Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Mets Look to the Future by Trying to Avoid a Repeat of the Past

Matt Harvey and his teammates hope to turn their frowns upside down in 2016.  (David J. Phillip/AP)

The 2015 Mets had a wonderful season that ended in disappointment, as the team's fifth World Series appearance resulted in their third Fall Classic defeat.  The two previous times the Mets won the pennant but lost the title, they had poor seasons in the year immediately following their World Series appearance, with the 1974 squad going 71-91 and the 2001 club needing a sizzling September to barely finish the year with a winning record (82-80).

Clearly, the 1974 and 2001 squads are not the the same as the team that what will become the 2016 Mets.  But there are some similarities with the '74 squad that should be looked at if the Mets want to avoid regressing to the style of play that permeated Citi Field from 2009 to 2014.

During the 2015 regular season, Mets pitchers were decent at keeping opponents off the scoreboard from the eighth inning until the game's conclusion.  They allowed 139 runs in 331 innings after the seventh frame - an average of 3.78 runs per nine innings.  (The team as a whole allowed 613 runs in 1,462 IP, an average 3.77 runs per nine innings.)  But that changed in the postseason, as Mets pitchers combined to give up 22 runs in 34 innings in the eighth frame and beyond - an average of 5.82 runs per nine innings.

Now let's compare this to what happened in 1973 and 1974.  The 1973 Mets allowed 112 runs after the seventh inning.  In 1974, the pitching staff combined to give up 150 runs from the eighth inning on.  That's nearly a 34% increase in runs allowed in the late innings and in extra frames from their pennant-winning season to their lackluster 71-91 followup campaign.

The 2015 postseason began to show a crack in the late inning armor.  That cannot continue in 2016 if the Mets don't want a repeat of what happened in 1974.  Making sure the bullpen - especially Jeurys Familia - is not overworked, is critical to the success of next year's team.

Speaking of Familia, let's look at the closer in 1973 - Tug McGraw.  McGraw recorded 25 saves in the Mets' pennant-winning season and allowed runs in 18 of his 58 relief appearances.  A year later, McGraw struggled, giving up runs in 20 of his 37 relief efforts and recording a mere four saves.  (The Mets bullpen as a whole had just 14 saves in 1974 - the lowest total by any Mets team since the save became an official statistic in 1969.)  It should be noted that between the regular season and the playoffs, McGraw pitched a whopping 137 innings in 1973, which was 26⅓ innings more than his previous career high.  Similarly, Familia reached a career high in innings pitched in 2015, tossing 92⅔ innings last season after never having pitched more than 77 innings in parts of three major league seasons before 2015.  Familia's workload cannot be as heavy in 2016 if the Mets want him to continue to be one of the most reliable closers in the game.

Do I have to get on my knees for the Mets not to overuse Familia in 2016?  (John Starks/Daily Herald)

Moving on to the hitting, the 2015 Mets batted .244 as a team, which was only one percentage point ahead of the San Diego Padres, who finished the season with a league-worst .243 team batting average.  However, the Mets finished near the league average in on-base-plus-slugging (OPS), posting a .712 OPS which was just under the league average of .713.  Both numbers improved when there were runners in scoring position, as the Mets batted .252 with a .736 OPS in RISP situations.

The same thing could be said for the 1973 squad, a team that batted .246 overall with a .653 OPS in all situations during the regular season.  But when there were runners in scoring position, those numbers increased to .254 and .702, respectively.  A year later, the 1974 club could only manage a .238 batting average and .644 OPS with runners in scoring position.  Both of those numbers were worse than what the 1973 squad put up in all situations.

By not being able to drive in runners from second or third base, the 1974 team put more pressure on their pitchers to allow fewer runs and the moundsmen were not up to the task, as Tom Seaver posted the first non-winning season of his career and Jon Matlack had a 13-15 won-loss record despite his 2.41 ERA and seven complete-game shutouts.  The 2016 Mets must continue to drive in runners when they reach scoring position.  If they lose Yoenis Cespedes and Daniel Murphy to free agency, the two players must be replaced with guys who are effective in RISP situations.

Another crucial hitting situation is the one that involves a runner on third base with two outs, where a hitter cannot settle for a fly ball to drive in the runner as he would when there are fewer than two men out.  In 2015, the Mets were not very good in these situations, batting .209 with a .648 OPS.  However, the 1974 squad would have loved to have had that type of production with two outs and a runner on third.  That team batted just .198 and had a measly .547 OPS when those situations occurred - a far cry from the .236/.652 marks the team put up in its pennant-winning 1973 campaign.  The .209/.648 performance by the 2015 club with a runner on third and two outs was not very good and must be improved in 2016 if the team wants to compete for another postseason berth.  If those numbers get any worse, the team could be looking at a sequel to the 1974 season.

Finally, let's look at the Mets' ability to win close games.  The 2015 team was 25-24 in games decided by one run, went 9-6 in extra-inning affairs and only lost four games via the walk-off.  All of those numbers are quite acceptable.  The 1973 pennant-winning Mets - a team that finished the regular season with an 82-79 record - wasn't nearly as good as their 2015 counterparts in close games, as they went 31-32 in one-run contests, 7-12 in extra innings and 6-9 in walk-off games.  However, those numbers were superior to what the Mets produced in 1974 - a year in which they finished 17-36 in one-run games, 4-16 in extra-inning contests and 3-14 in games that ended on a walk-off.  Clearly, the 2016 club must continue to play well in tight ballgames.  To fall as far as the 1974 squad did in the late innings and in extra innings would be disastrous.

The 2015 Mets went places that no one expected them to go.  Although they fell just short of a World Series title, they have the pieces in place to make another run at the team's third championship.  But they can't fall into the trap that befell the 1974 Mets.  That team had a closer that was overused in the previous pennant-winning campaign, could not keep opponents off the scoreboard in the late innings, had difficulty driving in runs with runners in scoring position and was absolutely useless in getting runners in from third base when the other team needed one out to get out of the inning.  The 1974 club followed up their World Series-losing season by winning 71 games.

The 2016 squad still has many players who participated in all or most of the six straight losing seasons the team recorded from 2009 to 2014.  Although those players have wonderful memories of 2015, the memories of those sub-.500 campaigns are also still fresh in their minds.  Next year's team should look at what happened in 1974 and learn from that team's mistakes so as not to repeat history.  Terry Collins cannot overuse Jeurys Familia next year.  Sandy Alderson has to put together a bullpen that will not give up run after run in the late innings, a la the 1974 squad.  And the team has to show that even with the potential loss of Murphy and Cespedes, it can drive in runs in critical situations.

A dropoff in several key categories and positions killed the Mets' chances to return to the World Series in 1974.  It can do the same for the 2016 team.  Alderson, Collins and the players have to make sure the Mets don't repeat the past if they want to be successful in the future.

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