Do you recognize the person in the above picture? Look at him. He looks sort of familiar, right? Like maybe you’ve seen him before? It’s Scott Hairston. He’s an outfielder for the Mets — which explains the cap — and has been with the team since spring training. He may be a bit hard to pick out: Hairston hasn’t seen game action in nine days, and he has a total of four plate appearances since May 19. The above picture is the most recent image of Hairston available from the AP photo wire; it’s from May 9th. And Hairston is doing arm circles for a game in which he won’t play. The most recent picture of him doing something in a game is from April. This is not his fault; Scott Hairston is not a useless player. But he is a player for whom the Mets appear to have no use. For all the excitement about Sandy Alderson, Terry Collins, and the new Mets, Hairston’s vanishing act is a reminder that they’re still learning how to work together.
Let’s start with why Scott Hairston is on the Mets, because there were reasons. He’s a righthanded hitter with good power, and he has played all three outfield positions. You can throw him in center without embarrassing yourself, or so the thinking went. Give him 300 plate appearances, and he’ll hit you 10 home runs. And as a former member of the Padres, he was someone familiar to Sandy Alderson and Paul DePodesta. Bench bat, someone to fill in for Carlos Beltran, Angel Pagan, or Jason Bay when needed, and a known guy. For a team that had depth problems last season (and is still playing hot potato with Carlos Beltran’s knees this year), it was a reasonable $1.1 million dollar investment. From a general manager’s perspective, signing Hairston made sense.
Only, as it turns out, Hairston serves no purpose on these current Mets. He’s a lefty masher on a team that almost never faces lefthanded pitching, and his manager doesn’t trust him to handle center field regularly. So he never plays. The Mets have faced 15 lefthanded starters (against 47 righthanded starters) this season. Only two NL teams have faced fewer lefties. This isn’t an accident. Their division rivals, the Marlins, Braves, Phillies, and Nationals, have a total of four lefthanded starters between them. Philadelphia has Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, and Washington has Jason Marquis and Tom Gorzelanny. (Atlanta has Mike Minor filling in for Brandon Beachy, if you want to count him, bringing the total to five.) And then even when Hairston comes in to pinch hit against a lefty, the opposing manager almost immediately goes to a righthanded reliever. Then Terry Collins counters with the lefthanded hitting Willie Harris. That is literally the most useful thing Scott Hairston has done in the past week: He was able to bring Willie Harris to the plate against a righty . . . that speaks for itself. The Mets simply don’t have a big need for righthanded power. Ahem.
Hairston can’t even steal a start in center now and then. When Angel Pagan was on the disabled list — a situation for which Scott Hairston was signed — the Mets instead recalled Jason Pridie to play center field. The implication being that Terry Collins was uncomfortable with Hairston roaming Citi Field’s center field and wanted the rangier Pridie. Seeing the way Hairston handled the corners over the first few weeks of the season, I don’t blame Collins. But if Hairston isn’t going to play center, then there’s really no point in him being on the roster. He’s not going to steal starts in a corner from Beltran or Bay, who both hit lefties better than righties; that’s what (alleged) righty-mashers Willie Harris and Lucas Duda do. Hairston’s only hope was to steal a few starts from Pagan when the Mets face a tough lefty. But if Terry Collins won’t play Hairston in center regularly, then Hairston is never going to play at all. And, oh hey, look what’s happening.
Hairston has his uses. It’s just that the Mets don’t need any of them. Jason Pridie has a skill set (good range, hits lefthanded) that fits the current Mets and their park better, which is why he plays so much more. In Citi Field, the offensive difference between Hairston and Pridie shrinks and the defensive difference becomes more important. Scott Hairston is the better player in a vacuum — he can hold his breathe for a long, long time — but Jason Pridie fits this particular team. It seems almost obvious in retrospect, the sort of thing you might expect an intelligent front office to figure out before committing a million dollars to someone they didn’t need.
But sometimes you need to experience something before you realize what seems obvious in retrospect. If I can digress a moment: A week ago, during a Mets-Braves game, I sat next to a pleasant Scottish man in the Citi Field pressbox. He was an older man, a rugby writer visiting New York for a week trying to learn about fans in America. (At one point, he handed me his business card. His phone number was 15 digits. Awesome guy.) We got to talking about baseball before and during the game. Apparently, EPSN broadcasts a decent number of games in Scotland, so he was familiar with most of the rules and players like Beltran and Jose Reyes, among others. But every once in a while he would lean over and ask me about something that I didn’t realize needed to be explained. How many times can you make substitutions? Are there regulations regarding the size of the playing field? Things like that. The sort of knowledge I take for granted having grown up with baseball, but things that still need to be learned at some point.
I think that’s some of what we’re seeing this season with the Mets. Professor Alderson and his school for gifted sabermutants, despite all their talents, are still figuring this Mets thing out. They’re getting to know the players, the ballpark, and the tendencies of the manager they hired. As it turns out, it’s more important to have a backup center fielder who can chase down fly balls than it is to have one who can hit. (Or, at least that’s how the manager feels.) And there isn’t as much of a need for righthanded power bats in a division filled with talented righthanded pitching. Scott Hairston doesn’t really do anything for these current Mets. Literally. He hasn’t played in over a week because there’s been no situation in which he’s been needed. These are the sorts of things that could have been figured out beforehand, but sometimes you only pick things up as you go along. This season is a learning experience for everyone; assuming the new Mets would have it all figured out right away was crazy. But they’ll get it.
Scott Hairston, on the other hand . . . sorry dude. Maybe you should figure out how to hit lefthanded until you get flipped to a contender in August.