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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
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.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Shifts in Thinking

The Mets were supposed to be off Monday night, but instead they wound up in D.C., playing another one of their COVID makeup dates. Jerad Eickhoff was ambushed by the crazed baseball-destroying cyborg formerly known as Kyle Schwarber and the Mets continued to espouse their philosophy of nonviolence at the plate and before you knew it the seventh inning had rolled around and it was 5-0 Nats.

And then things started happening. Jeff McNeil drove in an apparent lipstick-on-a-pig run in the seventh, but Pete Alonso mashed a no-doubter of a two-run homer in the eighth and Billy McKinney followed with a laser beam into the right-field seats and hello it was Nats 5, Mets 4. Up stepped Kevin Pillar, who scorched an errant Justin Miller fastball high and deep down the left-field line. Gary Cohen and Ron Darling studied the ball’s trajectory from whatever Citi Field utility closet they’d been stashed in (why the heck is this still a thing?) while we did the same from our couches and 50-odd uniformed Mets and Nats did the same from their dugouts and positions. For three glorious seconds or so, I figured that when Pillar’s drive came down the Mets would have hit back-to-back-to-back homers and the game would be tied.

And then it came down foul.

It’s a baseball truism that a hitter who sends a ball screaming past one of the foul poles will not, in fact, be able to recalibrate that swing subtly and hit a homer a pitch or two later. Which isn’t the same as saying it’s a law of physics — I remember Cliff Floyd pulling off said recalibration in the Marlon Anderson Game, for one — but it sure feels that way.

Pillar struck out. The Mets didn’t score. Miguel Castro came on in relief and walked Gerardo Parra with one out, but got a tailor-made double-play grounder from Starlin Castro. Tailor-made except it was to Travis Blankenhorn, playing an unfamiliar position and shifted in a way he’s most likely not used to. Blankenhorn was positioned more or less at shortstop, which of course is where Francisco Lindor (on record as not a fan of the shift) has spent the bulk of his adult life intercepting baseballs.

Lindor instinctively moved hard towards the ball. Blankenhorn, already navigating unfamiliar waters, felt him coming and flinched, winding up with two errors on a play not made. Up came Ryan Zimmerman, the last Washington National anyone wanted to see in that situation who wasn’t named Kyle Schwarber.* Castro’s first pitch was an unsinker, which pitching coaches don’t teach because it has a tendency to wind up where Zimmerman’s bat redirected Castro’s. Just like that, the Nats’ lead was restored and the ballgame was effectively over.

It was a crummy demoralizing loss on a night the Mets should have been putting their feet up, and maybe there’s nothing more to be said about it than that. But I can see a silver lining. I suspect that lost chance will lead the Mets to make the next, much-needed tweak to their new defensive philosophy, which is to adjust how they employ the shift in double-play situations. After the inning mercifully came to the end, Lindor walked over to buttonhole Gary DiSarcina, which is the kind of thing you’d hope to see there, and not a guarantee when someone’s making $341 million. And ace baseball thinker and Faith & Fear pal Mark Simon immediately noted that the Diamondbacks faced a similar reckoning in their own defensive overhaul.

Gary and Ron, to their credit, used the misplay as fodder for a pretty interesting conversation about what had gone wrong and what needed to change. I say “pretty interesting” because the conversation was nuanced and began with the starting point that the Mets’ defensive rethink has catapulted them from the depths of the stat board to near the top, which we should all remember. (More here from Tim Britton of the Athletic.) I also say that because the vaunted SNY booth has made its own much-needed overhaul on this point: A couple of years ago, most of its conversations about shifts were derailed by confirmation bias and quickly devolved into Not in My Day grumbling; now, more often not, you’ll learn from their observations and debates. That kind of shift (ahem) is hard for any of us to tackle in the private space of our own heads, let alone in public with a nightly audience of thousands of armchair critics.

Here’s hoping a couple of weeks from now we’ll see a double play pulled off because the Mets tweaked their defensive pattern; that Gary, Keith and Ron will spot it and break it down, with Steve Gelbs asking the relevant follow-up question in the postgame; and of course that the Mets will never have to face that night’s Ryan Zimmerman and they’ll actually win. That last change would be the best shift of all.

* Speaking of confirmation bias, Mark also pointed out that Zimmerman’s pre-homer OPS against the Mets was actually 56 points lower than his career OPS, and not “higher by infinity,” which is what I would have very confidently predicted. Huh.

14 comments to Shifts in Thinking

  • Seth

    True they should have been putting their feet up last night, but they got to do that months ago when the game was virused out. So they really needed to play this game. Too bad the offense slept in.

    What is this Schwarber thing, and why does it keep following us around? Did it check the “I am not a robot” checkbox?

  • eric1973

    Well, we had our chance to see how we could do with nine Bud Harrelsons in the lineup, and we turned out to be 5 games ahead, in First Place. Hope you have a good day today, Bud.

    One by one, our ‘regulars’ are returning, and so far, they are as ineffective as they were the day before they went on the IL.

    With our threadbare starting pitching getting threadbarer by the day, and an automatonic manager who speaks in ‘punchcard,’ this lifeless bunch’s high-wire act is in danger of going the way of Albert the parrot.

    As Albert rejuvenated, let’s now see what we can do…

  • Eric

    The hitherto able Mets defense has been shaky of late.

    I believe the problem on the blown DP was procedural rather than structural, which is to say there is a shift DP plan but the fielder made a mental mistake. I don’t believe Villar, Peraza, or Guillorme would have made the mistake. I doubt McNeil would have. I wonder if Blankenhorn was not coached on what to do in that specific situation.

    I also blame the misplay on Rojas insofar it was a downstream effect of pinch hitting for Guillorme, which I disagreed with. Another bad effect was Almora, who’s hitting at pitcher level, hitting for the pitcher.

    Hopefully the late 4-run outburst is the start of the offense climbing out of its hole. Good to see McKinney being productive again.

    The fact that Rojas was compelled to trade runs for innings by keeping in Eickhoff who was being tattooed indicates the pitching can no longer bear the load. The hitters need to improve ASAP.

    The Nationals’ 2 straight losses after reaching .500 handed the Mets some running room that the Mets just gave back. At least it was only 1 game and not a series. The Mets are stumbling while the Nationals are charging and only a week, maybe less, from 1st place. It doesn’t look like a wildcard team will be coming out of the NL East.

  • Jo Ko

    I’m still struggling to understand how this lineup continues to under-perform at their current pace. It’s actually pretty remarkable how we’re just about 1/2 season in (over 300 plate appearances for Lindor) and we’re seeing statistical anomalies that you’d be surprised to see in a single series against one of the hottest rotations. I could point out that Almora, a career .265 hitter is still below .100 BA, or that McNeil’s OPS is 200 points below his very young career avg, or that Lindor’s OPS+ is below 100 for the first time in his career, but we already know they are dead last at producing runs. Except for Villar producing above average for his own career and Guillorme right about even, there are no bright spots here, certainly among the projected starters. We are looking at near or below career lows for several of these players.

    I don’t know if all these players suddenly exhausted their own capacity simultaneously, or if there really is a problem in the way the clubhouse is being managed. As outsiders, we don’t know much about what is going on in there, but I am pretty confident there is a something wrong somewhere in this organization. I have never seen a team with this much established hitting skill just fail to produce for such an extended period of time.

    • Seth

      You’re right, there is a problem, because these hitting woes go back years. I mean, that was the reason they acquired Cespedes in 2015. Since then it’s been an ongoing problem — not just this season or last year’s “season.”

  • Greg Mitchell

    Where have you gone, John Mayberry, Jr., the Mets Nation turns its lonely eyes to you….Or maybe not…But maybe Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe are available again…and what’s Ces doing?

    Some of us did point out at the time of Lindor signing that he did hit .253 last year. So I guess he is now at .230 for a full season of at bats now. Not “a small sample” as Keith says…

    • Daniel Hall

      Jay Bruce and Todd Frazier probably have a pair of cleats still hanging *somewhere* too!

      Although I’d rather eat glass than trade for another three ho-hum have-beens.

  • Ken K. in NJ

    I’d like to know exactly where in the billions of digits of Defensive Metric Data it says that Travis Blackenhorn should be the person to be in position to field that ground ball.

  • eric1973

    Well, Ken K., as our supergenius manager might say, it did not work that time, but if you extend it out to the whole season, it would work 50.0000000000001% of the time.

  • Dave

    I have observed in my 50+ years watching this team that there is such a thing as “a player who looks really good early in his career or in one year but it turns out he peaked early and briefly.” I fear there may be a few such position players on this roster. Maybe as many as 3 or 4 of them.

    And Jason, the only Zimmerman stat vs the Mets that matters is the one that counts how many times he got a WF hit against us. One with a result of “We’re Fucked.” Those don’t show up in any OPS.

  • Eric

    Francisco Lindor: .215/.303/.363 (270 AB)

    Amed Rosario: .276/.331/.398 (246 AB)

    Wilmer Flores: .269/.335/.440 (203 AB)

    Sticky stuff, deadened ball, COVID-19 and all, yet Flores and Rosario’s stats are tracking their career numbers. While Lindor’s stats are much worse.

  • Eric

    Maybe the organizational problem is the breaking ball settings are broken on the Mets batting practice pitching machine. They’re making curveballs look unhittable.

  • Cleon Jones

    I said it once and I will say it again- our offense sucks!!!!!!!!!!

  • Paul

    I wonder if Evan Roberts, the usually sage and level-headed Mets fan/sports talk show host, is now regretting his almost impassioned call for the Mets to acquire Francisco Lindor several months ago?