Saturday, August 22, 2015

Yoenis Cespedes vs. Bryce Harper: Who's the Real MVP?

(Photos by Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY Sports, Jonathan Newton/Washington Post)

Bryce Harper has been the leader on the field for the Washington Nationals throughout the entire 2015 season.  He has been among the league leaders in almost every major offensive category and has put the team on his back when injuries have disabled several of his teammates.  Meanwhile, Yoenis Cespedes has only been a member of the Mets for three weeks, having spent the first two-thirds of the season playing for the underachieving Detroit Tigers.

Harper's full-season numbers dwarf the numbers put up by Cespedes in his limited time with the Mets.  So why do I think Cespedes could take a whole bunch of MVP votes away from Harper?  Former Met Mookie Wilson has a lot to do with it.  Allow me to explain.

Mookie Wilson played 12 seasons in the major leagues.  Although he had a solid career, no one would ever confuse him for a league MVP candidate.  However, after the Mets traded him to the Toronto Blue Jays at the trade deadline in 1989, he unexpectedly became one.

Toronto, which had a losing record at the time of the trade, posted an American League-best 37-20 mark after the trade, with Wilson setting the table for a recharged Blue Jays team.  Wilson started 54 games for Toronto in 1989, with the Blue Jays winning 36 of those contests.  The center fielder, who was batting .205 with the Mets before he was jettisoned to Toronto, went on to hit .298 for his new team, scoring 32 runs and stealing 12 bases during the season's final two months.

On August 14, with the Blue Jays still under .500, Wilson embarked upon one of the hottest stretches of his career and helped push Toronto past all of its division rivals.  During a six-week period, Wilson batted .349, reaching base a whopping 64 times in 37 contests.  The rejuvenated speedster scored 26 runs and went a perfect 11-for-11 in stolen base attempts.  More importantly, he helped his team post a 26-11 record during his baseball renaissance.

When the 1989 American League MVP results were announced, Wilson surprisingly earned support from a voter, despite having played four months in the National League.  The MVP vote for Wilson tied him with Chili Davis and Mark McGwire for 25th place.  Davis earned his vote by leading the California Angels to a 91-win season - just two victories shy of the team's then-franchise record - while McGwire blasted 33 home runs and helped the Oakland Athletics win the World Series.

For as little time as Wilson spent with the Blue Jays in 1989, he provided the spark that helped his team win a division title, and he was recognized for his efforts with MVP consideration.  He was the true definition of the most valuable player on a team that had underachieved until he got there and needed his best performance to rise to the top of the division.

That brings us back to the Bryce Harper/Yoenis Cespedes conversation.  Through Friday night's games, Harper has a .330/.457/.642 slash line.  He leads the league in home runs (31), WAR (7.6), on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS.  Harper is also second in the league in batting average, runs scored (85) and total bases (251).  Based on those numbers, Harper should be a leading candidate for the league's most valuable player.  But how valuable can a player be when his team has more losses than wins?

The Washington Nationals enter Saturday's action with a 60-61 record, five games behind the New York Mets in the NL East and several light years out of the wild card race.  The Nats have played horribly over the last 38 games, going 14-24 since July 6.  On that day, Harper was batting .347 with a .722 slugging percentage.  Since then, he's gone from superhuman to just slightly better than average, batting .295 with a .485 slugging percentage in those 38 games.  More importantly, Harper stopped driving in runs, racking up just 14 RBI in the 38 affairs.  And when he's driven in those runs, they've occurred mostly when the game was out of reach.  In fact, you have to go back to July 29 to find the last time Harper drove in a run in a game won by the Nationals.  That was two days before the Mets acquired Cespedes from the Tigers.

Since Cespedes became a Met, the team has gone 13-6 to overtake Harper's Nationals in the NL East.  Cespedes has played in 18 of those games, batting .316 and producing a .582 slugging percentage.  The 29-year-old Cespedes also has six doubles and five home runs during that 18-game stretch, while driving in 15 runs - or one more than Harper has driven in over his last 38 games.

Clearly, Harper's spark has faded in Washington.  At the same time, Cespedes has been the straw that has stirred the division-leading drink for the Mets.  The Cardinals, Pirates, Cubs and Dodgers would all qualify for the postseason if the regular season ended today.  But neither of those teams has a player that is putting up obvious MVP-caliber numbers.  And perhaps the best of all the players on those four teams is a pitcher (Zack Greinke) who only plays one out of every five games.  Here are the top everyday players on each of those four teams and their numbers:

  • STL: Matt Carpenter (.264/.364/.465, 29 doubles, 18 HR, 63 RBI, 69 runs, 2.9 WAR)
  • PIT: Andrew McCutchen (.295/.396/.505, 29 doubles, 18 HR, 78 RBI, 69 runs, 3.8 WAR)
  • CHI: Anthony Rizzo (.292/.402/.537, 30 doubles, 24 HR, 74 RBI, 68 runs, 5.7 WAR)
  • LA: Adrian Gonzalez (.287/.361/.514, 27 doubles, 24 HR, 73 RBI, 65 runs, 3.7 WAR)

They all look pretty much the same, with no one approaching the numbers being put up by Bryce Harper.  So if the voters went by the numbers alone, Harper would be the clear-cut favorite for the league's most valuable player.  But once again, is he really that valuable if his team loses more than half of its games when he's in the lineup?

Mookie Wilson didn't win the AL MVP Award in 1989.  Similarly, Yoenis Cespedes is not going to take home the NL MVP Award in 2015.  But history shows that players who switch leagues and only play two months for their new teams can become invaluable contributors that help their clubs reach success levels they hadn't approached before the mid-season trades were made to acquire these players.  That is why Mookie Wilson received MVP consideration with the Blue Jays in 1989 and that's also why Yoenis Cespedes is going to garner the same attention with voters in 2015.

Bryce Harper may end the season as the best player in the National League.  But the best player isn't always the most valuable player.  Yoenis Cespedes has changed the dynamic on the Mets since he arrived three weeks ago.  Opposing teams have to prepare differently when facing the Mets now than they used to, simply because of the presence of Cespedes in the lineup.  Harper has not contributed to Nationals victories as much as a person with his offensive statistics should.  Cespedes has been a game-changer and a potential season-changer for the Mets.

Harper may still take home the hardware at the end of the season, but Cespedes is without question the player who saved the Mets season.  And that is what a true most valuable player should be.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Mets Must Get Over The Four-and-a-Half Game Hump

If the Mets want to see this in October, they need to increase their division lead in August and September.  (AP Photo)

No lead in the division is safe in baseball.  If you were a Mets fan in 2007, then you know how true that statement is.  But some leads are more safe than others, and the Mets have proven that in seasons when they've qualified for the postseason.

The 2015 Mets currently hold a 4½-game lead over the floundering Washington Nationals.  New York has built its lead by winning 11 of its last 14 games, while Washington is in the throes of a 4-11 team slump.  But an extra inning loss to the Pirates last night prevented the Mets from increasing their lead to 5½ games.  And earlier in the season, when the Mets rolled off a franchise record-tying 11-game winning streak, they also held a 4½-game lead in the division.  However, they never went over that hump, standing pat at 4½ for nine straight days (April 23-May 1) before a loss to the Nationals on May 2 cut their lead to 3½ games.

Only twice in club history has the team held a lead in the division of more than 4½ games and failed to win a division title.  The 1972 Mets got off to a tremendous start, winning 31 of their first 43 games.  In late May, the team possessed a comfortable 6½-game lead in the NL East.  But when Rusty Staub was felled by a wayward pitch thrown by Braves pitcher (and future Met) George Stone in early June, the team crumbled.  In the three-month period from June 7 to September 7, the Mets went 34-50 and finished double-digit games behind the eventual division champion Pittsburgh Pirates.

Thirty-five years later, the Mets famously held a seven-game lead with 17 games left in the season, only to see the Philadelphia Phillies take advantage of a Mets team that suddenly forgot how to pitch effectively.  Philly won all seven of their match-ups with the Mets in the season's final five weeks and Mets pitchers allowed an unfathomable 131 runs in the team's last 19 games to cough up the seemingly insurmountable lead.

Other than the 1972 and 2007 campaigns, New York has held a division lead of at least five games in four other campaigns.  They won the division crown in each of those seasons (1969, 1986, 1988, 2006).  They also held a lead of five or more games in the wild card race in 2000 and advanced to the World Series that year.

The Mets have had leads in the division of at least one game many times in franchise history.  And since the wild card came into play in 1995, they have been the leader in that race many times.  But just having a lead in the division or wild card race after the season is well underway hasn't guaranteed October baseball in Flushing.  Let's look at five not-so-memorable instances where this occurred.

  • In 1970, the defending World Series champion Mets held a two-game lead in the division when the calendar turned from June to July.  They ended the season six games behind the division-winning Pirates.
  • In 1984, the Mets were 4½ games ahead of the Chicago Cubs on July 27.  They lost 11 games in the standings after that date to finish 6½ games behind the first place Cubs.
  • The 1990 Mets were alone in first place as late as September 3.  But a 14-16 finish doomed them to second place, four games behind the division champion Pirates.
  • Eight years later, the 1998 Mets held a one-game lead in the wild card race with just five games left in the season.  They lost each of their last five games to finish 1½ games behind the eventual wild card-winning Cubs.
  • In 2008, one year after blowing a seven-game lead with 17 games to play, the Mets were on top of the NL East by a season-high 3½ games on September 10.  They were also 2½ games up on the Milwaukee Brewers for the wild card as late as September 20, when the season was down to its final eight games.  They failed to qualify for the playoffs.

What do the 1970, 1984, 1990, 1998 and 2008 Mets have in common?  Neither of them were able to stretch their division or wild card leads to more than 4½ games.  That's the same number of games the current Mets haven't been able to surpass in their quest to fight off the Washington Nationals.

The New York Mets have rarely missed the playoffs when they've had a lead of at least five games.  Only the 1972 and 2007 Mets know what it's like to watch the postseason on television after having such a lead.  But give the Mets a lead in the division or wild card race of more than seven games at any point in the season and they've never failed to crash the postseason party.

Entering Saturday's game against the Pirates, the 2015 Mets have been in first place for 64 of the season's 131 days.  They've held a 4½-game lead in the division for 11 of those days.  They've yet to hold a lead of at least five games.  History tells us that increasing that lead would subsequently increase the Mets' odds of making the playoffs.  If the lead were to grow by just three more games, the Mets would be in rarefied air - air that has only been breathed in by the 1969, 1986, 1988 and 2006 Mets.  Those were the only four teams that held a division lead of more than seven games.  You may recall those teams by their other name - NL East champions.

If the 2015 Mets want to join those squads as division champs, they just need to get over the 4½-game hump.  The longer they wait to get over it, the more nerve-wracking the final seven weeks of the season will be. 

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Lucas Duda Could Shatter Two Mets Home Run Records This Year

There has certainly been a lot of this for Lucas Duda at Citi Field this year.  (Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

Lucas Duda has been the top power hitter for the Mets over the past two seasons, blasting 51 home runs since the start of the 2014 campaign.  Duda's 95 career homers are the already the fourth highest total among left-handed batters in team history.  The only other lefty-swinging sluggers ahead of him are Darryl Strawberry (252 HR), Ed Kranepool (118 HR) and Carlos Delgado (104 HR).

Given good health and a multi-year contract, Duda could one day find his name at or near the top of the leaderboard of most of the team's power-hitting categories.  But Duda may very well shatter an odd team record this year, especially if he continues to turn Citi Field into the House That Luke Built.

Entering Monday's series opener against the Colorado Rockies, Duda has hit 18 home runs this season at Citi Field.  The only batter in Mets history to hit more than 21 homers at home in a single season is Darryl Strawberry, who jacked 24 dingers at Shea Stadium in 1990.  The only other Mets sluggers to surpass Duda's current total at home in one year are Dave Kingman (1982), Howard Johnson (1989, 1991), Todd Hundley (1996), Cliff Floyd (2005), Carlos Delgado (2008) and David Wright (2008).  Keep in mind that those batters accomplished their home run totals over a full season, while Duda still has nearly two months of home games to add to his total.

Duda has a total of 21 home runs this season.  So if 18 of those have been hit at Citi Field, that means he's hit just three homers on the road.  If that seems like a large disparity between home and road homers, that's because it is.  In fact, no player in Mets history has ever hit as many as a dozen more homers at home than he did on the road in one season, and only nine players have hit as many as seven more, as seen in the chart below.

Total HR
Home HR
Road HR
Darryl Strawberry
Jim Hickman
David Wright
Marv Throneberry
Steve Henderson
Hubie Brooks
Carl Everett
Cliff Floyd
Kevin McReynolds

Prior to the recent road trip to Miami and Tampa Bay, Duda became the first Met to hit nine home runs in an eight-game stretch.  All of those home runs were hit at Citi Field.  Duda hasn't gone deep on the road since June 18 in Toronto.

Lucas Duda is already the Mets' all-time leader in home runs at Citi Field with 55, despite not making his Citi Field debut until the final month of the 2010 campaign.  David Wright is the only player within striking distance - he has 46 - and no one else has hit more than 30.

Very few Mets players, regardless of the ballpark they call home, have hit the majority of their round trippers in front of the home fans.  But Lucas Duda is trying to go where no Mets slugger has gone before.  With seven more homers at Citi Field this season, he will become the first Met to hit as many as 25 HR at home in one season.  And as long as his road homers don't outnumber his home blasts by more than three during the season's final two months, he will be the first to hit at least 12 more home runs at home than he hit on the road in franchise history.

Lucas Duda has gone from a player who wasn't assured an everyday job at first base entering the 2014 season to the most prolific home run hitter in Citi Field's seven-year history.  And that turnaround could cause several chapters in the Mets' records books to be rewritten after this year.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Dog Days of Summer Might Be Happy Days For the Mets

The Mets hope to provide both bark and bite in the month of August.

The dog days of summer are upon us.  And while the month after the All-Star break is usually the time when some baseball teams start to fade, this is the time when the Mets have to heat up if they want to pass the Washington Nationals to claim an unlikely division title.

The month of July was supposed to be the big test for the Mets.  New York faced all three National League division leaders in the month (Washington, St. Louis, Los Angeles) and two of the league's wild card contenders (San Francisco, Chicago), yet still managed to record more wins than losses in the month, going 13-12 to keep their playoff hopes alive.  The Mets managed to gain 1½ games on the Nationals in July, as Washington stumbled to an 11-13 record in the month.

Now that the calendar has shifted to August, the schedule becomes much softer for the Mets.  They began the month with a thrilling, come-from-behind, Duda-powered victory over the Nationals, and after tonight's series finale against Washington, the schedule is loaded with sub-.500 team after sub-.500 team.

Beginning with Monday's game against the Miami Marlins, the Mets play 31 games over the next five weeks.  The only teams they face that currently have a winning record between tomorrow and Labor Day are the Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles.  New York will host Pittsburgh from August 14-16, followed by a two-game series in Baltimore on August 18 and 19.  However, it should be noted that the Pirates have a losing record on the road (25-26), which is where they would find themselves when they take on the Mets at Citi Field in two weeks, while the Orioles are above .500 with a 53-50 record, or half a game behind the Mets, who are 54-50.

That leaves 26 out of 31 games against the likes of the Marlins, Tampa Bay Rays, Colorado Rockies, Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Red Sox between tomorrow and September 6.  The combined record of those five teams is 225-296, which suits the Mets just fine, as they have been feasting this season against teams they have a better record than, going 35-20 against those clubs.

While the Mets play just five of their next 31 games against teams that are currently below .500, the Nationals have to play ten games against the Dodgers, Giants and Cardinals - all on the road - between tomorrow and Labor Day.  Those three teams are a combined 53 games above .500 and are 105-57 in their home games.  It should be noted that the Nationals are three games under .500 on the road this year.

The Mets have suffered some heartbreaking losses this year, but have still managed to remain in the hunt for their first division title since 2006.  They survived July, gaining ground on the first place Nationals despite playing an arduous schedule.  Over the next five weeks, the pendulum swings decidedly in their favor, as they face second division team after second division team - teams that shipped off several of their best players at the trade deadline - while the Nats have to travel to face some of the best teams the league has to offer.

The hottest days of the year could feature some of the best baseball played by the Mets since the team moved to Citi Field in 2009.  The Mets must take advantage of their upcoming soft schedule if they don't want to melt away in the N.L. East standings.