SweetSpot: New York Mets

Write it up: Collin McHugh's success story

May, 2, 2014
May 2
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesCollin McHugh has been in some kind of zone in his first two starts of 2014.
Houston Astros pitcher Collin McHugh is one of the most interesting pitchers in baseball, and not just because he’s 2-0 with an 0.59 ERA in two starts for a team that has dropped 100 games in each of the last three seasons.

McHugh has kept a blog throughout his pro career, called "A Day Older, A Day Wiser," and the entries are well-thought-out and very articulate. He noted some things in his posts this past offseason that seemed to foreshadow his 2014 success.

One post noted that the signing with the Astros came on his wife’s birthday, which proved to be a good omen.

Another touched on watching Russell Wilson’s “Why Not Us?” comments during the Super Bowl and relating that to his own experience trying to stick in the major leagues despite failures in his previous experiences.

"I’ve looked at my career five years down the road and said 'Why not me?'" McHugh said. "Why couldn’t I get to stick with someone and put down some roots? It’s refreshing to see someone like Russell Wilson get a chance and do something with it. I’ve had so much encouragement from my friends, my family, from the three organizations that gave me a chance. You just hope it breaks [right] eventually."

Another addressed the value of hearing the words “You belong” from Astros manager Bo Porter at their first meeting in spring training.

That took a little while to fully sink in, as McHugh allowed nine runs and 12 hits in 5 2/3 innings in the spring, which is why he started the season in Triple-A rather than the majors. But he is taking advantage of the opportunity created when the Astros' best starter, Scott Feldman, went on the disabled list.

A fan has taken those two words and plugged them into the sponsor’s section on McHugh’s page on Baseball-Reference.com. He proved he belonged in these first two dominant starts with his third team (the Mets and Rockies were the other two) in three seasons.

“I don’t know if I could have pictured how it would go,” McHugh said of this start to the season. “But if I did, it would have gone like this. This time around, it's different [than when he debuted with seven scoreless innings for the 2012 Mets]. I'm more comfortable and a little bit more prepared.”

Great start

McHugh has already made a memorable statistical impression.

In his first start against the Mariners (whom he'll face again Sunday), he became the first Astros pitcher with a 12-strikeout, no-walk, scoreless start since Randy Johnson in 1998. The full list is McHugh and a collection of former All-Stars: J.R. Richard, Nolan Ryan, Mike Scott, Pete Harnisch and Johnson.

In his second start against the Athletics last Sunday, McHugh went 8 2/3 innings and allowed only two hits. He was part of a record-setting day in which 10 starters went at least seven innings and allowed three hits or fewer.

“His performance speaks for itself,” Porter said after that game. “He’s earned the right to get the ball for his next turn.”

McHugh is one of three Astros pitchers to win his first two starts, allowing one run or fewer and three hits or fewer in each one. The other two are Roger Clemens and (coincidentally) Feldman.

In each of the two games, McHugh has pitched with determination, visible a few times in the locked-in look on his face when he came off the mound after dotting the outside corner for an inning-ending strikeout or inducing a weakly hit out.

"I feel confident now," McHugh said. "I feel if I can get a guy to two strikes, he's out in my mind. Strikeouts are accidental. But when you get a guy to make soft contact and hit the ball where the defense is playing, and when you feel you have guys eating out of your hand, you just want to ride that out as long as possible."

How he’s winning

What is McHugh doing differently on the mound?

He noted the tinkering to his pitching as minor, but we picked up a few things. Brooks Baseball charts him as having gone away from his two-seam fastball, using exclusively a four-seamer. Astros pitching coach Brent Strom told McHugh he had a “sneaky” fastball that could be put to better use. McHugh has abided.

He’s also changed his first-pitch approach, in a manner similar to what James Shields did with much success a few years ago.

McHugh's put-away pitches have been well-placed.
McHugh threw 65 percent first-pitch fastballs with the Mets and Rockies the last two seasons; but in each of his two starts in 2014, fewer than half of his first pitches have been fastballs.

McHugh is now ‘"pitching backwards," noted when I asked former major league pitcher Brian Bannister for his thoughts on Twitter. That means he’s using his off-speed pitches (curve, slider and changeup) to set up his fastball, rather than the other way around.

It’s made him more unpredictable.

McHugh went to his slider against lefties much more often these two starts than he did the previous two seasons, and for good reason.

Lefties were 34-for-84 with six home runs against him in 2012 and 2013. Both the Athletics and Mariners loaded their lineups with lefties against McHugh, but those hitters were 4-for-42 against him.

"Our catchers are doing a really good job at mixing things up and reading the lineup the second time through," McHugh said. "For me, it's about having the confidence that I can throw each of my pitches for a strike. [As for hitting the corners], some days it's there and some days it's not. It goes back to focus. We've been doing it long enough. Sometimes your body just needs that extra second for a little more focus."

The next chapter

McHugh hasn't written a blog entry since being recalled. He and his wife did feel good enough about his two starts to settle into an apartment rather than staying at the team hotel. But this is a story that still has a lot left to play out.

"I try to wait until I'm super-motivated to write," McHugh said. "I want to wait until I have some more perspective."

Kernels of Wisdom: Week in review

July, 28, 2012

  • Three players this week -- Brett Lawrie on Sunday, Desmond Jennings on Wednesday and Starling Marte on Thursday -- took the very first pitch of the game out of the yard. Five players have now done that this season. Derek Jeter and Zack Cozart both pulled off the feat in June.
    In Marte’s case, it was his first major league at-bat, making him the first Pirate to homer in his debut since Don Leppert on June 18, 1961.
  • In Friday's game at Wrigley Field, Matt Holliday started the Cardinals' scoring with a solo homer in the first inning. Yadier Molina promptly went deep in the second; Lance Berkman in the third; Matt Carpenter in the fourth; and Allen Craig in the fifth. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Cardinals are the first team to homer in each of the first five innings since the Astros did it on the final weekend of the 2004 season against the Rockies (Craig Biggio, Jeff Kent, Biggio again, Eric Bruntlett and Kent again). And it was a first in Cardinals team history.
  • [+] EnlargeTravis Wood
    AP Photo/Paul BeatyChicago's Travis Wood became the first starter ever to allow homers in each of the first five innings.
    Travis Wood gave up all five of those homers, making him the fifth pitcher in Cubs history to surrender five long balls in a game (Carlos Zambrano did it last season), and according to Elias, the first starter ever -- for any team -- to allow homers in each of the first five innings.
  • Jim Johnson of the Orioles had a fairly rough Friday night. He started the ninth inning with his team clinging to a 9-8 lead. After a leadoff groundout, he gave up five singles and a walk in succession. All six runners would score, and Oakland rallied for a 14-9 win. Johnson is just the second pitcher this year to surrender six or more runs in a save situation. Brett Myers did it for Houston on June 28, although only one of his six runs ended up being earned. Since saves became official in 1969, only two other Orioles have done it -- Jim Hoey in 2006 and Doug Jones in 1995 -- and neither of them entered in the ninth.
  • Matt Harvey made his major league debut for the Mets on Thursday night, and promptly mowed down 11 Diamondbacks -- nine of them swinging -- in the process. It's been nearly two years since a pitcher hit double-digit strikeouts in his debut. Nope, not Stephen Strasburg (he did do it in 2010, but he's not the last). That would be Thomas Diamond of the Cubs, who struck out 10 Brewers on Aug. 3 of that season, but also gave up three runs and took the loss. Harvey, however, earned himself an even better distinction by getting a two-out double and a two-out single in his two plate appearances. Elias says that makes Harvey the first player in modern baseball history (since 1900) to strike out 10-plus batters and get two hits in his major league debut.
  • Chris Johnson had three hits for the Astros on Friday night -- a homer, a triple and a double. He never got the "elusive" single, striking out in his final at-bat. Johnson did walk in the game, but alas, this is not 1887 (the year when walks counted as base hits). That means Johnson became only the fifth player this season to miss the cycle by a single. Paul Goldschmidt (June 23) was the most recent. By comparison, 32 players have needed the homer, 11 the double and 149 the triple.
  • Couldn't let this week end without one leftover Kernel from last Saturday. The Cardinals sent 17 batters to the plate in a 12-run seventh inning against the Cubs. Allen Craig was up third, pinch hitting in the pitcher's spot. He doubled and scored. As the inning continued, Craig came up again as the 12th batter. He doubled and scored again -- thus becoming the first "pinch hitter" to have two doubles before taking the field since Bobby Kielty of the Twins did likewise on June 4, 2002.
    St. Louis went on to hit seven doubles in that inning, a feat accomplished only once before, by the 1936 Boston Bees (the five-year experimental rebranding of the Braves).
    As for the 12 runs in that inning, that turned out to be the only scoring in the game. The Cardinals shut out Chicago 12-0. And that had also happened only once before in MLB history. The Indians scored all 12 runs in the fourth inning to shut out the Yankees on July 2, 1943.
Statistical support for this story provided by Baseball-Reference.com and the Elias Sports Bureau.

Carlos Beltran's renaissance

May, 12, 2012

As baseball fans, we love getting worked up about the next big thing. And as someone who follows a Twitter account that alerts me when Bryce Harper is about to come to the plate, I am well aware that I am as guilty of this as anyone.

The problem with this line of thinking is that we sometimes take for granted the older guys because we've been watching them for so long. We really shouldn't. Exhibit A is Carlos Beltran, who put on a show against the Atlanta Braves on Friday and is playing about as well as he ever has at the age of 35.

The switch-hitter went 4-for-5 with two homers, a double, a triple, a walk and 4 RBIs, and even though Atlanta won 9-7 in 12 innings, Beltran was the story. He is now hitting .307/.410/.658 on the young season. No, he's not the basestealing threat he once was, and he's been relegated to right field, but the sweet swing is still there, and the Cardinals are reaping the benefits after signing him to a two-year, $26 million deal last winter that now seems like the steal of the century.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Beltran
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonCarlos Beltran, 35, finished a single short of the cycle Friday, with two home runs.
Beltran missed much of the 2009 and 2010 seasons with a variety of injuries while playing for the New York Mets. And even though he posted an .872 OPS with stellar defense and baserunning over the life of the seven-year, $119 million deal he signed with the club before the 2005 season, New York fans never warmed to him due to his aloof nature and the fact that he took a called third strike to end Game 7 of the 2006 National League Championship Series. (I've never really understood this, by the way. It was a great pitch and he was fooled. Taking a harmless hack wouldn't have changed anything.)

But ever since the start of last season Beltran has been locked in. He hit .300 with 22 homers for the Mets and San Francisco Giants in 2011, and this year he has taken his game to a level unseen since 2006, when he tied the Mets' franchise record with 41 home runs and posted a .982 OPS. As ESPN Insider contributor Dave Cameron noted on Twitter earlier this evening, he's basically matching Matt Kemp in terms of performance with a fraction of the hype.

St. Louis fans have a reputation for embracing their players in a way that many other fan bases don't, and here's hoping they are fully appreciating the greatness of Beltran in a way that many New York fans never seemed to. Frankly, we all should be appreciating him more because he's one of the best players of this generation.

With two more stolen bases he will become just the eighth player in baseball history with more than 300 homers and 300 steals, and with another couple of seasons of All-Star level production -- which is not out the question considering his current level of play -- he should have a strong Hall of Fame case. However, we know he can't keep up his current production forever, so let's enjoy it while it's here instead of focusing too much on who might be coming next.

2012 predictions you couldn't predict?

February, 18, 2012
Last year, You Can't Predict Baseball came up with bold predictions for the year. We had a lot of fun coming up with them, and then laughing at how hilariously wrong they were at the end of the year. This year, we're bringing these predictions to SweetSpot, along with explanations for some of them. Keep in mind, these predictions are supposed to be bold, but not insane -- even we know the Orioles aren't going to the playoffs in 2012.

Los Angeles Angels: Kendrys Morales stays healthy all year.

Houston Astros: Bud Norris is top five in K/9 in the NL. We figured something good had to happen to the Astros, right? Norris actually has a pretty nice career K/9.

Oakland Athletics: Yoenis Cespedes is their starting center fielder by Memorial Day.

Toronto Blue Jays: Brandon Morrow makes the jump to elite starting pitcher. He's struck out more than 10 batters per 9 innings two years running, though his ERAs have remained ugly. We think this is the year his results finally match the stuff, especially considering his declining walk rate.

Atlanta Braves: Julio Teheran has more wins than Tim Hudson.

[+] EnlargeRickie Weeks
AP Photo/David J. PhillipWith Prince Fielder gone to Detroit and Ryan Braun facing possible disciplinary action, Rickie Weeks could lead the Milwaukee Brewers in home runs in 2012.
Milwaukee Brewers: Rickie Weeks leads the team in home runs. He was fourth on the team last year, with 20. In front of him were Corey Hart with 26, Ryan Braun with 33, and Prince Fielder with 38. Fielder is gone, and for this prediction we'll assume Braun will miss a third of the year due to a suspension. It's not too bold to think Weeks could pass Hart in 2012.

St. Louis Cardinals: Carlos Beltran outproduces Albert Pujols from last year. Albert Pujols was great last year, but not quite best-player-of-his-generation Albert Pujols. If healthy, it's not absurd to think of Beltran outproducing Pujols' 5.1 WAR in 2011.

Chicago Cubs: Matt Garza isn't their best pitcher. It'll be Ryan Dempster, who had great peripherals but bad results last year.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Aaron Hill will be good again. He was great with them in limited time, and Arizona's park is quite hitter-friendly.

Los Angeles Dodgers: James Loney will be a top-three first baseman in the National League. Many thanks to Mike Scioscia's Tragic Illness for somewhat alerting us to this one. We just decided to take it semi-absurdly far.

San Francisco Giants: Madison Bumgarner is their best pitcher. In terms of ERA, he already wasn't very far behind Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, and his K/BB ratio eclipsed theirs by quite a bit.

Cleveland Indians: They'll have the best pitching in the American League Central. We're banking on Ubaldo Jimenez, making a major comeback to something closer to what he was in 2010, and the rest of the staff displaying the good that they did in 2011. We're also counting on the Tigers' starters not being very impressive behind Justin Verlander, which is bold but not quite insane, and the pitching of the White Sox, Twins and Royals not being able to keep up with Cleveland's.

Seattle Mariners: Jesus Montero catches 100-plus games. The Mariners probably aren't going to compete, so why not try and play him where he'll accrue the most value?

Miami Marlins: Despite all their new acquisitions and the hype, they still finish fourth in the NL East. When you think about it, this one isn't so crazy. If Josh Johnson isn't healthy and maybe even if he is their pitching still trails that of Philadelphia, Washington, and Atlanta; even with Heath Bell, we don't think their bullpen is as good, either. Their offense might be better than some of those teams', but the Marlins were quite a bit below league average offensively last year and we're not sure how much Jose Reyes is going to make up for that.

New York Mets: Mike Pelfrey is the worst starter in the NL. Pelfrey's been pretty terrible two of the past three years, and now they're moving the fences in at Citi Field. He was far better in his huge home stadium, but we're guessing with the moved-in walls he'll be significantly worse at Citi. Here at YCPB, we actually don't think the Mets are going to be quite as dire as many are saying, even if they do come in last place in the NL East - but Pelfrey won't be a bright spot.

Washington Nationals: Stephen Strasburg has a 17-strikeout game.

Baltimore Orioles: Matt Wieters is the best catcher in the AL. A lot of people are so obsessed with Wieters not matching the hype that they didn't notice he became a plus offensive performer last year, to go along with very good defense. His taking the next step isn't that bold as predictions go, especially if Joe Mauer has to move off catcher.

San Diego Padres: Luke Gregerson is a top-three closer in the NL.

Philadelphia Phillies: Cole Hamels is their best starter. And this isn't meant to be a slight to Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee, but considering their ages and the fact that Hamels is pretty darn good himself, plus a possible boost from a contract year...

Pittsburgh Pirates: Charlie Morton is their All-Star.

Texas Rangers: Yu Darvish isn't their best starter -- but he's still good. And we think he'll be pretty good, we just think Derek Holland will become more consistently good, or Matt Harrison will put up numbers like his 2011.

Tampa Bay Rays: James Shields will have no complete games. Predicting someone to have no complete games might not seem bold, but it is when it's a guy who was known as "Complete Game James" last season. Shields did have 11 complete games in 2011, an almost unheard-of number these days, but he had no complete games in 2009 or 2010.

[+] EnlargeJames Shields
Kim Klement/US PresswireAfter none in either 2009 or 10, James Shields pitched 11 complete games for Tampa Bay in 2011.
Boston Red Sox: No one hits 30 home runs. This might seem crazy when you consider their great offensive numbers last year, but only one player on their team hit 30 home runs and it was Jacoby Ellsbury with 32.

Cincinnati Reds: Brandon Phillips is the best second baseman in the NL.

Colorado Rockies: Jamie Moyer will have the best HR/9 on the staff.

Kansas City Royals: They reach .500. While their pitching won't be great, their offense will take a big step forward this year. Combined with the rest of their division being the Tigers and some dumpster fires, it's not that difficult to see it happening.

Detroit Tigers: They score fewer runs than they did in 2011. Yes, that’s even with Fielder. It's not improbable that Jhonny Peralta, Alex Avila and Delmon Young regress quite a bit from their numbers with Detroit last year, and that Prince Fielder's production "only" makes up for the offensive loss of Victor Martinez in 2012. They'll still have a very good offense, though.

Minnesota Twins: Joe Mauer hits 15 home runs.

Chicago White Sox: Robin Ventura gets ejected more times than Ozzie Guillen. Look at the state of the White Sox. We'd get ejected too.

New York Yankees: Hiroki Kuroda leads the team in ERA.

You Can't Predict Baseball is an affiliate of the SweetSpot network.

A scout's tale

March, 11, 2011
Recently, Baseballin’ on a Budget’s Chris Martinez was granted an interview with Shooty Babitt, currently working as both a television analyst for the A’s on Comcast SportsNet California and a scout for the New York Mets.

Chris used the time to ask in-depth questions on many topics, including scouting, something about which many baseball fans (including me) only have cursory knowledge. I thought I’d post a few snippets in this space (for the record, Shooty seems like a great guy; the fact that he turned 28 major-league games into a 30-year career as a broadcaster and a scout only backs that up).

CM: I didn’t know there were different tiers of scouting. You’re talking about doing the scouting for trades and free agency. I only knew about the area scouts at the minor league level. Can you talk about the difference in the types of scouting?

SB: An area scout is given a particular part of the region, like a Northern California scout, an area guy. When I was an area guy with Atlanta, I had from Salinas, [Calif.,] all the way up to southern Tahoe. [The scout's] job is to know every player who could be a potential professional player. There are pro guys who only do minor-league stuff and then there are area guys who are doing A-ball coverage because at the end of the season and after the draft their clubs send them out to do professional scouting.

It gives them a chance to see kids that they’ve scouted in the past from high school and see the progress they’ve made. Are they that player they thought they would be? Were they right about his tools becoming playable at the higher level? Or did they make a mistake? Where did you go wrong? That’s a great yardstick for me scouting for as long as I have.

There are kids that I saw that I said that can’t hit in the major leagues. I’ve been wrong on a couple but I’ve been right on more. That’s the great part of the job. The things that I’ve seen in players over the past years, those are the things that I’ve determined as far as my evaluations are concerned.

CM: Can you go into the details of your day-to-day scouting duties?

SB: My schedule is mapped out for the year. I have to make sure everything falls into place. Normally, I’m in the Bay Area for half the month. I’m starting the [2011 season] with the first three days in Oakland against Seattle. I get to the ballpark around 2 or 2:30 when no one’s there. I set up. I get online, read some notes, get prepared. When people start showing up I start talking to whomever I know: a coach, a player, a manager, a front-office executive, anyone who can tell me something that gives me more knowledge about that club.

I get my lineups written up. I have a card I keep during the year so whenever I see them I change the date but I write the lineup on the card. Our reports are made up on that card. I make up my report on each player. Normally, I stay with a club five days so I can see all the starters. By that time I’ve seen all the relievers and position players. Now I’ve watched what they’ve done and I’ve evaluated and graded [them], what it is now, what I think it will be in the future, and what [a player's] value might be.

On that fifth day, I’m onto the next city. Hopefully, it’s another club coming in that I’m responsible for and [it] gives me a week and a half at home. But if I have to jump on the road, I do the same thing. Each night when I’m there, I’m doing reports. The next time I see a starting pitcher, I get him in the computer. I don’t want to fall behind. When it starts getting close to the trade deadline, we start zeroing in on a lot of players. We have more conference calls. Just be ready for the phone to ring.

CM: I read some quotes, what Billy Martin said about you. Is it true that he said he’d rather shoot himself than have you play second base?

SB: I didn’t hear that. One night in Cleveland when the whole infield had a bad night he took it out on me more than anyone else for some reason. He said he was going to send me to Egypt to play.

The entire interview is entertaining and informative, well worth the time to read it. Kudos to Chris for making the most of the opportunity.

Dan Hennessey writes Baseballin' on a Budget, a blog about the Oakland Athletics. Follow him on Twitter @DanHennessey31.

Will Jason Bay's power return?

February, 24, 2011
The last time I watched Jason Bay play on a nightly basis was the 2009 season, his last in Boston before departing to New York with a four-year, $66 million contract. A full season removed from his time in Boston, the image of him punishing line drives to left-center or hitting moon balls over the Green Monster still sit fresh in my mind.

Unfortunately for Mets fans, they aren’t quite able to muster up such memories.

Over his season and a half in Boston, Bay hit 45 home runs or one home run every 16 at-bats. His career before coming to Boston, Bay went yard at an equally impressive clip of once every 18.5 at-bats. But in his first season in Flushing Meadows, Bay’s power stroke all but disappeared in the caverns of Citi Field as he managed only six home runs in nearly 350 chances -- or once every 58 at-bats.

[+] EnlargeJason Bay
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonThe Mets need Jason Bay to return to his 2009 form.
To be fair to Bay, his season was undoubtedly cut short by injury after his July 25 concussion that landed him on the 60-day disabled list. As a streaky power hitter adjusting to a new park with the pressure of a new contract, Bay could very well have turned his season around in 2010 if healthy. Robbed of that chance by the Dodger Stadium wall, Bay turns to the 2011 season to make amends.

"I just want to get back to the player I know I am," Bay told reporters in Mets camp. "I kind of lost that a little bit last year."

Two questions immediately come to mind upon hearing Bay’s words: 1) Can Jason Bay regain his past form and become a threat in the middle of the New York Mets’ lineup; and 2) What exactly did he lose last year that sapped his power in the first place?

Surely the move from Fenway Park to Citi Field had its impact on Bay early in 2010. My memories of Bay and his assault of -- and over -- the Green Monster are validated by a quick look at the scatter plots of his home runs over the course of 2009 when 24 of his 36 home runs cleared the Monster.

But Fenway Park alone didn’t make Bay a dangerous pull hitter. Over the course of his career, nearly half of his extra-base hits have been pulled to left field. While Bay wasn’t likely to turn in consecutive years with an ISO of .466 on pulled balls like he did at Fenway, and some regression upon leaving for any new home would be expected, Bay still owned a career .304 ISO on balls hit to left.

What happened last year? He simply stopped pulling the ball as often and with as much power. In fact, he turned into a virtual Alex Cora at the plate, posting an ISO of .079 on pulled balls to Cora’s .073. Not what you expect from your $66 million slugger. Is it fair to place the full blame of his power lapse on ballpark factors? No. But if there were a case that exacerbated the impacts of park changes more than this, I would be surprised.

Given Bay’s ability to find his power stroke to left in 2011, can he translate that into a 30-plus home-run season? According to Bay, at least, he has a shot.

""Thirty, I think, is reasonable," Bay said. "That's a big ballpark, and the number might take a hit, but you look at David Wright. David hit 29, and it can be done."

Unfortunately for Bay, you won’t find a major projection system or the voting community at FanGraphs as optimistic about a return to the home run leaderboard.

2011 Home Run Projections: Jason Bay:

FanGraphs Community: 23
ZiPS: 20
Bill James: 21
Marcel: 17

Then again, maybe Bay is an eternal optimist after all.

"Are we going to win 120 games?" Bay asked. "I don't know, but I think we're going to be a lot better than people think."

Tim Daloisio contributes to Fire Brand of the American League, a blog about the Boston Red Sox.

New York Mets bring coal to Newcastle

November, 8, 2010
The New York Mets are assembling quite the brain trust, don't you think?

    Paul DePodesta is leaving his role as executive vice president of the San Diego Padres to join general manager Sandy Alderson's front office with the New York Mets as a special assistant.

    DePodesta, 37, served as GM of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2004 and '05, becoming the third-youngest executive in major league history to hold a GM role.

    He is the second high-profile assistant Alderson has named since becoming GM, joining former Toronto Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi. Along with holdover Wayne Krivsky, the Mets have three former GMs working under Alderson. Krivsky was GM of the Cincinnati Reds.

Make no mistake, my friends, there is a direct correlation between the intelligence of the people in your front office and the performance of your team on the field. Now, "intelligence" can take many different forms. You don't have to be a Marine officer (as Alderson was) to lead men, or graduate from Harvard (as Paul DePodesta did) to read a spreadsheet, or chase girls with Billy Beane (as J.P. Ricciardi did) to talk the fur-lined boots off an Eskimo.

It really helps, though.

Keep your eye on the Mets. If they suddenly begin doing intelligent things, it won't take long before they've passed the Braves and are challenging the Phillies. If the organization continues to muddle along for two or three years, it will probably be due to the meddling of whoever hired all these smart guys.

This time maybe Mets can't go wrong

October, 22, 2010
Calcaterra on the Mets' latest machinations:
    I suppose a well-considered decision is better than an impulsive one, but it does seem like the Mets are taking their sweet time on this GM thing.

The team just sent out an e-mail to fans saying that they’re bringing back former Diamondbacks GM Josh Byrnes and Sandy Alderson for a second round of interviews. Which, given that Alderson has already been in twice for interviews means that it will his third time meeting with Mets officials.

I know it’s an important job, but really, what’s taking so long here? It’s not like these two are part of a big slate of entry-level applicants who could only get 30 minute across-the-desk interviews when they were in before. What else do you need to know? (That's actually the whole post. I owe you one, ShysterCraig.)

I guess we just don't know yet.

Maybe upper management is being incredibly diligent, making sure they get not only the right man, but the right fit.

Or maybe upper management is engaged in the same tomfoolery that got them into this mess.

I happen to think either Byrnes or Alderson would do a fine job, though of course Alderson's got the more impressive track record. As someone else pointed out (sorry, don't remember where), if Alderson does get the job he'll probably focus a bit more on the big picture than most GMs would, so we should pay closer attention than usual to the identity of his closest assistants.

Whoever winds up with the job, I don't expect the Mets to languish in the middle of the standings for much longer.

Do Mets' problems start at the top?

September, 20, 2010
Under the headline, "There is no fixing the Mets until the team is sold," Craig writes:

    That's the only conclusion that can be drawn from Joel Sherman's latest, in which he cast about big league front offices to get (anonymous) comment on the Mets' COO.

    The pithy summary: Wilpon is a "short-tempered, tone deaf credit seeker," he's an "accountability deflector," a "micro-manager" and a "second-guesser." Oh, and he's a bull-headed idiot too, if the phrases Sherman uses -- he's a "less-than-deep thinker," and is "bad at self-awareness" -- can be reasonably parsed.


    ... The only people who are going to want the Mets GM job are those people who have no better options and who will likely put up with anything Wilpon throws at them because they need the job badly.

    Which is exactly how Jeff Wilpon wants it, it would seem.

I won't tar Jeff Wilpon any further because I don't know the guy and Sherman and Calcaterra have already pretty much finished the job. I have written a few times over the years that I believe the old saying, "A fish stinks from the head," probably tells us something useful about baseball teams. It's always easy (and fun!) to blame the general manager, but when the general managers change but the owner doesn't and the franchise just keeps losing, who's responsible, really?

The general manager? Or the owner, for hiring the general manager and/or forcing the general manager to do foolish things?

The owner is ultimately responsible. But that does sort of beg the question. What I'd really like to know is whether big franchise turnarounds are typically due to changes in management, or changes in ownership. Which seems like an empirical question, at least to some degree. As far as I know, nobody's ever studied the impact of ownership on team performance.

In the mean time, I would agree that the Mets do have an ownership problem. I would not suggest that it doesn't matter who gets the GM job. Everything matters. But the Mets should be competitive almost every year. They should be today's Phillies, or yesterday's Braves. But instead they're the Mets, who have been to the playoffs exactly once since the Wilpons took complete control of the franchise eight years ago.

Two of Omar Minaya's greatest hits

September, 14, 2010
Should be an interesting off-season in Queens. FanHouse's Ed Price:
    There has been little doubt for a while the Mets will not bring back Jerry Manuel as manager, and a source confirmed reports that general manager Omar Minaya is likely out as well. Ownership seems to be leaning toward hiring an experienced GM, as they are not inclined to promote assistant GM John Ricco, and Wally Backman -- a popular ex-Met who was nearly manager of the Diamondbacks before the team discovered some off-field issues he didn't disclose -- as manager.

As Craig points out, there don't seem to be a great many candidates for Minaya's job. There's Kevin Towers and ... well, that's about it if the Mets are looking for someone with plenty of experience and a winning record. And Towers is considered one of the top candidates for the job in Arizona.

Which is to say, I don't have any idea who's going to get the job. I do think the problem's been ownership as much as general managership, but maybe the next guy will prove me wrong.

More than anything, I just wanted to use this chance to mention (again, probably) how badly Omar Minaya messed up with Heath Bell and Francisco Rodriguez.

Last season, Bell led the National League with 42 saves. This season, he's got 41 saves and hasn't blown a chance since late May.

Of course, not so long ago Bell was a Met and Minaya gave him away.

Well, that's not completely true. Minaya traded Bell and Royce Ring to the Padres for Jon Adkins and Ben Johnson. Since then, Adkins and Johnson have combined to appear in 14 major league games and Heath Bell has 85 saves and a 2.51.

How did this happen? I wasn't there. Maybe Bell was biting the heads off chickens and spitting their blood at elderly clubhouse attendants. But my guess is that Minaya placed too much faith in Bell's short time in the majors and not enough faith in his minor-league performance.

In 2005 and '06, Bell pitched 64 games for the Mets -- 84 innings -- and gave up a whopping 107 hits. At the same time, his strikeout-to-walk ratio was excellent: 3.25 with plenty of strikeouts.

Since joining the Padres, Bell's strikeout-to-walk ratio has stayed roughly the same. He's given up slightly fewer home runs. The big difference has been the hits. Which might have been predicted, considering his (apparent) bad luck with the Mets and his solid numbers in the minors.

Granted, there was no reason to think Bell would become this good. But if Minaya had held on to Bell for just one more season -- in 2007, he pitched brilliantly as Trevor Hoffman's setup man in San Diego -- he might have been dissuaded from spending $47 million on Francisco Rodriguez, who a) hasn't been as good as Bell, and b) is now in a big bowl full of trouble.

If Minaya had trusted the numbers, today he would have Bell and $47 million of baseball players not named Francisco Rodriguez.

Everybody makes mistakes. But this was a real doozie.

Mets' Santana heading for surgeon's table

September, 13, 2010
Second opinion confirms lousy news:

    Monday morning, it was reported that Johan Santana was awaiting a second opinion on his shoulder from Dr. James Andrews. That second opinion, it appears, confirmed the first one, and Monday afternoon we found out that Santana will have shoulder surgery on Tuesday. The surgery will end Santana's season, an otherwise successful year that saw Santana post a 2.98 ERA and strike out 144 batters over 199 innings.

That last bit about the strikeouts sounds like a good thing. But it wasn't, really.

In Santana's four brilliant seasons with the Twins, he struck out nearly 10 hitters per nine innings, and struck out nearly five times more hitters than he walked.

In Santana's first two seasons with the Mets, he struck out nearly eight hitters per nine innings; this year he struck out only 6.5 per nine innings. In his three Met seasons, his strikeout-to-walk ratio has dropped from 4.52 (in his last Twin season) to 3.27 to 3.17 to 2.62 (this season).

Superficially, you might think that Santana's been almost as good with the Mets as he was with the Twins. After all, as a Met he's gone 40-25 with a 2.85 ERA.

Except there's a big difference between pitching for the Twins and pitching for the Mets. Santana's ERA+ with the Mets is 144; his ERA+ in those previous four seasons with the Twins was 155. As a Twin, Santana won two Cy Young Awards, also finishing third and fifth. As a Met, Santana has a third-place finish.

Obviously, he's been excellent as a Met. But not as excellent as what the Mets thought they were paying for. And while I wouldn't want to discount the wonders of modern surgical techniques, the drop in Santana's strikeout rates suggest that he simply isn't the same pitcher that he was, and probably never will be.

Which, as a baseball fan, I find disheartening.

With K-Rod, Mets will fight union, precedent

August, 18, 2010
A reader named Anthony asks a really good question:
    I have a question regarding your recent story on K-Rod and his injury. You wrote that you "don't think closers are worth (almost) $12 million per season," and neither do I.

    But are you aware that K-Rod has a vesting option for $17.5 million in 2012 if he (1) finishes 55 games in 2011, and (2) finishes a combined 100 games between 2010 and 2011? I am surprised that if you think (almost) $12 million for a closer is offensive, you don't even mention that the Mets might be allocating more than $5 million more than that amount to the closer position in 2012!

    If the Mets can void his contract, they should. The inclusion of that option was a terrible mistake, and if K-Rod's idiotic behavior provides them with the ability to get out from under that deal, they should jump all over the opportunity.

I don't think (almost) $12 million for a closer is offensive, but it's just too much money for the great majority of closers, who don't pitch enough innings or influence the outcomes of enough games to justify that sort of expense.

But $17(.5) million is a wholly different thing. I wasn't aware of that vesting option. Frankly, the idea is so ridiculous that I simply didn't bother to check. No relief pitcher has ever earned $17.5 million in one season, and no relief pitcher has ever been worth $17.5 million. I did recall having been somewhat surprised by Rodriguez's contract when he signed it. I didn't recall that 2012 option.

I should have, if only because it's a compelling piece of the evidence that the Mets' front office is incompetent. At least when it comes to properly valuing relief pitchers.

Or maybe Rodriguez's recent contretemps have inspired a sudden bout of competency. Today, I suspect the Mets would love to get out from under that contract. First they're going to try to avoid paying him for the rest of this season and won't guarantee his contract in 2011; without a guarantee in 2011, they can cut Rodriguez and thus avoid any worries about 2012, too.
    In response to the Mets’ steps, Michael Weiner, the head of the players union, said Tuesday night that the union would challenge what the Mets are trying to do.

    “The Mets’ actions are without basis, and the union will grieve them right away,” he said.

    He said he expected the grievance to go before an arbitrator by this fall. Before then, there will be probably be a face-to-face meeting between the Mets, the union and Rodriguez’s agent. In such a setting, it is conceivable a deal could be worked out under which the Mets would settle for the union’s not contesting Rodriguez’s loss of pay in 2010 and the Mets, in exchange, agreeing to guarantee Rodriguez’s salary for 2011.


    For now, though, the move to make Rodriguez’s contract nonguaranteed will get attention. Gabe Feldman, the head of the sports law department at Tulane University, said he could not recall an instance in which a team had attempted such a step.

    “The players union is going to do everything they can to uphold the sanctity of contracts,” he said. “They fight hard to make sure they get guaranteed contracts for their players. What the Mets did is something that is buried in major league rules. It’s rare to void contracts and even more rare to convert to nonguaranteed contracts, particularly with a star player."

What's buried, specifically, is Section 7 (b) (1) of the Uniform Player Contract, which states a team can void a player's contract if he shall "fail, refuse or neglect to conform his personal conduct to the standards of good citizenship ..."

The only problem is that there's essentially no precedent for actually doing that. And these things are all about precedent. The Rockies know, because they tried it with Denny Neagle after he got hurt and got busted. At the time, the Rockies owed Neagle $19.5 million. Before the case went before an arbitrator, the Rockies agreed to pay Neagle $16 million.

The same thing is going to happen to the Mets, should they carry through with this. Ultimately, they'll probably be faced with two lousy alternatives: Paying Rodriguez a lot of money to go away, or paying Rodriguez a lot of money to stay.

Again: Really, really nice work here, guys. Kudos to everyone involved.

Should the Mets try to dump K-Rod?

August, 16, 2010
This story just keeps getting better. Or worse. Or something:
New York Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez suffered a torn ligament in his right thumb while allegedly striking the grandfather of his children last week at Citi Field, a team official said.

Rodriguez, who pitched Saturday with discomfort in his return from a two-day team suspension, was examined Monday at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan. Team doctors recommended surgery, but a date for the procedure has yet to be scheduled.

Rodriguez was charged with third-degree assault and second-degree harassment as a result of the incident in the family room at Citi Field last Wednesday.

"You can make the assumption that the injury resulted from the incident last week," the official said.

Rodriguez lost $125,000 in salary during his two-day team-imposed suspension, and could be in line to forfeit the salary for the remainder of the season if a non-baseball event resulted in the injury, as is alleged. Rodriguez is making $11.5 million this season. It is unclear if the Mets would try to void Rodriguez's entire contract which runs next year and has a vesting option for 2012.Assuming that he's healthy after the surgery, I'm not sure why the Mets would want to void Rodriguez's entire contract. I wasn't a big fan of the contract when he got it, because I don't think closers are worth (almost) $12 million per season. But that is what they get, and if the Mets are going to overpay for a closer, they might as well overpay for this one.

Unless ... and I want to be very clear about this ... unless (theoretically) axing Rodriguez is part of a larger strategy that involves spending money more wisely and (or) not putting up with ridiculously anti-social behavior.

Given the Mets' recent history, I doubt if such a strategy is in the offing. Considering the ownership in place and ownership's apparent confidence in the general manager, I expect more of the same in the next two or three years. In which case they might as well keep K-Rod around. It's not like he's the only major leaguer with a bad and sometimes violent temper. Not even close.

What the Mets should do is force Rodriguez -- between his anger-management classes and his injury rehab -- to watch Bull Durham a few dozen times. Shoot, even I know you're not supposed to punch a guy with your pitching hand.

Mets' Dickey keeps long streak alive

August, 14, 2010
As good as R.A. Dickey has been this season, he's not been good enough to save the Mets.

But his one-hitter Friday night does suggest, in sharp relief, that Dickey has single-handedly saved a streak that stretches back to (at least) the 1930s.

In 1938, 29-year-old knuckleballer Dutch Leonard joined the Washington Senators and went 12-15 with a 3.43 ERA, fourth best in the American League. Leonard would eventually win 191 games, pitching (as the best knuckleballers do) into his middle 40s.*

* Some of you might wonder why I'm beginning with Dutch Leonard in the 1930s, rather than with Hall of Famer Jesse Haines or near-Hall of Famer Freddie Fitzsimmons in the 1920s. Both pitchers were excellent, and both were widely known as knuckleball pitchers. I'm not starting with them because both seem to have thrown pitches that we would describe as knuckle-curveballs rather than true knuckleballs.

Why do I bring Leonard up? Because the same night Dickey threw a one-hitter, fellow knuckleballer Tim Wakefield also gave up just one hit ... but he faced just one hitter, and the one hit was a walkoff home run. On the evening of August 13, 2010, the torch was passed (however unwillingly).

Which torch? For some years, Wakefield was the only effective knuckleball pitcher in the major leagues. Dutch Leonard began a long streak -- a streak of seasons in which at least one good knuckleball pitcher was working in the major leagues -- and Wakefield has, for some years, kept it going all by himself.

Here's the (short) list of knuckleballers who have kept the streak alive:

1938-1952: Dutch Leonard
1952-1970: Hoyt Wilhelm
1967-1986: Phil Niekro
1986-1998: Tom Candiotti
1995-2009: Tim Wakefield
2010-201?: R.A. Dickey

The key figures here are Wilhelm and Wakefield.

If Phil Niekro hadn't come along and put together his Hall of Fame career, his years would still have been covered by the likes of Wilbur Wood, Charlie Hough, and Phil's little brother. Similarly, Hough's career overlapped with Wakefield's.

But without Wilhelm and Kid '66, there would be significant gaps in the 1950s and the 2000s. Between Dutch Leonard in 1952 and Hal "Skinny" Brown (1956-1964), the only effective non-Wilhelm knuckleballer was Marion Fricano ... and Fricano was effective in just one season (1953). Between Candiotti in 1998 and R.A. Dickey in 2010, the only effective non-Wakefield knuckleballer was Steve Sparks ... and his last good season was 2001 (when he led the majors with eight complete games!).

We knew Wakefield couldn't pitch forever. Not so long ago, I had high hopes for the latest knuckleballing Charlies, Zink and Haeger. But while both are still young by knuckleballer standards, both also have seemed completely lost, unable to throw their mysterious pitches with any sort of precision at all.

Maybe Wakefield will come back strong next year. And maybe Dickey will regress next year. But I think there's a pretty good chance that we've got a sixth name for our list.

On booing Francisco Rodriguez

July, 30, 2010
Howard Megdal on booing a guy with a 2.44 ERA:
    He’s been a good closer, by any reasonable measure: the Mets have called on him again and again to finish off the other guys, and the vast majority of the time, that’s exactly what he’s done.

But the fans don’t generally like him all that much. They boo him when he comes into games, or at least some of them do — enough to make themselves understood.

"What can I tell you?" a weary “K-Rod” said about the fan reception, speaking at his locker to a single reporter following the Mets’ 4-0 victory against the Cardinals last night. "I can't control what they say."


The problem, really, is that Francisco Rodriguez is not Mariano Rivera.

The Mets fans, with good reason, feels intense frustration over all the Yankees have, past, present and future. Despite sharing the same rich market, and therefore ostensibly the ability to compete for titles, the two teams really aren’t in the same league.I think that's part of it.

I think 2009 is part of it, too. After setting an all-time record with 62 saves in 2008, Rodriguez signed with the Mets for three years and $37 million. At that point, his career ERA was 2.35 and he'd averaged48 saves in four seasons as the Angels' closer.

So you can understand the fans' frustrations when K-Rod's first season with the Mets included a 3.71 ERA (easily the highest of his career) and only 35 saves. And there was also the way Rodriguez failed (relatively speaking): His walks were up and his strikeouts were down. Frankly, he wasn't worth anywhere nearwhat the Mets were paying him last season.

This season's been different. No, he's still not worth what the Mets are paying him. But that's a baseball issue rather than a Francisco Rodriguez issue; very few veteran closers are worth the money they're paid. He's been pretty good; the walks are down significantly, the strikeouts up a little, and the strikeout-to-walk ratio actually a little better than his career mark.

But the pitcher the Mets probably thought they were getting? He's probably gone forever. Rodriguez just doesn't throw as hard as he used to. He's still hard to hit, and he's done a fine job of limiting the home runs. But when his contract expires after next season, the Mets will probably be happy to move on.

And so, apparently, will many of their fans.