Monthly Archives: April 2010

John Maine: Good Enough

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John Maine departed yesterday’s game with none out in the seventh inning, a runner on first, and an under-filled stadium giving him a standing ovation, but he wasn’t having any of it. Maine had just pitched six plus innings, striking out nine, and walking three batters – including Jamey Carroll, who was standing at first base after drawing the last of the walks which brought Maine’s afternoon to a close. So, after what was easily the greatest of his early season starts, and after also so recently drawing close to losing his spot in the rotation, Maine, head down, either not hearing the cheers or, more likely, just not permitting himself to hear them, walked down the dugout stairs and hurled his glove into the bench in disgust because he had JUST WALKED JAMEY CARROLL.

It was perfect John Maine. Some people are perfectionists, and some people are PERFECTIONISTS. And then some people are John Maine. One gets the feeling that Maine could throw a no-hitter in the seventh game of the World Series, but spend the entire post-game celebration sulking in champagne and kicking himself for that one batter he walked in the third inning. If you read about and watch John Maine, you see someone who will appear dryly sarcastic, funny, moody, cross, intelligent, stubborn, and deranged, often all at once. But when he’s on the mound, he mostly comes off as a perfectionist. I would really like to know what exactly John Maine is whispering to himself when he’s on the mound, because I suspect it would be funny and similar to what we all say when we mutter to ourselves.

So yesterday you have Maine walking off to the applause of the crowd and then firing his glove into the dugout because of that one final walk. He succeeded according to our standards, which, admittedly, were quite low. However, he didn’t succeed according to his own, so the glove was punished for his transgressions. John Maine: Perfectionist.

Of course, not so long ago – just a few days ago, really – John Maine was hearing no applause in Colorado, and wasn’t succeeding by anyone’s standards. His fastball velocity had dropped down into the mid-eighties, and he wasn’t fooling anyone with off-speed pitches. Two starts into the season, he found his back set up squarely against the wall, a lineup of microphones in his face, and forced to play out his part in a miniature American myth. Like a dusty old cowboy in a tumbleweed Western, Maine didn’t quite have his quickest stuff anymore, and he didn’t know how to fool anyone with slight of hand, and wasn’t going to try to learn how. Instead, with his one last chance, he decided to go down, guns blazing, living and dying with his trusty old fastball, no matter how slow his draw may be now.

Or, you know, something vaguely heroic like that.

When you think about it, it was sort of an odd choice. His fastball is clearly not what it used to be – it’s not a mid-nineties pitch that explodes up and can only be fouled off. It’s a zombie version of that pitch, shambling and ragged. So it seems strange, almost sad and almost inspiring, that John Maine decided he was going to live or die with that beat up old fastball.

And I suspect Maine decided to do this not out of confidence, because he clearly knew that it might not work. That’s probably not indicative confidence. And he didn’t decide this out of confidence’s ugly step-sister, arrogance, either – because he wasn’t CERTAIN this was going to work.

Instead, it seemed, to me, to be much more out of defiance, this wonderful and awful little twitch of humanity that seems to show up now and again, and causes people to dump tea into the Boston Harbor, to chase white whales to their death, or to sing a song like “My Way.” It was as if John Maine said to himself, Fine, I might be going down here, but I’m going down my way. I’m a fastball pitcher, and I’m going to make it as a fastball pitcher, even if my fastball isn’t what it used to be. I’m going to do it my way.

Or, as John Maine actually told ESPN New York’s Adam Rubin, “I’m going to get back to what I was doing. It may work. It may not . . . I’ve got to throw my fastball. If walks happen, walks happen. If the guys get a hit, they get a hit.”

So we have this story’s protagonist courageously or stupidly sticking to the only thing he ever really knew how to do well. And it may work, or it may not. But he’s going to do it his way.

This was supposed to end in one of two ways, if you like to imagine this as a little piece of American mythology, as I am right here. John Maine was going to succeed gloriously, and prove that the dusty old cowboy could still get people out with the same quick draw and win our admiration. He was going to be wrinkly Clint Eastwood, and prove that his defiance was just him staying true to himself, that he was right all along and HE KNEW IT.

Or, option two, he was going to fail miserably, and, as Bruce Springsteen sang, “wind up wounded, and not even dead” and earn our pity, but only so far in that we would also wish that he kindly went away. In this version of the story, he was going to become Fat Elvis, or zombie Joan Rivers, or one of those ghosts of pitchers that always seems to find their way into the Nationals’ or the Brewers’ rotations. His defiance was just someone sadly hanging around for too long, refusing to change. Either way, his next start was the end of the road.

Of course, real life doesn’t always cooperate with nice little stories – that’s what movies are for, where the dramatic twists and turns are pointed out by sad songs and soft symphonic strings. In real life, the soundtrack is Joe Morgan talking about how much he loves Gary Matthews Jr. as Gary Matthews Jr. strikes out on three pitches. Things are slightly less dignified in real life. John Maine pitched against the Cardinals in his make or break start, and did this:

5 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 4 BB, 4 K, 1 HR, 1 HBP, 115 Pitches

Which certainly wasn’t good, but it certainly wasn’t awful. Maine succeeded, only insomuch that he did not necessarily fail. He punted, and up next was his start against the Braves, which looked like this:

3.2 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 3 K, 0 HR, 0 HBP, 63 Pitches

A better John Maine, but his glove arm elbow decided it didn’t quite want to come along for this journey, at least not that night. This looks more like a decent relief appearance than a shortened start. Another punt, but a shanked one. He was losing field position with his inability to stay on the mound. He was about to get sacked for a safety, or whatever, if you want to continue this stupid football analogy.

Which brings us to the wonderful improbablity of yesterday’s start:

6 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, 9 K, 1 HR, 0 HBP, 101 Pitches

Maine came out and threw almost nothing but fastballs against the Dodgers, still with an average velocity hovering in the mid-eighties, far slower than two years ago, before his shoulder started playing tricks on him. He didn’t have his low-nineties fastball anymore, but with that one so-so pitch, John Maine struck out nine Dodgers over six-plus innings.

And you know what? You shouldn’t be able to strike out nine of anything with that one slow pitch, especially if you insist on ONLY throwing that one slow pitch. If someone had told me before yesterday’s start that John Maine would come out and throw nothing but 88 MPH fastballs, I would have run out and put $20 on
the under for 2 1/2 innings pitched. But Maine did it anyway, fooling Andre Ethier with movement and not velocity. Mets.com calling the start a gem might be a bit much, but it was a quality start, if you buy into that term. It wasn’t a disaster, and he struck out nine, so it was a success, especially considering what he had done earlier in the season. It was a quality start, and everyone was happy with John Maine – except, of course, John Maine.

For those of you keeping score at home, since Maine decided to go all fastball in Colorado, that’s two punts and, let’s call yesterday a field goal. Not great, but maybe not so terrible anymore.

I find myself rooting for John Maine especially hard this year. There’s something oddly compelling about his insistence on relying in his fastball in the face of his baseball demise. It’s as if on one hand you have Mike Pelfrey, who is succeeding because he is growing and changing and relying on his breaking pitches more to fool batters and generate swings and misses. Then, on the other hand, you have John Maine, who is going back to a caveman approach of throwing nothing but fastballs. One pitcher trying to figure out who he is, and another trying to remember. I find myself rooting for Mike Pelfrey BECAUSE he decided to become a new and better pitcher, and for John Maine BECAUSE he decided that he wasn’t going to try to become another kind of pitcher. He was going to be John Maine the only way he knew how – maybe stubbornly, maybe misguidedly, and maybe with nothing left in the tank, but he thought he was right, and that’s all that mattered. And maybe it’s stupid and stubborn and all sort of other things. But maybe no one knows John Maine better than John Maine. After all, John Maine seems to talk to John Maine more than anyone else does.

And yesterday? John Maine was right. He wasn’t perfect, so he wasn’t good enough for John Maine, but you know what? John Maine is crazy. He was good enough for everyone else.

Like everything else the Mets are doing right now, I don’t know if it’s sustainable. I have no idea if Maine can rely on nothing more than an 88 MPH fastball, or if Ike Davis can hit like this, or if Jeff Francoeur can continue to be useful, or if the bullpen can pitch this many innings and remain successful. And Oliver Perez, Frank Catalanotto, and Gary Matthews Jr. are still on the roster, best I can tell. I don’t know if it can last. I don’t know if John Maine is going to make it. But I know that I hope so.

John Maine image courtesy of slgckgc’s Flickr photostream.

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Point: Counterpoint with Kevin Kernan

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“The Mets, so far, have learned their lesson under Jerry Manuel. It’s the 1970s again. That means it’s all about pounding the strike zone.

That’s the reason for their recent success. The starters’ ERA of 1.28 over the last 11 games is so impressive that you have to go back to 1991 to find similar numbers, according to Elias Sports Bureau”

But, that being said, almost everything he wrote in today’s column article is wrong.

That’s the winning formula. Don’t be fooled by the fact that going into last night, the Mets led the National League in walks issued with 84.

Mets led the league with 95 walks going into last night. The Dodgers, who are not the Mets, had issued 84 walks.
A lot of those walks were done with a “Pujols purpose,” not to let the opponent’s best hitter beat them. The Mets lead the NL in intentional walks with 10
Per Baseball Reference:

 

 

 

 

 

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

Tm ERA IP BB IBB ▾
LAD 4.92 162.2 84 10
BAL 4.73 163.2 61 9
CHW 4.45 172.0 84 8
WSN 5.01 181.1 83 8
NYM 3.17 176.0 95 7
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/27/2010.

The Dodgers, who are not the Mets, lead the league in IBB with 10. The Mets are fifth with 7 intentional walks. Fangraphs confirms with the same numbers.

That’s fine, an innocent enough screw up, seeing that the teams are playing each other and both walk a lot of guys. The Mets have still walked too many guys. We can let the occasional factual error slide, no?

But still, the entire premise of this article is that the Mets are succeeding because they’re pounding the strike zone, and to back that up, all that Kernan provides is evidence that the Mets are walking too many people.

Or, to rephrase the entire premise of the article and the evidence provided to support it: The Mets are succeeding because they are doing X. Here is some evidence that says the Mets are in fact not doing X, but are actually doing the opposite of X. Still, the Mets are succeeding because they’re doing X.

When you have the super-competitive Johan Santana, who will start today’s first game, leading your staff, a pitcher who does nothing but pound the strike zone, the system can run itself.

2010 Mets percentage of pitches thrown for strikes: 62%

2010 MLB percentage of pitches thrown for strikes: 62%

That peer pressure raises the competitive levels of Oliver Perez, who will start today’s second game.Perez’s velocity is down, but throwing strikes is the name of the game.

This works for starters and relievers. It’s so simple, all teams should be doing it, but so many teams have gotten caught up in ridiculous statistics, they have forgotten about the most important fact and that’s throwing strikes.

Yes, if you don’t throw any strikes, you will walk every batter, never record any outs, and lose every game by the score of infinity to zero. So, in a way, throwing strikes is the most important thing to do.

On the other hand, if you threw every pitch right down Broadway for a strike, you would also lose every game by the score of 100,000 to 5, or something. So, no pitches for strikes = bad, but every pitch for a strike also = bad.

But, again, the Mets are throwing strikes at the league average rate – in other words, the Mets are throwing strikes exactly as often as everyone else is, 62% of the time. They’re not throwing any more, they’re not throwing any less.

The Twins, who have thrown strikes more often than any other team, are seventh-best in runs allowed. The Astros, who have thrown the second greatest percentage of strikes, are fourteenth in runs allowed. Last season, the Orioles allowed more runs per game than any other team, but threw strikes as often as the rest of the majors did.

The best pitch in baseball is not a fastball, not a slider, not a cutter and not a curve. The best pitch in baseball is strike one.

Tom Seaver likes to say that the most important pitch is strike one, so I’ll agree with that assertion. But hey, guess what, the Mets aren’t throwing the first pitch of an at-bat for strike one any more often than anyone else is.

2010 Mets first pitch strike percentage: 57%

2010 MLB first pitch strike percentage: 57%

I would also argue that Mariano Rivera probably throws the best pitch in baseball, though I would also accept that if someone threw a 10000 MPH fastball with pinpoint accuracy, that would be the best pitch in baseball. 

The Mets staff owns a 3.17 ERA, fifth lowest in the majors. The pitchers have notched 153 strikeouts; in the majors, only the White Sox and Cubs have more.

You have to play defense, run the bases well and get timely hits for this to work, but it all starts with pounding the strike zone . . .  The game is back to its roots: If you pound the strike zone, you can’t lose.

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Ryan Howard’s Contract

>“We felt No. 1, he’s one of the elite offensive players in the game. We could have waited another year and a half or so and dealt with it later on, but the fact of the matter is we decided he is that important to our organization and to our club and to our future.”
-Ruben Amaro Jr, Phillies GM, per Jayson Stark

Ryan Howard and the Phillies agreed to a five year, $125 million extension yesterday, with Howard already being locked up for the 2010-11 seasons.

Let me rephrase that in super-dense and ultra-serious macroeconomic terms: Ryan Howard was sitting on Ebay, with an opening bid of $72 million, two years left to bid, and no current bidders. However, the Phillies opened up their computer, saw no bids and the time remaining, and then inexplicably clicked the “Buy It Now” button for $125 million anyway. I should also mention that the item has an estimated delivery time of two years, and you can’t buy insurance in case the Ryan Howard is damaged before arrival. If you read the small print, it mentions the item can’t be used as effectively against lefties.

It’s an awful, awful contract for the Phillies.

That’s not to say the Ryan Howard is an awful player, because he’s not. Ryan Howard is a career .279/.374/.583 hitter with 225 home runs – that’s awfully good. BUT . . . I’m not sure it’s elite, as Ruben Amaro says, especially considering Howard plays first base, where everyone can hit. He’s clearly not the best player at his own position, nevertheless one of the best among all MLB players.

For comparison, what some other hitters have done since Howard’s rookie year in 2005 through 2010:

Ryan Howard – .279/.374/.583
Albert Pujols – .333/.437/.631
Lance Berkman – .295/.406/.547
David Wright – .308/.394/.516
Alex Rodriguez – .303/.407/.578
Adam Dunn – .249/.384/.522
Derrek Lee – .308/.391/.544
Jason Bay – .279/.378/.511

Howard has all but Pujols beat in slugging percentage, but average and on-base percentage, not so impressive when compared to the Jason Bay’s of the world – and on-base percentage is roughly twice as valuable as slugging percentage.

In fact, if you take Fangraphs’ list of the players who have created the most runs above average over the past three years, Ryan Howard comes in a whopping 17th place. Is that great production? Well, obviously, it’s great production, but a better question is if it’s elite production, production worth a ton of money. I’m not so sure it is. Adam Dunn has created more runs over the same period of time – is he an elite offensive player that deserves $25 million a year?

Howard is behind seven other first baseman on the list: Pujols, Prince Fielder, Mark Teixeira, Miguel Cabrera, Berkman, Kevin Youkilis, and Carlos Pena. Should the eighth best hitting first baseman in baseball be considered an elite player? Should the eighth best anything be considered elite?

However, that’s not the biggest problem with this “Buy It Now” deal. Here’s the kicker: Howard is 30 right now – because he got off to such a late start, he’s actually older than Albert Pujols, who willed himself into existence two month after Howard was born. Howard will be 32 when the five year deal kicks in, when he’ll start to become achy and old and his production will start to decline, if it hasn’t already.

Think about this: Baseball-Reference lists Richie Sexson as his most similar batter by age to Howard. Richie Sexson was out of baseball at age 33 – actually, the whole top three most similar batters by age, the other two in the trio being Mo Vaughn and Cecil Fielder, were out of baseball before age 35. That’s not a good omen for someone signed through age 36, with a buyout for his age 37 season.

To top it off, Howard’s lefty-righty splits have gotten progressively worse every season since 2006, all the way down to a .653 OPS last season against southpaws. Howard may wind up a platoon candidate if he doesn’t figure out lefties – a $25 million platoon player.

So there’s all that against the deal – but in the Phillies defense, I get what they’re thinking is. Ryan Howard has led the league in home runs twice. He’s lead the league in RBI three out of the past four seasons. He has home run power to all fields, which makes him a freak – and no man on the planet hits home runs with more STYLE than Ryan Howard. Not that many baseball players look “cool”, for various reasons – the tight pants, being Kevin Youkilis -  but Ryan Howard looks cool whenever he hits a home run. Plus, Howard seems like a stand-up guy, and it takes a lot for me to say that. As someone who roots for the New York Mets, I don’t like the Phillies, their mascot, their city, the Eagles (band or team), the Tom Hanks movie, or anything that has to do with Philadelphia – but I kind of like Ryan Howard.

Well, not really.

What I mean is, if I had to pick a Phillie to not hate, or at least hate less, and I couldn’t pick Nelson Figueroa, I would probably pick Ryan Howard.

Good guy, RBI man, looks cool hitting home runs – what’s not to like, right?

Well, actually, a couple of things. At this point, plenty of people can explain why RBI are a poor way to measure offensive production, and why big, old first baseman don’t necessarily age well. They could explain that, taking all things into account, such as defense and difficulty of position played, Ryan Howard might not even be the third most valuable player on his own team, behind Chase Utley, Jayson Werth, and Jimmy Rollins. They could explain that Howard hasn’t been worth $25 million in any season so far in his career, and that it doesn’t make sense to expect him to suddenly get better and become more valuable at ages 30-36. Lots of people can explain these things – just not the people that run the Phillies, because it doesn’t appear they understand it.

The general direction of the Phillies gives me hope as a Met fan. Last off-season, Raul Ibanez was a questionable signing, but it worked out, at least for his first season. That was defensible, and the Phillies were proven right, for now. Then, this off-season, the Phillies oddly dealt off Cliff Lee when they didn’t necessarily need to, in the name of saving money and prospects. Understandable, though some disagreed.

Then they gave Howard an unnecessary extension. No defense for this one last one.

Also, no everyday player for the Phillies is under age 30. The injury bug has already begun to bite.

The Phillies have been making strange decisions since Amato took over as GM, some of which worked out – Raul Ibanez – and the Phillies are still the best team in the NL East, but they’re old, and this contract and the weird departure of Cliff Lee do not bode well for the team’s decision making process – it’s become suspiciously Metsian.

Which is good news for the Mets, because the more inept franchises there are in the division, the better their chances become for stumbling back into the playoffs.

In one way, the Ryan Howard deal isn’t good news for the Mets, because Ryan Howard is really good at baseball, and is going to be playing for the Phillies for a while. But, in another way, it is good news for the Mets, because Ryan Howard isn’t THAT good at baseball, and the Phillies decision making appears to be shaky.

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>Sunday Stuff to Read

>Some Sunday morning links, as usual.

Joe Posnanski on hating A-Rod and Duke. Every once in a while, I’m tempted to like A-Rod. I suspect it’s going to happen one day, but not yet.

Think the Mets bullpen is good? Think again.

Did you know Keith Hernandez wrote a book about the 1985 season? Even better, did you know that Mike Royko of the Chicago Tribune reviewed the book in a somewhat odd but entertaining fashion?

Wunderkind and future Washington National, Bryce Harper, is apparently kind of a jerk.

An interesting, and excessively sane or insane, rethinking of the playoffs by Sky Andrecheck, though not one I agree with.

Deadspin takes a look inside the world of gay softball.

A Cuban-born baseball scout was released after 13 years in prison.

Will Leitch explains defensive statistics in an understandable way for New York Magazine.

Things going right for the Mets is going to make Adam Rubin’s head explode.

Tom Verducci notes the rise in the number of young African-American stars in baseball.

Now that we’re in the swing of the season, interesting reads are starting to appear.

* * *

Maybe you can hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach?

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Figuring Out Jason Bay’s Slump

>If you have been watching the New York Mets attempt baseball recently, you may have noticed that the middle of the lineup – David Wright, Jason Bay, and Jeff Francoeur – is currently buried in what we refer to as a slump. Until last night, Wright was languishing in the swamps of “0-3 with a walk” and Francoeur, who somehow managed to master and then immediately un-master the tenets of plate discipline in a three week period, was thrashing about in an oh-for streak that lasted 24 at-bats. And then you have Jason Bay, who is slugging .293 on the year – or, to put it another way, Jason Bay’s current slugging percentage is lower than Jeff Francoeur’s current on-base percentage. So . . . yeah. Whatever way you look at it, Jason Bay is in a slump. And so you get all sorts of answers about what Bay needs to do to break out of his slump – answers like the lineup needs to be rearranged around him, or if he needs a day off to clear his head, or he needs to hit behind Jose Reyes, or he needs to get on the road and away from New York, or whatever else anyone thinks will get him going.

I sometimes think baseball slumps are dealt with in a strikingly similar way to how warts were dealt with in the medieval ages. Which is to say, primitively – not to offend any of my medieval readers aware of this blog via hot tub time machine, of course. No one really seems to know what CAUSES slumps, though there are plenty of theories for each individual slump – he’s dropping his hands, his front shoulder is opening up, his back shoulder is dropping, he’s starting his swing too early, he’s starting his swing too late, he’s lost at the plate, he has a bad approach at the plate, he’s intimidated at the plate, he’s overeager at the plate, he’s not seeing the ball well at the plate, he’s pressing at the plate – but there’s not one generally accepted cause for the common slump. Ultimately, slumps seem to mysteriously appear and disappear of their own accord – much like how warts must have appeared to a medieval person. Unsightly nuisances that depart with time.

But that doesn’t keep people from trying to fix slumps, or warts. Let’s see how much we’ve advanced as a society. First, for example’s sake, here is a medieval cure for warts – albeit from a dubious Internet source, but, hey, it’s the Internet, so what isn’t dubious:

“Procure a live eel – fresh or salt water – and cut off its head. Then anoint those parts of the body afflicted with warts, using the fresh blood of the eel. Allow to stand until the blood dries. Do not wash off for at least three days. Bury the head of the eel deep in the earth. Remember where you buried it, so you can check its decomposition. As the head of the eel rots over time, the warts will disappear.“

I know, I know – AWESOME!

Anyway, before we go judging inhabitants of the 12th century as being silly, superstitious fools that do disgusting things, let’s compare their methods for curing warts with the modern day slump-busting method of world champion baseball players:

Yankee slugger Jason Giambi wears a gold lamé, tiger-stripe thong under his uniform when he wants to break out of a slump – and he shares it with hitless teammates who want to get back on track.

“I only put it on when I’m desperate to get out of a big slump,” he tells Portfolio.com.

Over the years, the 37-year-old All-Star has left the “golden thong” in the lockers of slumping teammates Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Johnny Damon, Robin Ventura and Robinson Cano.

“All of them wore it and got hits,” he reports. “The thong works every time.”

Works every time! Look how far we’ve come! Take that, Dark Ages!

Baseball is an intensely repetitive game, which in turn leads to it becoming an intensely superstitious one. Over the course of a six month, 162-game season, players hop over foul lines every time they run onto and off the field, and they try to feel out which bats have hits hidden in them. Two seasons ago, the Mets made PR man Jay Horwitz wear a hideous orange jacket until a winning streak ended. A young Turk Wendell would brush his teeth in the dugout between innings, among other numerous odd things he was famed for. Wade Boggs was sure to eat a chicken meal before every single game. Players do all these seemingly odd and unnecessary things in the name of pleasing Lady Luck, to whom they believe they are all enslaved. And they do it day after day after day, because over the course of 162 games there are HUNDREDS of opportunities for one’s luck to change. How do you ward off bad luck? You put on a tiger striped thong, of course. You adhere to superstition.

A funny thing about the downpour of statistics, which in a way aimed to drive some superstitions out of the game and destroy the culture of willful ignorance that still pervades baseball, is that it has ultimately proven the players right in their superstitions. This is not to say that hopping over the foul lines or wearing gold thongs is a guaranteed method for breaking out of a slump, at least not anymore than rubbing warts with eel blood is a guaranteed method for removing warts. Rather, it has proven that baseball players actually are immensely enslaved to luck. The old belief was that good luck and bad luck balanced itself out over a long season. As it turns out, that’s not true. A baseball season is long, but it’s not nearly long enough to render luck meaningless. The players are on to something with all their attempts to control the uncontrollable beast of luck. The difference between a great season and a poor one often comes down, really, to their lot in luck.

Pitchers are especially easily victimized by bad luck, or helped by good luck. We know now that pitchers really only have control over their walks and strikeouts, if they give up more fly balls or more ground balls, and home runs allowed – but some luck comes into the home runs as well. Outside of that, everything else is up to their defense and luck, two things they cannot control.

I suspect most people intuitively know that luck is important to pitching, even if they’ve never actually said those words to themselves. If you see a starting pitcher put two men on base in the first inning, in the second inning, and then again in the third inning, but escape each time unscored upon, you sense that the start is just a time bomb waiting to go off – even if you’re not sure why. You know he’s been shaky, because most people realize that someone allowing a ton of base runners is going to get burned eventually. On the B-side of luck, if you see a pitcher induce a dinky pop fly that lands just out of the reach of his second baseman’s glove, you know that the pitcher has done his job well, and was just the victim of poor luck. Luck plays an enormous part in a pitcher’s success and failures.

It’s not just the pitchers who are affected by luck – so much of hitting also falls under that domain too. The difference between a .275 hitter and a .300 hitter is just ONE hit slipping through the defense every two weeks. Hitters have a little bit more control over whether or not a ball put in play turns into a hit than the pitchers do, but not that much more.

I think this is another one of those things everyone instinctively knows, even if they’ve never said it before. Scott Podsednik, a career .279 hitter, was batting .449 going into yesterday’s games. Does anyone actually think Scott Podsednik woke up on opening day, shouted “EUREKA”, and suddenly became the greatest hitter ever? Or is he just getting a bit lucky right now, as more than half the balls he puts in play are falling in for hits? I suspect most people, even if they don’t know what BABIP is, know that Scott Podsednik has not suddenly become Ted Williams, and that
he’s going to come down to earth soon enough. Hitters, like the pitchers, find themselves owing much of their perceived successes and failures to luck.

Ultimately, it makes a plenty of sense that baseball players spend so much time on superstition and ritual. So much of their livlihood, day to day, week to week, season to season, depends on the uncontrollable generosity of chance. It’s human nature to try to exert control over things we can’t or couldn’t previously control, be it through superstition, technology, or violence. We used to have rain dances, and now we have cloud seeding – we like to try to figure out how things work, mostly to see if we can control them better. Hence, baseball statistics.

This loosely brings us back to the idea of a slump. But first – what is exactly defines a slump, anyway? Is going 0-6 over two games a slump? 0 for 13? 2 for 25? 5 for 45? Are all those examples slumps, only in varying degrees of slumpiness? Isn’t being mired in a two-week, 4-45 stretch worse than going 0-6 over two games? How can we describe those two things of vastly differing length with the same term, slump? It’s is such a loose term – saying someone is in a slump is like saying you’ve had a bad hamburger. Was it bad as in it did not taste good, or was it bad as in you just lost fifteen liquid pounds over the past 24 hours? It’s an important distinction. I might have different taste buds than you – I might like the hamburger even if it tastes funny to you. I’m probably not going to be happy if it’s the other option.

The point of that being, I suspect all slumps, like hamburgers, are not created equal. On one side, you have actual, mechanical slumps, when someone’s front shoulder really is opening up too soon, or their timing is off, or whatever – something is mechanically wrong with their swing, and that directly causes a slump because they fail to make solid contact. These are the ones that need to be worked out in the video room, in batting practice, in work with the hitting coach, and so on.

On the other side, you have what I’m going to call chance-induced slumps, which are slumps that aren’t really slumps, if you catch my drift. Think about it this way: If you take a .300 hitter, and give him 12 consecutive times at bat, the odds of him going hitless in all 12 are about 14 in 1000 – which sounds pretty low, mostly because it is. But that’s just 12 at-bats – over the course of a long, long baseball season, a .300 hitter should get something like 600 at-bats, in which there are 589 sets of 12 at-bats (i.e. at-bats 1-12 are one set, then at bats 2-13 are another set, then at-bats 3-14 . . . and so on, all the way to at-bats 589-600). That means a .300 hitter, hitting with the same well-tuned swing all season long, should still be expected to have something like 8 separate 0-for-12 slumps – for no reason other than that’s how the numbers work. A .300 hitter has something like a fifty/fifty chance of falling into an 0-20 streak, and a .275 hitter has a 97% chance of seeing an 0-20 streak – even if there is nothing mechanically wrong with their swing. Those are just the odds that come from the best hitters failing to get a hit 70% of the time.

I don’t think this is necessarily an either/or situation – I imagine slumps works more in a “slump spectrum” kind of way. On one end, you have actual mechanical slumps, and chance-induced slumps on the other.* The horrible mechanical slumps should be obvious – the batter is rolling over every pitch to the second baseman – and the true luck slumps should be obvious  – the batter is crushing line drives that just happen to find gloves. But because this is real life, I doubt things are ever really that simple.

*Ultra-mechanical slumps and infra-luck slumps laying outside either end of the spectrum, invisible to the human eye.

So here’s what I think I’m getting at: I’m not so sure anyone can actually tell the difference between a mechanical slump and a chance-induced one, especially a short slump, or even how much is from column A and how much is from column B.

Think of it this way. Jason Bay is in a slump right now. I suspect if you asked Keith Hernandez what was wrong with Bay, he might give you four or five small mechanical flaws in Jason’s swing – he’s opening up too early, he’s not hitting the ball out in front of the plate, he’s dropping his hands, and whatever else Hernandez would spot. And all of those things are true, and things Bay is really doing at the plate.

But then, after talking to Keith Hernandez – and getting suckered into helping him move – you wander over to your neighborhood baseball-loving statistician and ask him what’s wrong with Jason Bay. He might tell you that this “slump” is just an illusion caused by chance, and not really a slump at all. He would point out that if you rolled a six-sided die a couple hundred times, and in one stretch of 25 rolls the die only came up as a one or a two a couple of times, you probably wouldn’t assume there was anything mechanically wrong with the die. You would just assume you had gotten unlucky for a while. He would say it’s a long season, and these stretches just happen, just because they do, and you shouldn’t read too much into them. And, really, that’s also true.

I really have no idea who is right. Keith Hernandez or Howard Johnson probably can pick out a few genuine flaws in Bay’s swing, flaws that actually detract from his batting ability. On the other hand, I imagine that this could sort of be like getting a full body MRI when you have a cold – if you gave an otherwise healthy person an MRI, you would probably find one or two things wrong with them, only because you were looking for thing that are wrong. And maybe they have to do with the cold, or maybe they don’t and are just going to confuse you. Or at least that’s what they say on House M.D. The point being, you show someone in a slump to a hitting coach, and they’ll point out the mechanical flaws. You show someone in a slump to a stats geek, and they’ll tell you it’s just an illusion of chance. And maybe it’s a mechanical flaw, and maybe it’s just an illusion of chance, or maybe it’s a little of both. The point being, I’m not really sure anyone has any way of knowing what kind of slump someone is in.

I should note that the corollary to this idea is that batters in a hot streak also have no idea what to attribute their success to – maybe it’s being locked in at the plate, or maybe it’s luck, or maybe it’s a little of both.

We all suffer from this attribution problem. If things aren’t going your way, if you’re in a life slump, maybe you’re making all the right calls and you’ve simply hit a stretch of bad luck – or maybe you are doing something wrong. Maybe a little of both. Alternatively, if things are going inordinately well, maybe it’s you making all the right decisions – or maybe you just dumbly happen to continually find yourself in the right place at the right time. Or a little bit of everything. There is really no way of knowing what is causing what. If your life is awesome, you might not be able to take any credit for it, and vice-versa and vers-vica.

I believe we are all fascinated and terrified by this idea of not knowing if we’re good or bad or lucky or unlucky. The movie Forrest Gump basically is nothing more than a two-hour-and-twenty-one-minute meditation on this idea. And shrimp. Do good things happen to Forrest Gump because he makes smart choices in spite of his limited intelligence, or do they happen because of sheer dumb luck? Do bad things happen to Jenny (Jenn-nahy) because she makes poor choices, or because her luck is miserable? Alternatively, why does anything happen to anyone? Why is Chris Carter still in the minor leagues? Is he unlucky, or is he just not good enough to play in the major leagues? Why did Pamela Anderson become famous? How is the paradox that
is Joe Morgan possible?

Slumps, the 0-12, or 1-25 or whatever kind, are a meaningless little reflections of this overarching problem. And, again, this brings us back to the real reason why all of us were put onto the earth: to figure out why is Jason Bay not hitting right now. There a thousand-and-one answers, some of them valid, some of them not. He can’t handle playing in New York. Fly balls just aren’t leaving the park. He’s hitting the ball well, it’s just not dropping in - not this one. He’s chasing outside fastballs. He’s late on everything. He’s fine, and it’s just a stretch of bad luck. He’s hitting too many groundballs – he actually is doing this one, but I have no idea why. He’s striking out and pressing because of the pressures of a big contract. He’s unclutch. He actually would rather be smelting. His front shoulder is flying open.

It could be a little bit of all those things, or it could be none of those things. And I’m really not sure we have anyway of knowing what is what. Ultimately, it’s a just an early season struggle, and Bay will more likely than not wind up with 33 or so home runs and a high on-base percentage, because that’s what Jason Bay does. But for right now, he’s slumping, and maybe it’s something mechanical, or maybe it’s just bad luck, or maybe a little of both. Breaking out of slumps is mysterious and difficult – if it were easy, no one would ever find themselves in slumps to begin with. Perhaps Bay needs to work out the kinks in his swing and get in a nice little rhythm, or maybe he just needs time for his luck to change for the better. I have no idea why, and I don’t believe that anyone does.

I think I know enough to realize how hilariously little we understand about everything – I mean, no one really has any idea what’s wrong with Jason Bay, and that’s just in BASEBALL. Think of all the other things we don’t know: no one knows why placebos work, why we sleep, why gravity exists, how long the number pi extends for, or why Jerry Manuel makes so many seemingly illogical decisions. So you get movies like Forrest Gump. So, how do you fix a slump if you don’t even know why it happens? I suspect all any of us can do is give it our best – and then throw on a tiger-stripe thong for good luck.

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>Hey! Why is This Suddenly Easier to Read!

>I just messed around with the template – I think the narrower text column is easier to read, but I haven’t gone in and fixed the banner at the top, or the ads and whatever. Let me know if it is or isn’t easier to read. Thanks.

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And Jacobs Begot Isaac

>Or something like that.

The Mets designated the biblically named Isaac Benjamin Davis as their first baseman of the future, or at least the first baseman for the next few weeks, one day after they designated Michael James Jacobs for assignment. This is what is sometimes known as a “mea culpa.” Presumably Jacobs’ assignment will be to go away and reflect on his baseball future, or to learn to hit position players. Maybe they’ll assign him to learn about the dangers of smokeless tobacco, or at the very least, to learn that you can make the tin last longer if you don’t use ALL of the chaw at once. They could assign him to do any number of things – except, of course, play first base for the New York Mets. That assignment has been taken from him by Mr. Davis.

I do feel for Mike Jacobs. Here is someone two seasons removed from hitting 32 home runs and putting up a .514 slugging percentage. The best I can tell, 372 major league players have ever hit 30 or more home runs in a season. Also, the best I can tell, as of Sunday, 17,311 men have played at least one game of major league baseball – that means just 2.2% of players to play in a major league game have ever hit 30 or more home runs in a season, and just 1.7% have ever hit 32 or more. Mike Jacobs is one of them, placing him, loosely, in the 98th percentile of home run hitters in the history of the game. Sort of.

And none of this includes minor leaguers that never make it to the bigs, undrafted college and high school players, little leaguers, Gary Matthews Jr., and the remainder of the general population not talented enough to play baseball at the highest level. Looking at it that way, Mike Jacobs is really, really, really good at baseball. In terms of the general population, he is one of the best ever – you know, in terms of EVERYONE on earth.

But, on the major league level, where everyone is really, really, really good at doing a lot of baseball things, Mike Jacobs is really, really, really good at doing just one thing: hitting home runs. Outside of that one powerful swing, Mike Jacobs not quite so good at doing other baseball-related things: he’s not a glove man, he’s not hitter for average, and he makes a ton of outs. Even in his “best” seasons, he was not far above what a quad-A level first baseman would bring to a team.

Still, less than two years ago, Mike Jacobs was a starting first baseman hitting 32 home runs.

But a miserable year and a few weeks, he now finds himself having been cut by the Royals (the Royals!), and then the Mets (the Mets!), in the span of just a few months. Per Adam Rubin, “Said Jacobs: ‘I obviously didn’t see it coming.’”

And the obvious response to that is: “Come on! You, Mike Jacobs, were hitting .208/.296/.375 after a full season of hitting .228/.297/.401, and you didn’t see it coming? Where were you looking? Have you been paying attention?”

But you know what? I believe him. I don’t think he saw it coming, mostly because I suspect Mike Jacobs thinks his one duty as a baseball player is to try to yank the ball out of the ballpark, and no other thing. Mike Jacobs, to Mike Jacobs, is a POWER hitter. That’s it. He hit 1 home run in his 28 plate appearances – not great, but also not awful, if you believe your one job is to hit home runs. And, if you believe that’s your job and you didn’t get much of a chance to show you could do it, well, I can imagine being surprised by a speedy banishment.

But, of course, a first baseman’s job includes other things besides hitting home runs, like not making outs 70% of the time and fielding your position, and Mike Jacobs doesn’t do either of those things well, and never has. Designating Mike Jacobs to the baseball abyss is probably the right move after what amounted to a 28 plate appearance see-if-you-can-hit-a-home-run-every-at-bat tryout. In fact, it was probably the right move 28 plate appearances ago.

Okay, that’s enough of Mike Jacobs’ baseball career obituary.

But here’s what I find interesting – by assigning Davis to play first base and Jacobs to go do anything else but play first base, the Mets have done a rare thing for them. The Mets have, I believe, admitted that they made a mistake, and quickly. They have admitted they messed up by starting the season with Jacobs at first and Davis in the minors, after Daniel Murphy ran himself out of a rundown and into a super-utility role. This is a “mea culpa” by an organization that hates admitting they screwed up – not that anyone does, really, but the Mets seem especially adverse to saying, “my bad.” They just hate it.

And they did mess up. This is, and certainly was at the beginning of the season, the perfect situation to bring up Ike Davis. Really, two things could happen. If he gets a case of the bends and stinks it up for a few weeks, the Mets can send him back to AAA when Murphy gets healthy without calling it a “demotion” and hurting his ego. Alternatively, should he mash, Davis gets to stay, and Murphy can go hang out in Buffalo, try the chicken wings, and see if his range at second base is better than Luis Castillo’s (probably). It’s a no pressure situation, with a replacement first baseman waiting in the wings to get healthy and step in if needed. The Mets really could not have written up a better scenario for an Ike Davis audition.

Only, of course, the Mets went with Mike Jacobs, because he had “experience” and sort of grimaces like that villainous Mets hitter in “Rookie of the Year.” So he looked like a cleanup hitter. They also did it because the Mets make a lot of misguided decisions. It’s sort of their thing.

The worrisome thing was that the Mets have a history of refusing to admit that they are wrong. I’m not sure where to start with the list of mistakes, but we need to start somewhere. I’m thinking October 2008 is a good place, when the Mets decided that Omar Minaya deserved a contract extension after September 2008 and 2007. They did this because, as everyone knows, if an architect builds two bridges that collapse, you should definitely pay him in advance to build your next four bridges, with an option for the next two. It’s just common knowledge.

So then, in the middle 2009, when Omar Minaya had a public meltdown and his power was noticeably lessened, he still remains on as GM, or at least as puppet GM. And maybe this happened because the Mets still believed in him, because they believe in comebacks, but maybe it happened because he is owed a decent amount of money for a contract signed just months earlier. Cutting Minaya loose would be admitting an expensive mistake. That’s hard to do. No one likes to cop to wasting millions of dollars.

Infomercial voice:
But wait, there’s more!

Oliver Perez, too, is probably another mistake in terms of the contract. He’s still here. Luis Castillo’s contract is a mistake. He’s still here. Marlon Anderson’s was a mistake, and he stuck around until the beginning of 2009. Julio Franco’s contract was too, though he’s long gone. Gary Matthews Jr. is another mistake, and he’s signed for two seasons. I sometimes wonder if Jenrry Mejia is sticking around in the big leagues because the Mets don’t want to admit that using him as a mop-up reliever might not have been the best idea, and they’re keeping him around a bit longer just to save face.

These are not ALL of the mistakes they make – that would take a while – but just the ones the Mets hung onto longer than necessary because of the money tied up in them, or other embarrassment. The idea of sunk costs is one they seem particularly adverse to, even after spending an entire off-season trying to dump Luis Castillo onto any takers. There were none, of course, because no one else wants a gimpy Tiny Tim to play second base for two years. Still, the Mets refused to just cut Castillo loos
e, even while they stared creepily at Orlando Hudson.

Think of it this way: If you misguidedly bought an ugly, expensive piece of art – let’s say a marble statue of Luis Castillo – and no one will buy it back from you, you can do two things. You can let it sit and ugly up your house, or you can dump it on the curb for garbage pickup.

For some reason, the Mets are letting their expensive mistakes ugly up their house. In way, it’s understandable. It’s hard enough to admit to yourself that you made an expensive mistake. I assume it’s even harder to admit to the New York media that you made an expensive mistake.

Still, there are signs of progress. Mike Jacobs was clearly a mistake, and the Mets admitted it after just 12 games. Ike Davis is the belated apology.

On the other hand, Mike Jacobs was signed to a minor league deal, and I’m not sure how much money this mistake is costing the Mets. Probably not much, and I’d guess that made their decision easier. I suspect that had it been Gary Matthews Jr. signed to a minor league contract, and Mike Jacobs signed to a guaranteed two-year deal, Matthews Jr. would be the one without a job.

Still, maybe Ike Davis will show them the benefit of cutting loose the ragged edges of the roster, no matter how much or little they paid for them. Everyone makes mistakes, but not everyone is so skilled at correcting them. Hopefully the Mets are getting better.

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>20 Inning Sunday Stuff to Read

>Links for the morning after 20-innings of baseball that nearly killed my father.

First, Amazin’ Avenue’s recap of the game is tremendous. Eric Simon lists 20 nuggets about the game, and Howard Megdal provides an epic poem for an epic game.

K-Rod reportedly threw 100 warmup pitches before coming into the game in the 19th inning.

Not Mets related, but Joe Posnanski on home run trots.

Adam Wainwright starts for the Cardinals tonight. Will Leitch points out the drastically different paths the two teams have taken since 2006.

Adam Rubin points out that had Jerry Manuel managed yesterday’s game as Tony LaRussa had, Manuel would probably be out of a job. On the other hand, I do think it’s worth pointing out that it took the Mets 3 innings to defeat the POSITION PLAYERS pitching for the Cardinals.

Oh yeah. Ubaldo Jimenez threw a no-hitter or something.

***

Don’t forget to mail in your Census form.

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Mike Pelfrey: Actual Pitcher

>“I think one day I’d like to become an actual pitcher,”
    -Mike Pelfrey

Being a major league pitcher has always seemed, to me, to be similar to being a rock band – and not just in terms of the constant travel and high attrition rates of both professions, but also in that both make their living in a continuous state of evolution. Rock bands must evolve their sound or risk slipping into what has happened to The Rolling Stones since they released Tattoo You – doing the same things over and over again and becoming stagnant, and then dull. On the other side, Bob Dylan has aged well – you know, in terms of his music, not in terms of voice and wrinkles – because he has always been unpredictable. Or crazy. I’m really not sure which, or if it even matters. Artists must always be tinkering with something – trying to grow, trying to get better – or they risk committing the mortal sin of being boring. I believe the same goes for pitchers, only replace the word “boring” with ”John Maine” “ineffective.” It’s either grow, or wither and die.*

*Two exceptions to this: Mariano Rivera has dominated like no other with just one pitch , and AC/DC has made an entire career out of releasing the same album of the basically the same song over and over again. If you do one thing well enough, you can get away with it doing it over and over and over – sort of like how sharks have remained the same for millions of years. Also, would you really want an acoustic AC/DC album?

Alternatively, how great would it be if Mariano Rivera threw a big, slow, Bugs Bunny curveball to strike someone out to end a game. Just one, just once, just because NO ONE would be expecting it.

So pitchers are always tinkering with something. Their delivery. A new cutter. Bring back their curveball. Their arm angle. Making sure they are not tipping their pitches. Throwing more fastballs. Throwing less fastballs. Throwing a different kind of fastball. Not throwing fastballs at all anymore and becoming a knuckleballer, and then writing a book about it. Pitchers do all this tinkering and toying not because they’re bored or exceptionally creative people, but because they must. Throwing a baseball with maximum effort to a small target, and then repeating it consistently hundreds of times is exceptionally difficult. It requires constant upkeep. Then you add in a batter whom you must find a way to trick each time, while he tries his best to smack the ball 400 feet – that too would require the precise tinkering of a watchmaker. On top of everything else is the 12-6 curve of age. Wild young pitchers struggle with the experienced major league hitters, and then when the pitcher’s experience finally catches up with their ability, their stuff starts to go. The mind grows as the body starts to fail, ability and experience moving in opposite directions. Like the Faces say, “I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger.” Only you can’t, because it doesn’t work like that. So, like the fish in Lake Springfield, pitchers are constantly evolving.

I sometimes wonder if a pitcher’s greatest asset is not his arm, but his willingness and ability to evolve. Barry Zito has quietly grown back into a useful pitcher in San Francisco. Jamie Moyer, the second-most famous baseball player to be cryogenically frozen, is preserved as the embodiment of the crafty lefty. And despite throwing wiffleball pitches, Livan Hernandez endures – maybe not succeeds, but endures. You win 300 games by continuing to win games well into your 30‘s and sometimes 40‘s, and you can’t do that without being willing to evolve (or, alternatively, use steroids). Your arm starts to release the ball a bit slower, so control needs become tighter, the pitches need to be more difficult to guess. You need to become a magician and a sniper. Pedro Martinez couldn’t hit his spots precise enough to compensate for lost velocity, and he’s not pitching right now. Greg Maddux could and pitched until he was 42. You need able to adapt – this may be the key to being a successful pitcher for a long, long time.

I think of all this because I do believe Mike Pelfrey may have just evolved, perhaps this time into “an actual pitcher.” He threw 106 pitches yesterday, including 30 or so off-speed pitches – like an actual pitcher would. He moved his pitches around both sides of the plate – like an actual pitcher would. He did not start jogging around the stadium after he balked – like an actual pitcher would. He struck out six batters in his seven innings, with the aid of his off-speed offerings.

That last part is huge – the strikeouts. Mike Pelfrey, over his first 80 major league starts, struck out just 5.2 batters per nine innings pitched. The general guideline is that if your K/9 falls below 5.0, you’re not long for the league, no matter how many ground balls you get.* Pitchers feed on strikeouts like flux capacitors feed on jiggawatts. As said in Bill James‘ 2010 Gold Mine, “In any season there will be a handful of pitchers who pitch very well despite low strikeout totals. . . these are, in general, ground ball pitchers. And, in general, all of them are going to implode sometime in the next two years.” Combining strikeouts with ground balls is good, but ground balls alone aren’t enough. Those pitchers tend to implode. Mike Pelfrey survived on ground balls in 2008, and he imploded in 2009 – and it’s not, nor can it be, all Luis Castillo’s range. No one knows why this happens, but it happens. Sorry, Joel Pineiro, but you’re probably going to implode, too.

*Many Bothans died to bring us this information.

But Mike Pelfrey is evolving. He’s throwing off-speed pitches for strikes and generating swings and misses, and thus more strikeouts. Through his early career, he’s shown a David Bowie-like willingness to reinvent himself, only without the jumpsuits. At least, I think without the jumpsuits.

When Pelfrey first surfaced, he initially struggled in the major leagues, nibbling around the zone, walking far too many batters. He walked 4.9 batters per nine innings pitched his first 17 starts in 2006 and 2007. He finally made his first evolution in the middle of 2008, when he started throwing his sinker for strikes, cutting the walks in half, and generating ground balls – though this came at the expense of his strikeouts totals, which were higher in the minor leagues. But it worked anyway, at least for a while.

And then 2009, and the balks and the licking and the falling off the mound and the mile-high aerobics caught up to his low K total. He was pretty awful. But ever willing to grow, he learned a splitter over the winter and started throwing his curveball more. And lost weight for some reason.

So far, in 2010, he’s relying less on his fastball, throwing curveballs for strikes, getting swings and misses on splitters, and striking out hitters. The early returns are looking good.

Not everyone can do this. Some pitchers are unable to change, for whatever reasons. Stubbornness, inability, too much Waffle House, injuries, whatever. Oliver Perez comes to mind. John Maine is trying, but apparently failing, and now changing back to whatever he was doing before. If you’re a pitcher, and you can’t adapt, you’re going to burn out or fade away. But if you can turn and face the strange and change . . . Johan Santana is adept at adapting within a single game, pitch to pitch. He’ll be around for as long as his small frame can hold up. He is, as Mike Pelfrey hopes to be someday, an actual pitcher.

This may be Mike Pelfrey’s greatest asset: he has shown that he is capable and willing to grow and to change. Of course, all that other stuff – arm strength, smooth mechanics, velocity, strikeouts, ground balls, control
- that’s all key too. Obviously, Mike Pelfrey would not be a major league pitcher if he could not throw a baseball really, really fast. But an ability to adapt and change at the highest level, that may be the most important skill, both for “actual pitchers” and rock ‘n’ rollers.

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Managers: Very Small Rocks!

>You learn a lot of crazy things when you take “Saber 101: Intro to Sabermetrics.” You find out that pitchers have little to no control over balls put into play. You are taught that bunting is generally evil, and that RBI, pitcher win-loss records, ERA, and batting average are all flawed statistics, some of them irreparably so. You learn that not making outs is the most important thing a player can do offensively, because outs are like lives in Super Mario – make 27, and you get a game over. You learn that a team’s winning percentage can be estimated using their runs scored and allowed, and that the home ballpark of a player can have an enormous influence on his numbers. You learn that a lot of baseball seems to come down to just plain dumb luck.

And you also learn that a lot of things a baseball manager is responsible for don’t really matter all that much – for example, the batting order. The difference between the WORST possible batting order (think pitcher hitting first and David Wright hitting ninth) and the BEST possible batting order comes out to just a few wins a year . . . just a few wins a year, and that’s the difference between the absolute WORST and the BEST possible batting orders. And no one actually uses the worst possible batting order – so they don’t make all that much of a difference. The other in-game decisions a manager makes, like intentional walks, bunts, and rate of attempting stolen bases, have a similarly small influence on the outcome of a season.

This leads to a counter-intuitive – and untrue – idea that managers have little effect on their baseball teams, basically serving as nothing more than scapegoats when things go poorly and heroes when things go well. They’re just supposed to sit back and let it all play out – just don’t let it all go to hell, but also don’t tinker too much like Joe Girardi sometimes will. Managers can seem as unimportant as the drummer in Spinal Tap.

Though in some ways, that’s sort of true. Everyone remembers in 2008 when General Jerry was leading the troops into a stay in first place in the NL East. The Mets replaced their manager, and things turned around – Jerry Manuel was a cerebral genius, because he wore glasses and read books and the Mets won. It’s the manager! He’s so smart! But then 2009 happened, and the Mets often played sloppy baseball and decided to telecommute for the final two months when they lost interest. Jerry Manuel became someone who just said odd, odd things as the Mets flopped about. Now his seat is uncomfortably warm with the Mets playing poorly to open 2010. It’s the manager! He’s so dumb!

But, if you so recall, the Jerry Manuel that managed the Mets in 2008 is the same man who manages them now. So I guess the question becomes: what is the real effect of Jerry Manuel as manager the Mets? Is he a good manager, or a poor one? Or does it even matter?

To be honest, I have no idea. Separating the accomplishments of the manager from those of the team is almost impossible. Maybe you can learn it in Sabermetrics 413, but I haven’t gotten to that level yet. The Mets reversal in 2008 coincided with the firing of Willie Randolph, but also with the emergence of Mike Pelfrey, and Carlos Delgado awakening from an 18-month nap. What caused what? Would it still have happened under Willie Randolph?

Same kind of what-if chicken-and-egg scenario: the Mets played pathetically for the final two months of the 2009 season under Maneul, but also often had Daniel Murphy and Jeff Francoeur hitting 3-4 in the batting order. Is it Jerry, or the injuries? Both? Neither? Sabermetrics 101 tells me that there’s no real definitive way of measuring Manuel’s effects – but that’s not the same as saying they don’t exist. So what are they?

Again, I have no idea. I really don’t. It’s playing a guessing game of Monday-morning-psychologist, trying to peer into the locker room from the upper deck. I have no idea if the players are mailing it in because of Manuel, or if they’re playing their hearts out for him. I can’t know what goes on in their heads – are the Mets not getting clutch hits because of Manuel, or because they’re just not very good? Or both? Neither?

I can’t know any of those things, and I’m not sure if I see the point in guessing. Maybe they all dog it for Manuel, maybe they don’t. Or it’s just dumb luck. I don’t want to guess. There is a human element that goes into managing, and I’m not there to evaluate it.

Still, there are some things I do know.

For example, I can know what players Jerry Manuel decides to start and play. That’s a real, quantifiable thing a baseball manager does that you can point to – what players he plays. The Rockies turned it around under a new manager last season, and the quantifiable part of that was simply Jim Tracy playing his best players. Who’s playing, and who isn’t – that’s something a manager can be judged on. The batting order doesn’t really matter, but who’s actually in that batting order, well, that’s a much bigger deal. Albert Pujols hitting third or fourth is less important than whether Albert Pujols is in the lineup or on the bench.

So, in the first home stand, Jerry Manuel let Gary Matthews Jr. and Mike Jacobs start 4 games apiece, and Angel Pagan and anyone other than Mike Jacobs Fernando Tatis start 2 games each.

On one hand, I get it. Gary Matthews Jr. still looks like a serviceable center fielder, sort of like how a bidet looks like a weird toilet. He can still come in well on shallow balls, he’s a veteran, he hit 19 home runs and 44 doubles four years ago. He made a twisting catch that one time. The Angels thought highly enough of Matthews to give him a sizable contract two years ago to play center field for them. And Mike Jacobs hit 32 home runs and sort of looks like a decent approximation of a slugging first baseman, if you squint a lot and your glasses are smudged. He can hit the ball really, really far, if he can just take hold of one. So I understand the reasoning. They both have resembled productive hitters in the past. Going with your veterans seems to be the logic – I can understand why Manuel does this.*

*Trying to figure out Jerry Manuel’s reasoning behind saying and doing things reminds me of this “witch logic” scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in that his conclusions always sort of resemble something based in logic, only it doesn’t make any sense.

On the other hand, Gary Matthews is not particularly skilled at going back on balls anymore – and those balls he’s not running down over his head are turning into doubles and triples, while the ones he can still run down in front of him are just singles. He’s not the defensive player he once was, and is probably better suited for a corner spot at this point in his career. Plus, Matthews has a .685 OPS over the past two seasons, mostly hitting singles, and he had most of his good years in Texas – and, as you can learn in Saber 101, the ballpark can make some hitters look better than they really are. The Angel decided they’d rather he play elsewhere for the next two seasons while they continue to foot the bill.

Translation: He’s not really good at anything – he doesn’t even have a platoon split to make him useful for platooning.

And then Mike Jacobs has a career out-making percentage of .688, and is rated as a poor defensive first baseman in any system. He really only has one swing, and sometimes the ball is pitched there and he hits into a cloud, but most of the time it’s not and he strikes out. The Kansas City Royals didn’t feel it was worth their money to go to arbitration with Jacobs this winter, so they just released him.

Translation: He was released. By the Roya
ls. This is like being asked to not play in your family’s barbecue wiffleball game anymore because you are bad.

Still, Jerry Manuel has decided that these are the players he wants to start over Angel Pagan and Fernando Tatis.

If you want to look at those other options: Angel Pagan has a career OPS of .772 and is rated as an above-average outfielder by fielding statistics – but he does make the occasional boneheaded mistake, so there’s that against him. Fernando Tatis is rated as an average defensive first baseman and has a career out-making percentage 30 points lower than Jacobs – but Tatis grounded into some unclutch double plays last year, so there’s that against him.

So, on one hand, it’s the veteran all-star center fielder against the air-headed one, and the first baseman who hit 32 home runs in 2008 against the one who grounded into 13 double plays last season. That’s one way of looking at it. The Jerry way. The surreal British humor way.

But on the other hand, Fernando Tatis and Angel Pagan are much better overall at playing baseball than Mike Jacobs and Gary Matthews Jr. They’re certainly not perfect players. But they’re better both defensively and offensively – they’re just plain better. If the Mets want to put the best team on the field, Pagan and Tatis should be starting every day.

I’m not sure I see the point of knocking Jerry Manuel for the Mets being “unprepared” on Sunday – it could be Manuel’s fault, it could be the player’s fault. It could be my fault for all I know. I didn’t go to Sunday’s game. Maybe it was that one extra empty seat that caused Gary Matthews Jr. to get depressed and go 0-4. But I don’t know either way why it happened, and I’m not going to say it was Jerry Manuel because I don’t know. Maybe King Leonidas would have failed to get a response out of that team.

That’s the mystery of a baseball manager’s role – it’s impossible to fully separate the manger’s from the work of his (or, someday, her) players. Is Michael Scott a bad manager? It looks like he should be, but the Dunder-Mifflin Scranton Branch remains in business – you know, even though that’s a fictional example. How much credit and blame belongs with the manager is hard to say.

However, I also know that one of the Jerry Manuel’s quantifiable jobs is to put a starting nine on the field that has the best chance of winning. I’m not so sure Gary Matthews Jr. and Mike Jacobs are part of that best possible team, and that is a real, fact-based knock against Jerry Manuel and his managerial abilities. He’s not putting his best lineup on the field – that’s probably not a good way to win baseball games.

Of course, it’s just six games, so maybe Manuel is still trying guys out. And the Mets have outscored their opponents by five runs, which means, as I learned in Sabermetrics 101, they should be 4-2. And Jeff Walkcouer leads the National League in OPS+. So, you know, ya gotta believe.

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