Browsing Archive April, 2008

Life Without Moises

While few of us expected Moises Alou to play in more than 100 games this season, we did hope to see him at some point beyond the cameo appearances in spring training. After suffering a hernia, the latest news is that Alou may or may not have a fractured bone in his ankle.

This does not bode well for the light-hitting Mets, who despite their offensive “explosion” this past weekend, remain a few batters short of championship lineup.

Even if Carlos Delgado is truly out of his slump — and it looked that way yesterday — it’s doubtful he’s going to return to the monster he was two or three years ago. At best he’ll give the Mets a .260 / 30 / 110 line — good, but not enough unless both David Wright and Carlos Beltran put up MVP numbers.

That’s because after the #5 spot, there isn’t much firepower. Yes, Ryan Church is hot, but I’m not banking on him continuing his .322 pace (call me a pessimist). I do like Church as a #6 or #7 hitter, and do like his defense and hustle. But when he cools down to his mean of .275 / 15 / 70, and Angel Pagan falls back to earth (three hits in his last 20 ABs suggests the descent has begun), will the Mets have enough hitting at the bottom of the order to compete? I’m not so sure.

If the bullpen had a better start, and if either of El Duque or Pedro Martinez were in the rotation right now, I might not be so concerned — because great pitching beats good hitting, right? But the truth is, the Mets pitching overall is not great — it’s OK, potentially good. But not so dominating that the Mets can get away with scoring 3-4 runs a game.

In this era of the 5-inning starter, too many games are decided by the worst pitchers on each team — the middle relievers. It’s a crapshoot, really, and what it often comes down to is which offense can take advantage of the weakest arms in the 6th and 7th innings. If Delgado gets back into the groove, the Mets will be more dangerous in these late innings, because teams won’t be able to pitch around David Wright and Carlos Beltran. But the lineup still might not be deep enough to make up for the inconsistencies of the bullpen. There are too many “ifs” — if Delgado returns to form, if Pagan stays hot, if Church is for real — to keep me convinced there’s enough offense without Alou.

Of course, “if” Alou ever returns, I’m assuming he’ll be the .300-hitting RBI machine he’s always been … oh that’s another “if”, isn’t it?

Maybe it’s the gray skies and downpour that has me so cynical. A bright sunny day and a few more dingers by Delgado would really lift my spirits.

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Mets Game 23: Win Over Braves

Mets 6 Braves 3

John Smoltz didn’t have his good stuff, and the Mets jumped all over him, scoring runs in each of the first three innings and chasing “Smoltzie” to the showers after only four innings of work.

David Wright looked relieved to see Smoltz leave the game. As usual, the veteran righthander was giving David fits with his biting sliders — Wright struck out twice against him. However, D-Wright smacked an RBI single to greet reliever Will Ohman.

Meantime, Nelson Figueroa gave the Mets another excellent outing, cruising through five and a third and allowing three runs on seven hits. He wasn’t dominating, but he never struggled, either. Figgy kept the Braves off-balance with his usual assortment of curves and offspeed pitches.

Unlikely hero Raul Casanova hit the game-breaking blast in the second, a two-run homer off Smoltz to put the Mets ahead by three on the scoreboard — but by ten on the mental scoreboard. Casanova’s homer established that Smoltz had nothing but slop, and took the air out of depleted Braves (Chipper Jones and Yunel Escobar were both out, and closer Rafael Soriano was doubtful).

Carlos Delgado accentuated the Mets lead an inning later, breaking out of his slump by knocking a flat slider (or was it a bad changeup?) the other way and over the leftfield fence. Delgado proved his breakout was for real by crushing another homer later n the game off reliever Buddy Carlyle.

Notes

Casanova had three hits to lift his average to .333. Delgado was 2-for-2 with two walks, three runs scored, and two RBI. He was given a standing ovation after his second ‘tater, suggesting a curtain call, but he refused to leave the dugout. Much was made of it during the SNY broadcast, and he’ll likely get some flak in the tabloids tomorrow, but I don’t see it as being that big a deal. It was nice, however, to hear that kind of support from the Shea boo-birds.

Luis Castillo had three more hits, is 9 for his last 21, and now hitting .284 on the year.

Smoltz had a tight shoulder and relied on the Jorge Sosa strategy of sliders, sliders, and more sliders. As Jorge knows, that stratagem only works for so long before balls start flying over fences.

Billy Wagner finally gave up a hit, to Matt Diaz with one out in the ninth. He still has a shutout going.

Strangely, Aaron Heilman didn’t throw a pitch all day, not even in the bullpen. Hope he’s OK.

Scott Schoeneweis did pitch — an entire inning, in fact — and had lady luck on his side. The Show gave up two bombs, one by Jeff Francoeur and another by Mark Teixeira, but Ryan Church saved his butt by making a spectacular catch on Teixeira’s drive to deep right-center.

Next Game

The Pirates come to town for a three-game series at Shea. Johan Santana goes against Ian Snell in a 7:10 PM start.

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Mets Game 22: Win Over Braves

Mets 4 Braves 3

Tim Hudson imploded in the third inning, allowing the Mets to score four runs, and the Sheasters held on to beat the Braves by one.

After Jose Reyes popped out to start the third, Endy Chavez and David Wright hit back-to-back singles, setting the table for Carlos Beltran, who hit a booming double to score them both. Ryan Church followed with a triple to score Beltran, then scored himself when Carlos Delgado blasted a ground ball to first base. OK, maybe Delgado didn’t “blast” it, but at least he got the bat on the ball and hit it slowly enough to get Church home. Great RBI collector, that Delgado.

That was the extent of the offensive excitement from the Mets, so if you missed the final six innings, no biggie.

John Maine was strong through five, but inefficient with his pitches (as Willie Randolph might say) and had to leave before the sixth. He allowed three hits, three walks, and two earned runs, and struck out seven in his abbreviated stint. Aaron Heilman was brought in to make the game close (he gave up yet another run in his one inning of work), and Scott Schoeneweis, Pedro Feliciano, Duaner Sanchez, and Billy Wagner shut out the Braves the rest of the way to preserve Maine’s second victory of the season.

Notes

Can we send Heilman down to AAA and stretch him out for starting? Surely at this point he’s no longer “too important in the bullpen” to be moved back to the rotation. And by now it can be Omar’s idea, not mine, so all the more reason for it to happen.

Good to see D-Wright snap his temporary cold streak with a 2-for-4 day. Damion Easley also had two hits subbing for Luis Castillo. On the other hand, Jose Reyes had another oh-fer, and is now down to .237. It would be nice to see him sit back, let the ball get deep, take some pitches, and slap the ball the other way. He’s over-zealous at the plate, jumping out at everything right now.

Gustavo Molina made his first start behind the dish, and looked pretty good back there. He also collected his first hit as a Met, a nice opposite-field drive in the second.

John Maine left after the fifth because of “tightness” in his shoulder. I don’t like to hear that … it usually is a first symptom of tendinitis. Way too early in the season for that. Let’s hope it was just a matter of the temperature dropping (though, I don’t think it did).

Billy Wagner has pitched a no-hitter so far this season: nine innings, no hits. He has five saves, nine strikeouts and a 0.22 WHIP.

Next Game

The rubber match pits Nelson Figueroa against John Smoltz. Figgy’s fan club will be in full force, and I’m confident he’ll come up with a big performance.

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Let Him Rest

Early in Friday night’s SNY broadcast, a stat was flashed up showing that Mike Pelfrey has an 0-5 record, 8.59 ERA on regular 4 days’ rest, and 7-4 with a 3.91 ERA with 5+ days’ rest.

Gary Cohen commented — correctly — that those stats did not jive with traditional sinkerball pitchers. The theory is that a pitcher who relies on a sinkerball — as Pelfrey does — tends to be more effective when he’s “not strong”, because a “tired arm” will throw pitches with more sink. There’s some logic behind this: a slower pitch will indeed have more downward movement, because it is decelerating at a more drastic rate than a faster pitch as it continues forward. When a sinkerball pitcher is “too strong”, his ball will tend to stay on constant plane, rather than “die” as it approaches the plate (it’s all about physics, folks).

However, knowing what kind of Pelfrey is right now, the stats make sense. Generally speaking, a pure sinkerballer throws in the mid- to high 80s, topping out just around 90. Old-school sinker specialists such as Tommy John, Rick Reuschel, and Randy Jones fit that mold, and current groundball specialists Chien-Ming Wang, Aaron Cook, Derek Lowe, and Jake Westbrook are good examples of pitchers who would benefit from throwing a few MPH slower.However, all of those hurlers — and sinkerballers in general — relied or rely on a mixture of sinkers and offspeed pitches to keep batters off balance. In contrast, Pelfrey more closely compares to Brandon Webb, who is something of an anomaly — a sinkerballer who has “giddyup” on his fastball, occasionally touching 93 MPH. Peflrey throws even harder than that, with some guns clocking him at 96-97+.

But here’s the thing: when Pelfrey’s sinker is working, he’s throwing it in the low 90s — which makes sense; any faster and it wouldn’t sink. The problem is that his slider — a.k.a. his offspeed pitch — is around the same speed, maybe 3-4 MPH less. That’s not enough to keep a batter off-balance.

However, when Pelf is “strong”, he can throw his four-seamer in the upper 90s, possibly as fast as 98 on occasion. So when that 90-MPH slider comes in, it acts as a change-up (8-10 MPH less is the ideal change of pace). Throwing that hard, Pelf can be the power pitcher he was in college, and simply overpower batters with his speed. The caveat is that the sinker may be thrown a bit faster — as it was on Friday night — and thus it loses its sink (Pelf was tossing the sinker around 93 on Friday).

So that still doesn’t explain why his record is so much better with extra rest, does it? Here’s my theory: when he’s strong, he feels good about himself and can pitch the game he’s most comfortable with: the power game. But when he doesn’t feel strong, he doesn’t believe he can dominate hitters on speed alone, and then the doubt sets in. Think about it … Pelfrey has been overpowering batters with his fastball since probably little league. Although he has a wicked sinker when it’s riding around 91-92, he’s neither confident nor comfortable — yet — in relying on it for consistent outs. It will take some time, but eventually he’ll feel comfy using his sinker as his “out” pitch. It will help immensely when/if he has a legit offspeed pitch to complement his sinker — and you may have noticed he attempted (but failed) in using a straight change to set up the sinker on Friday.

Until he develops that offspeed pitch, however, it will be rough go for Big Pelf. If he doesn’t feel like he can “reach back” and fire a 97-98-MPH heater past the batter, he won’t be 100% confident in retiring the batter.

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Mets Game 21: Loss to Braves

Braves 6 Mets 3

The Mets garnered TWO hits all night — one from Marlon Anderson, the other from Raul Casanova, both coming in the third inning — as they were beaten to a pulp by the mighty Braves.

Jair Jurrjens — who began the season as the Braves’ #5 starter — shut down the Mets lineup through six innings, his only struggle coming in the third inning when he walked four straight batters. Although, from my seat, it looked as though the home plate umpire may have been squeezing him during that four-walk episode; in any case, he wasn’t far away from the strike zone.

The Mets were only able to score because of Jurrjens’ temporary control issues. The bats were feeble and lifeless.

Mike Pelfrey was not great, but I’m not going to get on him for a poor outing. This kid has no business being at the MLB level right now, his most recent two starts notwithstanding. Considering that he is a fifth starter who throws one speed, we can’t expect him to pitch seven innings of shutout ball every time out. It’s not fair. Big Pelf should be at AAA right now honing his command and working on a legitimate offspeed pitch.

We could detail the Braves’ scoring here but I don’t have the energy nor desire to do so. If you missed the game, here is the boxscore and play-by-play.

Notes

Pelfrey did not look good from the first batter of the game (Kelly Johnson walked). There was something amiss about Big Pelf’s face and body language — he appeared, to my instincts, to be unsure about himself.

Willie Randolph looks like he’s aged a few years in the last few weeks. I wonder if he’s starting to worry about his job, despite what he says to the contrary.

Not clear on why Duaner Sanchez was brought into this game, down three runs and the bats asleep. Did Willie Randolph really believe the hitters would miraculously wake up and score three runs in the ninth?

Carlos Delgado was given a day off, and Marlon Anderson was spectacular in that he had half of the Mets’ hits.

What’s with Harold Reynolds on the SNY postgame? I’ve never been much of a fan, although I was happy to see him a bit more calm and controlled than the hyped up caricature ESPN made him be. Also happy to see that SNY put an african-american on the postgame show for once. Lee Mazzilli’s George Hamilton tan and Sicilian background didn’t quite fill that void.

I keep telling myself it’s very early in the season, it’s not even May yet, but the initial “feeling” of this year’s Mets has my stomach queasy.

After losing the opening game of the series, the Mets will now face Tim Hudson and John Smoltz over the weekend. Talk about an uphill battle.

Next Game

John Maine goes against Tim Hudson at 1pm. The highlight of the day might be the bloggers roundtable on Mets Weekly prior to the game.

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Throw Stuff at the TV Screen

Personally, I’ve been tempted to throw things at the TV screen during Mets games … especially lately.

Tomorrow afternoon between 12:30 and 1pm, you have another opportunity (in addition to the game) to throw stuff at the screen. That’s when Mets Weekly will be on SNY, and you’ll get to see and hear more blasphemies spew from my mouth during a “Blogger Roundtable” with Ted Berg of SNY, Matt Cerrone of MetsBlog, Anthony De Rosa of Hot Foot, and “Coop” of My Summer Family (and a frequent commenter here, BTW).

We five geniuses will be discussing the “cornerstones of the Mets”, Jose Reyes and David Wright, and Groucho Berg will be without the facial accoutrement he received at Keith Hernandez Mustache Day last year (however you will see me with the paste-on Peter Fonda sideburns).

If you miss the 12:30pm showing tomorrow, you can catch the rerun at random times during the week.

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What’s Wrong with Heilman?

If you are one of those fans who has come to hate Aaron Heilman (for example, if you refer to him as “poopyface” or something less family-friendly), then please don’t bother reading further — your opinion likely can’t be changed at this point.

The rest of you, who have at least a glimmer of hope in the righthander, can continue on, consider my analysis, and provide your own below.

Let’s get one thing established: I’m a huge fan of Aaron Heilman, and thus I tend to be an apologist / defender, and perhaps my opinion is slightly biased. So take my analysis with a grain of salt.

First, I don’t think there is any one thing “wrong” with Aaron. He still touches 96-97 on the gun with a hard sinking fastball. His change-up still has good bite and ideal speed (about 10 MPH less than the fastball). I don’t believe there are any demons in his head lurking back to the 2006 NLCS — if that were so, how do you explain his spectacular pitching during the second half of ’07? Finally, he doesn’t appear to be injured (yet … but give Willie time, he’ll Proctorize him evetually).

Second, I think it is a huge mistake to bunch all of Aaron’s poor performances into one basket and say he stinks, because again, there isn’t one specific issue that caused the demise in those ballgames. Rather, if you analyze his appearances individually — and analyze, rather than react to the outcomes — you’ll see different reasons for those “bad games”. (No, I will not detail each appearance here, unless a dozen of you beg me to do so.)

For example, in some of those outings, the problem was fatigue, which caused his arm angle to drop, which caused his hand to get under the ball at release, which caused the ball to fly up higher in the strike zone than he intended. Cause and effect. Fatigue happens when your manager trots you out to the mound 12 times in the first 18 games of the year. At that pace, Heilman would appear in 108 games by the end of the season, breaking Mike Marshall’s MLB record of 106. Fatigue also occurs when you pitch with no days’ rest four times, and with one day’s rest six times, within a three-week period. So we can blame some of those bad outings on overuse (I call it “abuse”).

More recently, however, the issue is his location — which is not the same as command. If his target was set up in one spot, and his pitches were ending up elsewhere, we could surmise he had a control problem. For the most part, he doesn’t, and lately I’m baffled by the pitch-calling — which has to be due to Brian Schneider’s absence behind the dish. When Schneider is out, I’m not sure who’s calling the pitches — Raul Casanova? Heilman? Rick Peterson? Randolph? — but whoever it is, he needs to re-think his strategy.

In the Cubs game on the 21st, Heilman was pounding the inside of the plate with his fastball, but in last night’s loss I didn’t see one pitch inside. Casanova was setting up outside so it wasn’t a matter of command — whoever was in charge of pitch-calling was continually calling pitches on the outside part of the plate. I do understand that there are scouting reports that specify each batter’s weaknesses and strengths, and that it’s a good idea to expose a weakness. However, that doesn’t mean you continually pitch to that one specific location over and over and over. Case in point: Lastings Milledge. Everyone and his brother knows Milledge can’t hit junk off the outside of the plate. Fine. But after throwing six offspeed pitches out there in a row, even Milledge is smart enough to realize the plan. How about freezing him with that 96-MPH fastball in on his hands, after you have him leaning and diving over the plate and thinking the ball’s coming in at 84-86? Instead the full-count fastball was called on the outside, it missed its mark (because Heilman’s best fastball is a sinker that moves inside, not outside), and Milledge walked, setting up the grand slam. That granny, by the way, was poor location in that it was a belt-high changeup over the middle of the plate — but it never would have gotten to bases loaded, full count, had Milledge been fed an inside heater in his at-bat.

Of course, there is little excuse for the location of the pitch that Felipe Lopez hit for the grand slam — it was a belt-high changeup over the heart of the plate — and Lopez was sitting dead-red on the change. But you can’t look at that one pitch and say, “oh, Heilman has to shelve that changeup, it sucks”; or, “Heilman stinks, he’s always giving up homeruns” — because it’s not always that simple. While you are drowning down a beer and a hot dog, chatting with your buddy next to you, and texting your significant other, there are small, barely noticeable nuances in the ballgame that build to the eventual outcome (don’t tell the sabremetricians that, though, because they can’t measure that stuff and therefore dismiss it). Baseball cannot be measured solely on individual outcomes — you have to watch what’s happening before to understand why they occurred. In many ways, baseball games are like movies; if you miss ten or fifteen minutes of the plotline, you may not understand why the flick ended the way it did.

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Basics: Bunting

While commenting on a replay of Oliver Perez dropping a beautiful sacrifice bunt in the third inning, Ron Darling brought up a fundamental that I don’t necessarily agree with. Darling said that you should hold the bat at chest level, and if the ball is above it, you let the ball go because it will be a ball.

However, I have always taught (and been taught) the exact opposite: to hold the bat at the bottom of the strike zone, and let the ball go if it’s below. The thinking behind this, is that you are more likely to bunt the ball on the ground — and less likely to pop it up — if you move up to the pitch than if you move down to it.

Generally speaking, when bunting, you want to “catch” the ball with the bat, with the bat parallel to the ground or at slight angle that has the barrel slightly higher than the handle — this position gives you the best chance to put the ball on the ground.

Now, with that in mind, if you start the bat in a high position, and the pitch is low, you have a tendency to change the angle of the bat and drop the barrel too low — a position that promotes a popup. On the other hand, if you start the bat low and parallel to the ground, then raise it up to a pitch, you have a better chance of getting the ball on the ground. It’s all about angles and reaction time; if a pitch suddenly darts down — as many pitches do (sinkers, sliders, curves, splits) — you may move your bat too quickly and get under the pitch (or drop the barrel and produce an angle that causes a popup). In contrast, there is no such thing as a pitch that rises (the “rising fastball” is an optical illusion), so if a pitch is higher than the bat, it’s probably going fairly straight and it is easier to adjust the level of the bat. Even if the pitch is so high it is out of the strike zone, it might still be a good pitch to bunt — if you raise the bat properly.

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