Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Mets 25-Game Check-up -- You Usin' the Whole Fist There, Doc?

ESPN and its online presence are, as is increasingly the case (and increasingly annoying), presenting a theme, then beating it like Secretariat. It's what they do. And as much as clever motifs that provide focus for the by-nature fragmented, sprawling, and all-encompassing business of sports reporting can be very interesting, when they are done to death, little pieces of our brains actually die. Did you know??? Well, at least we the SportsCenter/ESPN.com/Baseball Tonight/Sports Reporters/ESPNews junkies experience it. The latest omnipresent theme is whether "April matters," i.e., what can you take from stats and standings on May 1, a.k.a. the regular season is only 16% complete, but we want to over-analyze the hell out of it, even if it's analyzing the analysis in a self-fulfilling prophecy kind of brain drain that makes you wonder when the worlds of jocks and nerds collided to create these TV stations and websites.

Anyway . . . we at MLC will follow suit, mindless lemmings that we are. (Actually, since the fable about lemmings has been disproved, if you use that expression, are you yourself a lemming, or . . . ow, now I really think I strained my medulla oblongata.) At any rate . . .

The Mets are 10-15, winning at a percentage of .400, which projects a 65-win season. Can you take April's results and accurately predict the season's results? Usually not. Take, for example, last year's numbers. At this point last season, the Mets were one game better, and they finished with 66 wins. Oh, crap. Wait, let me run those numbers again.

That the Mets are actually a game worse right now than they were in 2003 speaks volumes about the disappointment so far. Injuries happen to every team, but they've taken a big bite out of the grand plans for a middle-of-the-pack Mets finish. There's an article today about how big injuries to other teams haven't diminished their win totals. Without insinuating that the Mets would be challenging the Marlins for 1st place if Cliff Floyd, Jose Reyes, Scott Erickson, and a few others hadn't been shelved, I think we'd be a lot closer to that lofty .500 goal with them around. Still, what with all of the disappointing losses, there are a few reasons to smile at this juncture.

Reasons to Smile

1. The starting pitching isn't as awful as they were on paper pre-season. Glavine's been old school Glavine, Leiter's been tougher than ever, Tyler Yates has shown flashes, Trachsel's been solid, and Jae Seo didn't completely and wholly suck last time out. Hell, Leiter and Glavine are #1 and #3 in the NL in ERA, respectively. Forget what I said -- they're not awful at all. The team ERA is 3.88, third in the league.

2. Braden Looper. A Looper, you know, a caddy, a Looper, a jock. Boy, did the Mets catch hell when they went after Looper rather than Foulke, Urbina, Gordon, and the rest. Braden Looper only has four saves in 12 appearances, but he has yet to allow an earned run. The rest of the pen has been somewhere between shaky and awful (John Franco has allowed 8 ER in 9 innings; Grant Roberts has given up 9 in 4 2/3), but Looper's been right on. This has eased the irritation of watching Armando Benitez skate unscathed in Miami.

3. The Mets' hitting is sneaky-decent. It's better than one might think, looking at their runs scored. Run production is their weakest weak spot (it's not an Achilles heel if the rest of the corpus is this vincible), while pure hitting is just an unsightly blemish. They're hitting .247 and have been outscored by five runs, but they've out-doubled their opponents, 42-27 and outhomered them, 22-18 (in just three more AB's). The RBI's are tied, and they've walked 10 more times. The Mets' OPS is 14 points higher than their adversaries'. They've even stolen two more bases. So why are they 10-15? While you collectively looked over at Art Howe with an accusatory uh-oh look, consider that the New York Mets pitchers have struck out 119 batters while New York Mets hitters have fanned 184 times. We're slipping into reasons to frown, but let's keep it positive with this: cut down on those free-swingin' K's and we've got something to build on here.

4. Mike Piazza moving to 1B. This is what was warranted, and it's happening. Slowly, but it's happening.

5. The Expos. Say no more.

Reasons to Frown

1. As just mentioned, run production is abysmal. Looking at the numbers, there's very little beyond the whiffing issue that you can put your finger on -- or, more appropriately, point your finger at. And when it's an amorphous problem that reeks of strategic failure, the bullseye gets painted on the skipper by default. Art Howe seems like a nice man to go fishing with, but that's not what this job requires. You could have a most pleasant fishing trip with Art Howe, Norv Turner, Gar Heard, and Grady Little, but that doesn't ensure you'll win many games with them at the helm. That's not to say that being a fiery bastard is a lock for success; just ask Buddy Ryan. But Billy Martin, Whitey Herzog, and Davey Johnson proved that you don't have to know how to win friends to influence people. Remember the wisdom you learned from Robin Williams in The Best of Times: When Reno Hightower was a prick, he was the best damn quarterback in the history of Kern County.

Perhaps we just need to give Art Howe some time to work his magic (and for Jim Duquette to do his best Billy Beane and grow some talent, pronto). Howe's records from 1996-2002 in Oakland went as follows: 78-84, 65-97, 74-88, 87-75, 91-70, 102-60, 103-59. Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you can clean out the system and start fresh. Will New Yorkers be that patient? Not bloody likely. My brother-in-law Patrick showed me this month's New Yorker, or was it New York, or Even Old New York Was Once New Amsterdam? Anyway, there was an article with a recipe for supposed success, one that called for selling off the still-marketable veterans (Glavine, Leiter, Piazza) while they can and acquiring some sure-fire talent to challenge in 2006. Check back in July to see if I'm on board yet.

2. The fielding, something we allegedly corrected in the winter, is still pretty poor. The Mets' fielding percentage is next to last in the National League, and they're tied for the lead in errors. Kaz Matsui, the man they relegated Jose "Moons Over My Hammy" Reyes to 2B for, has five errors. Reyes, meanwhile, is on pace to make no errors all season.

3. The rest of the division, save the Marlins, have been sleep-walking through the spring and could charge into a win streak at any time, dusting the "slow and steady wins 4th place" Mets. You don't get the feeling the Mets are on the verge of a surge, especially with Barry Bonds in town tonight. (Yikes.)

Reasons to Wince

1. Last year's 25-Game Check-Up had me worried about the lack of offense, too many strikeouts, and bad defense. The more things change, the more they stay the same. And nobody was more in need of a makeover than the 2003 New York Mets. Except the 2003 Detroit Tigers . . . but they got one!

2. We haven't squared off against the league's best talent yet, except the Cubs, and you remember that series. The NL Central looks tougher than in many years, the West has fewer patsies, and the Marlins look primed to defend their title. If the Mets split against the Expos last go-around, it could be a bloodbath against real opponents.

3. The Mets just really, really, really aren't very good. The first step to recovery is admitting you suck.

Well, that's the state of the union for now. Five games out and falling. Where will we land? Is there a light at the end of the tunnel, or is that a train? Do I buy Rob's case of beer incrementally, starting now, or keep the delusion alive? These are the questions that keep me up at night, these questions and those two kids.

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