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Early Innings

Posted By Greg Prince On February 21, 2010 @ 7:50 pm In 1 | Comments Disabled

In a post to Twitter, Rick Coutinho of ESPN Radio says RHP Sean Green has modified his delivery, and his sidearm motion is even more pronounced than it was last year.
—A leading indicator (via MetsBlog [1]) that Spring Training is already too long

Anybody who was caught up in the peer pressure of seventh grade in the winter and spring of 1976 will remember dutifully watching Happy Days every Tuesday night at 8 o’clock on Channel 7. Between the aaays and the whoas of Henry Winkler as the Fonz, there was Pat Morita [2] as the eponymous proprietor of Arnold’s Drive-In (and — when “Fearless Fonzarelli [3]” attempted to jump 14 garbage cans on You Wanted To See It — Milwaukee Fried Chicken Stand). Arnold was generally taciturn toward the kids who frequented his establishment, but when something tickled his fancy, he’d let out a cackle that sounded, I swear, something like this:

BA-RA-HA-HA!!

So that’s basically all I know and all I’ve known or thought of when it comes to our prospective new catcher, Rod BA-RA-HA-HA!!s…I mean Barajas [4]. That and he hit seven more home runs than any Met in 2009 without being particularly noted for his slugging prowess. Boy, did the Mets not hit home runs in 2009, and boy, despite the crowd in the clubhouse [5] on the day they and pitchers reported, did the Mets apparently suddenly realize they need an experienced, but hopefully not overripe starting backstop.

All that stands in the way of Barajas squatting as a Met now is a passed physical and a firm contract. Given that these are the Mets we’re talking about — helmed by an owner who called the just completed offseason “torture [6],” though one presumes he had a say in its composition — nothing’s a done deal until it’s a done deal, but all signs point to yes, Rod Barajas will be catching and batting anywhere from first to ninth come Opening Day.

First to ninth? Remember, these are the Mets, where even leadoff hitters aren’t leadoff hitters.

Oh, rats. I swore I wasn’t going to get sucked into the Great Batting Order Kerfuffle of February 2010 [7]. These are the most pointless kerfuffles of any season, kerfuffling as they do six weeks before any manager has to submit any batting order that counts for anything. Didn’t Jerry Manuel make some noise about batting Jose Reyes third last year? Did Jose Reyes ever bat third? The answers are yes and no, respectively. In our first spring of blogging, a spitstorm erupted over Willie Randolph suggesting David Wright might bat eighth [8] once the season started. Care to guess how often Wright batted eighth? Hint: His next time will be his first time.

Once Pitchers & Catchers are in place, it’s only a matter of time before Pollyannas & Cynics follow. Like most fans, I will veer between the two as the footage from St. Lucie grows repetitive and the novelty that somewhere on this continent there are Mets stretching wears off. For example, I caught a moment of Frankie Rodriguez talking up his physical and mental well-being and I imagined one 1-2-3 ninth after another, with “Sandungueoso [9]” blaring, high-fives flying and magic numbers dwindling in our favor. Then, with images of the two walkoff grand [10] slams [11] he surrendered in 2009 slithering through my head, I realized, what the hell else is he going to say? “I really seemed to be losing something off my fastball there by the end, don’tcha think?” What are any of them going to say? Is Johan Santana going to choose anybody besides himself as the N.L. East’s best pitcher [12]? Is the Daveotronic 5000 [13] going to pick anybody besides the Mets to win the division? Is anybody going to take seriously anything Jerry Manuel says right now?

Among the rites of spring is the right to grow quickly jaded, to slide from yayI to yawn without notice. Or as Fonzie’s ABC Thursday night doppelgänger Vinnie Barbarino of Welcome Back Kotter put it when he went on to play Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever, “I’m bored with it, all right?” Honest to god, how can anybody get worked up over Sean Green modifying his delivery on February 21?

If you don’t get bored with it, you’ll get immersed in nonsense and drown in it long before the games that don’t count are finished (and just wait and see how bored you’ll be with those). The classic case of Spring Training folderol that meant nothing in the long run occurred five years ago when Carlos Delgado wasn’t a Met.

He was going to be. It looked good, in that way you want it to look good when a free agent is left dangling in the marketplace for a long while. Delgado hadn’t signed with anybody entering the fourth week of January 2005. The Mets were very interested. Omar had picked off Pedro Martinez, then Carlos Beltran…by gum, can you believe they might get Delgado, too? Too good to be true, it turned out. Delgado signed with the Marlins during one of the rare offseasons when they were adding rather than shedding players and we summered instead with Doug Mientkiewicz.

It was vastly nothing from nothing as Spring Training commenced until Delgado’s agent David Sloane spread the word [14]that his client was turned off by what Delgado felt was an overemphasis on Omar Minaya’s and Tony Bernazard’s part regarding the Latin heritage they each shared. Sloane was also busy that spring letting it be known Recidivist Marlin Al Leiter had helped lure Carlos to Miami by saying not so kind things [15] about Al’s old club. What made Sloane’s contretemps du jour memorable were less the content than how, after engaging the New York baseball media, he expressed horror that a reporter had the nerve to call him on his cell for comment while he was off enjoying a Joe Cocker concert.

All at once, every Mets fan had the same thought: Joe Cocker in concert? 2005? As Jason asked [16], “Is David Sloane marching against Vietnam, too?”

It was nonsense, but — no disrespect to Sean Green’s awesome arm angle — at least it was different nonsense.

Whatever misgivings Carlos Delgado felt toward how he was courted as a free agent were rendered meaningless the following November when the Marlins traded his massively backloaded contract to the Mets for latent ’05 wunderkind Mike Jacobs (and Yusmeiro Petit, one of the myriad pitching prospects the Mets have given up who didn’t turn into Scott Kazmir). Jacobs, of course, is a Met again, which is nice for those of us who retain a touch of romanticism about this game. On September 18, 2005, the Mets fielded, from left to right, David Wright at third, Jose Reyes at short, Anderson Hernandez at second and Mike Jacobs at first. It was, by my reckoning, the first all 1980s-born infield in Mets history, the blossoming Met youth movement in microcosm.

Two out of four weren’t bad…literally. Fortunately, the two who were indisputably good stayed. Somehow, because of injuries last year and provisional suspicion of Daniel Murphy this year, Hernandez and Jacobs have found their way home. If they join Reyes and Wright to compose the infield for significant swaths of 2010, it’s probably not the future we were hoping for in late 2005, but once or twice won’t necessarily hurt us.

Delgado? He hurts now, sadly. After spending most of 2009 out with a bad right hip, he’s had it operated on once [17] more and he’s going to be sidelined anywhere from four months to for good as a baseball player. Carlos is approaching 38 years old and will have been inactive at the major league level for more than a year when he’s projected as fully recovered. David Sloane has taken off his earbuds long enough to let one and all know this isn’t stopping Delgado from planning on playing again, but planning and playing are two different things.

Adding Delgado when we did, even if meant parting with young Jacobs just as Jacobs was finding his home run stroke (the only stroke he ever maintained), surely didn’t hurt. No, I’d say it helped a great deal. Even though he wasn’t quite the Carlos Delgado at whom we’d marveled on SportsCenter and in fleeting American League glimpses — seems we use that type of description a lot — he was the right man at the right time for the 2006 Mets.

Willie Randolph didn’t much screw around with the batting order then. Carlos Delgado was his cleanup hitter 124 times. Reyes led off 148 times (missing his only significant time when Jacobs the Fish stepped on his hand and cost him his All-Star start); Paul Lo Duca batted second 118 times; Carlos Beltran was in the three hole 137 times; and Wright hit fifth 117 times. David took a few turns at cleanup, usually moving Delgado to third. Otherwise, it was all very stable from one through five, and the Mets were generally unstoppable.

Is this an endorsement of stability in batting orders? If you have five guys performing at or near their respective peaks, sure. It rarely works that way (which may provide a hint as to why 2006 has been so difficult to replicate). Otherwise, Jerry Manuel will — like any manager — juggle, improvise, pick names out of a hat. The best batting order is the one that works. The trial and error involved tends to bury everybody’s Spring Training quotes.

Still, it sure is nice when you have those first few names regularly present and accounted for. It’s even better when you have eight, but that’s rarely the case. Recall 2008, the last great year of Carlos Delgado. Last great half-year, really, since CD was plagued by the hip through ’07 and the early months of ’08. Then he turned it on, MVP-style [18], and seemed to carry the Mets into first place for stretches of summer. His hip may have been sore, but his back was strong, his shoulders were broad and oh my, was his swing lethal.

It wasn’t really Carlos Delgado by himself recasting the 2008 Mets from irritating, addled chumps to invigorating, almost champs. Reyes, Beltran and Wright were playing every single day, too. You knew Jose would lead off (159 times) and David would bat third (158 times). Beltran was often fourth (118 times) and sometimes fifth (36 times). Delgado was dropped to sixth 32 times in an effort to let him find himself. Once he did, he was generally entrusted with the five-hole (74 times) or cleanup now and then (40 times).

Batting second? Everybody. Luis Castillo, Endy Chavez, Ryan Church, Nick Evans, Argenis Reyes, Daniel Murphy, Damion Easley, Marlon Anderson, Angel Pagan…whoever worked. As Manuel discovered, none of them did for more than a few games here or a few games there. Perhaps it was telling that with everything on the line in the final weekend of the season, Jerry crafted a front four that may have been the most top-heavy half-lineup in the history of Shea Stadium:

Reyes SS
Beltran CF
Delgado 1B
Wright 3B

One pure leadoff hitter and three sluggers, no muss, no fuss. Not a Millan, a Backman or even a surprisingly powerful Alfonzo in the bunch — just punch.

Batting Beltran second — two hits in the final win [19], a homer in the final game [20] — wasn’t unprecedented. That’s where he generated his power during his legendary 2004 postseason salary drive [21] and that’s where callers to WFAN have intermittently demanded he be inserted regularly since 2005. The alignment was by no means insane, but it did strike me that Saturday and Sunday as incredibly desperate. Jerry Manuel was down to four offensive players he thought he could trust against any pitcher the Marlins threw at the Mets. Screw it, he seemed to say, I’ll just bat ‘em all at the top of the order and hope for the best. A Church who wasn’t slumping, a Castillo who wasn’t hopeless or a Ramon Martinez who might have revealed himself just a touch sooner as untapped dynamite and the lineup wouldn’t have looked so top-heavy. But nobody south of Wright inspired any confidence, thus the makeshift philosophy of Inflict Some Pain, Then Pray For Rain.

Would it have made the difference in how 2008 wound up had Jerry been able to effectively spread the wealth at the end? Who the hell knows? Given a few more games, maybe Manuel would have found the right combination. Unfortunately, you only get 162 games to sort it all out.

I was thinking of that particular lineup construction because of some admittedly esoteric research I recently undertook for another article slated to appear soon in another venue [22]. It started with the foggy recollection that the 1997 Mets, befitting their never-say-die feistiness [23], were particularly compelling in the eighth inning. It rang a bell considering there’s no better inning than the eighth to decide to not say die. Well, OK, the first through seventh are fine innings on paper, and the ninth is technically not too late, but the eighth is properly dramatic and reasonably pragmatic. You don’t have to win it in the eighth. If you tie it up, you’re doin’ good.

Y’know what? I wasn’t crazy, at least not where my image of the ’97 Mets was concerned. Bobby Valentine’s first club did indeed make the most of their eighth innings. They were, essentially, the best eighth-inning club in baseball that season. They scored in 57 of 162 eighth innings, totaling 114 runs in the process. Only the Indians scored more often in the eighth (58 games) and only the Mariners (124 runs) crossed home plate more. Those were playoff teams. The 88-74 Mets felt like they might be, which, after six consecutive losing seasons, was plenty.

Anyway, as long as I was looking up eighth innings, I decided to see if there was anything to be divined from other innings in Mets history. I found a dozen or so nuggets that I found far more fascinating than Sean Green’s arm angle, but this one item in particular, in light of Manuel’s musings about Reyes batting third and the de facto end of Delgado’s Met tenure, struck me:

The most prolific inning any Mets team has ever enjoyed across a single season was the first inning in 2008.

The 2008 Mets scored 139 runs in first innings two years ago. Not only that, they scored in 74 different first innings, also a Met record for any inning in any year. With Reyes just about invariably leading off, Wright consistently batting third and a Delgado-Beltran combo cleaning up, the Mets went out and put points on the board right away in 46% of their games. That was with nobody in particular batting second, mind you.

Next best inning in Mets history for total runs as well as frequency of scoring? The third inning of…2008. Manuel, when he was a genius, had a batting order that exploded in the first, took a breather in the second and created more noise in the third: 135 runs in 63 games. The Mets would fairly regularly turn over the lineup and produce like it was the first inning once more.

I don’t know that there’s a pattern to be gleaned here. What I’m fond of is the metaphor it presents for the most recent Met club to post a winning record: they were fast starters but dismal finishers. Met pitching — the dreaded 2008 bullpen — was giving up a ton of runs in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, certainly more than they were scoring. The simplistic view (though I don’t know that it’s altogether inaccurate) is great first- and third-inning production got them 89 wins. It was the rest of the game kept them out of the playoffs. I find it some combination of telling, characteristic and vaguely damning that the 38th of Delgado’s 38 home runs in 2008, cracked in the 158th game of that ultimately unsatisfying season…

a) was a grand slam;
b) was blasted in the third inning;
c) capped a five-run onslaught;
d) was rendered a footnote when Wright couldn’t bring home Murphy from third with nobody out [24] and the score tied in the ninth, as the Mets went on to lose in ten;
e) and represented the final time the 2008 Mets, even with their Big Four intact, scored more than two runs in any one inning — a span covering the last 43 innings of 2008.

Start fast. Finish dismal.

You can read as much as you choose into this sort of thing and you probably wouldn’t be wrong either way. For instance, the most productive ninth-inning team in Mets lore was the 2007 Mets, a unit we tend to consider the quittingest bunch of quitters in the history of quitting [25]. It actually kind of makes sense when you realize the Mets were a distinctly bad home club (41-40) for a technically good overall club (88-74). Losing at home means you’re batting quite a bit in the bottom of the ninth. Know which Mets team scored the most ninth-inning runs in the first quarter-century that there were Mets? The 1962 club, the one that lost 58 games in the Polo Grounds and 62 more elsewhere. Were they never-say-die or just granted ample opportunity to score not quite enough to win very often?

I don’t know. I also don’t know if Delgado will play again. I don’t know if Jacobs will actually be here come April. I don’t know if Reyes batting third in Beltran’s absence is necessarily an unspeakable idea. I don’t know that Barajas will fundamentally alter the Met dynamic. I don’t know how a local greaser is supposed to guide his motorcycle over 14 garbage cans. I don’t know what to make of Sean Green’s pronounced sidearm motion.

It’s the first week of Spring Training. It’s hard to know anything. But it’s tough not to wonder about everything.


Article printed from Faith and Fear in Flushing: http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com

URL to article: http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com/2010/02/21/early-innings/

URLs in this post:

[1] MetsBlog: http://www.metsblog.com/2010/02/21/buzz-sean-greens-delivery-more-pronounced/

[2] Pat Morita: http://digilander.libero.it/happydays/button_attori/Pat_Morita.JPG

[3] Fearless Fonzarelli: http://img442.imageshack.us/img442/3212/ffp8mm.jpg

[4] Barajas: http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/news/story?id=4931241

[5] the crowd in the clubhouse: http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com/2010/02/18/as-mets-catchers-report/

[6] torture: http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/baseball/mets/2010/02/21/2010-02-21_untitled__m21s.html

[7] Great Batting Order Kerfuffle of February 2010: http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/spring2010/news/story?id=4928325

[8] Willie Randolph suggesting David Wright might bat eighth: http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com/2005/03/29/wrighting-a-wrong/

[9] Sandungueoso: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kZtoRKoSrMM

[10] grand: http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com/2009/08/08/yo-marvin-plates-over-there/

[11] slams: http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com/2009/10/01/baseballs-least-magical-date/

[12] the N.L. East’s best pitcher: http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/spring2010/news/story?id=4925519

[13] Daveotronic 5000: http://www.hotfootblog.com/2010/02/17/reyes-the-spark-wright-the-robot/

[14] Delgado’s agent David Sloane spread the word : http://www.nydailynews.com/archives/sports/2005/03/05/2005-03-05_delgado__agent_jab_at_mets.html

[15] saying not so kind things: http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com/2005/03/01/al-falls-into-the-gap/

[16] Jason asked: http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com/2005/03/05/the-duck-n-weave/

[17] operated on once: http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/news/story?id=4931383

[18] MVP-style: http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com/2008/09/10/no-drama-ayala-most-valuable-delgado/

[19] final win: http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com/2008/09/28/its-either-sadness-or-euphoria/

[20] final game: http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com/2008/09/29/the-little-game-7/

[21] legendary 2004 postseason salary drive: http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com/2010/02/16/five-for-fafif/

[22] another article slated to appear soon in another venue: http://www.amazinavenue.com/2010/1/18/1256421/the-amazin-avenue-annual-2010

[23] never-say-die feistiness: http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com/2007/10/05/the-crying-game/

[24] Wright couldn’t bring home Murphy from third with nobody out: http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com/2008/09/25/unforgettable/

[25] the quittingest bunch of quitters in the history of quitting: http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com/2007/10/01/im-ok-and-thats-not-ok/

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