Browsing Archive March, 2008

Pelfrey Looks Strong

In grapefruit league action yesterday, 18-year-old shortstop Ruben “don’t call me Miguel” Tejada blasted a double in the gap to score Michel Abreu with the winning run in the tenth inning to beat the Braves 3-2.

Ramon Castro had two hits including a standup triple. Had Jose Reyes hit the ball, he might have rounded the bases twice.

Though Castro’s first triple since little league was the big news of the day, it should also be noted that Mike Pelfrey threw three strong, scoreless innings at the beginning of the game, allowing only two hits and no walks, striking out none.

It was an encouraging outing by Pelfrey, and a good confidence builder. What I liked to see was that he was aggressive, throwing strikes early in the count and relying heavily on his sinking fastball. But the pessimist in me had one problem with the outing: still no offspeed pitch. I saw several sliders but only one or two changeups (one thrown for a strike). For Pelfrey to succeed as a Major League starter, he has to change speeds.

Of course, it’s still early — he can build off this performance. Hopefully, we’ll see his confidence and aggressiveness continue to develop through the spring, and eventually we’ll see more slowballs. With El Duque out until who knows when, he has a golden opportunity to win the #5 spot in the rotation.

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Local Boy Can Make Good

There are two Mets spring training invites who happen to be former NYC high school stars — and with a little luck, one of them might make the big club come April.

If you were paying attention to — or playing — high school baseball 10-15 years ago, then you may already know the names Nelson Figueroa and Ruddy Lugo. In fact, there are some MetsToday readers who have batted against Lugo.

“Figgy” hails from Lincoln High School in Brooklyn — the same school that produced former Met and matinee idol Lee Mazzilli. Ruddy reported to homeroom at Xaverian, also in Brooklyn, the same alma mater of St. John’s stars Rich Aurilia and Chris Mullin (Mullin, of course, was a hoops, not baseball player). He’s also the younger brother of shortstop Julio Lugo of the Red Sox.

Just in case you see these guys at Peter Luger’s a month from now, here are some pics:

Ruddy Lugo

Ruddy Lugo pitching for the Mets

After seeing them both briefly during my trip to spring training, I’d have to say that Figueroa has the best shot, between them, of making the team — though both are longshots. Ruddy is still raw, throwing with good velocity but not much control. Figgy is just the opposite — a guy with not much velocity but good command and plenty of guile. To me, Figueroa is a “poor man’s Pedro” — a guy who “pitches backwards”, using his change-up and curveball to set up his fastball. He never the throws a pitch at the same velocity or to the same location twice in a row, and lulls a batter with his 78-84 MPH junk before freezing him with an 89-MPH “heater” that looks more like 99 after all the slow stuff. With a few good outings and some luck, Figueroa could wind up stealing the last bullpen spot. So far, luck is on his side — the Mets are reportedly shopping holdovers Scott Schoeneweis and Jorge Sosa, and Tony Armas, Jr. has yet to report due to visa issues. The longer he hangs around, the better chance he has of winning a spot.

Nelson Figueroa

Nelson Figueroa of the Mets

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Pitching to the Strings

One of the things pitchers do in spring training is pitch to “the strings”.

Considering today’s technology, it may appear to be a rather primitive setup — all it is, after all, is a special bullpen set up with pairs of wooden posts driven into the ground, and a string attached in between. The key is the height of the string — it’s placed where the average batter’s bottom of the strike zone would be. The idea is to get pitchers to throw strikes “at the knees”.

Here are some photos of that special bullpen area, where Mets pitchers spend a good portion of their workday.

Bullpen coach Guy Conti watching pitches from the batter’s perspective.

Guy Conti at the strings

Catchers squatting behind the strings.
Catchers behind the strings

John Maine throws to the strings while other Mets pitchers wait their turn.
John Maine throws to strings

Again it’s Maine, with Conti providing instruction.
Guy Conti watching John Maine

And here I am, right next to the ‘pen, trying not to get pelted by an errant pitch and trying not to be arrested. Everything was going fine until I tried to tell Conti that Maine was opening up too soon and that he needed to increase everyone’s pitch count … a few minutes later some men in dark sunglasses escorted me to the parking lot, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise because I got some nice shots of Pedro’s hubcaps.
Joe Janish at Tradition Field

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Mets Shopping Schoeneweis and Sosa

Scott Schoeneweis pitching for the MetsAccording to Adam Rubin, the Mets are shopping Scott Schoeneweis and Jorge Sosa, hoping to clear some payroll as well as room on the roster for some of their young guns.

Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing either of them go, if not both. Sosa is a streaky pitcher who relies exclusively on a slider — and if it’s not breaking sharply, we watch balls fly over the fence.

Shopping the Show is an equally fine idea. What I saw this past week in his outing in Jupiter was more of the same we saw last year: about 85-86 MPH slop. I’d be much happier knowing there were two spots in the bullpen with flexibility — meaning, the ability to bring youngsters up and down and/or sign veterans to short contracts, until Willie Randolph finds the right “mix”.

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Where Is Tony Armas, Jr.?

Milk carton with photo of Tony Armas Jr.One of the “big” moves immediately prior to spring training (this one was just a tad less important than the Johan trade) was the signing of Tony Armas, Jr. to a minor league deal. He was handed a spring training invite with the idea that he’d fight for a spot in the Mets bullpen, and also provide the team a veteran spot starter as insurance behind Orlando “Jose de Vidrio” Hernandez.

However, Armas has yet to appear in Port St. Lucie, making it very difficult to win a job. Rumor has it that he was experiencing issues entering the USA from his native Venezuela.

Per Omar Minaya:

“From what I understand, the authorities were asking Tony for his Visa, but all he had was a MasterCard.”

His father Tony Armas, Sr., is worried for his son.

“We are all keeping his fingers crossed, hoping someone will have information about Antonio. We are very concerned.”

Another non-roster invitee, Jose Valentin, was asked if he’d heard from the missing righthander.

“Man, he supposed to meet me tonight at the bar,” Valentin said when questioned at Duffy’s Bar just a mile up the road from Tradition Field. “If my man don’t show up soon, I gotta bell. There are some hotties lined up waiting to twirl my ‘stache,” he added.

Mets manager Willie Randolph was also notified of the disappearance.

“That’s a shame, you know. He was a great rightfielder. He had a rifle out there. I remember him being a star on some bad Oakland teams, and then having a lot of fun putting balls over the Green Monster when he joined the Red Sox. My condolences to his family.”

When it was explained that the subject was Tony Armas, Jr., rather than Tony Armas, Sr., Randolph didn’t miss a beat.

“Oh yeah? Another “arm”, huh? Get it? ARM-as … heh heh … Well if he gets here we have a spot for him. Hey Charlie,” he called out to Charlie Samuels, the Mets’ equipment manager, “where’d you put Sele’s old chair? The nice one with the extra padding we had out in the bullpen?”

Here at MetsToday, our thoughts are with the Armas family while they endure this difficult situation.

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PFP Explained

Every once in a while you may hear Ron and Keith mention “PFP” during a Mets broadcast. Contrary to popular belief, “PFP” is not a drug that was popular in the Mets dugout in the 1980s; rather, it is an acronym for “Pitchers’ Fielding Practice”.

PFP is simply explained as the pitcher covering first, and here’s how it works. The pitchers line up on the pitcher’s mound, and one by one they go through their pitching motion — without the ball — and at the end of their “make believe” release, a coach will toss or hit a ball between the mound and first base. The pitcher reacts by either going after the ball or sprinting up the first base line with his glove up as a target to catch the throw from the first baseman. Other than ingraining the habit of covering first, the three critical issues are 1.) to take a “banana” route toward first base, running parallel to the first base line; 2.) getting to the bag in time to catch the toss from the first baseman; and 3.) to both catch the ball and step on the bag before the imaginary runner reaches it first — which can be slightly more difficult than walking and chewing gum simultaneously.

They do this drill literally thousands of times, yet it’s a foregone conclusion that several pitchers forget to cover first in the first week of the regular season … no one knows why.

Here are pictures of some of the Mets pitchers going through “PFP” on the back fields at Tradition in Port St. Lucie.

Oliver Perez goes through his motion without the ball. Scott Schoeneweis is next in line.
Oliver Perez in pfp

Pedro has gone through his motion and is waiting to see where the ball goes (or he has spotted me taking pictures of his car … no one’s quite sure).
Pedro Martinez in pfp

There goes Pedro after the ball (or to fetch a security guard).
Pedro in pfp

Here’s Johan Santana busting it toward the first base line.
Johan Santana in pfp

Johan successfully completes the exercise.
Johan covers first

Duaner Sanchez takes the toss and makes a good stretch.
Duaner takes the throw

Aaron Heilman gets to the bag in plenty of time.
Aaron Heilman in pfp

Thrilling stuff, I know.

You may notice other players in the background doing things as well; on the field there are several drills going on at once, and balls flying all over the place. As you might guess, it’s a recipe for disaster yet somehow no one gets killed, year after year. The most interesting thing of this hazardous structure is that if you look around, there are four or five empty diamonds around the complex — so why do it all in one spot? Another mystery of “tradition” in the old ballgame … it has always been done that way and always will be done that way.

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Skinny Sanchez

I promised to get at least one shot proving that Duaner Sanchez is in fact skinny this spring, so here it is:

Duaner Sanchez skinny

His reported weight of around 200 lbs. is legit. Notice, though, that if beanpole Mike Pelfrey weren’t 6’7″, you wouldn’t see him standing behind Sanchez. That’s more because Pelfrey is too thin than Dirty being overweight.

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Third Man for Fifth Spot

If you listened to my interview on Gotham Sports Radio, you already know who is my sleeper for the fifth spot in the rotation.

But if you haven’t gotten around to downloading it yet (and you should, I give away some other interesting tidbits), I’ll offer you my “dark horse” candidate for the role.

Jason Vargas.

Say what you want, but the pitcher you saw in spot starts in May and July of last year was not the “real” Jason Vargas. He was definitely affected by an elbow injury, which has since been corrected thanks to the removal of a bone spur in October. The Vargas the Mets traded for threw in the 92-93 range, and the one we saw last year was only in the upper 80s.

During my visit to Port St. Lucie, I watched Vargas throw from close range … in fact, I was close enough to spit on him. From my estimation, he was definitely throwing around the 89-91 range, with good location in the bottom of the zone — he was throwing to “the strings”, which are strings set up with wooden posts at the bottom of the strike zone.

Here are some more shots of Vargas during that session.

In the windup
Jason Vargas pitching

The follow through.

Vargas follow through

Working on the “OK” changeup grip. It’s called the “OK Change” because you do the “OK” sign with your fingers and hold the ball with your other three.
Vargas OK change grip

Rick Peterson watching and offering instruction.

Rick Peterson watches Jason Vargas

A view from the catcher’s side, with bullpen coach Guy Conti setting up as a batter. Look closely at this photo and you’ll see another onlooker in the background, in a black pullover.

Guy Conti and the strings

And guess who that guy in the black pullover is?

Omar Minaya at Tradition Field

Guess I’m not the only one interested in Vargas’ road to recovery.

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