Sunday, May 19, 2013

If At First You Don't Succeed, Try Again In The Minors

There has been much talk and speculation recently about the possible demotion of Ike Davis to the minors.  Such discussion is certainly warranted considering Davis' performance over the first 40 games of the season.

The Mets' struggling first baseman is hitting .156 with four homers and nine RBI.  His on-base percentage is an unhealthy .238 and his .259 slugging percentage is lower than what his batting average should be.  His 2013 numbers through 40 games are very similar to what he put up last year at the same juncture (.160/.220/.298, five homers, 14 RBI).

Clearly, Ike Davis needs a change of scenery to have any hope of salvaging his season.  A demotion to AAA-Las Vegas might not be the answer, as the altitude at Cashman Field and other Pacific Coast League ballparks might give him a false sense of confidence if he hits well there like most other hitters do.  After all, hitting a few thousand feet above sea level is not the same as hitting a few thousand millimeters above Flushing Bay.

Sending Davis to AA-Binghamton might be the medicine needed to cure his ills at the plate, since his offensive numbers would not be inflated there as they would be in Las Vegas.  And if the Mets need an example to prove to them that sending a struggling first baseman to the minors could be just what the doctor ordered, they can flip through the pages of their own history books and find a similar case that occurred over forty years ago.

Ladies and gentle-Mets, I give to you the case of one Edward Emil Kranepool.

A little minor league seasoning made Eddie steady at the plate.

In 1970, veteran first baseman Ed Kranepool got off to a start that would even have Ike Davis shaking his head.  Through his first 26 games, Kranepool was hitting .118 with no homers and one RBI.  The New York native was barely getting any playing time and as a result, his offensive production was suffering.  In late June, the Mets sent Kranepool down to AAA-Tidewater, where the 25-year-old flourished.

Playing in 47 games with the Tides, Kranepool hit .310 with eight doubles, three triples, seven homers and 45 RBI.  By mid-August, the Mets were convinced that Kranepool's time in the minors was going to help him produce at the major league level, so they promoted him back to the big club.  However, the platoon of Donn Clendenon and Art Shamsky at first base relegated Kranepool to pinch-hitting duties, but when he did get a chance to hit, he performed well, batting .308 with a .357 on-base percentage in 14 plate appearances.

By the start of the 1971 campaign, Kranepool had won back his job as the lefty-hitting component of the first base platoon with Donn Clendenon.  Kranepool responded by putting up career highs in many offensive categories.  Although he only had 467 plate appearances in 1971 - he had already completed three seasons in which he reached 500 plate appearances - Kranepool set new career marks in RBI (58), runs scored (61), batting average (.280), on-base percentage (.340) and slugging percentage (.447).  He also recorded his second 20-double campaign and launched 14 home runs, while becoming one of the toughest hitters to strike out in the National League (33 strikeouts in 467 plate appearances).

Kranepool's success was not limited to the 1971 season.  In 1972, the first baseman and part-time outfielder batted .269 and contributed 24 extra-base hits in 327 at-bats.  After a subpar 1973 campaign, Kranepool rebounded to hit .300 in 1974 and a career-high .323 in 1975.

Although Kranepool was now in his 30s and a veteran of 14 seasons in the big leagues, he continued to hit in 1976 and 1977, combining to hit .287 with 34 doubles, 20 homers and 89 RBI in 696 at-bats over the two seasons, all while maintaining his excellent ability to make contact (58 strikeouts in 764 plate appearances).

From the time he made his major league debut in 1962 to his career-changing demotion in 1970, Kranepool hit .246 with a .300 on-base percentage, .358 slugging percentage and a .658 OPS (on-base plus slugging).  He produced 188 extra-base hits in 2,917 at-bats (an average of 15.5 AB/XBH) and walked 227 times while striking out on 361 occasions.  After he was promoted back to the Mets in August 1970, Kranepool was a changed man.

Beginning with his first game back on August 14, 1970 and lasting through the end of the 1977 season, Kranepool hit .284 with a .340 on-base percentage, .407 slugging percentage and a .747 OPS.  Kranepool collected 168 extra-base hits in 2,270 at-bats (an average of 13.5 AB/XBH) and drew 205 walks while striking only 189 times.

Kranepool's demotion turned him into a hitter who drove the ball more often - on average, it took him two fewer at-bats to collect an extra-base hit - and forced pitchers to throw him strikes, as evidenced by his 16 more walks than strikeouts following his demotion after striking out nearly twice per every free pass prior to his time at Tidewater.

So what's the point of this Ed Kranepool history lesson?  Simply stated, if at first you don't succeed, try again in the minors.  It worked for the 25-year-old Kranepool when he was shipped off to Tidewater.  It can work for the 26-year-old Ike Davis as well, but only if he is sent to Binghamton instead of Las Vegas.

Ike Davis has never been a good contact hitter, striking out 356 times in 1,306 career at-bats.  But he did hit for a decent batting average prior to the 2012 season (Davis hit a combined .271 in 2010 and 2011) and his .357 on-base percentage and .817 OPS were better than average in his first two seasons with the Mets.

Perhaps if Ike Davis closes his eyes, he won't be able to see his lofty strikeout totals.

The Mets have a history of getting good performances from their veteran players after sending them on an unexpected trip to the minors.  Steve Trachsel was a completely different pitcher after his demotion in 2001.  Trachsel was 1-6 with an 8.24 ERA before being sent down to AAA-Norfolk.  He was 10-7 with a 3.35 ERA after he was recalled from the minors.  Trachsel's resurgence came just one year after the Mets sent veteran right-hander Bobby Jones to Norfolk after he posted a 16.20 ERA in his first three starts of the 2000 campaign.  Upon his return to the major leagues, Jones posted an 11-5 record with a more respectable 4.56 ERA.  He also threw a complete-game one-hit shutout to clinch the National League Division Series for the Mets against the Giants.

Of course, those were pitchers who fared well after their time in the minors.  But the Mets have also seen hitters do well after a short stint in the minors.  And one particular hitter who learned greatly from his time away from the parent club was Ed Kranepool.

All the Mets have to do is dust off the team's history books and look at what happened when they sent Kranepool to the minors in 1970.  The first baseman came back from his minor league stint and turned into one of the steadiest hitters in the lineup for years following his demotion.  The same thing can happen to the Mets' current first baseman if the team isn't afraid to send Ike Davis to Binghamton.

Ed Kranepool wasn't succeeding at first in 1970, so the Mets gave him a little minor league seasoning to inject some life back into his career.  The Mets must try that formula again in 2013 to help Ike Davis get back to the level he fell from after suffering a season-ending injury in 2011.  The recipe for success is right there.  The Mets just have to be willing to try it again.

A special tip of my Mets cap must go to my fav'rit Gal For All Seasons for bringing up the topic of Ed Kranepool while discussing Ike Davis' problems at the plate.  Her timely recollection helped inspire the piece you just finished reading.

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