Mets-Braves and NL Pennant race wrapup

Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website
Sadly, albeit temporarily, it�s time for me to go; in my day job as a lawyer I�m working on a trial starting October 2, and while you can never predict how long these things will take, it will be after the baseball season before I�ve got the free time to write again. Rather than depress you with a column on the AL Wild Card race, I�ll depress myself with a look at the team I�ve followed most closely: the Mets.
I’m a die-hard fan, going back to the dark days of the late seventies, and I hate to panic over a two week slump. But the reasons for the Mets’ decline are serious; I have a bad feeling about this one.
In mid-August, the Mets had the best record in baseball. On August 18, they were 73-49, a 97-win pace. On August 25 they thumped Randy Johnson 13-3. As recently as August 30, they stood tied with the Braves in first place. Their record from August 19-September 11, however, is 8-13. Their record from August 29-September 11 is 3-9. Any way you slice it, the team is slumping and getting worse.
The Braves, over the same period, have not played real well either, but not nearly as woefully as the Mets. They are 10-13 since August 18, but 5-3 since September 2. They appear to be righting the ship.
With the Diamondbacks sinking faster than expected under the weight of a brutal schedule and a limp Unit, neither of these teams needs to panic � as long as they play modestly well, they will both be back in the saddle for the postseason. The Braves have the toughest schedule, though not by a huge margin, and with six games head-to-head the division race is hardly over.
But the signs for the Mets are very bad. For the fourth year in a row, the Mets have followed the same pattern. Start the season with a bunch of holes in the rotation and lineup, and struggle from the gate. Jettison the non-performers (usually at least one starting pitcher and a centerfielder), rebuild with relief help and middle-of-the-road veterans at the trading deadline, and get blazing hot in June, July and into late August/early September. Then, the sinking starts…
While the Mets� starting rotation � particularly Mike Hampton and Glendon Rusch � has been brilliant even during the downswing, the offense, defense and bullpen have all been in a tailspin. Which are causes for alarm, and which are just passing? Let’s break it down…

Problem #1 — As Rob Neyer has been harping on about for weeks, the Mets were somewhat over their heads at a 96-97 win pace. The �Pythagorean� projection, a Bill James method for figuring out how many games a team should win with a certain number of runs scored and allowed (the formula is W%= (Runs squared)/((Runs squared)+(Runs Allowed squared))), said the Mets were really more like an 88-win team, and still says they should be 75-67 rather than 81-62.
Each of the Mets� top 4 starters has started at least 26 times, combining for an outstanding 3.62 ERA. Bobby Jones has started 23 times with a 5.40 ERA, bringing the total to 3.89. But the other eleven games have been started by five pitchers (Mahomes, Dennis Springer, Bill Pulsipher, Bobby Bad Jones, and Grant Roberts) with the following horrific results:

0 5 9.48 11 50.1 67 32 33

Many innings of mop-up work were required in those eleven games, including a good deal of the work for Rich Rodriguez (7.97 ERA, plus an extra 2 unearned runs per nine innings, in 35 innings of work) and the not-quite-Mayne-like appearance of Derrek Bell (1 inning, 5 runs). Throw in the fact that Hampton started the season in an uncharacteristic funk, beginning with a 9-walk outing in Japan, and Jones was recovering from injury and completely ineffective in the early going, and you have a stronger team for the stretch run than the numbers indicate because of the high number of blowouts.
Problem #2At one point about a month ago, I checked the tables for �Offensive Winning Percentage� on and discovered that, assuming you count guys like Furcal and Agbayani as regulars, every player in the Mets� everyday lineup and every player in the Braves� everyday lineup except for Keith Lockhart had an offensive winning percentage (i.e., the record a team would post with average pitching and defense and nine of this guy in the lineup) over .520. It would have been everyone if I had counted Quilvio Veras. That suggests that both New York and Atlanta had very well-balanced lineups; as Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein noted in their book �Baseball Dynasties,� very few of the all-time great teams could field an above-average offensive player at every position. The Mets have not been so impressive of late. Specifically…
Problem #3 — Mike Piazza, the center of the Mets offense, has looked like Gary Carter circa 1989 the past few weeks:

Date Avg Slg OBP R/162g RBI/162g
Thru 8/26 .347 .658 .417 97 127
Since .179 .256 .238 23 23

Ouch. Piazza may be wearing down, despite Bobby Valentine�s efforts to keep him fresh. If Piazza hobbles into the postseason like he did last year, it is quite impossible for the Mets to go far. Piazza�s troubles, however, are recent and may be a passing slump when you consider…
Problem #4 — Four Mets veterans have skidded badly since the All-Star Break:

Pre-Break Avg Slg OBP R/162g RBI/162g
Bell .318 .498 .398 119 100
Ventura .239 .471 .349 77 100
Zeile .305 .534 .381 72 98
Bordick .303 .498 .358 109 102
After-Break Avg Slg OBP R/162g RBI/162g
Bell .194 .331 .283 63 37
Ventura .184 .328 .288 31 51
Zeile .228 .370 .306 57 57
Bordick .269 .395 .315 74 60

What do these players have in common? Well, at the break, Bell was 31, Ventura 32, and Zeile and Bordick 34 � and Bell and Zeile had just 3 days off apiece in the first half, Ventura 2, and Bordick none.
It�s always easy to blame the manager, in retrospect. Bordick wasn�t even on the Mets at the time, while Bell arrived with a rep as a guy who needs to play every day to be happy. But all four of these guys are seriously fatigued. Ventura probably needs to be platooned in the future to avoid this sort of thing. Add in Jay Payton, who has dropped off less dramatically in his first healthy full season in memory, and suddenly you have the offense that has scored just 39 runs in 15 games (2.6 a game).
To make matters worse, the Mets no longer have a John Olerud; Olerud could always be counted on for two things (not necessarily exclusive of each other): he got hot whenever the rest of the team was cold, and he owns Greg Maddux. Valentine�s latest brainstorm, making a near-regular of slap-hitting rookie Timoniel Perez, has not done much to solve this.
(I�m ignoring, for now, the general, sharp and puzzling decline in offense in the NL as a whole in the second half, but it may be that some of it is the result of aging hitters wearing out and breaking down, from Mark McGwire on down).
So those have been the big problems. Emotionally, the team suffered a particular blow on September 6. With Jones on the mound, on the last day of a road trip, Valentine tried to get back-to-back days off for several of his stars and steal a win with the bench, playing a lineup without Piazza, Edgardo Alfonzo, Zeile, and Ventura. It almost worked; Matt Franco hit a 3-run homer in the first, and the team led 8-5 entering the bottom of the eighth. Then in comes Turk Wendell, and he doesn�t have it . . . and in comes John Franco, who has been imploding in September since he was a teammate of Pete Rose and Dave Parker… then in comes Armando Benitez, who had surrendered a hit in just 4 of his previous 23 appearances, and Benitez gives up a grand slam to Benito Santiago. Reds win, 11-6, and Valentine wound up pulling most of the regulars off the bench to pinch hit. So much for two days off and a happy flight home.
The bullpen�s struggles should mostly recover; Benitez will be fine despite a few ill-timed taters of late, Wendell and Rick White are horses who never stay in a funk for long, and Franco had some solid outings in last year�s postseason after his usual September. The guys who worry me are Dennis Cook and Pat Mahomes, both of whom have been spectacularly ineffective all season.
What can be done? Personally, I�d like to see more of Benny Agbayani (who has been a hit as a very nontraditional leadoff man) in left and Bubba Trammell in right, given Bell�s futility of late. Bell can get unbelievably hot at times, but when he�s cold he�s as automatic an out as Rey Ordonez. Otherwise, not much; if the veterans are burnt out you can only do so much to rest them and hope for the best.
As for the other NL contenders…
What’s going on with the Braves? No longer the terrifying monolith of two years ago, Atlanta is showing signs of serious fatigue and injuries in some spots: Brian Jordan, as he was last season, has been hobbled by injury to the tune of a dreadful 589 OPS in the second half (compared to 842 before), and alleged teenager Rafael Furcal has posted just a .302 slugging average over the past month as his playing time has advanced to everyday status. Javy Lopez hasn�t been the same, posting an on-base percentage well below the league average and hitting .208 the past six weeks. Even Chipper Jones has lost 74 points off last year�s slugging average, 49 off last year�s on base percentage. The pitching is not as deep without Smoltz: Millwood, Ashby and Burkett are a combined 22-31 with a 4.72 ERA.
That’s a lot for the return of Galarraga alone to overcome, but in light of the Coors Field fiasco a few weeks back I had to note this incredible stat I ran across on CNNSI�s website: Galarraga has been hit by a pitch in the late innings of close games seven times this season.
Given their pitching woes, the Bruce Chen-for-Andy Ashby deal should haunt the Braves. Chen was pitching much better than Ashby before the trade and has pitched much better since the trade, plus he�s younger, cheaper, and hasn�t blamed any problems on an inability to handle hostile crowds. Ashby�s masterpiece against the Mets before the break kept the Braves off the ropes after the Mets� huge comeback June 30 and their toasting of Maddux the next day, but Ashby has contributed little since then while Chen has posted a 3.07 ERA and struck out 60 in 70.1 innings with the Phillies.
With Mark McGwire�s status in doubt, many writers are boarding the Giants� bandwagon. If the playoffs started today, I�d be right there with them; the Giants have few weaknesses and are clearly the best-hitting team in the game, like the Indians of years past. Still, if there’s one thing the Yankees, the 1995 Braves and the 1997 Marlins have shown the past few years, it�s that the key to winning in the long haul of a three-tiered playoff system in a season is a good starting rotation that goes three or four deep in quality. The Mets have that; the Braves and Cards don�t. And I still think of San Francisco�s pitching, while steady, as unspectacular. They may win one round or two, but sooner or later someone with a steadier rotation is likely to take them down.
If the season ended today, the Mets would go to Pac Bell while the Cardinals would go to Turner Field � and that�s the likely matchup, except in the unlikely events that (1) the D-Backs catch the Mets, (2) the Mets catch the Braves, or (3) the Cards catch the Giants.
Let’s look at the matchups & my predictions:
GIANTS-BRAVES: In the shorter best-of-five series, the Mets� superior pitching depth might not matter, but their frontline quality (Leiter and Hampton) would. If the Mets get their offense firing on a few more cylinders, they could take San Francisco the way they did in beating them three out of four in mid-August. But I�d still put my money on the Giants, especially with the Mets hitting the way they are at the moment. Giants in five. Ugh.
CARDS-BRAVES: A harder one to peg; the personnel has turned over tremendously since the Braves shellacked the Cards in a memorable 1996 Divisional Series. While not on par with the other contenders, Darryl Kile and Rick Ankiel have been a solid 1-2 punch this season. It will be interesting to see if LaRussa acknowledges Ankiel�s ascendancy by working the rotation to get him up front. But the Cards have been basically just killing time since mid-July, Edmonds has slowed down and McGwire will be coming out of mothballs. Flipping the switch will be tough. Braves in four.
NLCS: Can Barry Bonds slay the Ghost of Brave Octobers Past? Actually, I don�t suspect that postseason woes eight years ago will weigh much on Bonds� focus in this one. I really think the Mets match up better with the Giants than the Braves do. Now I�ve underestimated Atlanta before, but they wobbled badly in last year�s NLCS before rolling over to play dead in the World Series � and that was with Smoltz and a far more effective Millwood and Rocker. This one will be tough. Giants in six.
My AL and World Series picks? Please, I�m depressed enough as it is.
Could the Giants do better and win it all? Could the Mets surprise me and recover? For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth the past few years, NFL-like parity is (temporarily) closer than it’s been since 1982-83 in baseball and the postseason could well be tighter than it’s been in a long time.
That’s why Dan Duquette has been scambling so hard in Boston, even if it means taking on big salaries and players in the early stages of rigor mortis; everyone smells the rare opportunity to knock off the big boys while they are shaky. This offseason, Turner and Steinbrenner will have long shopping lists, and a labor war looms after that. This will be the best shot the Mets or other teams like them get.
See you after the season.
�When I was a boy in Cuba, Luis Tiant was a national hero. Now I�m thirty-six and he�s thirty-seven.�
–Tony Perez, 1979.
OK, I goofed; the 1977 Dodgers were for many years the only team with four 30-homer men, and when the Angels did it a few weeks ago I posted the question without checking it. Seems the Braves did the deed in 1998, and the Rockies have had 4 guys clear 30 four times. Next time I�ll look this over better…