Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
June 18, 2002
BASEBALL: Rey Vaughn

Originally posted on Projo.com

These days, if you watch him on anything like a regular basis, you can't avoid the question: is Mo Vaughn done? And, does Sunday night's big home run against David Wells change anything?

The numbers tell a story that doesn't lie: entering Sunday, Mo wasn't just hitting .231, he was hitting an empty .231, with just 4 homers and 5 doubles leading to a .323 slugging percentage (lower than Rey Ordonez posted last season, and lower than the career slugging averages of Rey Sanchez or Rey Quinones - hey, maybe we should start calling him Rey Vaughn). He'd struck out a staggering 55 times in just 214 plate appearances - once every 3.89 trips to the plate - but in the 126 times he's put the ball in play, mostly batting behind a bunch of other struggling hitters, he's still managed to hit into 9 double plays. Mo is hitting .319 when not striking out, compared to .399 before this season, which suggests that he's not just not making contact, he's not making the kind of contact he used to. The only bright spot is that he's walking more and getting hit by more pitches, so he's on base sometimes (.332 on base percentage, which is not good but not dreadful) - but then he runs like a man carrying heavy boxes in the rain.

Even those numbers don't entirely capture how helpless Mo has looked at the plate, constantly struggling to catch up to pitches. He's behind on everything. Keith Hernandez had a great point the other day: because Mo has such a severe uppercut, his bat spends very little time in the hitting zone (as compared to a Tony Gwynn type who swings level or even a Darryl Strawberry type with a long arc to his swing). As a result, if his timing is off even a little, he's lost. And his timing and bat speed haven't been right all year.

(By the way, whenever they get Fran Healey out of the booth, the Mets get some great analysis from incisive ex-ballplayers like Tom Seaver, Hernandez and even the aging Ralph Kiner - all guys who have really thought about how the game should be played, and sometimes have very interesting arguments).

Mo is contending with a series of problems that may be interrelated, and frankly the Mets should have been more realistic about the risks when they signed him to a long-term mega-bucks contract. OK, they didn't actually sign him to the contract, but they agreed to take the contract, which as a practical matter is almost the same thing, except that they couldn't have put the money to use in the free agent market unless they first dumped Kevin Appier's awful contract. Then again, Appier was a starting pitcher coming off a good year; it's not impossible that the Mets could have found someone desperate enough for starting pitching to take him without saddling the Mets with Mo.

Anyway, let's count the ways: (1) Mo's missed a year, and it can take a very long time to get your timing back after that - many hitters are never quite the same, even if they've stayed in shape and not been injured. (2) he tore up his arm - that's bound to affect his swing. Frank Thomas was a better hitter than Mo before they got hurt, and he's got a longer, more fluid swing - but Thomas has also struggled after tearing a muscle in his arm. I'm not sure how many guys have had this injury in the past, but it seems like the kind of thing that can really screw up your swing. (3) The Fred Lynn problem: Mo benefited tremendously from Fenway -- from 1992 to 1996, he batted .322/.577/.414 at Fenway compared to .273/.503/.367 on the road, with 84 doubles in 1278 at bats in Boston compared to 48 doubles in 1195 at bats on the road. In other words, outside of Fenway he was never a .300 hitter. Thus, expecting anything better than his Anaheim numbers as a ceiling was unrealistic, particularly coming into a pitcher's park with poor visibility. (4) Mo didn't just miss a year, he missed a year when the strike zone changed. Another factor to adjust to. (5) The weight - Mo could get away with carrying extra weight when he was young and healthy, but he's now neither.

Oh, and (6), my own pet theory: Mo has a short stroke and generates most of
his power with bat speed generated by powerful forearms, as opposed to using
a leg kick or a long, looping swing to generate bat speed and as opposed to singles hitters who don't need the quickest bats because they're content to go the other way. This is a purely anecdotal observation, but it seems to me that players like this tend to lose it very fast; as soon as they lose a little quickness, they don't have anything else to fall back on. Steve Garvey and Howard Johnson are classic examples of this type; both hit the wall in their early 30s, while big guys like McGwire and Winfield and Strawberry can keep hitting as long as they stay healthy because their size gives them leverage. Frank Thomas, too: it's one reason Thomas is doing better than Mo. (I'm skeptical of how long Jeff Bagwell's career will be for the same reason, although Bagwell's production hasn't eroded much).

I was guardedly critical of the Mo deal before the season, but even the harshest critics never thought he'd be this bad. Actually, Mo hasn't been as bad as advertised with the glove, since he's actually got fairly quick reflexes and makes the occasional impressive play, although as has been true of both Mo and crosstown acquisition Jason Giambi throughout their careers, the rest of the infield has made more errors with Mo on the bag.

Does Mo's homer off David Wells change any of this? I fear not; ESPN ran his lifetime stats against Wells, whom Mo owns as much as any hitter owns any pitcher (now .455 with 9 homers in 66 at bats), and Wells missed half of last year as well; he may not be the best barometer. (It was the ultimate insult to Mo that Joe Torre left Wells in to face him, given their history; he must have just decided that Mo was too washed up to matter). In the end, Mo needs to get in shape; he needs to understand that just being in the shape he was in three years ago isn't enough. But even that may not be enough, and the Mets will be stuck with one of the most immovable objects in sports for the next few years. I'm not optimistic.

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A few other notes on the Mets-Yankees series . . . if we've learned two things over the years about high-profile and high-pressure games, it's that you don't want Roger Clemens starting one, and you don't want Armando Benitez finishing one. Add two more exhibits to their lengthy rap sheets as big-game busts . . . the Piazza homer really puts the ball back in Clemens' court, since we're now back where we were before the initial beaning: with Piazza beating up the Rocket. Any bets on how long before Piazza hits the deck again? . . . Piazza is getting hot, which leaves only four everyday players in the Mets lineup severely underachieving . . . I thought before the season that Alfonzo and Astacio would be the pivotal players for the Mets. Here we are in June with Alfonzo hitting .319 and Astacio fifth in the league in ERA, and the Mets are at .500. Go figure.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 10:12 AM | Baseball Columns | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
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