Saturday, April 26, 2014

How Do They Do It? ... How Do They Do It? ... Mirrors!

Hot Foot from 1986 Mets: A Year to Remember from The Wright Stache on Vimeo.

In 1986, the New York Mets steamrolled their way through the National League East en route to a World Series victory.  After the season, the Mets produced a VHS tape (for all you kids out there, a VHS tape was a rectangular prism that was inserted into a bulky machine called a video cassette recorder - or VCR for short - for video playback) featuring highlights of their historic campaign.

One memorable segment in the "1986 Mets - A Year To Remember" video cassette features Roger McDowell and Howard Johnson sharing the secrets of how to make a perfect hotfoot - a practical joke that usually ended up with a teammate or coach's shoe catching fire.  (This practice has since been discontinued because current Mets trainer Ray Ramirez has enough problems on his hands messing up other treatments of injuries.  If you were a Met, would you trust him with a fire extinguisher?)

When McDowell rolls a wad of gum onto the hotfoot to use as an adhesive, Johnson asks him, "How does he do it?  How does he do it?", referring to McDowell's gum-rolling technique.  Without missing a beat or taking the sticky gum out of his mouth, McDowell candidly says, "Mirrors".

Twenty-eight years after Mets fans were educated on the McDowellian way to make a hotfoot, the current generation of Metropolitan boosters are asking how the 2014 squad are doing it this year.  Mirrors must certainly be involved.  After all, how else can this team be 13-10 with the following things not going as planned?

  • Jenrry Mejia is the only starting pitcher with a winning record.  Dillon Gee has a 1-1 record, while the other three starters (Zack Wheeler, Jonathon Niese, Bartolo Colon) are all one game under .500.
  • Four different relief pitchers have recorded a save for the Mets.  And none of those "closers" is named Bobby Parnell, who was the the Mets' ninth-inning man on Opening Day.
  • The only Met hitting above .290 is Juan Lagares, who hasn't played in nearly two weeks.  Four of the eight regulars in the lineup (Eric Young Jr., Travis d'Arnaud, Ruben Tejada, Curtis Granderson) are hitting .225 or lower.  Of those four, d'Arnaud has the highest slugging percentage at .295, which doesn't even qualify as a good on-base percentage.
  • New York is one of six teams in baseball to have as many as four pitchers with one or more blown saves, as Bobby Parnell, Jose Valverde, Scott Rice and Gonzalez Germen have all coughed up late-inning leads.  Four of the other five teams on this list do not have winning records and are all either in last place or within one game of the cellar.
  • The Mets have played ten games in which their hitters combined to strike out at least ten times.  They are one of eight teams who can claim this.  But somehow, they've gone 7-3 in those high-strikeout games.  None of the other seven teams is above .500 in their 10+ strikeout games.

Curtis Granderson has a low batting average and a high strikeout rate, but he also has a high walk-off celebration rate.

No one is confusing the 2014 Mets with their 1986 counterparts.  The '86 team was supposed to be good, coming off back-to-back 90+ win campaigns.  This year's model, on the other hand, is trying not to post the franchise's sixth consecutive losing season.

Two years before becoming world champions, the 1984 Mets went 90-72 despite allowing 24 more runs than they scored.  This year's team has been outscored by three runs, yet they have a 13-10 record.  Only five other teams in baseball (Detroit, Oakland, Texas, Atlanta, Milwaukee) can claim a higher winning percentage than the .565 mark posted by the Mets.

Are these Mets trying to become the second coming of the 1984 team?  Will they make Sandy Alderson look like a prophet by reaching 90 victories, just like the '84 squad did?

Roger McDowell might have used mirrors to create the perfect hotfoot, but the 1986 club needed no such help to win the way everyone expected them to.  The 2014 Mets are clearly using something to rack up win after win.  It's not pine tar (that's the Yankee way) and it's certainly not because they're loaded with All-Stars.  But there's certainly something special coming together at Citi Field in 2014.  And if the team continues to win the way they have over the past three weeks, they just might mirror the squad that brought life back to Flushing thirty years ago.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Home Field Disadvantage

You don't have to be a numbers-obsessed Mets fan like me to realize that the team has been playing pretty badly at Citi Field over the past few years.  But sometimes the numbers help to advance and enhance the narrative.

For example, since the beginning of the 2011 campaign, the Mets have gone 105-145 in games played at Citi Field.  Meanwhile, over the same time period, the team has posted a winning mark (128-124) on the road.  Should the Mets finish the 2014 season with a losing record at home, it would be the team's fourth consecutive sub-.500 record in their home ballpark.  Not since the Mets posted six straight losing seasons at home from 1977 to 1982 has the team been so futile before its fans.

But as bad as it's been at Citi Field for the Mets over the past three seasons, it looks like it's getting worse before it's getting better.  Please allow me to explain.

Through their first seven home games in 2014, the Mets have been outhit, 70-34.  They have failed to collect more than seven hits in any game at Citi Field, but their opponents haven't had that problem, as they have mustered seven or more hits in EVERY GAME played at Citi Field this season.

The Mets have batted .160 at home this year, while reaching base at a .246 clip.  Never has any team in Mets history posted a lower batting average through its first seven home games.  To put those numbers into perspective, the league batting average is .248.  That's two points higher than the Mets' on-base percentage at home this year.  (And for the record, the average National League team is posting a .313 on-base percentage.)

But there is one thing the Mets do well at home.  They strike out.  A lot.

In seven games at home, the Mets have fanned 69 times in 212 at-bats.  That's practically one strikeout every three at-bats.  And before you say, "Well, their pitchers have a lot to do with that, smarty pants, because they're forced to bat in the National League", allow me to retort.  Mets hurlers have struck out just six times at Citi Field this season.  (First-place Atlanta has played one fewer home game than the Mets, but their pitchers have struck out eight times.)  So it's mainly the everyday players who have been heading back to the dugout soon after taking or swinging through strike three.

Shake Shack might have a tasty burger, but what Mets fans really want to taste at Citi Field are Big Kahuna victories.

Just four short years ago, the Mets believed in home field advantage so much, they used their Citi Field success as part of a marketing campaign.  But that was then and this is now.  For as bad as the Mets have been at home since 2011, they've become even more lethargic in 2014.

The trade of Ike Davis actually removed one of the few players who was hitting well at Citi Field and wasn't striking out.  Davis was 4-for-8 with just one strikeout at home.  The rest of the team has gone 30-for-204 (for a .147 batting average) with 68 strikeouts.  If those numbers look familiar to you (which they shouldn't), that's because they're almost identical to the ones put up by Oliver Perez at the plate in his five seasons with the Mets.  Perez hit .147 with 53 strikeouts in 156 at-bats as a Met.

So tell me, my astute Mets fans.  If it's considered an insult for a Mets pitcher to be compared in any way to Oliver Perez, then what is it considered when a Mets hitter is compared to him?

The Mets used to believe in home field advantage.  But Citi Field has become a home field disadvantage for the team since 2011.  The Mets simply don't hit at home.  And that translates into not winning at home.  Clearly, the only teams that are taking advantage of Citi Field are the ones who call the third base dugout home.

Joey's Small Bites: I Liked Ike

I looked up to Ike Davis, sometimes quite literally, as this photo shows.

Hi, everyone.  I'm Joey Beartran, your favorite roving reporter, culinary expert and fan of former Met Ike Davis.  That's right, I said former Met.  As in Ike Davis doesn't work here anymore.  That means we will no longer be treated to reading about Ike's mysterious bout with Valley Fever, nor will we see him play dress-up as a cosplaying cowboy.  Lest we forget, we certainly won't be seeing his Big Unit around Citi Field either.  (And please don't click on the words "Big Unit" unless you're over 18.  The last thing I want is people picketing outside the chicken nacho stand at Citi Field because I'm posting NSFW photos.  When I want my chicken nachos, I'd rather not have to wait any longer than I have to.  Thanks.)

After months of speculation, Ike Davis has finally been traded.  The former Mets first baseman will now be handling those duties in Steel City, with right-handed relief pitcher Zack Thornton and a player to be named later coming to New York from Pittsburgh.

This could end up being a great trade for the Mets, as Davis had hit just .219 since the beginning of the 2012 season.  But his Kingman-esque batting average didn't produce Kingman-esque power after the second half of the 2012 campaign, as Davis managed just ten homers in 407 plate appearances since the start of the 2013 season.

Meanwhile, the soon-to-be 26-year-old Thornton has been a strikeout machine in the Pirates' minor league system, fanning 285 batters in 252⅓ innings (an average of 10.2 K/9 IP).  Thornton has also posted a 20-9 record with 26 saves, a 3.03 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP in parts of five professional seasons.  But his stock has really risen since the start of the 2013 season.  Since the beginning of last year, Thornton is the proud owner of a 2.50 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and has struck out 98 batters in 82⅔ innings.  Most impressive is his impeccable control, as Thornton has walked just 13 batters in those 82⅔ innings, giving him a phenomenal 1.4 BB/9 IP ratio and an even more eye-popping 7.5 K/BB ratio.

Let's put it this way.  Rafael Montero, who's the crown jewel in the Mets' minor league system when it comes to possessing great control and an exceptional ability to strike hitters out, has averaged 1.8 walks per nine innings pitched and has struck out 4.8 batters for every walk he's issued.  You didn't have to take Jaime Escalante's calculus class to figure out that compared to Montero, Thornton possesses better control and is more likely to strike out an opposing hitter than walk him.

No one liked Ike Davis more than I did.  When he was on, he hit some long home runs.  In fact, his final home run as a Met was a walk-off grand slam.  It was just the seventh game-ending salami in franchise history and the third that instantly turned a deficit into an unexpected victory.  But those home runs were getting spaced out a little too much, and as a result, fans were getting spaced out waiting for those big hits to come.  Davis needed a change in order to produce and the Mets needed to continue stockpiling young pitchers, either to cultivate them into a dominant force or to use them as trade bait for better hitters.

In trading Ike Davis, the Mets have taken a dive on another pitching prospect named Zack, hoping Thornton turns out to be a good melon.  Meanwhile, Davis - the one-time future for the Mets at first base - is hoping that a trip back to school in Pittsburgh will give him the education he needs to fulfill that potential.  It's a trade that should eventually benefit both teams.  I just hope it doesn't benefit the Bucs when they're playing the Mets in 2014 and beyond.

"Taking a dive?  Thornton being a good melon?  A trip back to school?  It's like I get no respect around here."

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Gary Sheffield's 500th HR Almost Didn't Come as a Met

So here I am all alone on a lovely Saturday afternoon in New York while my wife is on a business trip in Phoenix.  I have two choices.  I could take advantage and go outside to enjoy the comfortable mid-70s temperatures or I could stay inside my apartment pondering statistical data about a player who spent just one of his 22 seasons in the big leagues with the Mets.

Naturally, I decided on the latter option.

As you may or may not know, Gary Sheffield played 21 seasons in the major leagues before signing with the Mets just before the start of the 2009 campaign.  Sheffield, the nephew of Mets legend Dwight Gooden, entered his final season in the majors needing one home run to join the exclusive 500-HR club - a fraternity that guaranteed Hall of Fame induction prior to the steroid era.

It took Sheffield just six games into his Mets' tenure to club his 500th homer, as the bat-wagging slugger took Milwaukee reliever Mitch Stetter deep at Citi Field on April 17, 2009.  A joyful Sheffield trotted around the bases and received an ovation only a New York crowd could give.  But Sheffield's landmark blast might not have occurred in the Big Apple had it not been for Mother Nature's interference just seven years earlier.!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_350250/24-gary-sheffield-509.jpg
This reaction might have come in a Detroit Tigers uniform had Mother Nature not paid a visit to Shea Stadium in 2002.

Just seven years earlier, Sheffield was a member of the Atlanta Braves when the Mets' hated division rivals visited Shea Stadium for a four-game series in late June.  The Braves took two of the first three games in the series, with Sheffield providing the game-winning grand slam off Mets reliever Scott Strickland in the third game on June 26.  (That was career home run No. 327 for Sheffield, for those keeping score at home.)  The next night, Sheffield crushed a two-run homer in the first inning off Mets starter Pedro Astacio to give Atlanta an early lead.  But before the game became official, it was washed out by an early summer thunderstorm.  That wasn't the only thing that was washed out, as Sheffield's 328th career homer had to be removed from the record books as well, since the game was called before the conclusion of the fifth inning.

Because Sheffield lost a home run at Shea Stadium due to the elements in 2002, he came to New York as a member of the Mets in 2009 with 499 career homers rather than an even five hundred.  As a result, Sheffield made home run history as member of the Mets, just seven years after a home run he hit against the Mets was removed from the history books.

Today, Mother Nature is giving New Yorkers a taste of her sweetness.  But over a decade ago, she showed Gary Sheffield her other side - the side that washed out a potential home run that would have prevented him from making history in a Mets uniform.  And because of that side, I'm spending a lovely day inside my apartment sharing that story with you when I could be spending it outside with all the Gary Sheffield-loving Mets fans frolicking in Central Park.

It's a good thing I'm not as fickle as Mother Nature.

Plunks For The Memories

Jeurys Familia knows that he pitched a plunker of a game.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

If you were one of the many insomniacs who stayed up until 2:03am to watch the conclusion of the Mets' colossally important April interleague game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in Orange County near Disneyland where Gwen Stefani grew up, then you were witness to just the fourth walk-off loss on a hit batsman in franchise history.

When Jeurys Familia plunked Hank Conger in the bottom of the 11th inning with the bases loaded, he joined a small, but infamous fraternity that included Jack Aker, Greg McMichael and Scott Schoeneweis - pitchers who ended games on the road by throwing a pitch that made contact with the opposing batter.

But it's not who they hit that made Mets fans go to bed unhappy, it's when they hit them.  Of course, when you look at the short list of players who sacrificed their bodies for a bruise-off victory, maybe it's also who the pitchers hit that make Mets fans cringe.

On July 25, 1974, Jerry DaVanon of the Cardinals was hit by a poorly placed Jack Aker pitch, giving the Mets a 4-3, ten-inning loss in St. Louis.  DaVanon played eight years in the big leagues for five teams, collecting just 117 hits.  He had three homers in 574 career plate appearances.  In other words, grooving a pitch right down the middle probably wouldn't have hurt the Mets as much in that situation as throwing one into the body of DaVanon.

The Mets didn't suffer another embarrassing walk-off defeat for another 23 years.  It wasn't until Greg McMichael plunked Houston's Luis Gonzalez on August 3, 1997 that the Mets walked off the field a loser because of a hit batsman.  Granted, Gonzalez was not Jerry DaVanon at the plate, as he produced over 2,500 major league hits and 1,018 extra-base hits over his 19-year major league career.  But most of his success came after the 1997 season.  From 1998 to 2003, an average Gonzo season saw him produce a .306 batting average, 38 doubles, 32 homers, 108 RBI and 102 runs scored.  Prior to 1998, Gonzalez's average annual numbers were not quite the same (.268, 25 doubles, 10 HR, 60 RBI, 56 runs scored).  Perhaps McMichael was afraid Gonzalez would hit a walk-off double against him, explaining why he felt hitting the not-yet slugger was a safer bet.

The third time a Mets pitcher ended a game with a walk-off plunk was not a charm for New York, as Scott Schoeneweis hit San Diego's Paul McAnulty with a bases-loaded pitch in the bottom of the ninth on June 5, 2008.  McAnulty had himself a career that only his mother and Jerry DaVanon were proud of.  The former Padre played parts of five seasons in the majors, producing a fearsome .201 batting average and .325 slugging percentage.  At the time of his beaning by Schoeneweis, McAnulty had produced just 39 hits in his big league career in 214 plate appearances, numbers that clearly scared the Mets reliever in such a way that he couldn't get himself to throw a ball somewhere around home plate.  Fortunately for Schoeneweis, that wasn't the low point of his career with the Mets.  That would happen almost four months later, as he allowed Wes Helms' go-ahead homer in the bottom of the eighth inning in the last game ever played at Shea Stadium.  But hey, at least he didn't hit Helms with the bases loaded, right?  Because that would have been embarrassing.

In the wee hours of the morning on Saturday, Jeurys Familia joined Jack Aker, Greg McMichael and Scott Schoeneweis, becoming the fourth pitcher in Mets history to walk off the field as a result of a game-ending hit batsman.  Familia's victim was an unfamilar face in Hank Conger.  The artist formerly known as Hyun Choi Conger obviously changed his name to Hank to evoke fear in the hearts of pitchers and it clearly worked against Familia.  After watching all the tributes to Hank Aaron in Atlanta earlier in the week, Familia must have been spooked into grooving a pitch to another Hank, not knowing that the Angels' Hank had only produced 106 hits in parts of five seasons with Los Angeles/Anaheim/Orange County/Disneyland/Gwen Stefani.

If Familia never does anything else of importance in the major leagues, he can always say he's a member of an exclusive Mets fraternity - one that includes the unforgettable trio of Jack Aker, Greg McMichael and Scott Schoeneweis.  The bruises will heal on the bodies of Jerry DaVanon, Luis Gonzalez, Paul McAnulty and Hank Conger, but at least they will always be able to say "plunks for the memories".

Hank Conger has a boo-boo because of Jeurys Familia's boo-boo.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Eric Young, Jr. Sets An Incredible Mets Record

Forever Young does what had never been done.  (AP Photo)

On Thursday, the Mets defeated the Atlanta Braves, 6-4, giving them just their fifth series win at Turner Field in their last 19 series there.  As rare as a series victory has been for New York in the house that Ted built, the Mets had won four series there since 2008 prior to Thursday's win.  But something else happened Thursday night that was even rarer than the Mets taking two-of-three in Atlanta.  And it made Eric Young, Jr. the answer to a fascinating trivia question.

Young was a true tablesetter in the series finale, going 3-for-5 and reaching base a fourth time on a fielder's choice.  Young stole three bases for the Mets and scored all four times he reached base, becoming the first player in team history to score four runs and steal three bases in the same game.

Prior to Thursday, the only Mets with as many as four hits and two steals in a single game were Bob Bailor, who accomplished the feat on September 8, 1982 against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Luis Castillo, who scored five runs and stole two bases on June 27, 2008 versus the Yankees.  That was also the game Carlos Delgado produced a club-record nine RBI.

The only time an opposing player ever manufactured a four-run, three-steal game against the Mets was on July 1, 1998, when Toronto's Shannon Stewart turned the trick in a 15-10 shootout lost by the Mets at the Skydome.

Congratulations to Eric Young, Jr. on defining what a tablesetter does.  He stole three bases to set up run-scoring opportunities and he crossed the plate four times, almost single-handedly defeating the Braves.  In doing so, Young became the first Met in history to put up those numbers in the same game.

In the words of the late, great Mel Allen, "How about that?"

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Hark(ness), The Herald Davis Swings

If you were at Citi Field today as I was, you witnessed a thrilling conclusion to the Mets-Reds affair.  With the Mets trailing, 3-2, going into the bottom of the ninth, Juan Lagares, Anthony Recker and Ruben Tejada all reached base to start the inning.

Up stepped Ike Davis, needing a long fly ball to tie the game and a base hit to perhaps win it.  What he did was even more exciting.

Slam!  Let the boys be boys!  (Photo by Howard Simmons/NY Daily News)

Davis' long blast off the Subway sign in right-center turned a potential heartbreaking one-run loss into a scream-until-you-lose-your-voice three-run victory.  The walk-off grand slam gave the Mets a 6-3 win over the Reds and put them in position to sweep Cincinnati on Sunday.

But Ike Davis' game-ending homer was more than just a fantastic moment in this young season.  It also was one of the rarest moments in the 53-year history of the team.  Please allow me to elaborate.

Davis' walk-off grand slam was only the seventh such home run hit by a Mets player in franchise history.  Tim Harkness was the first Met to smoke a game-ending salami, accomplishing the feat against the Chicago Cubs at the Polo Grounds on June 26, 1963.  Just forty-four days later, Jim Hickman also victimized the Cubs for a walk-off grand slam at the Polo Grounds.  The killer H's were the only two players in team history to end games with four-run homers until 1980, when Mike Jorgensen took the Dodgers' Rick Sutcliffe deep at Shea Stadium.  Six years later, Tim Teufel hit a grand slam against Tom Hume of the Phillies at Shea, a feat that wasn't seen again at the Mets' former home until 1991, when Kevin McReynolds blasted a bases-clearing shot over the wall versus the Montreal Expos.  It took another 22 years before Jordany Valdespin became the sixth Met to end a game with a grand slam, taking the Dodgers' Josh Wall over the wall at Citi Field on April 24, 2013.  Less than 365 days after Jordany took a spin around the bases, Ike Davis became the seventh slammer.

Obviously, becoming the seventh player to hit a walk-off grand slam in Mets history puts Davis in select company, but four of the other six players who ended games by putting a four-spot up on the scoreboard did so when their respective games were tied.

Hickman, Jorgensen, Teufel and Valdespin each turned tie games into four-run victories with their powerful swings.  That means Harkness, McReynolds and now Ike Davis are the only players who can claim snatching a victory from the jaws of defeat by walking off with a grand slam home run.  And each player did so at a different home park, with Harkness turning a 6-4 deficit into an 8-6 win at the Polo Grounds, McReynolds blasting away at a potential 5-4 loss by slamming the Mets to an 8-5 victory at Shea Stadium and Ike Davis erasing a 3-2 Reds lead with one swing of the bat, giving the Mets a 6-3 win at Citi Field.

Harkness.  McReynolds.  Davis.  Three very different players playing in three very different eras.  But all produced one very similar result with three well-timed swings of the bat.  And it was a result that made Mets fans across the generations leave the ballpark feeling slam-tastic.