though he is one of the few relievers in the game who use a windup with bases empty. What frightens me, is that he starts talking to himself when things get hairy. And it’s not like a few words of self-motivation; that guy is having a conversation with himself. Hopefully, it’s not a big deal. Maybe he’ll continue to progress, and get so good that the Mets can put Aaron Heilman in the rotation.

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Game 29: Win

Mets 8 Braves 7

This was a huge win, for several reasons. Mostly, the win exemplified the 2006 Mets’ level of gumption and intestinal fortitude: this is a team that does not quit.

The Metropolitans had no business winning this game; they were down 6-2 in the seventh inning. However, they fought back, not only once, but five times over the course of 14 innings, never having the lead in the game until the bottom of the 14th — which was when it meant the most.

Carlos Beltran hit a bomb early in the game, and both Kaz Matsui and Cliff Floyd had major clutch hits. The biggest hit of all, of course, was the last one, by none other than David Wright, whose ground-rule single ended and won the game.

After a so-so performance by Steve Trachsel, the Mets’ bullpen was nearly perfect, giving up only three earned runs over eight innings. Billy Wagner was touched again, as Wilson Betemit hit an 11th-inning homer. However, Cliff Floyd answered with an absolute blast of his own in the bottom of the inning, and Duaner “Senor Perfecto” Sanchez and Jorge Julio shutout the Braves through the remainder of the game. Julio earned his first win of the year, as he put together another scoreless inning. With every outing, Julio seems to build a bit more confidence.

I stated in an earlier post that the Mets would be lucky to get one win out of this series, and that it wouldn’t be a big deal if they were swept. Now that they have won the opener, the pressure is on the Braves to dig out of the hole. However, even if the Braves take the final two games, I still see the Mets as having won this series mentally, as they conquered this grueling test of will. With this game, the Mets have established themselves as the team to beat in the NL East.

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