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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

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A Busy Week in the Life of a Young Lefty

On Friday the Toronto Blue Jays made Jon Niese into their personal pinata, whacking him all over the ballpark. It was the worst start of his young career, a game that ended with Rob Johnson on the mound and doing a lot better than the guy he’d started the game catching.

Today, Niese handcuffed the Pittsburgh Pirates rather convincingly, using his cutter and change to great effect, as the Mets just got enough offense and left PNC Park with a 2-1 series win. (And a 19-19 all-time record in the beautiful stadium where horrible things happen, believe it or not.)

What happened in between? A lot of stuff, much of it fascinating — and invisible to us except through secondhand accounts.

After the Toronto debacle, Dan Warthen got excellent distance in heaving Niese under the speeding wheels of a very heavy bus, saying he needed to study more, particularly against teams he hadn’t faced before. It was a pretty damning critique, particularly of a guy who’d just had his free-agent years bought out by a cash-strapped team.

Then, as Adam Rubin reports over at ESPN New York, Niese was summoned to a pitching skull session that included Niese, Warthen, bullpen coach Ricky Bones, Johan Santana and R.A. Dickey. It sounds like it was a Come to Jesus moment for Niese, courtesy of some apostles of pitching, and oh what I wouldn’t have given to be a fly on the wall for that congregation. Niese, one presumes, listened — at least for one start. This was Warthen afterwards, demonstrating his bus-throwing muscles are still in fine shape should he have to use them again: “Sometimes [Niese] trusts his stuff more than realizing that he has to pitch. Today I thought he pitched as well as using stuff.”

Johnson, back in as Niese’s catcher, also helped out by keeping it simple. During today’s pregame bullpen session, he saw that Niese’s cutter and two-seam fastball were particularly good and he was locating them very well. So he leaned hard on those pitches, with Plan B waiting until the Pirates showed they could hit them. They never did.

I have no inclination for advanced stats, unfortunately — but I’m fascinated by them, convinced that they have a lot to teach us about the game we love to watch, whether it’s by confirming hunches, illuminating murky events or exposing biases. It makes me crazy when smart broadcasters who love baseball reject advanced stats haughtily (I’m looking at you, Howie Rose), and merely disappointed when smart fans who love baseball dismiss them cavalierly.

You can’t discuss Ike Davis’s troubles without understanding that his BABIP this year is ridiculously low, or prepare yourself for what’s to come with David Wright without understanding that his BABIP is ridiculously high. And if you rolled your eyes because BABIP sounds funny, c’mon. You’re better than that. Keith Hernandez talking about rib-eye steaks sounds goofy too. FIP and K/BB can tell us interesting things about pitchers and their defense (or lack thereof), and those metrics undoubtedly informed the Mets’ decision to extend Niese. Fielding remains the area where advanced stats are still searching in the dark, experimenting with different models — but even here, the research is no longer theoretical. Joe Maddon and the Tampa Bay Rays are employing defensive shifts with regularity, practices that get Maddon called a mad scientist today (sometimes on SNY, unfortunately) but will be common among the smart teams in five years and reach the dumb teams in 10. It’s all fascinating to me — as is anything that helps me understand baseball better.

But advanced stats aren’t everything, and they aren’t the only lens through which baseball can be illuminated. This isn’t a counter-case to the above — the only people I’ve heard make such universalist claims are old-school traditionalists bashing away at straw men. But it is a useful reminder. I can’t quantify the effect of Niese getting hauled into a room for schooling by Santana and Dickey, but I’m pretty sure it made a difference. I have no numbers to pinpoint Niese’s effort doing prep work in Toronto vs. his effort in Pittsburgh, but the latter sure seems to have been larger than the former. And was Niese’s performance on the field different because of those things? I’m quite confident it was, even though I can’t measure it. Advanced stats teach us that the pitcher can do little or nothing to influence what happens to the ball after it’s hit, which is useful to know. But it’s also useful to better understand what the pitcher did — or didn’t do — before that point. And in the case of today’s game, that process seems to have begun over the weekend, in another country.

Intangible and unquantifiable things are important — but they’re also a catch-all category for a lot of lazy thinking and myth-peddling. I don’t know what the hell “Derek Jeter knows how to win” means, or what “Alex Cora/Jeff Francoeur/Mr. Met is a great clubhouse guy” has to do with anything. For that stuff, well, WFAN awaits. But if you’re going to tell me that Niese was effectively locked in a room with Santana to learn how to size up batters during a game, I’ll listen. If you’re going to tell me what Johnson saw through the bars of his mask and how that shaped the game he called, I’m all ears. Those are intangibles and unquantifiables worth discovering and discussing — and in this case, celebrating.

4 comments to A Busy Week in the Life of a Young Lefty

  • igtoyourbackman

    “and oh what I wouldn’t have given to be a fly on the wall for that congregation.”
    I think you mean, would have given….

  • Joe D.

    Hi Jason,

    I’m with Howie Rose on the issue of advanced stats. They only break down into miniscule percentages things a baseball eye would already know and while I believe those into calculaive analysis would enjoy such discussions, that precise a knowledge is not necessary to the players on the field, the manager in the dugout or the general manager putting the team together. Statistically, the difference between a .300 and a .265 hitter seems tremendous but in reality, with 600 at bats one former would have just 21 hits a season more than the latter – one more every seven games. While batting average is important as a personal achievement there is actually less that separates the great hitters from the good ones.

    The collection of data to refer to is a different story – those only provide quick access to information that Carlos Delgado would put into his notebook.

    Also, what should one think when sabers start taking the position they know more about the game than those who play it? Take, for example, the attached appearing in Bleacher Report where the author tells Yogi Berra he actually had a very good 1957 season despite the Hall of Fame catcher being on record having said it was lousy. Statistics don’t show the certain pitches Yogi knew in other seasons he would have hit for a homer that instead went for a long fly out or perhaps a single instead.

    http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1115413-yogi-berras-bad-1957-yankees-season-became-a-good-one-in-the-21st-century

    Another example deals with Brian Kenny telling Al Leiter why managers should employ the extreme shift more often, showing how succesful these shifts have been when used against certain players. He then back up his position with saber charts, showing how they reveal the unusual hitting directional patterns for so many a batter. As he was saying this, Al started shaking his head in disgust and said absolutely not for that will mess up how the pitcher is pitching his game by making one pitch more often to the shift instead of the hitter and that fielding position also depends upon how the pitcher’s stuff is working on that particular day.

    Kenny did acknowledge that Lou Boudrou employed an extreme shift against Ted Williams back in the forties – noting that Denny McLain’s former father-in-law had no computer information at his disposal. Hence, my point about advanced statistical analysis really not providing any new revelations except for those who follow the game from the outside. Though all clubs employ advanced statistical anylsis to a certain extent, many general managers admitted it was more to keep tabs on what other clubs might be thinking more than for their own use.

    BTW – according to Brian Kenny, advanced statistical analysis has determined that Jeff Bagwell is the fifth greatest first baseman in the game’s history. Since that is based on precise calculations I guess that means his assertion cannot be argued?

    Perhaps if those into saber stats would curb their enthusiasm a bit, I can be a little bit more open to them as well.

  • Will in Central NJ

    Topps should issue a reprise of that 1963(?) card, “CASEY TEACHES”: but instead, make it “WARTHEN TEACHES”—-and feature the pitching coach with young Master Niese!

  • […] summertime home run from Chico Ruiz to allow just two more hits over eight innings. Since the Come to Jesus session with Dan Warthen, Johan Santana and R.A. Dickey that followed Niese’s disaster in Toronto, […]