Monthly Archives: May 2010

Memorial Day Mailbag: Alex Cora

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Happy Memorial Day, and try to keep in mind the reason why people have today off from work today. And now for something completely different: a letter to the blog.

Hey Patrick,
I was checking out Alex Cora’s stats at baseball reference.com and see you sponsor his page. I was curious, do you like the guy or not? I watched him for a few years in Boston and was sorry to see him go.

- William A.

The 2010 Mets have a handful of players that act as lightening rods for arguments among fans. The combination of smile, arm, and career OPS+ of 91 that is Jeff Francoeur jumps to mind immediately. David Wright and his alarming strikeout total. The true talent level of Jose Reyes. Luis Castillo’s on-base abilities against his defense inabilities. If Fernando Nieve is any good. What to do with Oliver Perez.

And, of course, Alex Cora.

If you were going to go into an underground cloning facility and grow a baseball player for the sole purpose of creating a divide among fans and writers, you would probably come up with someone similar to Alex Cora. It’s almost as if he was placed on the earth solely to give Met fans something to argue about. Depending on who you ask, Alex Cora is either a valuable, veteran part of the team, or he’s the Metropolitan equivalent of Erin on “The Office” and represents everything that’s wrong with the organization’s philosophy. There isn’t much of a demilitarized zone when it comes to discussing Alex Cora. It seems that everyone loves him or hates him. If you read this blog semi-regularly, you can probably guess where I stand . . . well, maybe not, because someone was actually curious enough to e-mail me asking where I stand.

Now, there are good things, and then some less good things to be said about Alex Cora and his abilities as a baseball player. How much you value certain abilities probably determines how you feel about Alex Cora.

Everyone already knows the good things that can be said about Cora: he moves runners over, he’s a bilingual clubhouse presence, he’s now an experienced pinch bunter, and he positions himself well defensively. He puts up surprisingly non-terrible defensive numbers for someone with seemingly little range. The Mets themselves seemingly stand on this side of the Alex Cora debate, seeing that they signed him. They believe in the value of his tangible, as well as intangible, skills.

On the other hand, everyone also knows the really not-so-good thing that is often said about Alex Cora: he has a .249/.321/.311 slash line and a .625 OPS with the Mets. Or, to put it in words, he “can’t hit” or “he retains few tangible offensive skills.” For comparison’s sake, Cub pitcher and over-caffeinated angry man Carlos Zambrano has a career OPS of .630. I will point out that almost all of Zambrano’s OPS is made up of slugging percentage, and Cora is probably a better offensive player because of that. Still, Zambrano is a pitcher and Alex Cora is hitter, and the pitcher has the higher OPS. For full disclosure, some of Cora’s offensive struggles probably have to with not possessing working thumbs for most of last season . . . but it’s not like he’s tearing the cover off the ball this season with presumably healthy thumbs. He’s actually hitting for a lower OPS this season.

Also, I should note that I suspect part of the reason he’s so good at moving runners over is because he hits a lot of balls on the ground and is a left-handed batter. So he tends to hit grounders to the right side of the infield, even when he isn’t trying to.

Me, talking to myself: You haven’t answered the question yet.

PJF: Oh right. So how do I feel about Alex Cora?

Well, middle infielders that can’t hit and play average-y defense are abundant in Triple-A baseball — that description probably fits every single middle infielder over the age of 25 in AAA right now. If they could hit, they’d be in the majors, and if they weren’t capable defenders, they wouldn’t be middle infielders. The biggest and most common knock against Cora is that the Mets are paying him $2 million to do something that could probably be done for less money by one of those Triple-A guys.

On the other hand, I think it’s quite clear that the Mets aren’t paying Alex Cora $2 million dollars to provide no offense, average defense, and the occasional pinch-bunt. They’re paying Cora $2 million dollars to provide no offense, average defense, the occasional pinch-bunt, AND to be the veteran, the clubhouse psychologist, the player-coach and whatever else it is they feel he brings to the team. I would guess that those other things must have SOME sort of value, even if there’s no way for us to measure them. Maybe there’s no change in Cora’s own stat line because of those skills, but if he’s keeping everyone else on an even keel, which in turn makes them play better . . . okay, I can buy that. Maybe he makes everyone else better through his wit, or head-shaving tips, or he always knows which hand wins in poker and can resolve clubhouse disputes. Or whatever. I don’t know if Cora actually does any of that, and if it actually helps on the field, but the Mets seem to think so. Just because there’s no way to measure those effects doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

On the other hand, saying those skills are worth $2 million dollars to a seemingly cash-strapped team can seem a bit pricy. It’s hard to put a fair price on things that can’t be measured.

Me: You still haven’t really answered the question.

PJF: Okay, okay, okay. How do I feel about Alex Cora?

I guess I fall somewhere in the middle. I have no problem with Cora, but I’m not enamored with him either. He is what he is, a AAA level player with teammate testimonials of intangibles making a decent amount of money. I see how that bugs some people, but I have no problem with the 25th man on the roster being the designated hugger. Plus, the money seems insignificant when compared to what Oliver Perez is taking in.

At the same time, I don’t know if raving about the little things he does on the field to help a team win makes much sense, because he’s doing a lot of big things on the field to not help the team win. Such as: not hitting. I strongly suspect that the inability to hit outweighs the ability to move a runner over from second to third over the course of a season, especially considering that getting a hit would do the same thing — move the runner over — and would not use any of the non-renewable resource of outs in the process. Raving about the little on-field things he does might be a bit much.

While I take no issue with Alex Cora and his abilities to play baseball, I’m not sure if the Mets utilize him in the correct way. I can understand having Cora on the team; I don’t understand the ways in which the Mets use him.

For example: Luis Castillo can get on-base enough to be a decent hitter, but is a below-average fielder; Alex Cora can’t hit, but is probably a better fielder than Castillo; lastly, Castillo and his achy knees and foot appear to need a decent amount of rest. There seems to be a sensible solution here to all the problems. The Mets could maximize the number of defensive innings Cora plays, but give Castillo a majority of at-bats. Maximize each player’s ta
lents — Cora does what he can do, Castillo does what he can do. Maybe something like removing Castillo after he has an at-bat in the seventh inning and bring Cora in for defense makes sense. Castillo is still playing less than full time and getting rest, but Cora doesn’t have to get so many plate appearances.

Instead, what the Mets have taken to doing is playing Cora two or three times a week in place of Castillo — meaning each player is getting plenty of innings in the field, and times at the plate, and no one’s skills are being maximized. Cora, who should be the 25th player on the roster, has been playing a LOT more that the 25th player should probably be playing. That’s not something I’ve been thrilled about. I don’t know if it’s Cora’s fault.

Maybe the way the Mets are doing it makes more sense than my suggestion — and really, having never been a manager, I’m just throwing things out there — but I don’t see how their way makes more sense.

Me: What about the second baseman always hitting second thing?

PJF: Yeah, Cora is inexplicably batting second every time he plays. Well, not inexplicably. I guess I can see why Cora is hitting second. The traditional baseball lineup has a contact hitter in the two-hole. I assume Willie Randolph batted Paul Lo Duca second for this reason. Alex Cora has more walks than strikeouts over the past three seasons, and is definitely a contact hitter. He puts the ball in play, so he should be the two-hitter. It makes sense if you think about it that way, sort of like how it makes sense to say that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull must be the best Indiana Jones film because it made the most money. You can see the “logic” behind it.

But Alex Cora is also the worst hitter in the lineup, and making sure he gets more trips to the plate than David Wright and Jason Bay maybe doesn’t make all that much actual sense. Continually hitting Cora second is an odd choice by the manager who makes plenty of odd choices. It’s an attempt to maximize his skill set, but not the good one.

In fact, sometimes it feels like you could lock Jerry Manuel in the room with a couple of instruments and The Beatles, and when you came back five minutes later, he’d have Ringo singing all the songs, John on drums, George playing tambourine, and Paul would be dead, buried back in Double-A ball. Fernando Nieve would be the warm-up act. (See what I did there? Warm-up has multiple meanings and Nieve is always warming up.)

Me: What are you even talking about?

PJF: I don’t know anymore. Watch the Mets for long enough and things start to seem loopy. Start to write about them and it’s like trying to figure out a Coen brothers’ movie. You wind up talking to yourself and doing all sorts of other crazy things.

Me: Yeah . . . what the heck was “A Serious Man” about, anyway?

PJF: I have no idea. It was like all their movies to me — it got good reviews, everyone said it was really good, so I don’t want to seem like an idiot for not really understanding it . . . but I didn’t really understand it. All I know is that I shouldn’t have watched it just before trying to sleep. I mean, what was that? At least the Book of Job sort of has a happy ending . . .

Me: Hey, isn’t this supposed to be about baseball? Plus, how many people even saw that movie, read your blog, and are going to know what you’re talking about? Like, six, maybe? Severely narrowing your audience — that’s a great plan.

PJF: Right. Anyway, this isn’t a problem of misuse isolated to Alex Cora. This Mets team has it’s stars, and then a whole bunch of pieces, and I’m not sure if they’re using the pieces in the best way. Jeff Francoeur can play defense and hit lefties; Chris Carter can’t play defense, but can hit righties. It certainly looks like there’s a solution there, at least on the surface. But Chris Carter starts two games in a row, and then never again; Francoeur plays everyday. Pedro Feliciano can get lefties out, but not righties; he pitches to both anyway. Fernando Tatis barely plays for two weeks, and then hits cleanup.

Me: So, wait . . . do you like Alex Cora or not?

PJF: I’ve got no problem with Alex Cora, the baseball player. He seems to be a smart guy, the other Mets seem to like him, and he can do some useful things on the field. If the Mets need a bunt, he can bunt, and if they need average defense, he can do that too. He’s not the worst 25th man ever, even if other Mets are pushing him to something like the 23rd man on the roster.

I do have a problem with the way he’s used. He’s not being put in a position where the Mets maximize his strengths, and I think that’s a bigger problem than how much his intangibles are worth. He can’t hit, so he shouldn’t be getting this many at-bats. The inability to properly utilize their entire 40-man roster has been an issue. The Mets have a decent number of pieces with which to mix and match. They just have trouble finding the right ones. That’s not Alex Cora’s fault, so I’m not going to hate him for it.

Me: If you’d like a 2,000 word blog-post-response to your three sentence email, feel free to send questions by email, or by at tweeting me @PatrickJFlood. They don’t just have to be baseball questions, either, though I assume you like baseball if you’re reading this, so they’ll probably be baseball questions. But they don’t have to be. If you’re curious what I think the best Led Zeppelin album is . . .

PJF: It’s Physical Graffiti.

Me: No, it’s clearly IV. “When the Levee Breaks”, dude. Anyway, I have no idea if I have enough interactive readers where I can actually make this a regular thing — I’ll get the occasional random email, but not that often — or if I’ll talk to myself in all of them, but, hey, let’s see. Send me your questions, if you so please.

Photo of Alex Cora courtesy of Keith Allison’s flickr photostream.

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Mets of Two Faces

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There’s a famous episode of Seinfeld that I saw again the other day — and it’s quite the episode, with the Human Fund (Money for People), Festivus, and the H&H Bagel strike all squeezed into 20-something minutes — where Jerry dates a girl who alternatively looks pretty or less-so based on the lighting. She’s a two face. Sometimes it’s a pretty face, sometimes not so much, and it’s hard to predict how she’s going to look in different situations. Jerry insists that they only meet in a booth at Monk’s diner that has the perfect lighting as otherwise her appearance becomes too frightening, the girl can’t figure out why Jerry won’t see her anywhere else, Kramer winds up thinking she’s two different people . . . situational comedy ensues.

So this whole plot might sound familiar to you if you’ve been watching the team in Flushing play recently. So I’ll ask you: What else can you think of that has two faces and is involved with a comedian Jerry?

If you said the Mets, award yourself one (1) point. If you named either of Jerry Lewis’ wives, half-credit (1/2).

It’s funny to think that just a week ago the Mets were 20-23 off a 2-6 road trip, heads were being called for, seals were being broken, trumpets were being blown, the horsemen of the apocalypse were ready to burn Citi Field to the ground . . . things weren’t looking so great. The rotation had just imploded. People were picking days for Jerry Manuel to be fired. (I picked the off-day on Monday.) In the two faces of the Mets, this is the girl on the front porch of the Constanza house — Yikes, in other words. They looked like the worst non-Astros team in baseball.

Then the Mets won took five out of six from last year’s pennant winners, the Yankees and Phillies. These five wins included a sweep of the Phillies, during which the Mets did not allow a single Phillies runner to cross home plate, and Jayson Werth returning his beard to the Civil War soldier he borrowed it from. All of a sudden, everyone on the Mets looks like they can play baseball well. David Wright’s strikeouts are less noticeable, fans appear to be accepting that Angel Pagan is actually sort of good, and Fernando Nieve “only” pitched in three of the six games on the homestand and warmed up for just one other, and is scheduled to start on Saturday . . . because there’s no such things as too much Fernando Nieve. Of course, I should mention Jose Reyes, only I’ll do it in all-caps: JOSE REYES! I really enjoy seeing him play well again, it’s been a while. This is all the good face of the Mets, the two faced girl in the softly lit booth at Monk’s diner.

The Mets indeed have been maddeningly two-faced this season — I believe this may have something to do with it:

– In games started by Mike Pelfrey or Johan Santana, the Mets are 14-6.

– In games started by everyone else, the Mets are 11-17.

Now, of course, every teams record with their two best starters is going to be better than their record with the other three starters. It’s also easy enough to point out that the Mets have allowed just 3.9 runs per game this season, and that would indicate that their pitching/defense has been decent and probably not part of the problem, though seven shutouts (five in games started by Pelfrey and Santana) will lower your runs allowed per game and hide some of the bad days. The Mets offense scoring a just below average number of runs (4.44 per game) was probably part of the problem as well. They have also lost an inordinate number of one-run games, indicating a bit of bad luck in close affairs. Their record at home (19-9) is far, far better than their road record (6-14). There are more things to blame for the two face act than just the poorness of the previous non-Santana/Pelfrey starters.

On the other hand, the team left spring training with a rotation of Johan Santana, John Maine, Jon Niese, Mike Pelfrey, and Oliver Perez, and have been up and down from week to week and game to game. Those two things have to be somewhat related. I mean, they just saw their starting staff noticeable improve when three of the members disappeared in a week’s time. Really think about that for a second — that was the rotation the Mets felt gave them a best chance to win this season, and it got BETTER when three of the members were removed.

Now, to be fair, I’m not sure I would have picked the rotation any differently coming out of spring training knowing only what I knew then. There were reasons to be hopeful for every rotation candidate the team went with — maybe not great reasons, but there were reasons to be found. Sure, Johan Santana was coming off elbow surgery, but also had a similar procedure done a few years ago and won a Cy Young after. And, yes, John Maine had shoulder issues, but did return to make four starts with decent velocity in September. Oliver Perez was Oliver Perez, but he went to the API’s boot camp for troubled athletes and seemed to be taking his struggles seriously. Mike Pelfrey put up an ERA north of five in 2009, but he also appeared to be the victim of some bad luck and a most unhelpful defense. Finally, Jon Niese was a rookie, but looked ready to make the jump to the majors even last season. Yes, some of them had been injured, and some of them had been bad, and some of them had been Oliver Perez, but they had all had big league success in the past. There were reasons to think that they could all do it again.

Then again . . .  the plan was to rely on FIVE pitchers who were injured, ineffective, or both last season. Think about it: that was the Mets’ actual plan for this season. It wasn’t the backup plan, or the last-ditch plan, or the “oh-crap-it’s-due-tomorrow-what-can-I-possibly-turn-in-for-my-science-fair-project?” plan. No, this particular starting rotation was the result of the Mets’ decision makers gathering together and saying to themselves: “This. This is the best idea we can put into action. This is plan for our starting rotation we choose to embrace. Oliver Perez is our best option. We embrace Oliver Perez as our best hope.”

That was their actual plan.

But, hey, sometimes it isn’t too late to correct earlier mistakes, and the Mets roster appears to keep getting better despite no new players being added to the organization. Give them credit, because they’re fixing their earlier mistakes. A struggling Mike Jacobs and a last-gasp Frank Catalanotto disappeared; Ike Davis and Chris Carter replaced them, and the roster improved. I suspect that a rotation with Hisanori Takahashi and R.A. Dickey is better than a rotation with Oliver Perez and an injured John Maine, and so far that seems to be the case. The team keeps getting better as more of the opening day roster disappears.

Maybe the rotation improvements won’t last. R.A. Dickey throws a knuckleball, so he is, by the nature of his craft, unpredictable. Hisanori Takahashi seems to have learned to pitch like Daisuke Matsuzaka learned to pitch, where the goal is to strike everyone out and a walk is better than giving in and pitching to contact. Maybe he’ll throw a no-hitter and walk seven batters, or maybe he’ll walk seven batters and surrender ten runs in three innings. It’s hard to tell. Perhaps the hitch in his delivery is just throwing everyone off for the time being, and once they figure it out, Takahashi won’t seem as effective. It’s tough to say that these two pitchers are going to continue their success, but it’s even tougher to imagine Maine and Perez doing any better.

It’s
been so hard to get a handle on the Mets. Perhaps they only look good in the soft lighting of Citi Field, or only when they get good pitching, or only when they play struggling teams. Maybe it’s because they’re so top-heavy, they only win when a few of their star players are hot. All I know is that it’s been a two faced season, and I have no idea what to expect next.

Thanks to Keith Allison’s Flickr photostream for the image of Mike Pelfrey.

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Tumbling Dickey

>Sorry for the lack of posts the past few days. I’ve been feeling a little under the weather, so this post is brought to you by the miracle of DayQuil.

I love the idea of a knuckleballer. Love it. I really get into rooting for someone succeeding at the highest level of competition using nothing more than an accident of physics — and that’s all a knuckleball is, really, just an accident of physics. It’s a trick. Because baseballs happen to have raised seams, if they are thrown with almost no rotation, as a knuckleball is, the pitch will dance on its way to the plate as air moves around the seams asymmetrically. It’s a simple trick of physics, like mixing vinegar and baking soda in a paper-mache volcano, flying paper airplanes, or separating salt and pepper using a statically-charged balloon. Only this knuckleball trick can get major league hitters out, perhaps making more useful than any other simple physics trick, though it’s probably less useful for amusing small children.

I also love the idea of the knuckleball because it wasn’t something that was planned. It’s more like an odd accident of baseball history that has never been outlawed. I can’t imagine the person designing the stitched baseball however long ago actually thought to himself, “Hey, you know, if we give this thing raised stitching, pitchers will be able to make it do all sorts of crazy things if they throw it different ways. I bet amusingly old guys will figure out a way to stick around for a long time throwing just one trick pitch.”

Instead, about 100 years ago, either Eddie Cicotte, Lew Moren, or both, figured out that if you threw the baseball a certain way with your knuckles, it wouldn’t spin and would flutter on its way home, and a slow fluttering baseball was difficult to hit. The knuckleball was born. And so the trick has been passed down from pitcher to pitcher since its invention, though there are never more than a few knuckleballers in the majors at a time — note that this is eerily similar to how Sith Lords and black magicians pass down their knowledge. R.A. Dickey learned from Tim Wakefield, Tim Wakefield learned from Phil Niekro, and Phil Niekro learned from someone else, and whoever first figured out the knuckleball went down to the crossroads and learned the pitch from Satan himself in exchange for his immortal soul. Or so I assume — the Wikipedia page is a bit unclear on who sold their soul to whom.

The fluttering effect of this dark secret can make the ball nearly impossible to hit solidly. Robert Adair, Ph.D., in his wonderfully informative The Physics of Baseball, explains the difficultly of trying to hit a knuckleball: “Since the batter must make his decision to swing from the visual information that he has 300 milliseconds [three-tenths of a second] before the ball crosses the plate, it is simply not possible to purposefully hit the breaking knuckleball. He can only swing and hope that he is lucky.” R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball takes about 500 milliseconds to reach home plate, so the batter is really just guessing where the ball will end up based on the first 200 milliseconds of flight.

In other words, hitting a good knuckleball with any real force is usually just an accident.

Still, while I personally root for the knuckleballers, I’m under the impression that not all the people directly involved with baseball do. Partially because we live in the Nike-Gatorade-SportsCenter era, baseball has taken on, somewhat amusingly, the macho attitude of a contact sport. This has happened despite the fact that the only real contact today happens on collisions at home plate, and only when the catcher decides to block the plate with his body, which is not even something done regularly by all catchers. I believe Rod Barajas absorbed a collision this season, but before him, I can’t remember the Mets catcher I saw block the plate. Regardless, despite the lack of contact, you still wind up with things like batters dressed in full suits of body armor taking issue whenever someone pitches inside, the bravado of beanball wars, and the curious existence of Dallas Braden. All of this in a sport that mostly involves a great deal of standing around and first basemen chit-chatting with the base runners. Most baseball brawls I’ve seen have felt a bit forced to me. Still, this macho attitude seems to prevail — not that there isn’t room for such things in baseball, but it can, at times, feel overdone.

The knuckleball is the antithesis of the macho attitude. It’s not muscle against muscle, power against power, ROGER CLEMENS AGAINST MARK MCGWIRE ON  FOX. The knuckleball is nothing like that. The knuckleball is R.A. Dickey saying, “Hey, Phillies, I’m probably going to throw this same silly pitch all game, and I really have no idea where it’s going, but neither do you. Let’s see who gets lucky.” It’s simple and obvious trickery, but there really isn’t a lot for the batter to do about it. All of this isn’t to say that R.A. Dickey and other knuckleballers are not as tough a guy as someone throwing 95 MPH fastballs, because he did just get drilled in the elbow by a Ryan Howard drive and hung around to pitch six innings anyway. Still, I get the feeling that knuckleballers are almost considered a bit of a running joke in baseball, only allowed to exist in the game a handful at a time. They can seem like unwanted outsiders in a game where power and strength, Bob Gibson’s glare and Ty Cobb’s gleaming cleats are all seen as something to aspire to. The knuckleball has a bit of a revenge of the nerds feel to it, as if all the people thinking their game is a battle of wills are embarrassed for being so easily fooled by the illusions of a street magician.

In fact, Bill James points out, in his Historical Baseball Abstract, that no knuckleballer has ever won the Cy Young award, despite the existence of several deserving candidates. For example, knuckleballer Wilbur Wood went 22-13 with a 1.91 ERA in 334 innings and was 10.7 wins above replacement level in 1971. He finished third in the Cy Young voting, receiving just one first place vote. James attributes votes like this not to overt discrimination against knuckleball pitchers for their being knuckleball pitchers, but rather to the fact that knuckleball pitchers tend to only be given a chance to pitch on struggling teams — such, oh, I don’t know, the 2010 Mets — and pitch so many innings that they wind up with worse win-loss records than they otherwise deserve. So it’s more of a discrimination on account of circumstances. Still, the overall point remains that if given the choice, most baseball people choose the traditional pitcher over the knuckleballer. Brute force is usually taken over trickery, Achilles over Odysseus, superheroes over Ferris Bueller. So it’s only the bad teams, the ones without pitching depth, that are willing to use knuckleballers, and mostly because they just don’t have anyone else.

You know, teams without pitching depth like the 2010 Mets.

I find myself really rooting for R.A. Dickey. The sheer amount of luck, determination, and desperation that it took for him to wind up pitching for the 2010 Mets is easy to feel for. First, Dickey had to decide to not give up wh
en it turned out he didn’t have a UCL in his pitching elbow — the UCL being the ligament replaced in Tommy John surgery. I’m under the impression that it’s important. Anyway, when being a traditional pitcher didn’t quite work out for him, he had to decide not to quit again and instead try to make it as a full time knuckleballer, learning how to pitch all over again. So he bounced around for a while, making stops in Seattle to Minnesota and finally here with the Mets. And even here, two or three other pitchers still needed to become injured for Dickey to find his way into the big league rotation. It took a lot for him to get here. I suspect that this guy really has to love playing baseball, so much so that he was willing to keep playing, even if he has to play it by throwing a decidedly non-macho pitch.

So last night it was fun to watch Dickey pitch. It was the Phillies — the team with Chase Utley, who stands on top of the plate and drops a knee into sliding runners, the elbow-throwing Shane Victorino, and pitchers who aren’t afraid to come a bit too far inside on the hot hitters — being made to look foolish by a 35-year-old journeyman throwing tumbling mid-seventies knucklers. It wasn’t strength against strength, a fist fight or an arm wrestling match. It was a reminder that there is more than one way for a team to win a baseball game, sometimes just by taking advantage of simple physics. R.A. Dickey fluttered, the Phillies flailed, and the Mets won. Score one for the tricksters.

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If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Another

>If someone had told me before last night’s game that Angel Pagan would hit an inside-the-park home run, the Mets would turn a triple play, and knuckleballer R.A. Dickey would pitch six innings and give up two runs — remember, all in the same game — I would have put a great deal of theoretical money on the Mets winning that game. Maybe not any real money, because it’s the Mets, but I would feel fairly confident wagering theoretical money on the outcome. If you threw in that Livan Hernandez would be pitching for the Nationals, I might have even put down non-theoretical money on the Mets winning. Maybe.

But the Mets are not terribly good at baseball, and they managed to do all those things in last night’s game and still lose — and in it’s own way, that’s quite the impressive feat. I mean, think about who they ran out on the mound last night. The Mets

- started a 35-year-old missing the UCL in his elbow 

- followed him up with a 32-year-old rookie pitcher on loan from Tobasco

- brought in a reliever who has appeared in 24 of his team’s 41 games

- relieved him with a banished starting pitcher whose ERA is 6.52 over the past two seasons

- and then finished it all off with Manny Acosta. Whoever that is.

And all those pitchers — R.A. Dickey, Raul Valdes, Fernando Nieve, Oliver Perez, and Manny Acosta, whoever that is — only gave up 5 runs. For the sorts of careers those players have had, combining to surrender 5 runs really isn’t all that bad. The average National League team allows 4.50 runs a game this season. Basically the Mets got something resembling an average performance out of a group of misfit pitchers, most of who were picked up off the scrap heap or are Oliver Perez.

Right here, after the part about the scrap heap pitchers and Oliver Perez, is probably a good place to remind everyone the Mets have a $126 million payroll. Reminder: The Mets have a $126 million dollar payroll.

But, despite the halfway decent pitching, the Mets lost because they only scored three runs, despite hitting two home runs. (This is becoming a common occurrence by the way — the Mets have hit 34 home runs this season, and 24 have been solo shots. Of the 10 hit with men on base, 9 have been with just one man on.)

It’s so hard to pinpoint what is wrong with this team. You can point to the pitching/defense, but the Mets have given up 4.15 runs per game going into last night, and the league average is 4.50. So the pitching/defense, no matter how bad it’s looked at times, has actually been better than the norm. At least so far. Again, they pitched Dickey, Valdes, Nieve, Perez, and Acosta last night — in the same game. A close game. One they were supposedly trying to win. Based on that fact, I would bet the pitching/defense is likely going to get worse, but it has been good so far, so no finger pointing that way yet.

This leaves the offense as the main offender, which makes sense when you consider that Jason Bay and Jose Reyes are underperforming in the ways that they are, and Jeff Francoeur has gone back to being Jeff Francoeur. Still, the Mets have managed to score 4.30 runs per game — below the league average of 4.50 — but is still more than the 4.15 they’re allowing per game. So they’ve actually scored more runs than they’ve allowed. In fact, Sabermetrics 101 tells us that the Mets should have a record of something like 21-19 going into last night, based on how many runs they’ve scored and how many they’ve allowed. The basic idea is that when you score more runs than your opponent, you probably have a winning record.

Only, instead, the Mets have almost the mirror image of that record. They’re playing four or five games behind where they should be. They really don’t score runs on the nights they pitch well, and do score runs on the nights they don’t. They’ve gotten quite good at doing that, and that’s how you lose more baseball games than you should.

That and the manager — and, oh my word, the manager — but he deserves to get his own post instead of something just thrown off here.

It’s almost as if last season the Mets figured out every possible way to lose a baseball games through doing new, creative, bad things, and now for their encore this season, they’re figuring out new, creative, good things to do on the baseball field . . . and then still lose. Instead of hitting into triple plays and losing, they’re turning triple plays and losing.

Angel Pagan may have played the game of his life last night, RA Dickey pitched better than expected, they turned an umpire-assisted triple play — and all was wasted because the Mets managed just five hits and three walks off Livan Hernandez and the Washington Nationals. If it’s not one thing, it’s another, and it hasn’t been a lot of fun to watch.

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>Come See Bloggers in Something Resembling Real Life!

>Come on down this Thursday, 7 p.m., to River in Hell’s Kitchen (500 West 43rd St., at 10th Avenue) for the Blue and Orange Open Mic. Per Blue and Orange:

Though the vitals are the same as December’s Hot Stove Huddle, this gathering will be different. There’s an actual baseball game to talk about! We’ll be watching the Mets take on the Nationals, in the finale of their eight-game road trip. There will be beers, cheers, uh,  jeers — and most importantly, a live microphone.

So if you’re in the area, come on down. I’ll be there, other Mets bloggers you actually like will be there, so come say hello, tell me how awful and unfunny I am, explain to me how I’m wrong about the merits of Gary Matthews Jr., ask me to marry you, whatever . . . not that any of you will recognize me to do this, because you don’t know what I look like, but maybe I’ll wear a name tag or something. Probably not.

Just come and get out of your mother’s basement for a while. Go hang out in a bar, watch the Mets, yell at the people on the TV in funny uniforms.

Facebook event page is here.

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Castles Made of Sand

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“And so castles made of sand fall in the sea, eventually.”

- Jimi Hendrix

For the first time in recorded human history — doesn’t it just sound so much more dramatic that way? — the Mets were swept in a four game series by the Florida Marlins in Miami. They have now won just once in their past eight games, and have fallen into last place in the National League East. The Mets have perfected the bad team art of only scoring runs on the days their pitchers let up even more runs, and then not scoring when their pitchers hold down the opposition. Thanks to practice, they’ve gotten quite good at it.

So the Mets find themselves in the cellar again — earth was really dying, Keith Hernandez revealed himself a David Bowie fan, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria.

The customary thing to say at moments like this is that you are never as bad as you look at your worst, and never as good as you look at your best, (and that Keith has surprisingly good taste in everything. Ziggy Stardust is indeed a great album.) I think even the most panic-ridden of Met supporters know this — that is, the not as bad as you look thing, not the David Bowie thing. Everyone knows that the Mets are not going to play .125 baseball the rest of the way, just like everyone knew the Mets weren’t going to play .909 baseball after run at the end of last month. To channel my inner Bill Parcells, “you are what your record says you are”, and the Mets look to be about a .500 team, which is what most predictors had them at coming into this season anyway. This present storm has forced them into the cellar, but they’re still just two games under .500, a record that would put the Mets in last place in only one other division, the surprisingly strong NL West. Don’t believe the rumors of earth’s demise — the season isn’t quite over yet.

But, all that being said . . . oh boy, this team is a disaster.

For example:

- Yesterday’s lineup had Alex Cora and his career OPS+ of 74 batting second and Chris Carter, a career minor leaguer with 32 major league plate appearances hitting cleanup. Both of them were batting in front of the team’s best hitter, David Wright, who was hitting fifth. Because generally you want your worst hitter hitting second, and your best fifth.

- The previous night’s lineup, the everyday group, contained three regulars with on-base percentages below .300, and five regulars with slugging percentages below .400 — and that’s not counting the pitcher, John Maine, who is 0-10 with no walks this season, good for a slash line of .000/.000/.000.

- The bench consists of a player-coach who doesn’t play so well anymore, an outfielder who doesn’t do much of anything anymore, a backup catcher, the animal, and this year’s right-handed first baseman/outfielder who the manager pretends doesn’t exist.

- The starting rotation currently has a grand total of three pitchers in it. I believe the doctor recommended number has been something closer to five for about thirty years now.

- One of the remaining three pitchers walked the first three batters he saw in his last start on all of twelve pitches, and has pitched his team to an expected winning percentage of .393 in his starts. (According to Baseball Prospectus’ underused support neutral win-loss record, SNWL, which factors out bullpen and lineup support from a pitcher’s performance.) Two of the team’s left-handers have just been eliminated, one by an aggravated hamstring injury and the other by an aggravated case of ineffectiveness.

- The bullpen is second in the majors in ERA, and eighth in strikeouts per nine innings pitched — but they are also seventh in walks allowed. This one is the disaster waiting to happen, the radon in the walls. A low ERA despite the walks is a function of putting a ton of runners on base, but then somehow managing to leave them there. The bullpen easily has the highest percentage of runners left on base in the major leagues — which, unfortunately, is something that tends to even itself out over time. It’s sort of like inviting a lot of people over for a dinner party, and then not feeding them anything but minimal appetizers. You can get away with it, but not forever.

- Two of the pitchers in the bullpen, Fernando Nieve and Pedro Feliciano, rank first and second in appearances in the major leagues. So you could say they’ve been worked quite a bit. That might not entirely be the manager’s fault though . . . what? Not entirely, just mostly. After all, his other bullpen options consist of a shaky closer who probably finds a way to walk a few batters before he closes his car door, a banished starter with no stuff or ability to throw strikes, a pitcher younger than any other pitcher in the major leagues by more than a year, someone on loan from a Mexican team named for a hot sauce, and a second-hand Brave that I always forget is on the team.

For all intents and purposes, as presently constructed, the Mets have a four man bullpen, with the other three relievers used by the manager only in garbage time. Thankfully, there has been a lot of garbage time.

- The manager has batted Mike Jacobs, Frank Catalanotto, and Chris Carter cleanup, has used Alex Cora over Luis Castillo far too much, seemingly forgets about certain players, and, as stated above, really only uses half his bullpen. He has justifiably taken to managing as if he might be tarred and feathered after a loss, and will likely be fired unless the Mets make the playoffs, a scenario that seems progressively unlikely. The Mets might as well just throw the word “interim” back in front of his title.

- The defense is still prone to the Wile E. Coyote like innings that were the trademark of the 2009 team. It’s almost as if things start to go wrong in an inning, and everyone starts to think that if they throw the ball to the base hard enough, they’ll be able to record four outs on the play. I’d like to give the Mets some of my wrinkled shirts, because it looks like they’re PRESSING! Zing, or whatever. Take my wife, please! A girl called me and told me to come over, nobody’s home. I went over — nobody was home! I’ll be here all week . . .

- The general manager is in some sort of shadowy puppet setup. He/they/SPECTRE constructed the roster and are responsible for it.

- The ownership group — who, by the way, assembled this entire cast of characters — is watching attendance plummet in their one-year-old ballpark, but blame it on the weather. Even though the weather was better this season than the last one.

- Jeff Francoeur is making a strong case to be the one left standing alone when “El Esta Aqui” stops playing in the game of outfield musical chairs upon Beltran’s limpy return.

- Jason Bay has been infected with a case of  “2009 David Wright disease.”

It’s not all bad news, of course. Just mostly bad news. Mike Pelfrey and his off-speed arsenal have been a revelation. Santana has been Santana outside of two awful innings. David Wright has still been among the top hitters in the NL despite doing a breathtaking impersonation of a fan. Jose Reyes and Jason Bay are bound to figure it out again. Ike Davis has shown far more than anyone could have expected of someone with little experience above AA ball. Angel Pagan, Hisanori Tahakashi, and Pedro Feliciano have been useful role players. The catchers have been fun. And . . . uh . . . they have been the best baserunning team
in all of baseball?

But that’s sort of it. There is an impressive amount of dead weight in this organization dragging everything else down. Half the roster is Matt Damon, and the other half is Ben Affleck.

I have no idea what the solution for the organization is. Perhaps a different managerial direction could help, but that also feels like slapping a band-aid on a severed limb. It’s the obvious answer, because replacing a manger is easy, cheap, because managers don’t make much money compared to the players, and overhauls an entire branch of the organization in one move. But I’m not sure if it does all the much other than appease the fanbase. They could drop the general manager as well, but that feels messier when done in the middle of the season. Maybe they could add another Shake Shack?

I suppose they could cut loose some of the ragged roster ends and bring up a couple of minor leaguers, but I’m not sold that Jason Pridie is going to make an enormous difference — he may be better, but who knows how much. There’s not a ton of organizational rotation depth to call up. Clamoring for R.A. Dickey is one of those moves that will look funny in a year, like arguing about Daniel Murphy’s merits as a first baseman. Maybe the best idea is to just wait it out this season and hope that all or some of Jose Reyes, Jeff Francoeur, Jason Bay, John Maine, Oliver Perez, Gary Matthews Jr., and Francisco Rodriguez turn it around, or at the very least find out exactly what they have in all of them, so they can blow this whole thing up after the year.

It seems that baseball organizations are all either moving towards becoming more ordered or more chaotic. There are teams with plans, and teams just wrapping everything with duct tape. The Washington Nationals are moving towards order, and the Cubs are moving towards entropy. The Mariners were moving towards order, and then . . . well, I don’t know what happened then. The 2010 Rays have one of the best run differentials in baseball history, and most of the lineup isn’t hitting. Young pitching, defense, solid drafting, and they’re not afraid to cut away the dead weight. They have what is sometimes referred to as a “plan.”

I think at this point it’s pretty clear the Mets aren’t moving towards becoming more ordered. It looks more and more like they’re just wrapping things up in duct tape and plugging holes in the Hoover Dam with bubble gum. To many of their castles were made of sand, and things are ugly right now. I don’t know what the right answer is for them. I hope they do.

Mr. Met image via Flickr user slgckgc’s photo stream.

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>Sunday Stuff to Read

>I was going to write about the Mets rotation for tomorrow, but Jerry Manuel’s lineup construction is making it real tough not to write about that instead — because, as everyone knows, you usually want your worst hitter hitting second, your best hitter fifth, and the guy you just called up from AAA hitting cleanup. Sometimes I wonder if this is an Office Space sort of scenario, and Jerry Manuel is actively trying to get himself fired. Sunday links below.

Rob Castellano of Amazin’ Avenue talked with Cow-Bell Man (Cowbell Man?) for an inning yesterday.

NY Magazine explains to LeBron James why LeBron James is coming to New York.

Do sabermetrics detract from our enjoyment of the game? Ted Berg says no, they only make him like baseball more.

Anyone want Pat Burrell? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Bryce Harper apparently isn’t a jerk anymore, but instead “has handled the attention and expectations reasonably well for a 17-year-old.”

Dallas Braden threw a couple of screwballs — as in the actual pitch, and not a metaphorical screwball — in his perfect game, and Mike Fast of The Hardball Times investigates.

The Mets have a plan for Jenrry Mejia. Or something resembling a plan. Maybe “plan” is being too kind. The Mets have a bad idea for Jenrry Mejia.

In case you haven’t seen this yea, this is an amazing Mets-art-journal blog.

* * *

The Animal is out of his cage, and is now hitting cleanup.

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Goodbye Good Ollie

>I can remember, and it wasn’t all that long ago, when Oliver Perez was my favorite Mets pitcher. No, really. He was. It’s laughable to think about now, but in the summer of 2007, I used to look forward to Perez’s turn in the rotation. It wasn’t because Ollie was the best pitcher, or a reliable one — certainly not a reliable one — or a scrappy magician who was fooling everyone with parlor tricks, because he was none of those things. Perez was just a goofy-looking young lefty that threw sizzling fastballs and mixed in a slider that broke like a wiffleball. His stuff, as long as he could get it near the strike zone, was absolutely dominating. He didn’t even really need a plan on the mound, outside of “try to throw strikes.” He could just let it fly. Hitters would just shake their heads in bafflement as they walked away from the batter’s box — they could have known exactly what pitch was coming, and it didn’t make one bit of difference. I loved watching Oliver Perez. He made me happy in that way only certain oddball players make people happy.

It wasn’t all sunshine and sliders, of course, not with Oliver Perez. Batters would be baffled by his stuff — but Oliver would baffle just about everyone else too, particularly his pitching coaches. Often he implode, without warning, for no discernible reason. Watching an Oliver Perez start was like being in a room with an audibly ticking bomb and no visible timer. You knew it was bound to go off, but you didn’t know when, and all you could do was hope it wouldn’t go off when you were still in the room. Perez could be cruising along, and suddenly, the sixth inning came along — and this one particular sixth inning is branded into my memory for some reason — single, single, E-1 on a throwing error off a bunt, pop fly, pop fly, home run, single, home run, walk, strikeout. And all anyone could do was shake their heads in amazement.

But that was just Bad Ollie — and in order for there to be a Bad Ollie, there must also be a Good Ollie. Darkness is just a term given to the absence of light, and Bad Ollie is just the name given to the absence of Good Ollie. Bad Ollie existed only because there was a good Oliver Perez who showed up more often than not.

Good Ollie really did show up more often than Bad Ollie. Just for the heck of it, let’s split up all his Mets starts from 2006-2008 into three groups — gems, disaster starts, and the in-between. Or, Good Ollie, Bad Ollie, and just Oliver Perez. We’ll use Bill James’ definition of a “gem”, a start with a “game score” of 65+ (click here for what a game score is) or 6 or more shutout innings pitched, and Rob Neyer’s loose definition of a “disaster start”, which is a start when a pitcher surrenders more runs than innings pitched. In 2006-2008, Oliver Perez made 70 starts for the New York Mets:

17 were gems,
12 were disasters,
and the 41 others were somewhere in between “brilliant” and “epic failure.”

But that was Ollie. Sometimes good, sometimes awful, often somewhere between — but it was always entertaining. Well, at least it was for me. An Oliver Perez start was always something to talk about. Why can’t he be that dominant every time out there? Why was he so awful today? What, exactly, is really going on in that head of his? There were awful times — his September 28, 2007 start against the Marlins, when he recorded just 11 outs, surrendered six runs, and hit three batters, contributed to the collapse — but there were also the moments of brilliance to balance those duds out — his second-to-last start of 2007, when Perez pitched eight innings, surrendered two runs, struck out eight and walked no one, and his July 24, 2008 start against the Phillies, when he lasted until two outs in the eighth, struck out twelve, walked one, and surrendered just one run jump to mind. Picking an Oliver Perez start at random is like picking a Mickey Rourke movie at random — it’s probably really, really good, or really, really bad. Either way, it was probably memorable.

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It seems to me that Met fans fall into two groups when discussing Oliver Perez: Ollie haters and Ollie lovers. On one side, you have the group that dislikes Ollie, and have always sort of disliked Ollie, and will probably always dislike Ollie. These are the fans that think Perez just never cared all that much, that it was inevitable that Oliver Perez would show up to spring training out of shape after finally getting the big bucks in 2009, and that big game Ollie was just a myth. These fan believe that “Oliver Perez” was just a scam set up by the Boras Corporation, and the Mets, suckers that they are, fell for it. These are the fans that have always just wanted the headache to finally go away.

On the other side, you have the Mets fans that really liked Ollie, and always sort of liked Ollie, and maybe even still like Ollie now, even if they’re too ashamed at this point to openly admit it. These fans write about how they still like Oliver Perez in a round-about, third-person way on their overly long blog posts. These are the fans that will point out, yes, Perez does seem to care. They’ll point out that Oliver broke his toe kicking a chair after a loss as a Pittsburgh Pirate, that Perez was violently slamming his glove into the bench after his disaster start yesterday against the Marlins. These are the Oliver Perez apologists, who believed that if he could JUST FIGURE OUT how to keep the ball in the strike zone consistently, he could really be something special.

Which side of the Oliver Perez divide you come down on depends on what you think is going on in his head. If you think Perez cares, you like him; if you think he doesn’t care, you dislike him. There’s evidence for both sides. Perez’s vacant stares will make it appear that nothing is going on upstairs when he’s on the mound. Maybe that’s evidence that he’s not all that invested in his work, but, in his defense, I also think maybe that’s just how he looks all the time. He always sort of looks like a goldfish a bad goatee. On the other hand, yesterday was the angriest I’ve ever seen him in a game. That seems to be proof that he does indeed care, and finds himself as frustrating as the rest of us. However, anger can be manufactured for the cameras just like any other emotion. Just because he looks angry doesn’t mean he actually is.

I have no idea how Oliver Perez’s brain works — I don’t think anyone does but Perez, and maybe he doesn’t even know. That doesn’t mean it’s not fun for the rest of us to argue about.

But that used to be the only argument about Oliver Perez. His brain. His problems were always about getting his brain to tell his body how to throw strikes consistently, and as long as he could throw strikes, he’d be okay. And then sometimes he could throw strikes, and other times he couldn’t, and maybe there was no deeper Freudian reason why. It would have been nice if he could have done it more consistently, but maybe Good Ollie/Bad Ollie was the best Ollie anyone was ever going to get. Maybe there was nothing “wrong” with him. Maybe that’s just the pitcher he was, one with great enough stuff to just get by on that alone.

It seems funny now, because whatever his problems then, the batter always seemed secondary in the struggle. The real battle was Oliver against Oliver. The stuff was always there to take care of the hitter. The only question was if he could harness it.

That sadly doesn’t seem to be the problem anymore.

* * *

Maybe you’re one of those people that never liked Oliver Perez and always thought of him as an unnecessary headache. Maybe you never thought he cared all that much, and that he has his money now and he’s happy with that. And maybe you’re thrilled that you might never see him take the mound again — maybe
rightly so.

You know what? Maybe those fans are right. Perhaps Oliver Perez really doesn’t give a crap, and he’s fine with whatever happens to his baseball career. I really don’t know, and I don’t think anyone knows but Oliver Perez. I’d like to think he cares — I find it difficult to believe that anyone makes it to the major leagues by not really giving two you-know-whats about their baseball career. But I don’t know that for sure.

What I do know for sure is that Oliver Perez used to be my favorite Mets pitcher to watch. He used to be able to throw a slider that looked like it was breaking like a boomerang, and a fastball that exploded past the hitter’s bats. And, yeah, sometimes he would walk the ballpark, make a throwing error, and surrender a three-run home run, (usually all in the same inning), but when he was at his best, there weren’t many better.

It seems that often the most inconsistent players are the ones who can be the most exciting to watch — and no one was more inconsistent than Oliver Perez. I used to be happy when O.P. was going to take the mound, because SOMETHING interesting was going to happen. I figured he would be the one to finally throw the first Mets no-hitter.

But it’s not like that anymore. Now he can’t find his velocity or his old stuff, and it looks like he might just be done. He’s just 28-years-old and it doesn’t seem like that he can get major league hitters out anymore. His ERA is sitting at 5.94, his strikeout rate is down to about the lowest point rate of his career, and his walks are about where they were last season. The talk about Perez used to be that if he could just figure it out someday, he could be great. It looks now like someday already came and went, and it’s scary to think about how fast it all went by for him.

Oliver Perez used to make me happy when he pitched — the way he made everyone look over-matched was just fun to watch. Now Perez is the one that’s over-matched, and no one is having fun — except the Marlins, and who wants the Marlins to have fun. Good Ollie is gone, and without Good Ollie, there is really nothing for Bad Ollie to be compared with. It’s just an ineffective Oliver Perez all the time, and for all that talent and time he used to have, he’s got none of it left now. It doesn’t make me happy or frustrated or angry, like it seems to make some people. It really just makes me sad.

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Freaks of All Sizes

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I have no idea if it just comes naturally, through repetition, or both, but the coordination of professional baseball players is immensely impressive. I was reminded of that fact in the ninth inning of Friday night’s Mets game, when Ike Davis flipped himself over the dugout railing to secure a pop up and send the game into the bottom of the ninth still tied — I’ll admit, it got a fist pump out of me. Davis had to track the baseball while tracking his own location, realize he was near the dugout railing, time his leap right, and then throw himself over the railing so that he could extend his glove just enough to catch the ball. And he had to try not to crack his head open. All in the span of a few seconds.

If Ozzie Smith can claim the backflip as his signature, then I guess we can give Ike Davis the dugout-railing-front flip, as he has already performed it twice in his infant career. That and looking more like the child of Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa than Springsteen and Scialfa’s actual children do. Davis can claim both of those things as his signature if he’d like.

Baseball players do immensely impressive things all the time — for example, hitting a fastball that takes just 400 milliseconds to go from pitcher’s hand to plate, keeping in mind that minimum human response time to something seen is around 150 milliseconds, seems a near impossible task, but happens numerous times in every game anyway — but Davis’ dugout dive was particularly impressive. It reminded me of something that my friend Andrew — a college relief pitcher for Brown University and therefore someone who knows far more about playing baseball than I do — said to me one time while watching a game. I can’t remember who was playing, but a shortstop made a diving play in the hole and threw out the runner. It was a made for EPSN web gem. I think it was last season, and it was a smooth play from a shortstop, so it definitely wasn’t the Mets. Anyway, the play got Andrew to remark that he was always amazed at how smoothly players can field and how easy they make it look, especially considering that the Major League players really only work on their fielding in spring training. Players take batting practice everyday, but they don’t take infield everyday. In fact, they almost never take infield. They most certainly don’t take diving over dugout railing practice everyday. I would hope. Most of their fielding practice in-season only comes in game. Even thinking about how infielders warm up between innings seems laughably useless — the first baseman rolls a ball directly to each fielder, and each one tosses the ball back lightly. Rinse and repeat. The warmups barely resemble baseball.

So that’s what I thought about as Davis was hanging upside down from the dugout railing. He made that catch without ever practicing it — I mean, sort of. Obviously Ike Davis has had years and years of practice and games and playing catch in order to get to the major leagues in the first place. But I would also guess that Davis never had a day which included a gruff high school coach, wad of tobacco in his jaw, telling the boys, “Okay men, today we’re going to practice catching pop flies while tumbling head-first over a waist-high railing. spits. Davis! You’re up first.” How many times could Ike Davis ever had made a similar play in his life already? Four? Five? Just once, when he did it a few weeks ago? It can’t have been very many times — Ike Davis made his dugout dive on nothing but pure athletic ability.

There’s a sense that baseball players are less impressive athletically than the players in other sports. After all, out of all the major sports, baseball is the one where body-type seemingly matters the least. Just look at the Mets opponents from this weekend, the San Francisco Giants. They look more like the cast of a Judd Apatow movie than a group of professional athletes — only, unlike in a Judd Apatow movie, everyone isn’t white. You have the Seth Rogan, lovable chunky guy in Bengie Molina, the pair of vacant-eyed stoners in Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito (who are Jay Baruchel and Jason Segal in this analogy), and then the Paul Rudd sensitive type in Mark DeRosa (analogy gets bad). To top it off, of course, you have Pablo Sandoval, who is the Jonah Hill of the group, if you will — and it’s not even as if Pable Sandoval is a notable exception in terms of his body shape. CC Sabathia, Prince Fielder, and Matt Stairs are also of a similar girth. You can be both really, really fat and really, really good as a professional baseball player. The two are in no way mutually exclusive. You can also be Tim Lincecum sized, and be maybe the best pitcher on the planet. Size matters not.

Think about this: the most famous basketball player of all time is probably — probably — Michael Jordan, who is immortalized on sneakers, his silhouette dunking from the foul line. An image of supreme athletic ability, as if he were flying. I have no idea who is accepted as the most famous football player of all time — Joe Montana would be my best guess, but it might actually be O.J. Simpson, mostly for his off-field “pursuits” — but whoever happens to be the most famous, he’s impressive physically, and probably much bigger and far stronger than you are. The best known image of the best known boxer is Mohammad Ali, flexing his muscles, screaming at Sonny Liston to get up and fight. The sheer power is unbelievable.

And then you have baseball’s most famous player — Babe Ruth — who is remembered for being really good, and really fat. He was larger than life, both in his personality and his waistband. Consider this: the two best known legends about Babe Ruth are that A.) one time he called his shot in the World Series and B.) he ate a lot of hot dogs, sometimes before games. It doesn’t matter if he really did either of those things, because people like to say that he did those things. That’s the Babe’s legacy as the best player — he hit home runs and was fat. If you see pictures of him from his earlier career, you can see that he was obviously a tremendous athlete, a star pitcher, outfielder, and batter. Only he’s not remembered that way, because it’s not important for the legend of baseball. Baseball likes to presents itself as the sort of game anyone can play at the highest level — midgets, the one-armed, the fat, the skinny, teenagers, and the middle-aged. Everyone except for woman, really, but I figure we’ll see that barrier broken eventually too. Baseball likes to be able to point to it’s best player and have him be a big fat jolly guy, as if to say, See, anyone can do it.

Obviously there are body-type exceptions made in all sports — Shaq, Spud Webb, Maurice Jones-Drew and the NFL’s offensive linemen jump to mind immediately. Still, baseball seemingly has far MORE exceptions than the other sports. The rounded characters of Babe Ruth, Ernie Lombardi, Cecil Fielder, David Wells, and now Pablo Sandoval, or the stories of Wee Willie Keeler, one-handed Jim Abbott, and old Satchel Paige can lead one to conclude that baseball is not necessarily a physically demanding game, or at least one that requires far less athletic ability than football, hockey, or basketball — and, in a way, that’s probably correct. In fact, baseball even caters itself towards the seemingly unathletic, with the American League inventing a position that allows old fat guys to extend their careers without having to bothered to field.

Baseball the only game that has had someon
e claim to throw a no-hitter while tripping on acid, and someone else claim to have thrown a perfect game while still hung over from the night before. Jamie Moyer just pitched a shutout despite being ridiculously old. Dallas Braden just pitched a perfect game despite being ridiculously full of himself. Jim Abbott threw a no-hitter despite having just one arm. Stories like that make it seem as if baseball isn’t all that difficult of a sport to play.

That’s part of the special allure of baseball — anyone who has three working limbs can do a decent approximation of the what the pros do. You can’t say the same thing about any other sport, outside of maybe bowling and golf. But baseball actually has had all types of people succeed at the highest level — what other sport has men with the differing bodies and skills of Babe Ruth and Willie Mays claiming the two of the top three spots for greatest ever? Randy Johnson and Tim Lincecum on the same pitching staff last season?

Baseball doesn’t necessitate a certain body size or shape, like football and basketball do — the only real prerequisite is absurdly developed hand-eye coordination. That’s the secret to the game. If you can master the connection between your sight and your limbs, then you can play baseball at the highest level. There are still some physical limitations — you can’t be a left-handed throwing third baseman, for one, or be really slow and play center field — but if you can recognize and hit both a 90 MPH fastball and a 70 MPH curve, then there is a position for your size and shape, and even if there isn’t, they’ll just make one up for you — the Dodgers created an “old guy with broken back” spot on their bench for Jim Thome at the end of 2009.

This brings me back to Ike Davis’ dugout dive, which was a display of the highly developed coordination that allows him to play professional baseball. He made that play despite having made a similar play only a handful of times, if even that. After the game, as the reporters asked him about the catch, Davis could barely keep from going into Chris Farley Show mode and just repeatedly say how awesome it was, and how even he couldn’t believe it happened. He could barely put together sentences. So instead, Davis just elatedly smiled, just as anyone would. Even he was just amazed he came up with it.

That’s part of the fun of watching baseball. It’s a game played by human beings who don’t overwhelm you with their physical gifts. I love watching LeBron James play basketball, but LBJ is a freak. The guy is 6 ft. 8 in. and weights 260 pounds, and can effortlessly switch from moving like a cat to driving like a train. He overwhelms with questions about how he is even possible. If James walked into the room, his physical gifts would be immediately tangible. He really is something else. On the other hand, if David Wright walked into the room, it wouldn’t be so obvious he was a professional athlete — even though Wright may very well be equally gifted. The physical gifts of baseball players are not immediately apparent. Again, see the Giants, with Pablo Sandoval and Tim Lincecum.

Baseball often looks so easy, so simple, because at its heart, it’s an intangible game — but not in the sense that the successes and failures as players comes down to their hearts or their guts or whatever you want to call it. Not that they don’t have those things — because they certainly do — but I think you’re selling everyone short if you think professional athletes are professional athletes because they have more heart and guts than the rest of us. Okay, sure, maybe someone hits a clutch home run because they have guts — but everyone has some level of guts. Maybe Bill the accountant down the street has just as much guts as David Wright. Maybe Bill the accountant even has more, but what Bill the accountant doesn’t have is the physical gift of hand eye coordination to hit that clutch home run. That’s the only thing separating baseball players from the rest of the population – that’s the intangible aspect of baseball. Coordination.

What I’m trying to get at here is nothing more than this: baseball players look like physically normal human beings. They’re not. They’re just as much freaks at their counterparts in football, basketball, hockey or (insert your sport of choice I’m leaving out here). Their gifts of coordination are unbelievable — that’s why you’ll see a shortstop ad-lib flip a grounder to his second baseman with his glove, or Alex Rodriguez make a millisecond adjustment to foul off a pitch, an adjustment visible only in slow motion, or Endy Chavez make a catch over the wall. And those plays are impressive on their own, but become even more so when you realize the players basically don’t practice them — you can’t practice making the tumbling dugout catch Ike Davis made.

Because baseball players look so much like normal human beings, it’s easy to forget how physically impressive so many of the things they do are. They’re freaks — but don’t forget, so are the rest of us.

 Tim Lincecum image courtesy of Kimberly’s flickr photostream.

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>Sunday Stuff to Read

>Links after two straight walk-off home runs:

Want to know what Mike Piazza is up to? Joe Brescia of the New York Times can tell you.

On a similar note, want to see what Turk Wendell is up to? Kevin Kernan can tell you, plus there’s a picture of Wendell holding a dead animal.

One last where are they now: Lastings Milledge is still doing, uh, interesting things.

Joe Posnanski lists his top 20 home runs of all time.

Eno Sarris takes a look at Mets swing rates over at Amazin’ Avenue.

For no reason at all, an old column by David Halberstam on Roger Maris and the hunt for 61.

“When it all works out, it’s going to be worth it.” Bill Simmons on the Phoenix Suns.

Finally, be careful if you win your fantasy league and you live in Louisiana.

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A-how how how

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