Monthly Archives: June 2010

Can You Hear the Music

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When I was in eighth grade, I started taking guitar lessons from an older man named Dan, who smelled like musty cigarettes and wore a straw fedora. I had a real thing for Guns N’ Roses at the time (despite their height in popularity coming well before me), one thing led to another, and my parents bought me my first guitar. Like most things, I got really, really, obsessively into it. There were periods in high school when I was practicing for six hours a day, “played it till my fingers bled.” There’s also a possibility that I would sometimes pretend to be Slash standing on the piano at the end of the “November Rain” video — only I was standing on the couch in my basement. Alone. All teenagers are awkward; some are more awkward than others.

A funny thing happens when you learn a musical instrument — at a certain point, and all of a sudden, music sounds different. You can suddenly hear the individual guitars on a song and separate them out. You figure out what a bass guitar sounds like, and how it fits in with the drums. You come to appreciate the technical difficultly of certain licks. Jimi Hendrix becomes more mind blowing. It’s like Dorothy stepping out of her farmhouse into Oz — suddenly everything is brilliantly colored where it used to be sepia.

I don’t think this is an isolated phenomenon. I’ve written enough that a similar thing is beginning to happen when I read — I pay attention to the lengths of sentences when I never used to give it a second (or first) thought. I would guess that similar things happen when any skill is developed. I assume painters see art in a way understandable only to other painters, web designers appreciate features on web pages in a way only someone versed in HTML can, and athletes see subtle-but-difficult moves that most fans would fail to ever notice. If you spend hundreds of hours doing something — anything — I think it’s safe to assume that you see it differently. I assume that what I look for when watching a baseball game, and what Keith Hernandez looks for when watching a baseball game, are two completely different things. The amount of time, sweat, tears, mustache grooming, and effort Keith Hernandez spent developing his ability to play baseball must cause him see the game in a way those of us on our couches just don’t. He understands the difficultly of hitting major league pitching in a way I just can’t, and never will.

That’s not to say that non-artists can’t or shouldn’t criticize paintings, non-musicians can’t appreciate music, and fans can’t talk about baseball. That’s ridiculous. (Says the guy writing a blog doing so.) I don’t know if A.O. Scott ever made a movie, but I certainly trust his opinions about them. I don’t know if anyone understands baseball better than Bill James, and he used to work as the watchman in a bean factory. I call Joe Morgan to the stand as a witness for the defense. Sometimes the best analysts never actually did whatever it is they’re analyzing, and sometimes the worst ones are the ones that did. People are funny like that; we often have no idea what makes us succeed or fail.

But it is to say that the way a lay person sees baseball will be drastically different than the way someone who played in the major leagues sees baseball. It has to be. Unless you’ve actually played at the highest level, I don’t know if you can understand what it’s like. I’ll never understand what it takes to be a major league baseball player. I’m okay with that. I’ll never know what it’s like to be an astronaut either.

So here’s the thing: a majority of the decisions Jerry Manuel makes as manager of the Mets, I just don’t understand. I often have absolutely no idea why he does what he does. There are decisions he makes that I agree with, and there are those I disagree with but still see the thinking behind . . . and then there are some moves that I just can’t even begin to comprehend. Like last night. I don’t necessarily disagree with all of these moves, but in terms of controversial decisions from just one game, Manuel:

- Started a still-aching Angel Pagan, who is useless against lefties, against a left-handed pitcher. He removed him when a righty came to the mound.

- Went to his closer, Francisco Rodriguez, in the eighth inning. (I think I actually like this one, but Kevin Kernan of the NY Post is going to bash it, so I’ll leave it here.)

- Did not pinch run for the painfully slow Rod Barajas, with the Mets down two, Barajas at first and nobody out.

- Did pinch run Alex Cora for the slow-but-not-painfully-slow Chris Carter, with the Mets down two, Carter on second, Barajas on third, and nobody out.

- Let Pedro Feliciano face Hanley Ramirez, Jorge Cantu, and Dan Uggla, all dangerous righthanded batters, in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth.

Manuel has wrought countless woes upon Mets fans this season. The opening day starting lineup, for starters. Hitting Alex Cora second. Moving Jose Reyes into the third spot. The way he used Jenrry Mejia. The way he uses Fernando Nieve. Running Jon Niese out after an hour rain delay and long Mets rally, just so Niese can take a shot at earning a win, then denying R.A. Dickey the chance for a shutout just to get Frankie Rodriguez work the very next day. I know I’m missing things here. Feel free to insert your own.

But leaving Pedro Feliciano in against the righthanders in a tie game was a particularly strange decision. On one hand, I understand that the Mets are going with six pitchers in the pen, and Feliciano was already the fourth one of the night. Maybe Manuel didn’t want to burn through more relievers, especially with the possibility of extra innings. But: Hanley Ramirez is a great righthanded hitter; Jorge Cantu, who scored the winning run, is a good righthanded hitter; Dan Uggla, who got the winning hit, is a good righthanded batter; Cody Ross, who was on deck behind Uggla, is a good righthanded batter. And there are no extra innings if you lose first. It seems to me that Feliciano, Manuel and the Mets have decided that Pedro can now retire right-handed batters, and is no longer simply a lefty specialist. He’s the eighth inning guy who faces both. The fabled crossover pitcher. So he faced the righties last night.

The problem with that assumption is that Feliciano is not a crossover pitcher, and has never been one. Righthanded batters have a .788 OPS against Feliciano for his career, and a .780 OPS against Feliciano this season. Lefties have a .582 OPS against Feliciano for his career, and a .593 OPS this season. In words, Pedro Feliciano can retire lefthanded batters, but struggles against righties. He has done so his entire career, and he has done so this season. I don’t understand why Manuel and the Mets have decided that Pedro Feliciano can suddenly face righthanded batters.

The answer most fans shout out, and the one I find myself giving often while staring slack-jawed at my television, is that Jerry Manuel just has no idea what he’s doing. The easy answer is that he’s just an idiot. He’s Michael Scott managing a baseball team. Goodhearted, desperate to be liked, hangs out with Ryan Howard, but ultimately clueless.

But . . . that can’t be it. He did win manager of the year in 2000, and managed the White Sox to a .515 winning percentage for six seasons. He played in the majors — not well, but he made it. He scouted, managed and coached in the minor leagues for six years before becoming a major league
coach and then manager. Coincidentally or not, the Mets turned around when he took over midway through 2008. They currently have the third best record in the National League, and have done so without Carlos Beltran. Or a bullpen. Even if I disagree with his decisions some (or most) of the time, he must have SOME idea what he’s doing as a manager. I think.

So there must be some reason Jerry Manuel believes Pedro Feliciano can succeed against righthanded batters, even if I don’t see it. It doesn’t mean he’s right; in fact, I’m almost certain he’s wrong. After all, the Mets lost. But he must see something I don’t. Maybe it’s Feliciano’s changeup, or the way he made Hanley Ramirez look silly with off-speed pitches. Maybe Manuel just sees something I would never think of on my own, something that makes him believe Feliciano can retire righties this season. He must see something.

So I don’t know if saying that Manuel is clueless is a good enough answer. It instead seems to me that Manuel is simply hearing the music in a way I don’t.

Photo via Keith Allison’s Flickr.

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Doubles and David Wright

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David Wright hits a lot of doubles. He has twenty-two doubles this season, which puts him three off the major league lead. He has 244 career doubles in 921 career games, and is now the Mets franchise leader in two-base hits; Miguel Cabrera is the only active player under age 30 with more career doubles than Wright (and Cabrera has just 29 more doubles in about 800 more plate appearances). Still, Wright has never finished higher than seventh on the NL doubles leaderboard in any given season. He hits just enough to make it into the top ten, but not enough to jump into the top five.

As might be expected with Wright, his doubles have been boringly just about evenly distributed over his career. He hit 17 in 69 games as a rookie; then 42 the next year; 40 in 2006; 42 the year after; 42 again in 2008; and, despite everything else, he still hit 39 in the 144 games in 2009. He is on pace for around 48 this year, which would be a career high and might be enough to lead the league . . . but there’s still a lot of baseball left to play. Tomorrow never knows.

I want to bring up David Wright and his doubles because I’m often surprised at how little thought doubles are given — well, no, that’s not true. I’m not surprised by it at all. Doubles aren’t flashy little red Corvettes like home runs or stolen bases; they’re not a stat tracked in fantasy baseball leagues, likes runs and RBI; they’re not even the “most exciting play in baseball,” as triples are sometimes called. Someone hits a ball into the gap, he makes the turn at first and then coasts his way easily into second base . . . and he gets a double. It’s a bit more exciting than a well-struck single, but not all that much more exciting. SportsCenter doesn’t show a highlight reel of all the night’s doubles. It really doesn’t come as a surprise that no one pays much attention to them.

I would guess that even the most causal of baseball fans know who the all time home run leader is, the stolen base leader, and the hits leader. I’d also guess that most fans can also come up with a fair estimate for what sort of numbers their favorite players complies each year for those stats. Ryan Howard will hit between 40 and 50 home runs, Carl Crawford will steal around 50 bases, and Ichiro will put up over 200 hits. Carlos Beltran will hit around 30 home runs, Jose Reyes around 15, and Luis Castillo around none, if he gets lucky. If you follow your team, you have a feel for these sorts of things. Call it fantuition.

On the other hand, I don’t think anyone pays attention to doubles in the same way. About how many doubles does Carlos Beltran hit every year? Jose Reyes? Ryan Howard? Albert Pujols? I have to look all of those up. Who led the National League in doubles last year? Miguel Tejeda? Really? Him? Who’s the active leader in doubles? I didn’t know without looking. (It’s Ivan Rodriguez.) And the all time doubles leader  . . . well, that’s a bit of a tough all time one. Tris Speaker doesn’t quite ring with the same recognition as names like Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, and Pete Rose. For whatever reasons, no one really cares all that much about doubles. If baseball statistics are like Friends, then doubles are like Phoebe.

In fact, the all time doubles leaderboard has an interesting mix of relatively unheralded players:

Tris Speaker – 792
Pete Rose – 746
Stan Musial – 725
Ty Cobb – 724
Craig Biggio – 668
George Brett – 665
Nap Lajoie – 657
Carl Yastrzemski – 646
Honus Wagner – 643
Hank Aaron – 624

So, people had funny names a century ago, didn’t they?

Just the top five contains deadball players and a steroid era player; it also has maybe the nicest player in baseball history sandwiched between (1) a man banned from the game for life and (2) the man Ernest Hemingway once called “the greatest of all ballplayers . . . and an absolute shit.” It’s a peculiar mix of eras, playing styles, and demeanors, unlike some of the other historical leaderboards.

For comparison’s sake, five of the top ten all time home run hitters played in the 2000s, and just one played before 1950. All of the triples leaders played in the deadball era — Stan Musial is the closest thing to a contemporary player among the top twenty-five in triples. The batting average leaderboard is Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, and deadball stars. This is all in relative contrast to doubles. There doesn’t seem to be an era when doubles became more prominent. The top years for doubles are simply the top offensive years in baseball — there are no real comparative up periods as there are for home runs and triples. Because of that, the leaderboard isn’t dominated by one time period over any other one.

(Perhaps) more interestingly — and the real point here — the doubles leaderboard sees a more than a fair share of the underappreciated players in baseball history. Rose, Cobb, and Aaron are well known for their other accomplishments, but Honus Wagner, for his part, is best known for being on a baseball card. Bill James once called Craig Biggio the best player of the 1990s. Either Tris Speaker or Stan Musial might be the most severely underappreciated player of all time. I’d guess that Nap Lajoie is best known for being that guy with the funny name.

The thing is: among position players, Baseball-Reference awards Speaker the seventh most career WAR, with Musial tied for eighth place; Lajoie, Yaz, and Brett are all also ranked in the top 30. Still, I don’t know how recognizable the names of Tris Speaker and Stan Musial are, especially when compared to names like Ruth, Bonds, Mays, Aaron, Williams, and Mantle that sit around them on such lists. I suspect that it speaks to the historical underappreciation of the two-base hit’s value.

Which brings me back to David Wright and his doubles. The Mets have been playing much better baseball of late — plenty of this has to do with Jose Reyes, who has gone absolutely bonkers (.363/.404/.600, six home runs, ten steals) since May 22. He rightly deserves much of the credit. The pitching and defense have also been surprising, allowing just 3.09 runs per game in the month of June. The bullpen suddenly looks much sturdier, particularly with the addition of Bobby Parnell and his seven strikeouts in four innings of work. The manager has stopped doing inexplicable things — for the moment — and now only does explicable-if-odd things. That has all helped.

But David Wright has also been going crazy, batting .355/.410/.605 with six home runs since the May 22 win over the Yankees. He also hit thirteen doubles over that span of games, which would be an (unsustainable) pace of sixty-five doubles over a full season. The single season record for doubles is 67, set by Earl Webb in 1931. Wright is not going to keep it up, but he has been doubling at a ridiculous pace . . . but because no one pays much attention to doubles, Wright’s hot streak has gone undernoticed.

Two side notes. Skip if you don’t care:

1. Earl Webb had a peculiar baseball career. He started off as a bad pitcher in the minor leagues, compiling a 37-47 record over four seasons in the low levels, so he found himself turned into an outfielder. He played four games for the Giants in 1925, back to the minors in ’26, emerged for two seasons as a part-time outfielder for the Cubs in 1927 and 1928, disappeared to the Pacific Coast League in 1929, and then reappeared with the Red Sox in 1930. In 1931, he hit his 67 d
oubles, drove in 103 runs, hit .333, and finished sixth in MVP voting, playing for a team that won just 62 games. His performance dropped off somewhat in 1932 and he was traded to the Tigers. A year later, he was picked up on waivers by the White Sox, and then was out major league baseball just two years after setting the doubles record that still stands. He kicked around to play four more seasons in the minors, hitting well above .300 for the first three of them.

What’s particularly odd, is that his career major league line was .306/.381/.478; his minor league average was .333, with a slugging percentage of .521. The slugging percentage was mostly made up of doubles. The dude could rake — after all, he holds the single season doubles record. I have no idea why he was a full time player in the major leagues for just three years, and there isn’t much information freely available on him. Maybe it can just be chalked up to the historical undervaluing of doubles.

2. I would like to point out that Wright is batting .325 with runners in scoring position this season, if only because that stat seems only to get paraded about when he isn’t hitting with RISP.

Anyway, all the talk is “as Reyes goes, the Mets go,” or “the Mets are only as good as their starting pitching.” And that’s sort of true. The Mets play better when Reyes plays better, and they play better when they pitch better, but . . . maybe that’s because the Mets play better as a team when the individuals playing for them perform better. Or whatever.

Still, it’s easy to point to the Mets record when Jose Reyes scores a run and say that it explains their recent success. Maybe it does to a certain extent. But I think, in a way, it’s also ignoring the foundation of the Mets success. David Wright is the best player on the Mets. Jose Reyes is easily the most fun, but Wright is the best. Even during his miserable May, Wright put up a league average OPS. David Wright at his WORST is still better than half the league. Jose Reyes has been great. The pitching has been great. And David Wright has also been great. But the problem is that Wright almost always is great — even if it’s done quietly with a bunch of doubles.

For whatever reason, we just don’t pay attention to doubles — like Stan Musial, Craig Biggio, and Tris Speaker, I think David Wright will continue to be underappreciated until we do. At least, he will be as much as a superstar third baseman playing in New York can be underappreciated.

Image via Keith Allison’s Flickr.

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Sunday Links

>The Mets still have the third best record in the NL. I have no idea what to say . . . so here are links instead.


Baseball

- Johan Santana is not as good as he used to be. Nobody panic, nobody panic . . .  Everyone panic! (New York Times)

- The R.A. Dickey refutes that he is, in fact, a nerd. (Ted Berg)

- Ron Weasley Prince Harry threw out the first pitch at Citi Field yesterday. Sadly, due to being a ginger kid, he expired moments later from exposure. (Daily News)

- Jesus Felicano is rooting for the Marlins interim manager, and David Wright may be booed in Puerto Rico. (ESPN New York)

- A whole lot of Wally Backman being crazy, or perhaps just being Wally Backman. (MetsToday)

- Baseball Reference uses a different WAR formula for pitchers than Fangraphs. Here’s a look at the differences. (Beyond the Box Score)

- Chris Carter never got his home run ball back. (NY Times)

- The Dodgers made some base running mistakes the other night. It’s probably all Rhianna’s fault . . . does anyone else ever wonder if the song “Rude Boy” is about Matt Kemp? (Memories of Kevin Malone)

Sharks or Dinosaurs, and something else:

- This showed up in my Google reader, and is presented without comment. (NotCot)

- Also, this is too weird not to pass along. Some guy has a nipple on the bottom of his foot (with pictures). The foot is that of a man, and the link is to a science website, so I assume it’s all safe for work, depending on where you work. What does that feel like to walk around on? (Discover)

That’s all I got. I’ll be back with something wordier tomorrow. Until then, I don’t know if any of us will ever recover.

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Fixing Mistakes

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Hypothetical scenario: Imagine you’re at a restaurant. You order, let’s say, spaghetti with meatballs and a side salad. When the food comes, your waiter instead presents you with a hamburger. Well, no, that’s not right, and you point out the mistake. The waiter apologizes, and then returns moments later with just spaghetti; no meatballs, no salad. No, still not right, and you point out the mistake again. The waiter returns, but again forgets to bring the salad. Almost there, but not quite, so you once again point out the error. The waiter returns, and on the fourth try brings the entire correct order. Finally.

So now, the hypothetical question: What are you going to tip? Are you going to tip the waiter the same amount you would had he brought the order correctly the first attempt? Are you going to tip him more because he corrected his earlier mistakes?

This is a really easy one, right? I suspect a great deal of people would not give a generous tip in this situation, and I don’t think anyone would tip more than they normally would. I would guess that a majority of people would probably just tip less. The waiter came up with the right combination eventually, but only after a few trials and errors. A waiter really does his job well if he prevents the mistakes from occurring. He probably shouldn’t get extra credit for correcting mistakes he himself created. I think most everyone can agree on that.

This is why I don’t understand why people are congratulating the Mets for correcting mistakes made during their initial roster construction — and by “people,” I really just mean “me, two months ago, when they designated Mike Jacobs for assignment.” It’s like watching someone drive their car into a lake, seeing them notice that they have, in fact, driven their car into a lake, and only then do they stop driving any farther into the lake. Then you pat them on the back and exclaim, “Good job! You stopped driving any farther into the lake!” The Mets are fixing mistakes, but they’re fixing mistakes that they made.

Now, every team is likely to make one or two “d’ohs” on the Opening Day roster, but the Mets seem to have made more than their fair share. The Mets made at least six (John Maine, Oliver Perez, Frank Catalanotto, Mike Jacobs, Gary Matthews Jr., and Jenrry Mejia), and possibly a few more if you want to count “not having a bullpen” as an ongoing mistake. They have moved ahead and fixed most of these wrongs, and as the season has progressed, the Mets have continued to improve their roster via subtraction. One one hand, that’s a good thing. Unfortunately, this is also generally a sign that someone calling the shots is wearing a pair of Bad Idea Jeans — something is wrong with the organizational philosophy when Plan B keeps succeeding where Plan A fails. The Mets are fixing mistakes, but they’re not fixing the cause of their mistakes.

Take, for example, the recent demotion of Jenrry Mejia. The Mets sent Mejia down because his ability to throw strikes (15 walks against 17 strikeouts) was not consistent enough for him to lock down the eighth inning role as they (or just Jerry Manuel) envisioned. That’s the thing: I don’t think the Mets suddenly came to a general agreement that sticking a 20-year-old minor league starter in the major league bullpen to begin the season was a bad idea — even though, best I can tell, it’s only happened one other time in the modern bullpen era of the past 30 years (Brent Knackert for the Mariners in 1990). The Mets sent Mejia down because he wasn’t very good, not because they decided having him up wasn’t a very good idea. There is a world of difference between the two. One is seeing the problem with the results; the other is seeing the problem with the process. One is just backing out of the lake; the other one is figuring out why you drove into the lake to begin with.

Similarly, the Mets didn’t cut Gary Matthews Jr. because they realized their reasoning behind trading for him was flawed; they cut him because he hit .190. Same for Mike Jacobs, same Oliver Perez. They didn’t see the flawed processes, just the flawed results.

It seems to me that the Mets problem is a lack of faith. A running joke is that certain GMs, notably Omar Minaya and Dayton Moore, repeatedly acquire players from their former organizations — Sam Page at Amazin’ Avenue mentioned this recently. I suspect what this reflects is that plenty of teams still haven’t embraced ideas like (1) baseball players actually peak and decline earlier than previously thought and (2) minor leagues statistics are the best predictors of major league success. Instead, teams stick to their personal experience — which, in a way, makes plenty of sense. Most of us trust what we already know and like to stick to our comfort zones. But maybe that’s not always the best plan, particularly for baseball teams. Many of the decisions the Mets made in spring training — “known” veterans over “unknown” youngsters and career minor leaguers — seems to reflect this thinking. Maine over Dickey, Perez over Takahashi, Jacobs over Davis, and Catalanotto over Carter. They didn’t have faith in things they hadn’t seen for themselves. And to channel my inner Darth Vader, I find their lack of faith disturbing.

On the other hand . . . the Mets currently have the third best record in the National League. So it’s not that big of a problem, or at the very least, it’s less of a problem this year than in years past. The Mets brought in better options this season; they didn’t use them immediately, but they did bring them into the organization. That’s an improvement of sorts. R.A. Dickey, Hisanori Takahashi, and Chris Carter didn’t just come out of nowhere. The Mets brought them in as depth, and that’s a good thing.

Still, it’s as if instead of ordering just the bad items on the menu as they did in the past — I apologize for so many restaurant metaphors — the Mets have moved on to ordering ALL of the items on the menu, but still insist on trying out all the bad ones first. At least the good ones were on the table this time around.

But the Mets are going to keep choosing bad stuff first, until they figure out a better way to separate what’s going to be good from what’s going to be bad, preferably in advance. I don’t know what the answer is. I do know when a majority of bloggers and writers say, “No, what you’re doing with Jacobs/Matthews/Maine/Perez/Mejia is a bad idea,” and they ALL turn out to be bad ideas, maybe it’s time to rethink things. Maybe it’s time to check and make sure no one is wearing Bad Idea Jeans.

Still, the Mets have the third-best record in the NL — I know, right? How’d that happen? — so maybe I should put away the hater-ade and just enjoy it.

Jenrry Mejia photo via (slgckgc).

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>Sunday Links

>Some possibly enjoyable links after a relatively blah Father’s Day game.

Baseball:

Wonder why Johan is struggling? Maybe it’s because Santana is having trouble putting hitters away with strike 3. (ESPN New York)

This made me laugh: Elmer Dessens is on the low BABIP train. (Amazin’ Avenue)

Bernie Brewer — as in the Milwaukee mascot, Bernie Brewer — was once accused of stealing signs. (Wezen-ball)

Uncomfortably warm baseball players are more likely to throw baseballs at other players in a not so nice way. (Discover)

Tom Fesolowich, who captains the New York Mutuals, a “base ball” team that plays under 1864 rules, talks to New York Magazine.

Sharks or Dinosaurs, and something else:

Researchers have found the oldest known mammalian gnaw marks on a dinosaur bone. My dog, also a mammal, sticks primarily to cow bones. (Discover)

Someone created a Netflix application that adds every Nic Cage movie to your NetFlix cue with one click. It’s called CageFlix. Why didn’t this exist already? (via Hacking NetFlix)

That’s all the links I got for now. Tigers and Twins coming up for the Mets.

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Mailbag: Matt Harvey

>Time for another mailbag question:

Hey Patrick,

I’m wondering what you think of Matt Harvey – is it a good idea to use a draft strategy that focuses on selecting clones of current Mets? Eleven of their first 19 picks were pitchers, 10 of them right-handed and nine of them at least 6-foot-3. Are the Mets going to the well one too many times, or can we hope to see another quality pitcher like Pelfrey emerge from this class?

- Steve S.

Well, let’s start by getting this out of the way: I’m not a prospect guru, nor do I play one on the Internet. I don’t know ANYTHING about projecting college or high school players. The only reasons I even assume Matt Harvey is a prospect are (1) the people that claim to be prospect gurus say he is decent and (2) the Mets selected him seventh overall so . . . high draft choice = good? That’s all I’m working with here.

Now that I’ve made it clear I’m just pulling things out of the air, let’s get down to business.

According to MLB’s DraftTracker, the Mets took 49 players in this year’s amateur draft. 29 are pitchers, and 22 of those pitchers are righthanded. 14 of those 22 right-handed pitchers are 6‘3“ or taller — so, as pointed out by Steve, just under 29% of the Mets picks were tall, righthanded pitchers. One of these pitchers happened to be their first round pick, Matt Harvey, highlighting the trend. Also, the Mets most successful pitcher this season has been a tall, right-handed college pitcher, Mike Pelfrey. It seems possible that the Mets are just trying to repeat a working formula. Monkey see, monkey draft. Or whatever.

For comparison’s sake, nine of the Mets 2009 picks fit the criteria, nine of their picks in 2008 were tall righthanders, and seven of their picks in 2007 were big righties. That makes it look like an unusual number of big north-paws to take this year. However, if you continue to go back into the past, the Mets took fifteen tall, righthanded pitchers in 2006, and they took thirteen in 2005 — so there is precedent for this type of drafting strategy in the Minaya era, for whatever reasons. Maybe the Mets’ general manager just has a type he can’t resist. He likes his pitchers tall, righthanded, and handsome. Or the Mets just have a bunch of XXL Mets shirts they need to give away.

OR . . . maybe it’s just that righthanded pitchers are more likely to be picked because they are tall. This (admittedly old) Sports Illustrated article suggests as much:

“Given a choice between a promising big pitcher and a promising small pitcher, scouts will take the big man every time. ‘I know of nine clubs who tell their scouts not to bother turning in recommendations on righthanded pitchers who aren’t at least 6’2″,’ says Tom House, a former major league pitcher and pitching coach who is a consultant to several teams.”

Per the above article, tall pitchers are supposed to have an easier time throwing hard with clean mechanics, and are supposed to be more durable because of that — though, on the health front, they do remain far more likely to comically bang their heads against low-hanging doorways in the locker room. Tall pitchers also release the ball closer to home plate — simply due to having a longer arm and stride — meaning that 95 MPH from a tall pitcher is going to reach the plate slightly quicker than 95 MPH from a short one. The hitters have slightly less time to react, making the pitches more effective. Despite the age of the article, I believe all of that still remains accepted as being true.

Basically, there are advantages in terms of durability and effectiveness that may make taller pitchers a better bet than their shorter counterparts. Also, because there are simply more righthanders than lefthanders, teams have greater freedom to pick the potentially more-durable, taller righthanders over a similar, shorter pitcher.

What that all means, is that I don’t think picking a whole bunch of tall righthanders is all that odd. In fact, it would really be weird if the Mets took a whole bunch of short righthanders, or just side-arming lefthanders, or just fat center fielders that vaguely look like Betty White. They may have just taken the best talent on the board, and by dumb luck a large number of those guys happened to be tall righties.

What does stick out as slightly odd is the high number of college players taken by the Mets — not that it’s necessarily a bad thing. College players (A) can usually be signed for less, as they can’t threaten to go to college like their high school counterparts can, and (B) reach the majors quicker because they’re not still-developing 18-years-olds worried about who they’re going to take to prom. Taking so many college guys — just 11 high schoolers — maybe reflects the Mets not wanting to spend too much on the draft, or prom dresses, as they have been accused of in the past. But maybe it reflects Omar Minaya feeling pressured to get quick results and hoping that a few of these college players will be on the express 7 train to Citi Field, ala Joe Smith in 2007 and Pelfrey in 2006. It could be a little of both . . . or maybe, again, it’s just more dumb luck from taking the best players on the board. It might not reflect much of anything.

So the million dollar question remains: What do I think of Matt Harvey? Well, his parents gave him two first names — you know, just in case he loses one — and he is reportedly tall and righthanded. And . . . that’s all I got.

Just for the heck of it, Omar Minaya has taken three other tall righthanded pitchers in the first round with the Mets. Let’s compare:

- One is Eddie Kunz, who pitched well enough in the minors to get called up in ‘08, quickly surrendered his first home run since his freshman year of college, and was sent back down. Things have not gone well since. He proceeded to have a miserable season as a reliever in AAA in 2009 (5.02 ERA, 31 walks in 61 innings), was being converted into a starter in AA this season, with not-so-great results (36 walks in 57.2 innings), and is now apparently a reliever again.

- One is Steve Brad Holt, who blew away batters in high-A ball (54 strikeouts in 43.1 innings) before grinding to a halt in AA (7.57 ERA over 88 innings in ‘09 and ‘10). Steve Brad Holt!

- The third tall righty is Mike Pelfrey, who has the 7th lowest ERA in the National League this season, the 8th lowest FIP, 8th most WAR among NL pitchers, has been generally awesome, and now only looks goofy when in the batter’s box. He also has a whole bunch of wins, if you still like that sort of thing.

So that’s one winner out of three tries, though things could easily turn around for Brad Holt, or for Eddie Kunz I suppose.

This is a laughably small group of players to base any real conclusions on. That being said, the general success rate (success here being defined as 1 career WAR or greater) for ALL of the Mets first round picks ever has also been about one in three. That sounds reasonable for Harvey — there’s a one-in-three chance he’ll reach the majors and be decent.

But that’s not a fun prediction, so I’ll just go the bolder route: Matt Harvey will reach the majors next year, win 512 games in his career, strikeout 5,715 batters, throw 111 shutouts, name his sons “Turner” and “Citizens Bank” because of how much he likes pitching against the Braves and Phillies in Atlanta and Philadelphia, will correctly predict the team to beat in the National League East every season, and will win two Cy Young awards and eight “Matt Harvey” awards.

And that’s what I think of Matt Harvey, based only on knowing which hand he throws with, that he went to college, and that other people think he’s good.<
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For future mailbag questions, email me, or @ twitter here. Send me emails, they make me feel warm and fuzzy inside — plus, you’ll probably get a hilariously long answer to your three sentence question.

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The Power of Barajas

>I want you drop whatever you’re doing right now, and take a minute — just a minute — to think about Brian Schneider. Remember that guy? Go ahead. Think about the man who was the Mets Opening Day catcher in 2008 and 2009.

I did it right now. The only mental image of Brian Schneider that sticks with me is just him batting: left-handed, open stance, chewing gum with a sly half-grin which always seemed to be present on his face, as if he was in on a joke the rest of us haven’t figured out yet. That’s all I have for Schneider — just him batting, funny grin. Not throwing out a runner, or hitting a dramatic home run, or pulling an amusing prank on a teammate. Just his batting stance.

Well, that’s not really everything I remember. The other thing about Brian Schneider’s tenure that sticks with me is his batting song — for most of 2008, Brian Schneider’s walk up music was “In the Air Tonight,” by Phil Collins. You know: DOO-DOOM–DOO-DOOM–doo-doom–doo-doomDOOM–DOOM . . . I can feel it . . . coming in the air tonight. That song. I found the song choice odd for two reasons: (1) Schneider bears a passing resemblance to Phil Collins and (2) I believe that song, sung by Mike Tyson in “The Hangover”, the song that has an 80s-cheesy-karaoke factor on par with something like “Livin’ on a Prayer,” was used by Schneider without any trace of irony.

Now, obviously, I don’t actually know that for a fact. I’ve never met Brian Schneider, and everything I know about him comes from what he did while on the playing field and sitting in the dugout. He could very well have been using “In the Air Tonight” ironically . . . but I didn’t think so. It’s not as if Brian Schneider’s Mets career was littered with anecdotes about his dry sense of humor and his encyclopedic knowledge of music. It’s not littered with much of anything. The only things I can come up with to describe Brian Schneider’s Mets years are his batting stance and that he used a funny song, most likely without realizing the humor.

That’s the thing about Brian Schneider. He was boring. Schneider may very well be a fascinating person off the field — again, I have no idea either way — but between the foul lines, he was uninspiring. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and that’s not to say that I disliked Schneider, or that I rooted against him because he was sort of dull. It’s more that I just didn’t find him a particularly compelling character. I didn’t find myself getting excited about Brian Schneider one way or the other. I didn’t particularly root for anything about him, other than the name of the team on the front of the jersey. Schneider’s ultimate legacy is to be the catcher people repeatedly miss on future Mets-related Sporcle quizzes.

Now think about the Mets current starting catcher, Rod Barajas. He’s a big, resilient, huskily built catcher, but one who also seems to fit into the stereotypical laid-back Californian mold, always loosely smiling about something, or just loosely smiling about nothing at all. He’s just happy to be here. He serves as the clubhouse DJ and has excellent taste in music; his walk up songs are 2Pac‘s “California Love” and War’s “Low Rider.” On the field, Barajas tries to send baseballs to strange, new worlds with a swing more appropriate for beer-league softball than professional baseball. He seems like an interesting, relatable sort of dude. He’ll be easier to remember in ten years for trivia games.

I bring these two catchers up not to point out that Rod Barajas has done more interesting things in two months than Brian Schneider did in two years, or that’s he’s more exciting, but more to point out that for all the endearing qualities of Rod Barajas . . . he hasn’t been that much better than Brian Schneider. This is important.

Now, Barajas does have 11 home runs in his first 50 games as a Met, and Schneider had 12 in his entire Mets career, and for that reason alone, Barajas has been more valuable than Schneider . . . but he hasn’t been that much more valuable. Barajas has thrown out just 2 of 21 (10%) base stealers this season; Schneider threw out 31 of 92 base stealers (34%) in his two seasons. Barajas has 4 walks against 25 strikeouts and a .281 OBP this year; Schneider walked 60 times and struck out 74 between ‘08 and ‘09, putting up a .323 OBP. Through 185 plate appearances, Barajas is sitting at 0.8 WAR; using what he did in 2008, Brian Schneider would be worth roughly 0.7 WAR in the same number of plate appearances. Schneider’s better defense and plate discipline makes up for his comparative lack of power. Barajas and Schneider have been practically equal in terms of measurable contributions.

That doesn’t change who the more compelling player is. Barajas, giving us long bombs along with bomb beats from Dre, is still far easier to become attached to than the bland Schneider. Still, in terms of actual on-field contributions, it’s hard to see a significant difference between the two. The difference exists mainly in their batting songs and levels of self-awareness. One player is just easier to grow attached to than the other, but not because one is dramatically better than the other.

These emotional differences between Schneider and Barajas, and not on-field differences, mirror exactly what is happening with all of these current Mets. They are an easier team to root for — but it’s not because they are better, or at least not because they are that MUCH better. The 2009 Mets, through 63 games, were sitting at 33-30, two games out of first place; the 2010 Mets are 35-28 through 63 games, one-and-a-half games out of first. If you are what your record says you are, then these Mets have been better, but not that much better. I’m not sure if the difference in record fully explains why this bunch is SO much more likable than last year’s.

There are some other possible answers. These Mets seem to be playing a better quality of baseball, specifically in terms of running the bases, fielding, and not doing dumb things. Baseball Prospectus ranks the 2010 Mets as the best baserunning team in the majors; on the other hand, they were among the better teams last season as well, 8th best in baseball. They also may (or may not) be playing better defense. Defensive metrics have this squad playing either way better to just slightly better defense this season — depending on which ones you look at — though they are turning balls in play into outs slightly less often (.690) than they did last season (.693). At the very least, it certainly looks like they’re playing better defense. They’re also doing less dumb things. The Mets index of Obviously Outrageous PlayS! (OOPS!), an index I made up just now that has this formula — (errors + times picked off + base running outs + pitcher’s HBP + bases loaded walks + balks) / games — is lower. There were 1.65 obviously infuriating plays per game in 2009, against 1.55 per game this season . . . but I just made that statistic up right now. They’re certainly not playing sloppier baseball this season, but they’re not playing THAT much better either. I would guess that it means far more to us fans watching the game than it does in the actual standings. So that may be part of it, but I’m not sure it’s all of it.

So does it come down to this group just being more relatable than the previous teams? Barajas, Henry Blanco, R.A. Dickey, Chris Carter, Jeff Francoeur, Jesus Felicano and Angel Pagan are a group pulled right off the island of misfit ballplayers, each one easy to pull for in that underdog sort of way. The return of Jose Reyes is certainly exciting, as is the renewed success of Mike Pelfrey. The continued greatness of David Wright. The opening notes of Jon Niese’s and Ike Davis’ careers. Everyone used their shaving cream for pies and threw away their razors — al
l that helps. Generally, I find this group is easier to root for than the Brian Schneiders and Carlos Delgados of teams past, even if they’re not really any better. It could be that, too.

So it could be that the Mets are playing better baseball, or are just being more cuddly . . . but what I really see happening here is something else. It’s a team, and a fan base, liberated from the weight of expectations. In 2007, the Mets were supposed to take care of business and win the World Series; they came up short. In 2008, they were supposed to avenge the collapse and win the World Series; they came up short. In 2009, they were supposed to avenge everything, and Sports Illustrated picked them to win the World Series; they came up hilariously short. They fell short of expectations each time. To quote Phil Collins, “it’s all been a pack of lies.”

This year? The Mets were supposed to finish fourth, the whole team was supposed to catch the bubonic plague, Citi Field was supposed to burn to the ground, but the fans would just shrug it off again. Or something like that. It’s difficult to come up short when fourth place is the goal. This team really had nowhere to go but up, and I think that alone is the biggest difference between this year and last. They’ve been a pleasant surprise this year, though just about anything would be a pleasant surprise after last year. They’ve been a pleasant surprise because they were allowed to become a pleasant surprise.

I don’t know if this team is that much better than any recent incarnation of the Mets. I do know that the expectations are dramatically different. This bunch is certainly less sloppy, has better taste in music, and is more bearded. That all probably helps to make them likable. Sometimes though, when the pressure is taken off, it becomes easier to see the good that’s happening. This is an easier group to like, but it’s also easier to just sit back and like them.

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>Sunday Morning Links and Housekeeping

>A few housekeeping blog notes:

- I’ve gotten away from doing link dumps the past few weeks, mostly because I’ve been having trouble finding solid stuff to link. I revamped my Google reader and I’m going to be starting links up again, only this time with hopefully more interesting material. It will still be just weekly for now, but I may start doing link dumps more than once a week, provided it’s working the way I’d like.

- I’ll be taking a trip out to Ohio for a few days this week to visit my sister . . .  though you may notice that the Mets happen to be playing the Indians in Cleveland this week. This may or may not be coincidental timing. I’ll (hopefully) be checking out the Mets-Indians game on Wednesday, as well as the AAA Columbus Clippers on Tuesday. I’ll still be posting while I’m away, so keep checking in.

- Mailbag, mailbag, mailbag, mailbag. There will be another mailbag post sometime this week, but keep sending emails. I have fun doing it, and maybe you have fun reading it, so send your questions along via email, via Twitter, or Facebook. You, of course, make it all possible . . . plus I like getting random emails. It makes me feel happy inside.

Finally, the links:


Baseball:

Last night was Star Wars night at the game in Buffalo. (The Mets Police)

How good or bad are Mike Pelfrey’s pitches? Eno Sarris has the answers. (Amazin’ Avenue)

Ten things to know about Jon Niese’s one-hitter. (ESPN New York)

Ted Berg reminds everyone that missing man Fernando Tatis is not bad at baseball. (TedQuarters)

I don’t know if this is a large enough sample size — Tom Tango isn’t sure either, and he would know — but morning people pitch better in day games. (Science Daily)

A look back at one of the oddest no-hitters ever recorded. (River Avenue Blues)

Sharks or Dinosaurs, and then something else:

Sharks = Mathematicians? (Discover)

A strange look into the future, man, machine, Google, and “Singularity.” (New York Times)

Music Video featuring someone without teeth:

USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! I am officially all for jingoism in soccer form, but I am not so much in favor of the apocalyptic droning of the vuvuzelas. They sounds like the Joker’s theme from “The Dark Knight.” Or just insanity. They sound like insanity. USA! USA! USA!


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Ike Davis: Completely Normal First Baseman

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444 feet. That’s the estimated distance, according to HitTracker, as to how far Ike Davis’ walk-off home run traveled into Tuesday night’s air. I say “estimated” because as I type this sentence, the ball still hasn’t landed, and likely vanished from existence into the mist of short-term legend.

It wasn’t the farthest home run hit by a Mets player this season — that would be David Wright’s 451-foot home run off Nate Robertson in Florida last month — and it’s not even the Davis’ farthest launched ball of the season, as his first career home run was sent an estimated at 450 feet. The 11th inning blast probably wasn’t even Davis’ most impressive home run this season. His drive in Atlanta off Kris Medlen traveled 440 feet and left his bat at 116.8 MPH — which, oddly enough, is also the speed of Stephen Strasburg’s changeup. Tuesday night’s blast left Davis’ bat at “just” 113.7 MPH . . . but that ball was still absolutely crushed. It was an off-speed pitch left high over the plate, and David Davis did what first baseman are supposed to do with off-speed pitches left high over the plate.

But that’s what Ike Davis does. He CRUSHES home runs like no other Mets player — here are the five farthest home runs hit by Mets this season, according to HitTracker:

5/15: David Wright, 451 feet
4/23: Ike Davis, 450 feet
6/8: Ike Davis, 444 feet
5/18: Ike Davis, 440 feet
5/7: Ike Davis, 436 feet

That’s a whole lot of Davis. As a quick side note, feared slugger Angel Pagan has had two of his home runs travel farther than any balls struck by notorious slap-hitter Jason Bay. Also, Bay, who was brought in specifically to hit home runs, is on pace for eight or nine home runs this season. He’s been a productive offensive player regardless, but I figure I’d point that out anyway.

Anyway, in Ike Davis the Mets have a big, left-handed, slugging first baseman, one that shares his teammates’ aversion to shaving and, more importantly, is capable of sending baseballs over the hills and far, far away. This is an odd development. Despite left-handedness and slugging-ness being included in the prototype for first basemen, Davis is actually an unusual player for the New York Mets. If you go through Baseball-Reference’s list of the Mets yearly starters at first base, you see plenty of left-handed batters (Keith Hernandez, John Olerud, Ed Kranepool), some sluggers (Dave Kingman . . . just Dave Kingman, really), but only one player who fit both criteria: Carlos Delgado. Delgado is the only true lefty masher in Mets history — unless you want to also count Mo Vaughn’s slugg-ish 26 home runs in 2002. While teams traditionally have their big power hitters at first — Jimmy Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Mark McGwire — the Mets’ typical first baseman has instead been a lefty-throwing, lefty-hitting, high-average batter. Hernandez, Olerud, and Kranepool all fit that bill to some extent. Dave Magadan would as well, outside of his propensity for throwing the baseball with his right hand. Delgado remains the odd man out among the five players who have spent the most time at first for the Mets, being both left-handed and capable of using a wooden stick to send spherical objects into clouds.

It is a somewhat unlikely occurrence for a baseball team to have such a lack of lefty mashers at first. Out of the 30 first baseman listed on the 2010 All-Star ballot, only nine bat exclusively from the right side. Out of the ten players with the most games played at first base, seven are left-handed, and seventeen of the top twenty-five were lefty hitters. First base tends to be reserved for the lefties more often than not, due to: A.) the difficulties playing other infield positions as a left-handed thrower (throwing across your body vs. having to pivot and throw to first), and also B.) because I would guess that a majority of lefties with good throwing arms find themselves turned into pitchers, and not right fielders, center fielders, or catchers. The result is a lot of lefties and big guys who can’t play anywhere else manning first base.

It’s not always the case. Jason Heyward, whose first career home run is still the longest homer of the year, is big, throws left-handed, and plays right field. Babe Ruth threw left-handed and played right, though he did famously begin baseball life as a pitcher. Kevin Youkilis is right-handed, can and has played elsewhere on the diamond, but fits the Red Sox current needs best at first base. Your handedness does not necessarily determine your fate. Still, I would guess a great number of lefty-throwing non-pitchers wind up at first base.

First baseman can loosely be split into two groups: One seems to be the traditional mashers trying to hide defensively. The second is made up of the high-average, defensively oriented players who are banished to first merely for their handedness, or out of team necessity. Despite the traditional image of a big, fat, old slugger lugging himself out of the dugout to play first base, I suspect there’s a bit more of a power vs. finesse split among first basemen than it would appear. For all the Ryan Howards and Adam Dunns of the world, there are still a decent number of James Loneys and Kevin Youkilises (How do you make “Youkilis” plural? Youkiliss? Youkili?)

Still, however they come about playing first, it seems odd that the Mets have had so many of this second type of finesse first baseman, and so few of the traditional powerful mashers. Kingman and Delgado have been the only true first base sluggers, while Magadan, Kranepool, Olerud, and Hernandez all fall into the second group. When everyone was juiced up, the Mets were running Olerud and Todd Zeile out to play first. The Mets played Ed Kranepool at first for most of the 1960s, and he didn’t become a loosely productive player until the 1970s. Even Daniel Murphy was more a finesse type last season, despite the words “finesse” and “Daniel Murphy” normally resisting any association.

But those days of light hitting seem to be over for now, as the Mets have Ike Davis. While he may not prove to be a true 40 home run masher, he still manages to drop some absolute bombs over Flushing, and that’s a welcome change. Being a lefty batter appears to help out, power-wise, at Citi Field, as the lefties seem to have an easier time knocking the ball out — though I suspect that may be nothing more than big lefty first basemen like Dunn and Davis driving the ball farther simply because they’re big dudes swinging with a bigger force, as opposed to someone with a smaller frame swinging for left field, like David Wright. However he manages to drive the baseball out of the park, Davis is doing so. It may seem odd to have a power hitting lefty first baseman in Queens, hopefully for the long haul, but it’s a good sort of odd.

Ike Davis Image via slgckgc.

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Johan Santana and the Accomplishments of Failure

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In a tradition that signals the beginning of summer better than Memorial Day, old television shows being rehashed into movies, and a rise in temperature, the New York Mets have stopped scoring runs for Johan Santana. Ah, summer.

These sorts of streaks have happened ever so often since Santana became a Met in 2008. Santana will reel off a string of sterling pitching performances, only to come away without his win-loss record being improved — the Mets don’t score, the bullpen doesn’t lock it down, something goes wrong and Santana winds up without a win. He pitches well, and everyone else fails around him. Over his last five starts, Santana has thrown 36.2 innings, allowed just 3 earned runs, and has held opponents to a .493 OPS. He has just one win in those five games, mostly because the Mets have scored 10 runs, 6 of them coming in the win over the Yankees. It’s happening again.

These unsupported streaks are often accompanied by the appearance of a story about Santana perhaps wishing he had never come to the Mets. Joel Sherman of the New York Post performed the honors this time around, though his was a well done purely speculative effort and not one claiming to have guessed successfully exactly what is going on in Santana’s head.

I’ve always been fascinated by this dynamic between Santana, the press, and the fans. I can’t think of another athlete so routinely speculated about — and occasionally even directly asked — whether he wishes he were on another team instead of his current lackluster one. I’ve heard of athletes complaining about their teams and demanding trades, but I can’t think of the press actually going ahead and doing so on behalf of one without even being asked. It’s as if everyone is embarrassed that Santana’s accomplishments may be damaged by the unsightly Mets — almost as if people expect Santana to say something about it, and it’s weird that he’s not.

I feel there’s almost a bit of terror in the fanbase because of this, as if Santana might actually say, Yeah, maybe I wish I was on a less inept team. Maybe I should have forced the Twins to send me to the Yankees or Angels. Maybe that would have been better. Maybe.

It’s an unpleasant thought, because if Santana did say anything along those lines, I’m not sure I would blame him. The Mets are inept, sometimes comically, sometimes painfully, often both. That’s who they are and who they’ve almost always been, both on and off the field. Johan Santana is someone who is almost never inept — in that way, he doesn’t seem to fit in with the team. It makes sense to wonder if he wishes he could leave this marriage. Maybe it’s what any of us would wish in his place — not that he actually thinks this, because I have no idea what Santana is thinking. I personally like to imagine he’s pondering quantum mechanics in the dugout between starts, or coming up with more complicated handshakes.

On the other hand, remember when he was booed in the beginning of 2008? That maybe wasn’t a good way to start things off.

Still, what I think is sometimes overlooked in these no-support streaks is that this Mets team may very well be the perfect situation for Johan Santana — in a weird, backwards sort of way. Yes, the Mets are usually bumbling about him like a sleepy little league team, and I’m sure that’s not any fun. Still, Santana seems to almost thrive on his teammates letting him down, as odd as that may sound.

Think of it this way: Some pitchers take to pouting when their teammates make an error or don’t score for them. Some will stare down their infielders when they boot a ball. John Lackey and Tom Glavine jump to mind for doing this on occasion. Santana, instead, seems to be one of those guys that says to himself, Okay, fine, I’ll do it all myself if I have to. I’ll just strike everyone out, and everyone will play better because I’m a little bit crazy. He takes the adversity, his teammates’ failures, his own shortcomings, and instead of glaring or pouting, he appears to channel it back at his opponents. It’s like he transformed into the Incredible Hulk, only he was already somewhat green and angry to begin with, and proceeds only to become even more green and even more angry as things start to go bad. You won’t like him when he’s angry.

I think back to his start in Fenway Park last season. The Mets were flailing around aimlessly, making three errors in the field as Ramon Martinez showed he had about as much range as a shortstop as Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl have as actors, but Santana didn’t shout at his teammates or glare at them. Instead, the clearest memory I have of that game is Santana screaming at Kevin Youkilis after drilling him in the arm to hurry up and get to first base. That’s what Santana does. He’s not going to stare down Ramon Martinez for being Ramon Martinez; Santana gets mad at the OTHER team.

Santana seems often to get better as things get worse. It has almost been the story of Santana’s career. A great part of his success has been his ability limit damage when runners reach base. Pitching with the bases empty in his career, batters have hit for an OPS of .659. That’s good enough on its own, but with runners on, batters put up an OPS of .628, an OPS drop of about 30 points. His biggest strength is his ability to keep batters from going deep with men on base — with no one on base, Santana surrenders a home run once every 33 or so batters; he surrenders home runs with runners on base once every 46 or so batters.

What all that means is that only 22.5% of men that have reached base against Santana have come around to score. The league average tends to sit somewhere closer to 30%. I’m really not sure how he does it — my only guess is that he relies less on his changeup with men on and goes after the hitters with fastballs, as the changeup is more likely to induce swings and misses but also long drives, though that’s only a guess. For whatever reason, he’s at his best when he most needs to be. He’s the perfect pitcher for a bad team.

Of course, just because Santana seems to pitch better when called upon to do so doesn’t mean the Mets are going to play any better in support of him. They usually seem to play worse. So, it’s entirely possible he does wish he were somewhere else, and his win-loss record probably will not ever look how it should. He came here to be on a contender, and he might not ever get a shot to do that.

Still, I wonder sometimes if we spend to much time wondering about what an athlete was unable to accomplish and miss some of the things they do. Ken Griffey Jr. just retired and the story about him seems to be about what he didn’t do. He (probably) didn’t do steroids in an era dominated by them, but he also didn’t stay healthy, and he didn’t play in a World Series, and he didn’t retire when he likely should have. I suppose if you look at it that way, Junior didn’t do a lot of things he could have done. I suppose he could have been even better had things gone differently. Maybe his career can be seen as a big what-if scenario, but it just feels wrong to me to look at Griffey like that — he hit 630 home runs, fifth all-time, with a .907 career OPS and played a great center field in his twenties. The glove I used in little league was his model with his name on it, and he was THE baseball player when I was younger. He was and is a legend, an icon, and one of the great ones just walked
away for all eternity, even if his talent left before he did. I would hope the celebration should be about what he accomplished, not what he was unable to by nature of being human.

The same goes for the story that overshadowed Griffey’s retirement, the imperfectly-called perfect game. As some people have noted, in the middle of the storm over a blown call, changing rules and human elements, there was a touching story of forgiveness. Jim Joyce messed up and cost Armando Galarraga the 21st perfect game in history. Again, the focus is on what didn’t happen: Joyce didn’t make the correct call, and Galarraga didn’t get the perfect game, and neither can get that back. But both Galarraga and Joyce handled what happened with what appeared to be tremendous class. Galarraga bringing the lineup card out, giving Joyce a buddy slap on the shoulder and a tearful Joyce slapping him back even harder was near perfect. Still, what looks like should have happened for Galarraga didn’t happen. Same for Griffey. Same for Santana. Things didn’t work out as they seemingly should have.

But that’s life, really. Things often don’t work out the way they’re supposed to. You mess up, people around you mess up, the universe conspires against you through chance and randomness. Being a human being is often about dealing with failure, both your own and other’s. Sometimes Ramon Martinez boots the ball behind you, sometimes you get hurt, and sometimes you blow the call for no apparent reason. Sometimes no one scores for you. Still, dealing with failure the right way might be just as much of an accomplishment as succeeding in the first place. That was what was so nice about Joyce and Galarraga: they dealt with it in the right way. I suspect that the way Santana deals with his teammates inabilities is probably the right way to deal with such things as a pitcher. Those are accomplishments in their own right.

Though at the same time . . . it isn’t quite real life, and none of these are quite real failures. It’s baseball. It should be a temporary escape from all the failures of real life, the ones that are truly consequential. I believe the late journalist David Halberstam wrote something along the lines of: “The rest of the newspaper is for people’s failures. The sports section is about their accomplishments.” I like that idea. I hope it’s what I do here more often than not.

Ken Griffey Jr., Armando Galarraga and Jim Joyce all accomplished something wonderful in spite of the failure about them. Johan Santana has been pitching something close to masterfully, even if he has no wins to show for it. Whatever. Baseball, at least the way I see it, should be a place for the celebration of people’s accomplishments, if only because the failures don’t really matter all that much. Santana has been pitching well and handling his teammates hiccups even better, and that’s something I like to watch.

Johan Santana image courtesy of rezsox Flickr photostream.

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