Monthly Archives: March 2010

Scenes from a Parking Lot in Port St. Lucie

>I.

“Hey Murphy, do you have a girlfriend?”, asks a tan little bleach-blond thing wearing thick sunglasses and a blue tank-top. She’s standing just behind the mass of the autograph seekers, accompanied by two other college-aged girls and three heavier males. The girls are wearing a lot of makeup and have deep brown tans, while the much paler boys wear backwards Met hats, cargo shorts and poorly thought-out facial hair – scraggly goatees and unshaven necks.

Daniel Murphy is working down a line of autograph-seekers – a group including small children accompanied closely by parents who remind them to say thank you, teenagers that need haircuts, and older beer-gut-and-sun-damaged men, all of them gathered just outside the second exit to the player’s parking lot at Tradition Field. Murphy stands on one side of a waist high fence, flanked by a lone security guard who might have been in his early seventies. The fans stand on the other side. I’m standing alongside the fence too, but off to the right, trying to figure out how bad the sunburn on my knee is. Pretty bad, as it turns out. Skin shouldn’t be purple, right?

The Mets transitory first baseman takes pens and balls, broken bats taped back together, magazines, pictures of players that aren’t him, and the occasional blank piece of paper from those who couldn’t find anything else suitable for him to sign.

Murphy hears the girl’s shout and grins slyly. He responds to the question posed: “No, no I don’t.”

A little quieter, just for those close to the fence, he mutters: “But if you’re asking me, there must be some slim pickings out there . . . ”

II.

The spring training home of the Mets, Tradition Field – or whatever the name has been changed to – is located in Port St. Lucie on the Treasure Coast of Florida. The park is roughly the size of Harbor Yard, home of the Bridgeport Bluefish, or really any other minor league park I can think of. It’s not an imposing or impressive ballpark by any means, not much different from a D-I school’s baseball field. You can count the heads of the people in front or behind you on your fingers, and the outfield grass seems like it would be growing with or without the park around it. Palm trees and conifers sway beyond the fences.

In major league parks, the playing field is dwarfed by the towering form of the upper decks, a canyon of steel titans lurking over the white dots that are supposedly the outfielders. It can make you wonder who left a grassy area in the middle of the amusement park. Not so in Port St. Lucie. Everything is in brilliant focus – the park doesn’t look that small on TV, but it is.

The atmosphere is far more casual and relaxed. Big league parks, in THE SHOW, have a well defined separation of fans and players. YOU are in the stands, and THEY are on the field, and though you are sometimes separated only by feet, YOU and THEY don’t really ever interact, and security guards in matching windbreakers line the field to remind you of that fact. Sometimes it doesn’t feel any closer than when you watch on TV. You can scream all you want in the upper deck, but no one down there is ever going to hear you. The only difference between your couch and the ballpark is that you’re accompanied by thousands of people.

That divide has failed to make the trip down to Florida. If someone decided to scream obscenities at Jeff Francoeur for nine innings, everyone in the ballpark, Frenchy included, would hear each four-letter word. There isn’t much to stop anyone from doing so. Security guards and ushers are present, of course, but most of them are full-time employees of the park – and thus also full-time residents of Florida – meaning that many look to be on the wrong side of 65. I spotted one or two burly, mustachioed security personal, but it was almost exclusively senior citizens who were charged with maintaining the peace.

But here’s the thing that makes the security guards superfluous anyway: you wouldn’t start calling Jeff Francoeur a smiling jackass at Tradition Field anymore than you would your uncle at a wiffleball game during a family barbecue. You can’t scream and hide at either party. There’s no anonymity when the crowds are that small.

So no one really says much of anything. The peace would be maintained on its own.

I’m tempted to call it all intimate, but that doesn’t feel quite right. It’s informal. It’s a dress rehearsal for the regular season, and YOU have been invited to watch THEM practice. But it’s not like you could run out there, pick up a glove and join in. You’re still not in the show. You just have better seats this time.

III.

Tradition Field is approached – I’m going to keep calling it “Tradition Field”, all irony aside, because A) that’s what it was called when I was there, and B) I don’t think Digital Domain is paying me anything to advertise for them – through a rope-divided grass parking lot. The two entrances for the stadium are to the right and left of the ticket window, where an usher will take your ticket, rip it in two and grant you entrance. That’s it. No pat down, no scanner over the UPC code to make sure your ticket is real – if you have a purse or a bag, they’ll check those out for food or bombs or whatever it is they’re looking for, but otherwise, just a ticket rip and a “gee, nice day for a ball game.”

Like I said, informal.

On day 1, a Mets-Twins rehearsal on a Friday, I entered the stadium through the short ramp on the left. Reaching the top I watched some fans spin a carnival “wheel of crap.” A spin can win you game-used bats or a 2009 Florida Marlin media guide. My brother won the media guide. The next spinner, a man whose black hair was balding beneath his cap, won a woman’s t-shirt. He took it like it was a polio-infected blanket.

I moved on, past the concession stands and tiki bar, over to a railing behind left field that hangs over a back bullpen. The bullpen is equipped with five pitching rubbers lined up across an extra wide mound. I leaned over the railing as the four-on-the-floor disco beat of Lady Gaga floated and echoed around the ballpark: RAH, RAH, AH, AH, AH, ROMA, ROMA-MA. Mike Pelfrey, Fernando Nieve, and Tobi Stoner were all throwing – Mike Jacobs was catching Stoner, for some reason. Fans a story upstairs looked on, hanging over the railing silently. The only sound not emanating from the loudspeakers was the smack of baseballs striking heavy against the catcher’s mitts. Jerry Manuel leaned on a black bat, standing alone by the catchers, while Dan Warthen and a coach I didn’t recognize stood behind the mounds.

Further on, towards one of the back fields, Oliver Perez signed autographs for people who had backstage passes to spring training. I was wondering how you get let back there when Fred Wilpon hopped out of a golf cart to greet some of them. I guess you have to know the owner.

The voice over the speakers howled like a drunk robot, now telling me: I WANT YOUR HORROR, I WANT YOUR DESIGN.

Pelfrey finished throwing first, hanging around for a moment to talk with Warthen, mystery coach, and a short sunburnt man wearing a bright blue Mets wind breaker and baseball pants. The short man was leaning against the fence, looking simultaneously cocky and reserved as Pelfrey and Warthen laughed at something he said. I didn’t initially recognize the face without the mustache. My father couldn’t place the name right away either. A guy whose accent hinted Brooklyn figured out who my Dad was trying to point to before I did.

“Eh, It’s Johnny Franco”, he said softly.

Some fans in cargo shorts drifted away from the railing, and others moved in to take their place, but everyone kept quiet. T
here was no shouting at the players and coaches down below, no one desperately trying to make John Franco or Mike Pelfrey momentarily aware of their existence, no one trying to saying snarky to Jerry Manuel. It was as if it were a theater and you might be asked to leave if you broke the silence even for a moment.

The speakers blared on, oblivious to the rules: CAUSE I’M A FREE BITCH, BABY.

Jon Niese, all socks and crooked nose, came in just as the first group finished throwing. He lightly started tossing a dozen or so pitches, working up to a game velocity only for the last few. Two of the bullpen catchers, Shawn Riggans and Chris Coste, moved out to a back field to join their squatting brethren practicing throws to second. Jerry Manuel had long since disappeared into his lair, but as mystery coach walked under the railing, fungo bat in hand, a fan finally broke the wall of silence.

“Hey, coach, how about a bat?”

Mystery coach looked up, smiled, faked like he was going to hand the bat up – there’s no way anyone could reach that high – and disappeared into where I’d guess the locker room is. The bullpen was now empty, and one by one everyone shuffled away from the railing.

NO, I DON’T WANT TO BE FRIENDS. I DON’T WANT TO BE FRIEN-EN-ENDS.

Jesus . . . that’s fine Lady Gaga. I don’t think I’d want to be friends with you, either.

IV.

Spring Training games tend to melt away into memories and moments and the players but never just the games themselves, in the way the ones that count often do. I can recall Carlos Beltran running up a hill in in Houston three years ago to save Joe Smith in extra innings, and the Mets eventually winning and Billy Wagner closing it out. It was July and I was lying on top of my sheets, listening on the radio with the window open, letting the night breeze slip into my room like the harmonica in “Thunder Road”, and it’s all right there in my mind today.

But I can also recall with equal clarity an image of Fernando Martinez making a full extension catch in spring training two years ago. I can’t really remember anything else though – the score, the opponent, what month (February? March?) it was. I know I saw it on TV, and I think it was the first time I figured out what Fernando Martinez looked like, but that’s it for the recollection.

So here’s the thing: I was at these games a week ago, and I know the Mets lost on Friday and Saturday and won on Sunday, and I can tell you who the starting pitchers were and who played well, but I have no idea what the scores were or who did well on the other team. It didn’t matter to me.

But not everyone feels that way. I guess the score matters to some people – a family with thick Minnesota accents and thicker fanny packs a row in front cheered for the Twins like it was Game 7 of the World Series and they had wagered their house on the outcome – but it’s just not as interesting to me as who’s doing well for the Mets and who isn’t. Everyone enjoys baseball in their own way. I enjoy spring training in a different way than I enjoy the regular season – the other team and the score don’t matter.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Ruben Gotay hit a walk off home run for the Cardinals on Saturday, and he was on the other team and I can remember that. But he was a Met once, so that doesn’t really count. I liked him.

V.

Our seats for the Mets-Twins game were along the first base line, but near the end I walked alone back to the covered corner in left field to escape the harsh sun, which was fulfilling its duty of being “man’s greatest natural enemy”, as one of my older cousins is fond of saying.

Temporarily safe, although it was far too late to save my now-purple left knee, I watched a pimply Jenrry Mejia warm up for the ninth from just a few feet away.

You know how when Francisco Rodriguez throws the ball, it looks like his arm is going to fly off in one direction, and he’s going to fall over in the other, but the ball sails towards home plate anyway? Jenrry Mejia doesn’t look like that at all. He’s long arms, a smooth stride, ball held behind him until the last possible moment when he slings it forward – he makes it look easy. Actually, it doesn’t even look like he’s throwing that hard until you hear the pop of the ball hitting padded leather. Gas. Filthy. Dirty. Nasty. So good, it must be described pejoratively. He slung it loosely, over and over, hypnotizing.

Mejia mostly keeps to himself when he is sitting in the bullpen, both at Tradition Field and Roger Dean Stadium. I saw him talk to Sean Green for a moment during the Cardinals game, but that was it for both the days I saw him. He just sits in his plastic chair and watches from the bullpen, not necessarily in a daydream kind of way, but in a quiet, attentive manner. He’s taking it all in, learning by watching, yet doesn’t seem overwhelmed by anything.

Or maybe he is just daydreaming.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by how calm he seemed. I know who Jenrry Mejia is, and you know who he is, and we can talk forever about what his best use is. But I suppose he probably doesn’t know who he is yet, or at least who he is supposed to be.

Still, he seems to have a handle on things, though I’m sure people said the same thing about a young Doc Gooden too, because people say those things about every young player. Citi Field is far, far bigger than Tradition Field. That’s the show and these are just the rehearsals.

Mejia leaves me to go pitch in the game. He surrenders a couple of hits and a run, but nothing more. The Mets are swiftly retired in the bottom of the inning to end the game. Everyone that hadn’t already left now gets up to depart. Spring training crowds leave in waves. The first exodus usually occurs after the sixth, and the drift continues each subsequent half-inning until the game ends.

I started to walk back down the exit ramp when a tall man in jeans and a grey printed t-shirt who looked a hell-of-a-lot like Nelson Figueroa walked past me. I looked closer. More eyebrows than chin? Check. It’s Figgy. He makes his way down the ramp ahead of me. No one else gives him a second look.

VI.

Later, outside the stadium, I met up with my siblings and father near one of the gates to the player’s parking lot. I mention that I saw Figueroa walking around the stadium in street clothes.

“Oh, wow! Really?”, replies my brother. “That’s funny, because . . . we got a picture with him”, and shows me a picture on my sister’s camera of a smiling Nelson Figueroa with his arms wrapped around my siblings. He was apparently thrilled that someone knew who he was and wanted to take a picture with him.

A moment or two later, Jeff Francoeur pulls out of the player’s lot, crawling his black SUV through the crowd waiting for a glimpse of anyone. Frenchy gives a wave and a smile – of course – and then drives off to join the line of cars waiting to get out onto the main road. A couple of fans jog over to the car as Francoeur waits in the traffic. He rolls down the window to sign a handful of balls before the line of cars finally inches forward again.

Soon, a preteen spots Daniel Murphy through a gap in the fence and gets him to sign a ball. Another person notices, then another, and soon a whole crowd had gathered the inches-wide break in the fence, trying to get Murphy’s signature, passing balls through and bats – where are people getting all these bats from? – over the top of the eight foot high fence.

“Hold on. This is stupid”, Murphy says. He tells the crowd to meet him down at the other end, near another one of the gates to the lot, so he can sign without having to play Tetris with bats and t
he fence.

VII.

Every main road in Florida is walled in by an endless row of strip malls and strategically placed palm trees. Every single heavily used road – every single one – is a line of Walmarts, Shoe Carnivals, Publix, Arbys, Subways and Blockbusters, interrupted only by the occasional chiropractor’s office, mega-church, or, my personal favorite, a pet crematory that advertised being “available for emergencies.” Just in case you pull a Dwight Schrute and need the remains of your girlfriend’s cat incinerated IMMEDIATELY.

The outdoor shopping centers are also broken up at times by rows up rows of identical looking single story houses. All the houses on this street have the same design, then all the houses on this next street have the same design – little pink houses for you and me. One car in the driveway, occasionally a few more parked on the lawn, and then there are some abandoned looking ones with no cars anywhere and yellow, overgrown lawns.

On our way to Sunday morning’s University of Michigan-Mets exhibition, just past some of these houses, we were caught in traffic for ten minutes on a single lane road leading to the stadium. The cars weren’t lined up for the game. Sunday morning. Church.

All that is why I’m surprised the Marlins and the Rays haven’t taken off a bit more. There’s so much money and faith moving about on that peninsula already. What mixes those two things better than baseball? It should be a perfect fit.

But it’s not working. Maybe someday for the Florida teams, once the other teams go. Spring training is packing up for Arizona, which is the same as Florida, only with mountains and no rain. Palm trees, citrus fruits, transplants, the strip malls. It’s all there. The exodus has already commenced – the Mets keep playing the same four teams over and over again this spring because everyone else is gone.

VIII.

The second day, we – my father, sister, brother, and my own bad self – drove out to watch the Mets and the Cardinals play at Roger Dean Stadium, in Jupiter, home to both the Cardinals, Marlins, and one-time spring training home to the Expos. I learned that last fact from a display above a concession stand. Remember the Expos? Baseball in Montreal? My father does. He will still occasionally refer to the Nationals as the Expos by accident – but he still will occasionally call the Indianapolis Colts the Baltimore Colts. Some habits die harder than others.

Anyway, this place has a different feel than Tradition Field. The ushers actually scan the UPC code of the tickets, and it’s far more packed than either Mets home game. This stadium feels a little bit more big league, more hustle and bustle and people bumping into each other in the walkways. It had a modern touch too, a lot of bright bricks, like Citi Field and Citizens Bank Park and Busch Stadium II and all the neo-retro-parks.

Our seats are out in the left field bleachers this time, behind an exclusively female family from St. Louis that spent most of the game talking loudly about the local ball players they knew in high school and whose minor league system they were now in and who they were dating and who they used to date and who’s cute and who isn’t cute – I overheard them say that one of the local boys was traded in a Halladay/Holliday deal, but they couldn’t remember which sound-a-like superstar it was.

Located in front of the metal bleacher benches in left field is the sitting area for the visiting bullpen. Mejia is here again, and K-Rod made the journey too. So did Sean Green, Omir Santos, Shawn Riggans, and Elmer Dessens – a veritable who’s who of players that won’t make the Mets.

There was nothing but a thigh-high wall separating the Met bullpen from the front row of seats, so a few times every inning some fans would get a backup catcher or reliever to sign something for them – my sister got her hat signed by Omir Santos. Jenrry Mejia signed five or six people’s items, autographing each one politely, handing it back to the owner with a nod of gratitude, and then turning his attention back to the game.

The “Murphy-do-you-have-a-girlfriend?” girls were here too, this time trying to get the attention of Shawn Riggans, who was far more interested in trying to throw a baseball in the air and catch it behind his back than anything else.

Mid-way through the fourth inning, as Adam Wainwright continued his favorite pastime of catching Met batters looking at strike three and a Mike Jacobs/Luis Castillo/Alex Cora infield did their best impersonation of a juggling trio, a couple and their children sitting in front of me deserted their section of the bench to go seek Albert Pujol’s autograph. He was rumored to be signing somewhere in the park. “They say he only signs for the kids”, reported the father before they left. And away they went, hoping that what “they” said was true about the greatest one playing today.

A few moments later, a foul ball found its way into the Mets bullpen. A coach mindlessly flipped it to a pre-teen boy in the crowd, who just so happened to be wearing a Yankee hat and pinstriped jersey. The entire section, Met and Card fans, booed loudly, causing the Mets bullpen to turn around in their seats and see what was causing the commotion. The coach realized his mistake and laughed. The kid extended both arms out and tipped his cap to the jeers, which caused even more boos to cascade down. The kid ate it up. His next move was to call out “27!“, but no one really cared anymore, so he disappeared with his Cardinal friend back towards seats closer to the infield.

The Mets were behind 5-1 going into the top of the ninth, but scraped together a couple of runs before Ike Davis tied it with an opposite field home run that just cleared both the fence and the outfielder’s glove. A brief and slightly ironic “Lets Go Mets” chant arose.

Kiko Calero walked to the mound to pitch the bottom of the ninth, and almost immediately walked right back off when Ruben Gotay hammered a game-ending solo home run. Some Cardinal fans cheered, but most people seemed more concerned with getting out and trying to remember where on the grass they parked their car.

IX.

Daniel Murphy keeps moving along the line of pens and balls. He comes to a girl in her early twenties with just a small notepad for him to sign.

More deadpan: “Do you want my social security number too? I always get nervous signing these blank pieces of paper . . . ”

He signs it anyway, identity theft be damned. The crowd has almost dispersed, but someone spots Nick Evans rolling out in one of those boxy Hondas – the ones that resembles a wheeled microwave prototype Jack Donaghy designs in an episode of 30 Rock. Some people run over to Evans’ car, the crowd gathers again, and soon Evans is signing autographs out both windows.

Luis Castillo, behind the wheel of his platinum red Cadillac SUV, weaves out of the parking lot and around Nick Evans’ car. He waves out the window but keeps rolling right along. The traffic that delayed Francoeur is gone, so Castillo turns the corner and disappears as Murphy and Evans keep signing.

Gods and slap-hitting second basemen may not answer letters, but light-hitting first basemen do.

X.

Sometimes, I like to look at the listed heights and weights of baseball players and find one who matches up with my height and weight. Mostly so I can think to myself: “Look at that. If just a few more things broke right, I could probably be out there with them.” I know that Fernando Tatis is currently listed at my size. See? How much more could be separating us? – other than the fact my
baseball career stalled out around age 15, partially because of a lack of skill, and partially because I started to become far more interested in Led Zeppelin and Guns N’ Roses than anything else. Mostly the lack of skill. I still like to pretend though.

But while Fernando Tatis is an average-sized male in the general population, he trends small for a professional baseball player. The average major league players is far larger than the average American male. They may not seem like it, not in the way NBA players are skinny giants and football players are masses of muscle and steroids. Baseball players look like proportional human beings – well, you know, they finally look proportional again – which is deceiving. These are large men.

All this became incredibly clear when I saw the University of Michigan baseball team take the field against the New York Mets. Here’s a good college program, full of top athletes who tower over most of their classmates. But they looked like underdeveloped teenagers playing against the big boys in blue, absolutely dwarfed by all the Mets. It really was men against boys. I’m looking at the heights and weights of the Wolverine players on their website as I write this, and I call BS on every single one of those listed numbers. Their roster breaks down, size-wise, the same as the Mets roster. No way. Every Met would have been one of the five biggest players on Michigan.

This University of Michigan vs. Mets exhibition game was sparsely attended, understandable as there were no professional teams involved. A large portion of the crowd appeared to be directly related to players on the field. I saw plenty of groups wearing Wolverine yellow and navy. I also spotted Nelson Figueroa’s young daughter entering the stadium wearing a brilliant pink tutu and a Mets T-shirt that I believe read “Fig Fan” across the back, with a big number 27 in orange letters. This was exactly as adorable as it sounds.

I should probably note that I’m only assuming that the girl was Figueroa’s daughter – I didn’t ask. I assume she was mostly because I also assume an overwhelming majority of six-year-old girls do not become staunchly devoted to obscure journeyman pitchers. But what do I know?

The University of Michigan batted in the first against Nelson Figueroa, who appeared to be throwing his fastball at 185 MPH on this day. The first two batters managed only to foul one pitch to the backstop apiece before finally striking out. The third batter struck out as well, but he might have managed to foul a ball in a forward direction at least. I know the beard of Tim Redding got rocked by these guys last year, but, just . . . how? It didn’t look fair.

***

In between innings, two park employees came out to set up a putting green and net the size of a basketball hoop down the third base line. A white haired man pulled from the crowd got three attempts to chip a golf ball into the net, and just missed on all three – difficult, but not impossible. The contestant on Friday actually chipped his third shot in, the first (and probably only) winner of the spring.

Just after the white haired man finished, and as the stadium employees began picking up the chipping green, Oliver Perez emerged from the dugout, sand wedge in hand, looking like he wanted to give it his best shot. I have no idea where he pulled the club from, though if you had to guess which Met would have the contents of a cluttered garage in his locker, would you really pick anyone besides Oliver Perez?

The promotional crew didn’t let him try it out, which was disappointing. I really, really wanted to see Oliver Perez swing a golf club, mostly because I can’t imagine it looks much different than his regular batting swing. On the other hand, Ollie himself didn’t seem particularly disappointed. He just wanted to test and see if they’d let him try.

***

Even with the scrimmage atmosphere, some fans found reasons to become more involved with the game than others. In the bottom of the third, with two outs and two strikes on the batter, Figueroa threw a borderline pitch that was ruled a ball by the umpire. A section of fans down the third baseline let out a groan – had the pitch been called a strike, the entire section would have won free tacos.

Thankfully, two pitches later, Figeuroa struck the batter out swinging to end the inning. The taco section erupted in cheers. Figueroa kept his head down and eyes locked to the ground as he walked off the mound, but also let loose a huge grin. He was trying to get them their tacos.

And he has an adorable little girl.

Have I mentioned he’s incredibly easy to root for?

***

Midway through, the Mets took their regulars out and started pulling single-A players off the back field, throwing nameless jerseys on them, and sticking them into the game. The action continued, but the members of the crowd not directly related to anyone involved let their attention drift off in the breeze. Is that Jerry Seinfeld over there? I think it is. Do you think David Wright gets to leave once he is taken out of the game? I bet he can – he’s David Wright. Where do you think he goes? Oh, Jerry Seinfeld is leaving now. Everyone cheer!

That’s one of the beauties of going to see baseball in person, really. You can care as much as you want: a lot, or a little, or too much. Or even not at all and just enjoy being outside, the greenness of grass, shticks of the different vendors, and looking around for celebrities. I tend to care about what’s going on in the game, but this was a different experience that usual. I didn’t really care if Aljandro Machado got a hit off Jeff DeCarlo, and that was nice in its own way. Sometimes not caring about what’s going is its own relief.

I think wearing sunblock helps either way.

XI.


Daniel Murphy is almost done signing autographs, but Nick Evans’ car is still being besieged. A beat-up blue compact stops behind Evans’ car, a reggaeton beat thumping through the windows. boom-chicka-boom-chi, boom-chicka-boom-chi. It’s the kind of car a cash-strapped college student would buy, with patches of blue paint in different shades covering up dents. The young driver looks confused as to how to get around the mass swarming Evans’ car. It doesn’t look like he’s comfortable crossing into the opposite lane, even just for a moment in an empty parking lot. So he just sits. Someone taps on the window and holds out a baseball.

Jenrry Mejia turns his radio down to silent, turns off the engine, applies the parking break, and rolls down the driver’s side window. The 20-year-old starts signing silently, responding to the various thank you’s with slight friendly smiles and unsure nods. The crowd moves to him.

Nick Evans finally slips away. So do I. The grass is almost devoid of cars now. A girl asks her brother who the kid in the blue compact is as they walk away.

“That’s Jenrry Mejia. He’s their big young pitching prospect.”

“Oh”, she responds, frowns, and thinks for a moment. She shakes her head.

“I don’t know him.”

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>Sunday Stuff to Read

>One week . . .

I’m almost certain this Amazin’ Avenue post exists solely for the accompanying image and caption, but it’s an interesting debate anyway.


Ted Berg on Chris Carter. Yes. I saw him in Spring Training and he ran out to right field like someone had stuck a firework down the back of his pants. He’s totally, totally deranged and I love it.

Toby Hyde’s prospect countdown continues. This time, he’s all the way down to #6, Wilmer Flores.

Can Hisanori Takahashi become the next Darren Oliver? Fonzi Forever says yes.

Jose Reyes: “Understanding his young player’s impatience to get into a game, Minaya merely smiled and raised his eyebrows skeptically, like a parent nodding when a 6-year-old says he can drive the family car.”

I really, really like the Mets, but I don’t know if I like the Mets enough to get married at Citi Field. Or even if I did,  I don’t know if I could find a woman willing to go along with the idea.

Metstradamus makes excellent points, as always, about the Jenrry Mejia debate.

Joe Posnanski on heart and baseball.

Sunday Q & A with Jason Bay (say that five times fast).

Unrelated: Do you know what the most difficult thing in the world to do is? To explain FireJoeMorgan to another human being who doesn’t really like baseball or stats or both. It’s literally impossible to do. Go upstairs, right now – don’t worry about those bright lights, that’s just the sun – and try to explain FJM to your mother. It cannot be done.

Further unrelated: This doesn’t have anything to do with baseball, mostly, but ESPN’s Keith Law posted his top 200 songs of the 1990′s. The comment for song #16, Radiohead’s “Just”, is as follows:

16. Radiohead – “Just.” The song that made me a Radiohead fan, and a sound I think Muse has been emulating for a decade now. One of the funniest comments I saw on the old Baseball Primer was from Dan Szymborski, who said that the whispered secret in the video for “Just” was (I’m paraphrasing) “pitchers have little to no control over the results of balls in play.”

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Looking on the Bright Side

>If you want some potential, overly hopefully benefits of Jenrry Mejia in the bullpen, here are the Mets bullpen stats since 2002, which is as far back as Fangraphs will give me runs above replacement (RAR) data:

For a primer on WPA, click here.

Check out 2006 – the bullpen was a ridiculous 66.7 runs above replacement. Billy Wagner was 20 runs all on his own, with big contributions from Aaron Heilman, Duaner Sanchez, and Chad Bradford.

But besides simply pitching well in a ton of innings in all situations, the group really turned it on in clutch situations, helping pump them all the way up to a 9.26 Win Probability Added. If you want one reason why the 2006 Mets cruised into 97 wins, this is why. Not Paul Lo Duca, not the Cliff Floyd effect, not heart and hustle and smiling and having fun. They outperformed their expected win-loss record – that’s what the pythag +/- number is – by six games, and a lot of evidence points to the bullpen.

One other thing to look at: 2009‘s bullpen appears to barely be an upgrade over 2008, but I think that’s slightly misleading. Remember that a lot of the damage was done by a couple of K-Rod supernova grand slam innings, and some more was done by Luis Castillo.

Anyway, the real point of this is that there are ways to outperform your expected win-loss record, as predicted by your runs scored against your runs allowed. You can get blown out a lot – I think that’s what the Mariners did last year, when they were outscored by 52 runs, but finished 8 games over .500. That’s one way, and probably not a good one. You can’t really plan to get blown out a lot.

Or you can just win far more close games than you lose. A great bullpen could be a way to do this. So maybe Mejia could be the boost the Mets need to propel them over the hump provided by their otherwise limited talent. Maybe they sneak out a few more wins here and there, with the bullpen putting up zeros until the offense scrapes out a run.

I still think Jenrry Time a mistake – this shouldn’t be an all-hands-on-deck season – but I’ll be willing to eat my words if a great bullpen sneaks the Mets into the playoffs. There’s a lot of ifs before getting there – too many for this to be a good idea – but make it into the crap shoot and anything could happen.

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>Old Time Baseball, via the Internet

>Slow week in terms of Mets news, plus my exhaustion from “vacation” in Florida, means slow updates. My apologizes. I’ll try to put together something for tomorrow, and I’m working on something longer about spring training for Monday. So I’ll make it up soon.

Anyway, I thought I’d pass this youtube account along in the meantime.

It has a lot of amazing, older baseball video clips – dead ball era, Ty Cobb, but also 40′s and 50′s guys like Stan Musial and Jackie Robinson. Think of this: someone who saw Babe Ruth play in the 1920′s has to now be in their nineties, at the very least, to remember it. Most people that saw Ty Cobb play – who is really the first one still reverenced as a star today – are dead.

If you like to think baseball really became baseball around when Babe Ruth decided he was going to start uppercutting and Kenesaw Landis drove the gamblers out, then the actual, original first-hand memories of “baseball as it’s played today” are going to slip away for all eternity soon, where no one alive can recall them. The origin of the species is already long gone, and the memories of them are going to disappear. Someone, somewhere, can still remember seeing Babe Ruth play. But they’re going to die soon.

Obviously, with the Mets it’s different, because plenty of fans can remember the team from it’s inception to the present day. But there was baseball before 1962.

For all the oddness the internet can bring into your life, it can also bring Willie Mays non-nonchalantly catching a fly ball, or running, hat blowing off behind him. Or you can try to figure out if Walter Johnson really threw that hard throwing with that low arm angle. The names and the numbers receive faces, and that’s really cool.

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The Mike Jacobs Rules

>After seeing the Mets once again create a 3-4-5 of David Wright/Mike Jacobs/Jason Bay in the lineup against the University of Michigan, I am going to assume that Jerry Manuel has indeed become enamored with the idea of using Jacobs’ power from the left side to break up the two righties, Wright and Bay. Based on that first assumption – as well as Adam Rubin’s report saying as much, and Adam Rubin knows more about the Mets than the Mets themselves – Mike Jacobs is likely heading for the final bench spot, and may slowly chew away at Daniel Murphy’s playing time at first base. And get to hit cleanup a lot.

There are a couple of ways to look at this.

One way is from the Mets’ presumed perspective. Put on your rose-colored glasses! Jacobs is a career .263/.325/.505 hitter against right-handed pitching, with 84 home runs in 1640 plate appearances, or a home run every 17 or so at-bats. He averages 29 home runs and 91 RBI over 162 games played, although he’s never player more than 141 games in a season. Then again, Jacobs is also a veteran of five major league seasons, having played in 549 big league games. He’s a slugging, veteran, left-handed home run hitter who can fill in at first, or be a power bat off the bench.

Though, really, Jacobs just does a decent impersonation of a left-handed slugger on a team that lacks anything resembling a left-handed slugger. So he’s getting a lot of points for that. It’s sort of like being the sole female or male survivor of a plane crash that happens on a desert island. Suddenly, you just got a lot more attractive.

But, Jacobs had a miserable season last year. He finished hitting .228/.297/.401, struck out more than once for every four plate appearances, and was released by the Royals in December. He can’t hit lefties, and he can’t play defense, and he’s already 29 and likely isn’t getting any better. That’s the other way to look at it.

Actually, for a moment, let’s just meditate on that one part: Mike Jacobs was released by the Royals. The Royals! Maybe that’s all anyone needs to know. Think of it this way: If your crazy neighbors with greasy kids and 13 dogs and thousands of smelly cats dumped their used couch out on the sidewalk, would you really want to drag the couch into your house and sit on it, even if it once looked like something resembling a serviceable couch, even just to try it out? Especially if you have a crazy, um, “couch manager” – or something – in your house that is often oddly drawn to the zombies of formerly useful couches, and likes to place them in the middle of your, er, couch . . . batting order at the expense of your newer couches? *Analogy takes a final gasp and dies from abuse*

OK. But let’s say, for a second, that 2009 was an aberration and Mike Jacobs’ actual talent level is closer to what he was in the NL East the previous three seasons: .258/.314/.483, 23 or so home runs in about 500 plate appearances. Jacobs was a just-slightly-above league-average hitter, and is even further above-average when facing righties on the mound. If we look at it that way, Mike Jacobs could have some uses. Like old, smelly couches have some uses, such as in the basement, or as firewood.

If we’re still pretending Mike Jacobs is far, far better than what last year showed – put those rose-colored glasses back on – and since he is going to be on the roster anyway, then Mike Jacobs Rules need to be set:

1. Mike Jacobs never, ever faces a left-handed pitcher. Ever. He is a career .221/.269/.374 hitter against lefties. That is the batting line you would get from taking Luis Castillo, spraying him with bear mace, and forcing him to swing at everything while throwing tennis balls at his head.

2. Mike Jacobs plays defense as little as possible. No matter what system you like to use to evaluate defense (plus/minus, UZR, just eye-balling it), Mike Jacobs is really, really, really bad. I saw an infield consisting of Mike Jacobs, Luis Castillo, and Alex Cora on Saturday against the Cardinals – if Wright doesn’t revert to his previous Gold Glove form, that fantastic four may make up the worst defensive infield ever. If you’re going to have those four on the field at the same time, you should probably just move an outfielder in as a fifth infielder as well, because you’d give up less runs that way.

At the same time, I get that some of the appeal in Jacobs at first is that Jacobs has experience there. But . . . Miley Cyrus has a lot of experience as an actor, too, and Eddie Murphy has experience as a singer, and Lady Gaga has experience as a normal human being. Just, you know, having experience doing something doesn’t necessarily indicate the ability to do that thing well. Experience simply supplies a track record that can be used to decide whether or not someone can actually perform such a duty. Politicians try to pull this trick all the time, saying that they have “experience”, implying that having experience is automatically a plus – even if the experience shows that they are incompetent ninnies. Mike Jacobs’ experience at first says that he can’t play first base at a level approaching competence. That’s what his experience should really tell everyone: that he can’t play first base.

3. Poor defense also means no Jacobs allowed when ground ball pitchers Mike Pelfrey or Jon Neise start the game. Unless you want them institutionalized.

Using the three rules, that leaves two acceptable situations for Jacobs to play in: (A) Jacobs only starts against right-handed pitchers on days when Pelfrey and Neise do not start, being removed for defense in the later innings, and (B) only pinch hits in situations when it’s not possible for him to face a lefty reliever. If he plays only in those situations, and reverts to his pre-Kansas City form, Jacobs becomes useful, and could help the Mets win a few games. Although those are some very specific situations.

There are other issues here obviously, such as if the benefits of using Jacobs in 2010 outweigh the cost of stunting Daniel Murphy’s development, and if the Mets will actually use Jacobs in the correct fashion. But since the Mets don’t seem to care, why should I worry about those things either. Then I’d have to be institutionalized.

Instead, I plan on keeping track of when the Jacobs Rules are followed and when they are broken in 2010 with a simple scoring system. I’ll award Jerry Manuel 2 point for every time Jacobs:

- starts against a right handed-pitcher

- starts when Pelfrey or Niese is not the Mets starter

and 1 point for whenever Jacobs

- receives a pinch hitting appearance against a right-handed pitcher

- is removed for defense, or for a right-handed pinch hitter against a lefty reliever.

So Manuel could earn 5 possible points for starting Jacobs against a righty, without Pelfrey or Niese on the mound, and removing him for defense later on.

On the flip side, Jerry loses 3 point if:

- Jacobs starts against a lefty pitcher (because there are fewer lefty starters)

minus 2 points if:

- Jacobs starts at first with a ground ball pitcher on the mound (Pelfrey or Niese).

and minus 1 point if:

- Jacobs pinch hits against a lefty

Jerry automatically loses (his job) if:

- Jacobs comes apparently only for defensive purposes.

So a Jacobs start against a lefty pitcher, with Pelfrey on the mound for the Mets, would net Jerry a loss of 5 points.

So those are the Jacobs Rules, and a scoring system. You can play at along at home!

Yikes. Maybe I need to be institutionalized.

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>Sunday Stuff You Should Read: Spring Training Edition.

>I fly back north tomorrow, but first, the Mets-Michigan state game (and maybe Jerry Seinfeld). I’m working on some kind of longer post about spring training that may not be ready until later in the week, or even next Monday. Plus, I don’t want to turn this into a Mets diary . . . I’m going shoot for quality over quantity, although I may end up with neither. We’ll see.

Anyway, I’m start with an old-school literary edition of the links due to time constraints. Also, apologies for missing last weeks link dump – The blackout in CT and NY was responsible for that. 

First, the wordy ones:

Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams:


“The Silent Season of a Hero” by Gay Talese.

“Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” by John Updike

Now, some Mets stuff:

NJ.com question and answers with Jeff Francoeur, including his NCAA bracket strategy.

Davey Johnson talks to the New York Times about grumpy ex-manager stuff.

Hisanori Takahashi has a fortune teller, who told him to first fly to New Zealand for a day, then to America.

Jeff Wilpon has a video blog! (May not be the real Jeff Wilpon.)

That’s it for this abbreviated edition of the links. I’ll have spring training stuff up eventually. Enjoy your Sunday.

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Johan Santana’s Slider

>JENSEN BEACH, Fla. — I arrived in Florida yesterday – hence the superfluous dateline for a blog post – and I will be attending today’s Mets-Twins meaningless exhibition game that everyone will read to much into spring-training game, along with the games on Saturday and Sunday. I’ll try to take some pictures and upload a few to twitter and/or Facebook – I was thinking more about focusing on Tradition Field itself, instead of just the players and game, but we’ll see. To follow me on twitter, go here, or join the Facebook group here.

Anyway, Johan Santana is scheduled to start, so in honor of that event, let me try – and possibly fail, but maybe get a little closer to the truth – to answer this question:


What was the effect of Johan Santana’s elbow troubles on his 2009 performance?

First, the generally accepted answer to this question: (spoiler alert: I don’t believe this answer is right, hence the rest of the post.)

Johan Santana’s elbow pain forced him to throw less sliders, dramatically lowering his effectiveness against left-handed batters. The lefties mashing a now slider-less Johan accounted for most of .60 run rise in his ERA, from 2.53 in 2008 to 3.13 in 2009.

This answer seems to make sense because:

1. Johan Santana really did throw his slider less in 2009. 12% of his pitchers were sliders in 2008, compared to 9% in 2009.

2. His OPS against lefties in 2009 was miserable – .814, with a slash line of .267/.309/.506, including 10 home runs and 13 doubles in just 194 plate appearances. Most of the damage was in the power department, indicating that batters were too often guessing very, very right on either fastball or changeup, no longer having to worry about the sweeping slider.

OK. The generally accepted answer seems to make sense. With no threat of a breaking pitch, lefties just needed to swing really, really hard and hope they guessed right on the fastball/changeup question. That’s how they managed to slug so high, while striking out at about the same rate as righties. Guess right, hit a home run. Guess wrong, strike out.

So now that we are in 2010, with the elbow fixed and the slider back, lefties will fall back down to earth and everyone can rejoice in the radiant poetry that is Johan Santana. Cue Jerry Manuel, to the New York Post’s Kevin Kernan, after Johan’s second spring start: “I really like the fact that he is throwing a slider now to the left-handed batters. Probably for me that was the most impressive thing.” So Jerry Manuel is impressed that Johan has his slider back against lefties. Cool, right?

Except

The problem with all that, is that Johan Santana threw the exact same ratio of changeups and sliders to left-handed batters in 2009 as he did in 2008 . . . and in 2007, and 2006, and 2005:

2009 vs LHB: 14% changeup, 23% slider
2008 vs LHB: 14% changeup, 23% slider
2007 vs LHB: 14% changeup, 25% slider
2006 vs LHB: 15% changeup, 23% slider
2005 vs LHB: 15% changeup, 24% slider

The overall drop in the number of sliders is accounted for by the diminishing number thrown to right-handed batters. Johan threw less sliders to right-handed batters in 2009 than he did in 2008, but he’s also slowly been throwing less sliders against RHB over his entire career, from 13% in 2005, to 14% to 7% to 7% to 4% last season. The dropping number of sliders against RHB doesn’t seem to change Santana’s effectiveness: his career OPS-against vs RHB is .641, and in 2009 it was .644. In other words, less sliders doesn’t look like the answer to why he struggled in 2009. Because there was no drop.

But perhaps a drop in the effectiveness – in other words, the quality and not the quantity – of the sliders could be the answer. Santana himself recently seemed to imply as much in interviews, saying that his slider had no bite. On the other hand, a look at Pitch f/x data* from 2008 and 2009 indicates that Santana’s slider moved essentially the same in both seasons. I’m not going to read too much into that – I’m inclined to trust the guy actually throwing the pitches over a video system that is still having the kinks in pitch ID worked out. If Santana says his slider had less bite, it probably had less bite. Also, doubting Johan Santana is a cardinal sin. You can go to hell for it. Still, Santana decided to throw the apparently bite-less slider to lefties the same amount as he did before, so . . .

*read: “porn for baseball geeks.”

Anyway, if we assume for a moment Johan was throwing a bite-less slider, and the biggest problem he had in 2009 was giving up extra base hits to lefty batters – how many of his 20 home runs were given up to lefties, and how many of those were off (presumably) flat sliders?

Well, Santana surrendered 10 home runs to nine lefties in 2009 – interestingly, all of them well-known batters: Nick Johnson, Adam Dunn, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley (twice), Hideki Matsui, Raul Ibanez, Carlos Pena, Prince Fielder, and Brian McCann. No Jody Geruts in that list – that’s a group of both sluggers, fat guys, and slugging fat guys. Interestingly, switch-hitters all choose to bat right-handed against Johan, even though Santana – like some change-up pitchers – has a reverse platoon split for his career. Why don’t switch hitters try to neutralize his best pitch, the changeup, by hitting lefty? Just a suggestion . . .

Anyway, in the 10 at-bats that ended in home runs, Johan threw 30 pitches, with a breakdown of 20 fastballs, 8 sliders, and just 2 changeups. Seven homeruns were hit off fastballs, two off sliders, and one off a changeup – actually, both changeups were thrown consecutively to Prince Fielder, the second of which was hit to the moon. If Johan lost faith in any pitch against dangerous lefties in 2009, it would appear to be his changeup, and not the slider – but small sample size warnings apply. This represents just over 1% of all the pitches Johan threw in 2009, to just 9 separate hitters, so . . . it’s basically meaningless towards any larger trend. Still, at the very least, the home runs don’t look to be caused by a crummy slider he was afraid to throw, because he used it at his regular rate.

To put it another way, it really, really doesn’t look like the slider. He didn’t throw it any less, and it doesn’t seem any less effective.

In fact, of these 10 home runs given up to lefties, seven of them came in a one month period, beginning with Santana’s June 9th start against Philadelphia and lasting through his July 5th start, also against the Phillies. Of those seven home runs, four came off pitches left up in the zone, and three more off pitches on the outer-half of the plate.* Johan’s ERA in the month of June was 6.19, his strikeout to walk ratio dropped from 4.30 in April/May to 1.29 in June, and opposing batters hit .297/.358/.538 against him – basically, everyone Santana faced in that month was Ryan Zimmerman. It appears that Santana wasn’t missing many bats during the stretch.

*Two of those were outside fastballs to Chase Utley, who, in case you haven’t noticed, leans way, way over the plate – actually, with the standing right on top of the plate and putting knees in to a runners sliding hard on double plays and such . . . he’s sort
in the mold of Ty Cobb or Pete Rose. Only, unlike the other two, Utley was tragically born without a personality, which, when compared to the other two, actually makes him more likable.

If you take the ugly June out, Santana had an ERA of 2.42 in the other four months of his season.

Conclusion (sort of):

While Johan may have, and probably did, have a flatter slider that normal, I’m not sure how much it actually hampered his effectiveness. He certainly didn’t use it less against lefties. He gave up just two home runs off sliders to LHB in 2009, and the value of his slider, according to Fangraphs, actually went slightly up from 2008. I would guess that his difficultly controlling the location of his pitches, resulting in a homer-happy June, had much more to do with the ballooning of his ERA than anything with his slider. If the bone chips caused Johan to lose effectiveness – and I’m going to guess that they did – I would have to say his lack of control for a month caused more problems than any flatness in his slider. Basically, there isn’t any evidence that his slider was used either less often or less effectively than ever before.

So, having the slider bite back? It’s probably going to help. Being able to pitch pain free? Probably even better.

Johan Santana image courtesy of Keith Allison’s photo stream on Flickr:

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The Mets with the Most Plate Appearances

>This is going to be slightly rambling and it has no real point . . . but bear with me, if you will. It’s just a post of Mets lists and some other stuff, based on the ten players who have come to the plate most as a Met. You’ve been warned.

Here are the top ten Mets, all time, by total plate appearances:

1. Ed Kranepool – 5997
2. Bud Harrelson – 5083
3. Cleon Jones – 4683
4. Howard Johnson – 4591
5. Darryl Strawberry – 4549
6. Edgardo Alfonzo – 4449
7. Jerry Grote – 4335
8. Mookie Wilson – 4307
9. Mike Piazza – 3941
10. Keith Hernandez – 3684

Wright has moved up to #11 in this list, Reyes to #12.

The first thing that jumps out at me – you could field a full team with the top eight on the list, and no one would have to play out of their position, outfielders included. None of that “three left fielders count as three outfielders.” Everyone plays the position they spent most of their time with the Mets at:

C – Jerry Grote
1B – Ed Kranepool
2B – Edgardo Alfonzo
3B – Howard Johnson
SS – Bud Harrelson
LF – Cleon Jones
CF – Mookie Wilson
RF – Darryl Strawberry

Of course, if you substituted Hernandez at first and Piazza at catcher, you would have a much better team – but the top eight could function on their own. Grote and Harrelson would be out-making black holes at the bottom of the lineup, but the rest of the group is average-y or better hitters, relative to their era, and there are no defensive pariahs.

If you rearrange the group by most hits as a Met, only Hernandez drops out, down to 12th place, with Wright making a jump onto the leaderboard:

1. Ed Kranepool – 1418
2. Cleon Jones – 1188
3. Edgardo Alfonzo – 1136
4. Mookie Wilson – 1112
5. Bud Harrelson – 1029
6. Mike Piazza – 1028
7. Darryl Strawberry – 1025
8. Howard Johnson – 997
9. Jerry Grote – 994
10. David Wright – 983

11. Jose Reyes – 960
12. Keith Hernandez – 939

Kranepool is way, way out in front, with 230 hits separating him and Cleon Jones. I never would have guessed that Fonzi is third on the hits list, or that Mookie was fourth, for that matter.You can see there is a large clumping from Harrelson down through to Grote, with just 35 hits separating five players – Wright and Reyes should pass all of them this season, and either one of them has a chance to jump to third place. If Wright can somehow manage 206 hits, he’ll shoot all the way past Jones to second place. So if or when this season goes to hell – you know, if it hasn’t already – that’s something to watch. I guess.

If you rearrange the top ten plate appearance group again, this time by Wins Above Replacement, you get this list:

1. Darryl Strawberry – 37.7 WAR
2. Edgardo Alfonzo – 29.1 WAR
3. Keith Hernandez – 26.5 WAR
4. Howard Johnson – 24.7 WAR
5. Mike Piazza – 24.6 WAR
6. Mookie Wilson – 19.4 WAR
7. Cleon Jones – 17.6 WAR
8. Bud Harrelson – 17.1 WAR
9. Jerry Grote – 13.1 WAR
10. Ed Kranepool – 4.4 WAR

Ed Kranepool spent most of the 1960′s below replacement level, which is why his WAR is so low – and he has more plate appearance than any other player in Met history. Think about that for a moment. The Met who has come to the plate more than any other man in history is just 4 wins over replacement level for his 18 season career. The Met who has thrown the most innings for the team is arguably the greatest pitcher of all time, or at least among the top five greatest pitchers of all time, depending on how much you believe the quality of competition has improved with time. But, yes, this is a franchise based on pitching.

If you’re curious, David Wright would be third, at 27.1 WAR. Jose Reyes is sitting at 21.1 WAR, and Carlos Beltran at 26.6 Met WAR.

Interestingly, Darryl Strawberry is miles ahead of anyone else – he has an excellent claim to best position player the Mets have ever had, Piazza included, barring whatever Wright does. Comparing those two, Piazza and Strawberry’s, Met careers in other ways:

Top 3 Piazza: 14.8 WAR
Top 3 Strawberry: 19.1 WAR

Top 5 Piazza: 22.2 WAR
Top 5 Strawberry: 28.4 WAR

Piazza average WAR per season: 3.1 WAR
Strawberry average WAR per season: 4.7 WAR

Darryl has Piazza beat everywhere. This may seem odd, because A.) Mike Piazza’s Mets OPS is .915, and Strawberry’s is .878 and B.) Strawberry played right field, and Piazza caught – catchers who can hit are generally harder to find, and thus are more valuable than right fielders who can hit. So one would guess that the better hitting catcher, playing the same number of seasons, would beat the lesser hitting right fielder. Only that doesn’t happen, and it’s not really that close. /Puts on Adrian Monk brown suit, accompanied by a cut to black and white flashbacks: “Here’s what happened.”

There are two reasons Darryl Strawberry was more valuable, by WAR, over his seven Mets seasons. The first is that Strawberry’s OPS of .878 was put up during a period that favored pitchers over hitters, including the wacky 1988, when MLB must have temporarily changed something with the baseballs, because the National League’s OPS suddenly dropped 60 points in just one season. It was far more difficult to be a hitter in the late 80′s than it was in the late 90′s and early 2000′s, when steroids, expansion, steroids, and smaller ballparks – also steroids – led to the offensive explosion that has only finally started to move the other direction over the past four years – mostly because everyone stopped taking steroids. It was much easier to put up ridiculous offensive numbers when Piazza played – not to detract from his hitting ability, which was tremendous. Anyway, the point being, even though Strawberry put up worse numbers, he was probably a better hitter than Piazza – Met careers only – due to the era each played in. That’s reason number one.

The second, and larger, reason for Strawberry accumulating more WAR than Piazza is defense. Darryl Strawberry was a +7 outfielder over his Met career, which slightly offset the penalty given for playing right field, a position that tends to harbor hitters. Piazza, on the other hand, was a miserable defensive catcher (and sometimes first baseman), being -42 runs over his Mets career. Piazza gets some of those runs back for being a catcher, compensating for the defensive orientation of the position, but not that many. The -42 defensive runs, combined with the fact that he was on a slight offensive decline as a Met in a hitting era, contributed to Piazza’s lackluster showing in the WAR department. (department of WAR?)

Of course, there are human elements to take into account as well, and I believe Piazza sweeps that category soundly. I’m just not sure that alone makes up for the 13.1 WAR gap between the two. If I had to choose – well, I don’t have to, but I’m going to anyway – the best position player for the Mets all time, I’d have to go with Strawberry. Piazza had a better career, but not with the Mets. Besides, in two years the best Met position player of all time will be Wright anyway – as long as he doesn’t repeat 2009 twice.

One last note – the best single season by any player in the top ten PA belongs to none other than Cleon Jones, who in 1969 massively cut down on his strikeouts, put up a .904 OPS when the league OPS was .720, played the best defensive left field of his career, and posted a WAR of 7.6. That’s better than any Met season put up by Piazza, Strawberry, Reyes, or Alfonzo.

***
One more note: I’ll be heading down to Florida tomorrow for a long weekend, and I think I’ll be attending a few Mets spring training games. Or, like, two. So you can expect some sort of spring training related blogging, but I’m not sure what, because I’ve never been to PSL before. It’s also not like I have access or anything – unless
the Mets start giving out credentials to random bloggers – so it’s not going to be much different. I’ll probably just put a date line on the posts, just for fun. If, for whatever reason, you need more baseball-related microblogging from FLA this weekend, you can follow me on twitter here.

Also, Happy Saint Patrick’s Day:

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Alex Cora and Frankenstein

>

It’s the sort of graphic they’ll put in Sports Illustrated sometimes: how to build the perfect baseball player. You take Ted William’s eyes, Rickey Henderson’s legs, and Hank Aaron’s wrists. Then mix in Joe DiMaggio’s swing and Roberto Clemente’s right arm, and maybe Ozzie Smith’s back flips. Give him Bob Gibson’s glare, for intimidation. Then you all sow it all together like Frankenstein’s monster, wait for the first lightening storm to pass by, and bring to life the impossibly “perfect” ballplayer. Sports Illustrated recycles this idea every 4-5 years in a creepy photo collage.

I suspect that if you were going to construct a perfect ballplayer out of today’s crop, you would probably just pick a whole bunch of parts from Albert Pujols — you actually might just pick the whole of Albert Pujols, but for the sake of the experiment, maybe you would mix in Jeff Francoeur’s throwing arm, Jose Reyes’ (healthy) legs, and Chase Utley’s glove. Joe Mauer’s plate discipline, too. The serenity of Mariano Rivera. And then just more Pujols.

But, for the all important brain, you can make an strong argument that it should be Alex Cora’s gray matter in command of that powerful body. No player in baseball gets by solely on mental aptness and “doing little things well” as much as Alex Cora does.

Here’s something: Elias and ESPN keep track of a statistic called “productive outs”, which is exactly what it sounds like. To be more specific, a “productive out” is defined as one of three things:

1. Successful sac bunt by a pitcher.
2. Advancing a runner with the first out of an inning.
3. Scoring a runner with the second out of an inning.

Here are the 2009 leaders in Productive Out percentage, i.e. how often they converted their opportunities to make productive outs, when they made an out in such a situation (min of 20 opportunities):

1. Alex Cora – 65%
2. Brian McCann – 51%
3. Yunel Escobar – 51%
4. Jimmy Rollins – 50%
5. Yadier Molina – 50%
6. Jason Kendell – 50%
7. Kaz Matsui – 49%
8. Wil Nieves – 48%
9. Ryan Doumit – 48%
10. Augie Ojeda – 47%

For full disclosure, productive out percentage appears to be a junk stat is smaller sample sizes like this — the leaders vary wildly from year to year. If you drop the minimum opportunities down to ten for 2009, Mike Pelfrey and his sac bunts jump up to second place, with 64%. So . . . take from this what you will. Mostly that Alex Cora makes his outs productive more often than others.

Still, expanded out to career-sized numbers, Alex Cora continues to compare favorably in productive out percentage. Cora’s career productive out percentage is 44%. Over the same period of time, the league’s productive out percentage is 32%, 12 percentage points lower than Cora. So the numbers confirm exactly what everyone already believed to be true: Alex Cora indeed “does the little things well”, like advancing and scoring runners with outs. Other examples of Cora using his baseball IQ:

- Cora’s career sacrifice bunt success rate is 81% — the league rate is 72%.

- Over the past two seasons, he has struck out 41 times and walked 41 times in 487 plate appearances.

- Cora has taken extra bases at a 45% rate for his career — the league has taken 39%. Bill James Online has Cora at +30 bases gained since 2002.

- He is solid defensively. Plus/minus rates Cora as a slightly above-average middle infielder over the past three seasons, while UZR rates him about average.

I find the base running and fielding particularly impressive, because watching Alex Cora play in 2009, I know that Alex Cora:

A.) is slow.
B.) has no range.
  
Other fans apparently agree with the second assertion — Tom Tango’s fan scouting reports rate Alex Cora as a less talented fielder than Luis Castillo, and Luis Castillo has about as much lateral motion as someone with their shoelaces tied together. Cora is somehow able to position himself such that he compensates for his diminished range in a way Castillo simply doesn’t. Cora seems to always have himself set up perfectly to gobble up the balls just to the right of the second base bag without moving an inch. He knows what pitch is coming, and where the batter is likely to hit it, and he puts himself there before any of it happens. By the same measure, Alex Cora doesn’t take extra bases because he is fast. Cora is not fast — not slow either, but certainly not fast. He is able to do these little things well because he uses his brain. It really might be the best brain in the game.*

*I know some people would like to give this “Best Brain” award to Derek Jeter, but people also like to give Derek Jeter Gold Gloves, and he doesn’t deserve those either. Being really, really good at hitting doesn’t necessarily mean that you must be really, really good at everything else – this seems to be an exceptionally difficult baseball concept.

But for all the little things Alex Cora does right, he also did this in 2009: a slash line of .251/.320/.310. Batting is a big thing — in fact, it’s the biggest thing a player does. Cora has stated that because he played last season without thumbs, he feels he can do better at the plate. I can see how that makes sense — Alex Cora with thumbs should be better than Alex Cora without thumbs. Generally, thumbs are good.

But here’s the thing: Alex Cora put up a paltry .630 OPS in 2009. His career OPS is just 28 points higher, at .658. Cora put up a wOBA of .288 in 2009 — and his career wOBA is .291. So maybe he’ll be a more productive batter in 2009. But probably not by much. He really wasn’t that much worse without thumbs. In fact, the entirety of the offensive damage was done to his slugging percentage. If Cora had popped off just 8 more total bases — so turn two of his singles into home runs, and two more into doubles — the bump in slugging percentage would nudge his OPS right back to his career mark. Thumbs may be overrated.*

*Not really

Alex Cora does do plenty of the little things well. He runs the bases well. He positions himself intelligently on defense. He makes a whole bunch of productive outs. But he also makes a whole bunch of regular outs, too. Alex Cora gets the most possible out of being Alex Cora. But he ultimately is what he is: a poor hitter, a good base runner, and an average fielder with a fantastic brain. He’s mostly a poor hitter, even by already poor shortstop standards for batting.

And I think the Mets know this, too. They don’t even seem comfortable letting him play with Jose Reyes out. It seems they really, really want Ruben Tejada to step in until Reyes comes back, with Cora getting his normal spot starts in Castillo’s stead. Which makes me wonder: why the hell is Cora on the team, anyway? What’s the point of a backup shortstop no one wants to use to back up the shortstop? Why is he here?

The only answer I can come up with, is that the Mets are trying to build their team like one of those Frankenstein players, and Alex Cora functions as the brain from the dugout. In fact, if you were going to make one of those Frankenstein players, using only parts of Mets players, you might be able to make the better player than any of the other 30 teams. With Reyes’ legs, Francoeur’s arm, Carlos Beltran’s glide, David Wright’s (now-fixed) swing, Castillo’s freak contact abilities, Bay’s power, J
ohan Santana’s “crazy-eyes” face, Oliver Perez’s slider, and Alex Cora’s brain, it would be a real tough combination to beat. I don’t know if any team could top them.

I just don’t know if making an actual baseball team works the same way. But at least there are plenty of interesting parts to watch.

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Why Starting Pitchers are More Valuable than Relief Pitchers.

>Yesterday, in a post about Jenrry Mejia, I mentioned briefly that Zack Greinke is far, far more valuable than Jonathan Pabelbon. Only I sort of skirted over why that is, saying something vague about innings pitched — partially out laziness, but mostly because the debate about starters vs. relievers really deserves its own post. Like this one. So to really get into why sticking Jenrry Mejia in the bullpen is not as good as letting Jenrry Mejia develop into a starter, let me try to answer this question:

Why is a good starter more valuable than a good reliever?

The first and most basic reason why starters are more valuable than relievers is the lazy one I stated above. Innings pitched. More innings are better than fewer innings. More is more is better.

Imagine you have two pitchers, both putting up 2.55 ERA. One pitcher, George Feaver, is going to start and pitch 200 innings with a 2.55 ERA. The other pitcher, Sidd Finch, is going to work 60 innings out of the bullpen and also post a 2.55 ERA. Even though they allow the same number of earned runs per inning pitched, George Feaver is more valuable because he throws more of those 2.55 ERA innings. Would you rather have $200 dollars, or $60? Would you rather have 200 innings of 2.55 ERA, or 60 innings? So even though Jonathan Pabelbon put up a 1.85 ERA in 68 innings in 2009, Zack Greinke and his 229.1 innings of 2.16 ERA were more valuable. Greinke ate up about 250% more high quality innings than Pabelbon. More innings is more innings is better.

But that’s sort of a lazy and simplistic way of looking at things, because it ignores something really, really important: context. In other words, when are these innings being pitched? In tight games, or in blowouts? Jonathan Pabelbon did throw far less innings, but Tito Francona saved Pabelbon’s 68 innings of work for the most important spots in games. Almost all of Papbelbon’s innings were of the late-and-close variety, when the Red Sox were trying to protect a late lead or preserve a tie. Zack Greinke threw 229.1 innings, but some of them were in blowouts when the Royals were up 10-0*, or in early innings, when the game was still far from being decided. Anyone can see that a shutdown inning when your team is ahead 1-0 in the ninth is more valuable than a shutdown inning when your team is ahead 15-2 in the fifth, or even a shutdown inning in the first of a tied game. All innings are not created equal — the importance of the innings pitched is just as vital as the total number when figuring out how valuable a pitcher is.

*May not have ever happened, because it’s the Royals. Just pretend it did.

In fact, if you want to get into things like Win Probability Added (WPA), which accounts for the importance of situations, Jonathan Pabelbon (5.13 WPA) increased his team’s chances of winning games almost as much as Zack Greinke did (6.07 WPA) and more so than every other starting pitcher in the majors except Chris Carpenter. The 68 innings Jonathan Pabelbon threw, because they were in such important spots, helped his team win more games than every starter in the majors, save the two just mentioned.

Crap. I just accidently disproved what I was trying to say.

Oh, right. It doesn’t quite work like that.

Here’s where it gets a little tricky. Taking the importance of the innings into account doesn’t really make Jonathan Pabelbon as valuable as Zack Greinke. Greinke, as a starter pitcher, is much harder to replace than Pabelbon, and thus is still far, far more valuable. Let’s use the Mets as an example to explain why — actually, let’s use the Phillies, because I’m going to be imagining freak injuries to key players, and I don’t want to add to the hex on this Mets team.

Anyway, pretend that tomorrow, Roy Halladay is tragically mauled by a circus lion. Halladay survives without any crippling or otherwise disfiguring injuries, but the lion did manage to rip the UCL out of Halladay’s right elbow. Oh no! Now Halladay needs Tommy John surgery and will miss all of 2010. Sorry, Phillie fans. There’s always the Eagles, right?

Now Kyle Kendrick gets bumped into the Phillies starting rotation to replace Halladay. Halladay was going to throw 240 innings with a 2.50 ERA. Kendrick is probably going to throw just 160 innings with a 4.60-or-so ERA, so the Phillies will still need to replace another 80 of the innings Halladay was going to throw, probably with some combination of middle relievers. Those middle relievers will also pitch admirably, also to the tune of a 4.60 ERA.

What that all mean is that if Roy Halladay should be mauled by a circus lion tomorrow, 240 innings of 2.50 ERA baseball are going to be replaced with 240 innings of 4.60 ERA baseball — that works out to about 55 runs over those 240 innings. So losing Roy Halladay would cost the Phillies 55 runs over the season, at least in circus lion-infested guesstimation land. That’s a big loss.

Now let’s imagine Brad Lidge was the one who was mauled by the circus lion, and not Roy Halladay. Also tragic. Lidge’s UCL is ripped out of his arm with surgical precision by the lion, so Lidge needs Tommy John too. By the way, for the sake of this thought experiment, we’re also going to pretend it was the 2008 incarnation of Brad Lidge. Pretend Lidge is a good closer and losing him doesn’t actually help the Phillies out.

If Brad Lidge gets attacked by Simba, the Phillies are going to need another arm in their bullpen to soak up the 65-or-so innings Lidge would have thrown. Let’s say they choose Jose Contreras and his 4.60 career ERA. For some reason.

Okay, now because the Phils are replacing their closer Brad Lidge, they’re going to have to use Jose Contreras in the closer’s role, right? (hint: no.)

Of course not. They’re just going to shift everyone in the bullpen up a slot. The eighth inning guy, Ryan Madson, is going to become the closer, the seventh inning guys get moved up, the sixth inning guys start pitching in the seventh and so on — Contreras is going to the bottom of the totem pole, not the top. It’s not a straight-up substitution like Kyle Kendrick for Roy Halladay was, because there’s far more picking and choosing in the bullpen. Managers can decide who pitches in what spots, so Ryan Madson is going to pitch Brad Lidge’s important innings now. And remember, we already established that what makes a reliever valuable is the importance of the innings he pitches. Lidge’s “replacement”, Contreras, is only going to throw meaningless innings in blowouts, not the ninth inning in close games, so he’s not really replacing Lidge. It’s not a one-for-one substitution. Contreras may replace the same total number of innings, but not all innings are created equal. This is called bullpen chaining, or something vaguely S&M like that. You can read more about it here, if you so desire. (Read more about bullpen chaining that is, not S&M.)

To summerize, if the Phillies lost Roy Halladay, they would need to replace all of his innings with their sixth starter. There’s not that much picking and choosing — all the starting innings need to be pitched by someone. Every game begins 0-0, so every starter enters the game in the same situation. However, if the Phillies lost their closer Lidge, they don’t necessarily need to stick his crummy replacement in a game to protect a 1-0 lead in the ninth. They can let their second best reliever, Madson, do that, while Joe Replacement soaks up innings during blowouts. Losing Lidge would be a downgrade, but nowhere near as devastating as losing Halladay would be. The Phillies can slot Lidge’s replacement into meaningless spots. You can’t do that with a starter pitcher – no games are rendered meaningless in the first inning.

To belabor the point and make it as simple as possible, think of w
hich scenario you would prefer as GM:

-Mauled Roy Halladay being replaced by Kyle Kendrick and various middle relievers.

-Mauled Brad Lidge being replaced by Ryan Madson.

That oversimplifies everything, but it’s also far, far more true than it is false. For Greinke and Pabelbon:

-Mauled Zack Greinke is replaced by now-starter Kyle Farnsworth and various middle relievers.

-Mauled Jonathan Pabelbon is replaced by Daniel Bard.

This is why losing Joe Nathan should not be an epic disaster for the Twins — their eighth innings guys will have to step in and close, but they’re not exactly a bunch of Replacement Joes* off the street. Now, of course, replacing a closer doesn’t always work out smoothly, and there are plenty of pitchers who can’t handle the mental task of closing games. Kyle Farnsworth, to name one. There is a human element to the game. But then again, every year, some no-name pitcher racks up 30 saves. Leo Nunez saved 24 games in 28 chances for the 2009 Marlins, without having a single save in his previous 106 career games. Closing isn’t for everyone, but it’s probably for more than one might think.

*I should mention that sometimes teams with horrible bullpens will actually have to pick Replacement Joes — Luis Ayala — off the street and have pitch the ninth when their closers go down. But most teams presumably have more relief depth than that.

Back to Flushing. Now imagine that Jenrry Mejia pitches out of the 2010 bullpen for the Mets. And let’s assume he’s awesome — far from a given. But let’s pretend he will be. If he’s the eighth inning guy, all Mejia really serves to do is push someone like Elmer Dessens off the roster — actually, he probably pushes someone better off — and then move everyone else down a spot. Now Sean Green pitches in the sixth, maybe Parnell and Igarashi in the seventh, and Mejia takes over the eighth as a bridge to K-Rod. That’s where most of his value would lie — moving everyone down a slot. How much is that really worth to the Mets?

Now let’s pretend it’s 2011 or 2012. Jenrry Mejia, starting pitcher, is keeping scrap-heap material like Livan Hernandez and the beard of Tim Redding off the roster. The replacement guys like that, who throw 180 innings with 5.50 ERA, are replaced with someone throwing up a 4.00 ERA in 180 innings. That saves 30 runs over the course of a season, more if Mejia pitches more innings. Mejia doesn’t just move Hernandez down a spot — he replaces him completely.

So what the Mejia question really comes down to is whether moving Parnell and Igarashi down an inning today is more important than replacing crud in the fifth starters spot tomorrow. It’s basically deciding between 50 cents today or 3 dollars tomorrow. You can have chance to win a few more games this year, or a chance to win even more games in the future.

You know what? If you’re just 50 cents away from a championship, then you should spend the 50 cents today. But I don’t think the Mets are 50 cents away from a championship. So this doesn’t make any sense, unless Jerry and Omar are just trying to save their jobs.

But, hey, maybe Mejia can push the Mets into the playoffs this year. Maybe a fantastic bullpen allows the Mets win more one-run games than they should and outperform their meager expectations. Maybe one nasty pitch is good enough for Mejia to succeed as a reliever in the major leagues for a long time. And, after all, there is no guarantee that Mejia will ever develop into a quality starter. The bullpen may be his true calling, and the Mets may be wasting his talent in the minor leagues.

But Mejia might turn into a special starting pitcher, and it seems like a chance worth taking for a team with very few starting pitchers. To me, not attempting to maximize Mejia’s value seems horribly short-sighted and impulsive. The Mets might use a little foresight. I doubt having too much was how they got where they are today.

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