I am sure I am far from the only Mets fan who has had a hard time getting an understanding of this year’s Mets team. They’re up, they’re down, they’re good, they’re bad. They’re scoring runs, they’re getting shut out, they pitch dominant, they get beat up. They win games late, they get destroyed late. Nobody embodies this more than Carlos Delgado, who for the first few months of the season looked thoroughly washed up, and is now probably one of the five best players on the team, or perhaps Joe Smith, who for two months may have been the Mets’ best relief pitcher, and today he might be their worst.
You could go crazy trying to figure out what this team is all about in the year 2008, but I am going to give it a shot anyway. What has made this team good? What has made this team bad? For people who follow this team every day, there won’t be too many surprises, but taking a look at things, a few things did catch me off-guard. There are things about this 2008 Mets team that I never would have guessed before the season that have somehow come to light, some good, some bad. Let’s take a look.
If I told you before the season that this team would get forty-nine at-bats from Moises Alou and no second-half production from Ryan Church, and not only that, but would start Fernando Tatis every day in a corner outfield spot, that this team would not only be second in the National League in runs scored, but would also out-score the Philadelphia Phillies, I would have thought you were crazy. In fact, I still think this is crazy. Fernando Tatis’ transformation from scrap-heap reclamation project to legitimate everyday corner outfielder remains the most unexpected story of this Mets season or perhaps any other Mets season this decade. I mean, I was appalled when the Mets let Ruben Gotay go in order to keep a roster spot for Fernando Tatis, and now he is arguably out-hitting Carlos Beltran. Think about that. He may not be able to keep it up, but his 2008 Mets season will be one spoken of for years as one of the biggest “WTF?” moments in the history of this franchise.
But for all of the talk about how this Mets team would rely on pitching this year to carry them, it really has been the offense that has kept them in the race this year. Consider the year Jose Reyes is having, with his line of .305/.363/.492/.855, with 40 steals in 52 attempts on top of that. The man (undeservedly) wasn’t even an All Star, and yet he could wind up an MVP contender before the season is over (which he can’t win because of the media perception that he is an immature player, but that’s another article). David Wright is getting hot again in August, and while he probably won’t put up MVP-caliber numbers like he did last year, he remains a top ten hitter in the NL and a top defensive third baseman to boot.
Then there is the month of July that Carlos Delgado put together. Tatis’ run was more improbable than Delgado’s, simply because Tatis had practically fallen off the face of the Earth, but nobody could have seen what Delgado has done coming either, simply because he had been so dreadful at the start of the season. At one point, there was talk of a Delgado release, much like what would eventually happen to Richie Sexson (twice, as it turns out). Now? He’s earning his keep again, seemingly found some of the plate discipline and bat speed he had lost at the start of the season.
The biggest name missing from all of this is Beltran, who just hasn’t really gotten it going this year. I’m not sure if it was the knee surgeries or what, but he’s just not driving the ball like he has in years past. The big drop-off has come in the home run department; he’s on pace to hit roughly as many doubles as he has in years past, maybe a few more, but he has seemingly traded home runs for singles this year, as his batting average is in line with years past, but a steep 70 point decline in slugging from last year alone. I still feel Carlos is capable of getting really hot and going on a tear much like we saw from Delgado in July, but as the season wears on, and that tear hasn’t happened yet, it looks more and more like we won’t see that tear this year. He still plays a fantastic defensive center field, but this team will need more out of Beltran at some point because who knows if Tatis and Delgado can keep up what they have done.
There have been offensive problems, to be sure. Without Church, the Mets have been forced to use an assortment of rookie players, retread veterans, and Endy Chavez in the outfield corner not occupied by Tatis, and the results haven’t been encouraging, outside of some nice play by Daniel Murphy so far. I for one cannot understand why Nick Evans is involved in the LF platoon these days and not Val Pascucci, when Pascucci continues to destroy lefties in New Orleans. Second base has been a hazmat site, between no punch Luis Castillo, no plate discipline Damion Easley, and no bat Argenis Reyes. Only Reyes plays an even passable defensive second base. Brian Schneider continues to get most of the starts at catcher, despite clearly being a backup catcher in the year 2008. Robinson Cancel is for some reason still on this team, despite not being particularly good with the bat or good enough behind the plate to spell Schneider or Castro, particularly with Pascucci mauling lefties in New Orleans (he wouldn’t be a better choice off the bench than Cancel?).
Overall, though, it’s been the hitting that has carried the ‘08 Mets. Nobody could have possibly seen that coming, but it’s true. Particularly with important hitting contributors such as Alou and Church missing so much time – they have been forced to rely on some guys who would have had Mets fans wincing before the season, yet have turned into valuable contributors. It is a credit to Omar Minaya that some of these guys have been given the opportunity to prove they can play in the majors and perform well.
If you had told me before the season that the Mets would be sixth in runs allowed in 2008, trailing teams such as the Phillies and Brewers (granted, the Brewers didn’t have CC Sabathia before the season), I would probably have laughed at your meager predictions. Yet here we are, with the Mets having received poorer-than-expected pitching, particularly since it was believed by most that the Mets’ pitching staff would rank among the best in the National League in 2008, perhaps the best. What has been the problem with the pitching to where it has been a middle-of-the-road staff when so much was expected.
One area of issue has been at fifth starter. The Mets first were forced to rely on a lot of Nelson Figueroas, Tony Armases, and Claudio Vargases to start the season. None of these guys pitched particularly well. Then, the rotation welcomed back Pedro Martinez, and he has not pitched particularly well either. At this point, his stuff just isn’t fooling anybody; his strikeouts are down and his home runs are way, way up. Consider this; Johan Santana has thrown 100 more innings than Pedro this season. Johan has been considered one of the more homer-prone starters in the NL this year. Pedro has allowed only six fewer home runs than Johan this year, in 100 fewer innings. He is getting clobbered out there, and while he has had two solid outings against the Pittsburgh Pirates of late, this should in no way be interpreted as Johan having figured anything out, or reasons for the Mets to no longer feel concerned.
On the plus side, the Mets have received above average or better performances from starters 1-4, even if their starts from 2, 3, and 4 have been inconsistent at best. Enough has been written about Johan Santana already; suffice it to say, the bullpen may have potentially blown the 2008 Cy Young Award for the man (more on that in a bit). John Maine hasn’t been as dominant as the 2007 version, and has shown a tendency to throw more pitches per inning than a manager would like, but he’s remained above average most of the season. Mike “Big Pelf” Pelfrey and Oliver Perez have both been wildly inconsistent; you don’t know which pitcher you’re going to get from one start to the next, but both have shown flashes of dominance, which makes Met fans feel optimistic about the future in Big Pelf, and makes Ranger fans feel pessimistic about their future #1 starter in Oliver Perez.
The rotation has been fine; I mean, what team doesn’t have problems at #5 starter? With the strong contributions from starters 1-4, and at least the promise that Pedro is capable of getting it together maybe for one last strong six week period, the rotation is not the problem with this team. The real problem, the reason that this team has not run away with the National League this year, has been the bullpen. This is the one issue that should not shock even one Mets fan who has watched at least half of this team’s games this season. No lead feels safe, and any lead feels insurmountable. Ask Johan Santana, who has left games with the lead six times that the bullpen failed to hold. Ask Pedro Martinez, who left two games against the Pittsburgh Pirates (one of the five worst teams in baseball) with leads of 5-2 and 7-1, and failed to pick up a win in one game, and the other game was far closer than it had any right to be. Ask any Mets fan, who have had years taken off of their lives watching this team attempt to hold leads. Consider this; Joeadig and I were at a Mets/Nationals game in Washington on Wednesday along with our friend Travis. The Mets lead was 12-0. NONE OF US FELT SAFE.
The Mets starting rotation has posted a 3.92 ERA for the 2008 season, with the bullpen has sported an ERA of 4.31. Now, considering how strong the rotation has been, while the bullpen has been terrible, you might think “Okay, so what? A difference of 0.39 isn’t that bad.” Consider, though, that teams are not supposed to have a higher bullpen ERA than rotation ERA; relievers in the National League, on average, have an ERA 0.5 lower than rotation ERA. Consider this; only three other teams have reliever ERAs higher than their starter ERAs; San Francisco (reliever ERA is 0.06 higher), Arizona (reliever ERA is 0.13 higher; they also have Haren and Webb pitching MVP caliber seasons), and Cleveland (reliever ERA is a whopping 1.34 higher, in case you were wondering why the Indians went from division champions to dog crap in one season).
Now, I am going to do a science experiment. Suppose the Mets bullpen had pitched exactly as well as the rotation. Considering that the bullpen is “supposed” to pitch better, this does not seem like an unrealistic expectation. How many runs would the Mets have allowed in 2008? The answer is 529, which is one more run than the Phillies have allowed in 2008. Combined with the Mets hitting having been so unexpectedly strong this year, it is therefore reasonable to say that the Mets bullpen is the reason that this team is currently up two games instead of about 3-4.
Unfortunately, at this stage in the game, there isn’t much Mets fans can do about this other than hope things bend and don’t break. Billy Wagner, the only real bright spot to this bullpen, doesn’t look like he is coming back anytime soon. This means Jerry Manuel will be piecing together the ninth inning on a day by day basis until either Wagner comes back or the season ends. This means a collection of guys no Mets fan has faith in will be getting the ball in tight situations. As much credit as Omar Minaya deserves for his bench guys somehow working out this year, the failure to really improve the bullpen is a huge fault of his.
If you look closely at the bullpen, the problem becomes clear; this team lacks a reliever who can pitch to righties and lefties. Aaron Heilman and Pedro Feliciano were both able to get their opposite platoon out with regularly in 2007; they were better against their platoon half, but could be called upon to pitch an entire inning against lefties and righties if it was required. This season, that has not been the case. Joe Smith and Scott Schoeneweis were both seen as situational players, and both have played down to that role. Strangely, it has been Duaner Sanchez who has shown the most ability to get both lefties and righties out, but his problem is that he has become very hittable in the last month and may not be completely healthy; fastballs that top out at 86 MPH won’t keep you in the majors for very long.
Unfortunately, Mets fans, this is the hand we have been dealt. Our team has a very good rotation, and has some very good hitters, but the bullpen is a disaster. Unless more than one of these guys can turn things around and put together a strong six week period that goes against what they have done to date, this team will continue to struggle instead of run away. If this team fails in 2008 as it did in 2007, the main culprit will clearly be the team’s bullpen. Let’s hope the hitting and the starting pitching can prevent that from happening.