Archive: July 11th, 2007

Midseason Analysis: Aaron Heilman


It wasn’t so long ago that Aaron Heilman was “too valuable” to be moved out of the bullpen and into the starting rotation — despite his desire to be a starter. Now, there’s question as to whether he has any value as a reliever, and no one’s considering that he be transitioned anywhere — except, perhaps, to New Orleans.

Though Heilman’s 2006 was up and down, for the most part he was highly effective in his middle relief / setup relief role, and was counted on to continue bridging the eighth inning toward Billy Wagner in the absence of Duaner Sanchez in 2007. Unfortunately, things haven’t worked out well, as Heilman is gradually being pushed out of setup relief and into the middle innings.

His inconsistency has been frustrating, to say the least, especially to those who witnessed his remarkable work in 2005 and down the stretch in 2006. It’s possible he’s not 100% returned from minor elbow surgery executed immediately after the 2006 season, though it seems more likely that he’s simply not fit to be an everyday reliever. His best work has been performed with judicious rest between appearances, and his mechanics break down considerably (low elbow at release point, pushing the ball with fingers underneath) as he pitches more frequently. Nonetheless, Willie Randolph continues to trot him out there on a nearly daily basis — pulling a page from the Joe Torre book, How to Burn Out a Bullpen.

There was a time when Heilman was a genuinely reliable reliever — the kind of guy you could count on most of the time. This year, he’s become the Braden Looper of the middle innings — causing you to sit on the edge of your seat, fingers crossed, hoping to the baseball gods he’ll get through the inning unscathed. The homerun ball has been a major bugaboo, seemingly carried over from Yadier Molina’s bomb in the NLCS. In truth, the homeruns have nothing to do with a mental issue — the problem is his previously devastating changeup is usually high, flat, and fat.

Second-half Outlook

As long as Aaron’s arm angle continues to drop, he will not be an effective pitcher — reliever, starter, or otherwise (though maybe in softball). Since the low release point is most likely tied to fatigue, the only hope for him is to be used less frequently — which is only a possibility if the Mets can find another effective reliever somewhere. Trouble is, Randolph hasn’t yet put together the fact that the more he pitches, the worse he pitches — he’s on pace to pitch in more games than last year’s career high of 74 appearances. That said, expect similar inconsistency in the second half, and hope that someone has the sense to move him back into a starting role before spring training 2008.


Midseason Analysis: Pedro Feliciano


As a result of the signing of Scott Schoeneweis, Pedro Feliciano was pushed to the far side of the bullpen in spring training, and some pundits did not even include him in their “projected” rosters during the preseason. Despite his fairly successful 2006, Feliciano was considered by some to be an extra luxury — he’d be a usable LOOGY while Schoeneweis would likely grab most of the lefthanded innings not handed to Billy Wagner.

It’s safe to say things don’t always turn out according to plan.

While Feliciano had a strong 2006, his 2007 has been sensational. The lefty sidewinder with the loopy slider has been getting all the big outs Schoeneweis was supposed to manage, and extinguishing the fires Chad Bradford used to put out. He’s been equally adept against lefties and righties, limiting lefthanded swingers to a miniscule .106 batting average and one extra-base hit in 48 at-bats. More importantly, he’s extended his role from LOOGY to full-inning man, and slowly emerging as the Mets’ most reliable setup reliever.

Second-half Outlook

Feliciano is on the pitcher’s version of a hot streak, and the only question is, can he keep it going? Since this is only his third year of sidearm slinging, there’s reason to believe he’s only now getting the hang of it, and may yet reach his peak. After pitching in 104 games over this year and last, the element of surprise is no longer on his side — so his effectiveness has to have something to do with skill.

Naturally, there’s no reason to expect him to continue with his superhuman effort — he’s due to have a few bad outings eventually — but over the course of the last 70 or so games, he should remain one of the most effective arms coming out of the Mets’ bullpen. Lord knows they need him to be, with the inconsistencies of Schoeneweis, Aaron Heilman, and Guillermo Mota making the relief corps the team’s biggest question mark.


Midseason Analysis: Scott Schoeneweis


First-half Analysis

Here’s the story. After a mediocre career as a starter, Schoeneweis is transitioned to the bullpen, first as a mop-up man, then as a LOOGY. He has moderate success, though nothing to write home about, until the American League catches on to his run-of-the-mill repertoire of a straight fastball and so-so secondary stuff. After eight years in the AL, he finds his way to Cincinnati and enjoys immediate success against National League batters who’ve never seen him before — amassing two wins and three saves in 16 meaningless September games.

Based on those whopping 14 innings, and a questionable scouting report from Johnny Damon (OK, they probably didn’t ask Damon for his take), the Mets sign Scott Schoeneweis to a 3-year, $11M contract, and expect him to step into their bullpen as not just a LOOGY, but a potential setup man.

Willie Randolph bought into the idea, saying as much during spring training. To hear Willie tell it, he was counting on “The Show” to regularly eat up seventh and eighth innings — go 2-3 innings when necessary — and maybe even close a few games. And he pitched fairly well at the start of the season — right up to the first week of May. Then the wheels fell off.

Interestingly, his performance went downhill immediately following his 17th appearance. Looking at last years 16 games with the Reds, maybe that’s his quota for success in a season.

Also of note, Schoeneweis has pitched startlingly better on the road (1.04 ERA) than at home (9.53 ERA). Is that a freak stat, or is there a mental issue (i.e., the Whitson Factor)?

Second-half Outlook

Roger Clemens has a clause in his contract stating that he does not have to travel with the team to away games. Perhaps the Mets could look into extending the reverse for Schoeneweis — instead of being with the team at Shea, he can continue right on down to his hometown of Long Branch, NJ, until the Mets set off on their next road trip.

The Show’s velocity is down by 3-4 MPH from last year — a significant drop for someone with below-average command and flat movement — yet he insists his leg issue is not affecting his performance.

At this point, we hope that Randolph realizes that The Show is fairly worthless except as a limited-use LOOGY and for occasional mop-up duty. He’s holding lefties to a .222 average but righties are hammering him at a .333 clip, including 5 HRs, 7 doubles, 1 triple, and 17 RBI in 78 at-bats. Why Willie has had him face more righties than lefties this year is beyond the realm of reason.

Can Scott Schoeneweis offer something to the Mets in the second half? Maybe — but only exclusively against lefthanded hitters. Randolph must put an end to this hope-against-hope that he can eat up innings — it’s time to adjust the plan.


Midseason Analysis: Joe Smith


This time last year, Joe Smith was toiling in the bullpen of the Brooklyn Cyclones, the lowest rung of professional baseball, only weeks after attending college classes. Now, he’s counted on to get big outs in the biggest media circus of Major League Baseball.

The way he goes about his business is similar to his surname — unremarkable, unassuming — just a regular “Joe”. That unflappability and cool-as-a-cucumber mentality befit his role as a late-inning reliever.

Smith came out of nowhere to win a bullpen spot out of spring training, and was an instant success, unnerving some of the best bats in the National League with his laredo release point. He did not give up a run in his first 17 appearances, striking out sluggers and inducing ground balls in key situations.

Since that Superman-like start, Smith hasn’t been quite as invincible, as teams are becoming more familiar with his arm angle and repertoire. Still, he’s gained the confidence of manager Willie Randolph — no small feat for a youngster with his lack of professional experience. His ability to keep the ball down has resulted in a remarkable 3:1 groundball/flyball ratio, and he’s allowed just two homeruns in 36 innings. In addition to the groundball prowess, he’s also something of a strikeout artist, deftly using his fadeaway change and slashing slider to amass nearly one K per inning. At this point, his main issue is control — he’s walked 18, which isn’t bad, but isn’t great either. Generally, he has specific outings with control problems — he’ll go four or five appearances without a walk, then suddenly walk two in an inning. Also, he’s recently been allowing too many inherited runners to score.

Second-half Outlook

As Smith showed effectiveness, Randolph continually placed him into impossible situations — so the inherited runs scoring is more a result of the odds finally going against him than a lack of performance. You can’t put a guy into first-and-second and bases-loaded situations time after time and not expect him to crack at some point.

Some of his early success could have been attributed to his mystery, but he’s faced most of the NL East teams more than once and continued to be effective. Still, the NL will eventually find a vulnerability, and it will be interesting to see how he adjusts.

His stuff is the real deal, and he will continue to be a strong option for the sixth and seventh innings of winnable ballgames. He’ll be more effective, though, if Willie learns to manage him more sensibly. For example, his ERA is 0.55 when pitching with one days’ rest, 5.68 with two days’ rest and 4.55 with no rest. Righties are hitting only .211 against him, but lefties are nearly .300. Clearly he’s best as a matchup guy — a ROOGY — but should be fine throwing a full inning (vs lefties and righties) so long as he’s given a day to recover. Of course, Willie feels the need to use every arm available, every single game, if he deems necessary, so the idea of proper management is more pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking than anything else.


Midseason Analysis: Billy Wagner


First-half Analysis

This year, Billy Wagner has been everything we always hoped he’d be — a lights-out, no nonsense closer who ends games without a hint of concern, slamming the door on opposing teams before they even knock. In short, the exact opposite of every other closer in Mets history.

Yes, he still has issues in non-save situations, losing his focus on occasion and fooling around with batters instead of going right after them. No biggie, because his job is to get the saves, and he’s done that with remarkable consistency — unless you feel that 17 out of 18 isn’t good enough.

Second-half Outlook

Last year, “Country Time” had finger issues that affected his throwing well into midseason — though he refused to use it as an excuse for his inconsistency. This year, he’s completely healthy, and we’re seeing the “real” Billy Wagner — and his velocity is going up as the season progresses. There’s no reason to believe he’ll be anything other than an elite closer in the second half.


Midseason Analysis: Orlando Hernandez


First-half Analysis

For the majority of his starts, El Duque has been brilliant, mixing speeds and pitches and arm angles with great success in keeping batters guessing and off-balance. On occasion he’s had forgettable outings — usually tied directly to the sharpness of his bread-and-butter overhand curve.

Second-half Outlook

As is always the question with Orlando Hernandez — can he stay healthy? He’s pitching above and beyond what anyone expected this year, but we’d be fine with a level lower if we knew he’d take his turn every five days. Let’s face it, he was brought on this team to win in the postseason, and anything he can give beyond a .500 record in the regular season is gravy.

While the Mets will need him to solidify a spot in the starting rotation in the second half — especially considering the ailments of Oliver Perez and Jorge Sosa, the main concern is to make sure he’s healthy in September and beyond, when the games may be most meaningful. That’s the stage where El Duque shines and prospers. In other words, no more jogging in the outfield.


Midseason Analysis: Jorge Sosa


First-half Analysis

What a difference a year makes. Sosa went from scrap heap to sensation in the blink of an eye, all on the success of a nasty slider.

A last-minute addition to spring training, Jorge Sosa was an afterthought in Port St. Lucie, buried behind a slew of other starters, such as Aaron Sele, Alay Soler, and Chan Ho Park. He was essentially another can of paint to throw at the wall, and in the end Sosa was the one that stuck — though it didn’t happen overnight.

In seven spring training appearances, Sosa allowed 20 hits in 12 2/3 innings, sporting a hefty 8.52 ERA. His miserable audition earned him a ticket to New Orleans, but something special happened down there. He went 4-0 with a 1.12 ERA and 29 strikeouts to only 4 walks in 32 innings — in the PCL, a league notorious as a “hitter’s league”. That earned him a spot start in early May and he hasn’t looked back since, stringing together six outstanding starts in eleven tries — a much-needed jolt at the backend of the Mets’ rotation.

Though seven of his first eight starts were nothing short of spectacular — capped by an eight-inning, scoreless gem in Detroit — he’s been inconsistent since, and landed on the disabled list after trying to beat out a bunt against the Phillies.

Second-half Outlook

There were enough questions about Sosa’s success — and whether he could keep it up — before he injured his hamstring. Now he has to come back from an injury that could adversely affect his pitching motion if he’s not 100%. Considering Sosa’s desperation to save his career, combined with his recent success and competitive fire, it’s possible he’ll come back too soon and either re-injure the leg or pitch ineffectively upon his return.

Assuming he comes back 100%, one must wonder how much longer he can keep up the bar he’s set for himself. After all, he’s essentially a one-pitch pitcher, throwing sliders over 75% of the time. His fastball can touch the mid-90s but he doesn’t have good command nor movement, and often leaves it up in the zone, and his change-up is only average when it’s working well. His repertoire is vulnerable to long fly balls (sliders thrown in the strike zone often lack sharp downward movement, and stay flat and fat), and indeed that’s been his major bugaboo in the past. Somehow this year he’s been getting a remarkable number of ground balls — he’s allowed 82 flyballs and 78 grounders, in contrast to a career flyball:groundball ratio around 1.3:1.

If he can come back healthy and duplicate his first-half success, the Mets would obviously be thrilled. But if he can’t, or is pushed out of the rotation, will he be effective as a reliever? His stuff says maybe, but his head says hmmm. Upon joining the Mets in January, he insisted he would be a starter, and continued that meme even after his awful spring. His career ERA as a reliever is a full run higher than as a starter, so he may be on to something.

In the end, the best plan for Mets fans is to be happy with what he’s done to this point, and have low expectations for him the rest of the way. It’s unrealistic to expect him to continue pitching well into the sixth and seventh inning of every start — and if he does, it will be a pleasant and welcome surprise.


Midseason Analysis: Oliver Perez


Looking at his peripheral numbers — i.e., a 1.16 WHIP, 3.14 ERA, 2:1 K:BB ratio — and considering the mighty Mets offense, it’s unbelievable his record is only 7-6. While John Maine has established himself as the Mets’ stopper, Oliver Perez is not far behind — and with a little luck would have nine or ten wins right now.

Ollie is light years from the 3-13 season of a year ago, and like Maine, feeds off of every successful start. Rick Peterson finally has a handle on keeping his mechanics consistent, successfully suppressing one of Oliver’s most volatile issues. While it’s true Perez still has starts where his timing and release point are all over the place, those days are rare rather than the rule — a complete turnaround from 2005-2006. By the tail end of last year, Perez was a guy most likely to be knocked out by the third inning, but have a 20% chance to throw an absolute gem. In 2007, he’s the exact opposite: a guy who throws a gem eight times out of ten — and on his “bad” days he can still manage to keep the team in the game for five innings.

In addition to his mechanics being in synch, two things are key to Oliver’s success: spotting his fastball vertically, and changing speeds. His slider is nearly always on, and one of the nastiest in baseball — though it will flatten out when he drops his arm angle too low. When he stays on top, can place his fastball both up and down, and mixes in both an average changeup and a slow slider, he’s nearly unhittable.

Add in his energy level and kidlike enthusiasm for the game, and you have a star in the making.

Second-half Outlook

How good Ollie can be is dependent on how much confidence he builds. The talent is there, as is the fearlessness, and the willingness to be a workhorse. More than any other pitcher on the roster, Oliver Perez has the tools and mentality to pitch the first no-hitter in Mets history, and to be a genuine “seventh-game ace”. Assuming he stays on track with a repeatable delivery, the sky is the limit. A hot streak in September could propel him to postseason heroics well beyond what he showed in October 2006.