Thursday, May 18, 2006

Time of the Season

Games 39 & 40 - Mets

Cardinals 1, Mets 0
Cardinals 6, Mets 3
Record: 24-16

Timing. It's one of the most critical elements of baseball and life, if you care to differentiate the two. "Timing is everything" is an oft-used axiom that is somehow an understated exaggeration, which is either oxymoronic or just moronic, I realize. Within the national pastime, the word goes beyond descriptions of bat meeting ball. The hometown team can have an abundance of talent, shrewd management, inspirational coaching, clubhouse chemistry, and a healthy roster, but without the intangible known as good timing, the results can very easily disappoint.

The New York Mets dashed out of the gate this year with many of the aforementioned qualities, kicking around a couple of the league’s more destitute franchises and leaving those of us in the cheapies optimistic. As the season has begun to develop from the amorphous blob of those first few weeks into something with more definition, it’s become disturbingly clear that the Mets’ timing seems ever so poor. Timing is equal parts finding fortune and making your own fortune; neither has been easy in recent weeks for our lads.

Two nights ago Steve Trachsel pitched his first great game in a while, only to be outdone by Mark Mulder. Bad timing. Today the Mets touched Jason Marquis for a few runs, but with it being Central Daylight Lima Time in St. Louis, it just didn’t work out in their favor. As much as poor providence dictated this pair of scenarios, the Mets also suffered from their own untimely letdown. They were able to populate the basepaths in both games – including during the final innings when game-tying or go-ahead runs entered the batter’s box – but were unable to find fruition, and when runners don’t become runs, frustration ensues.

With every year a few more baseball statistics and associated acronyms come out, some of which only truly serve to cloud our judgment but a few of which are meritorious supplements to the age-old stats of significance. OPS (along with OPS+) is a fine example of that. I’m less sure about DIPS, BABIP, VORP, and SNLVAR, but I do actually think that MUAFSHG is one of the most telling new-era stats around. (Bob Ryan wrote a nice, brief review of Baseball Prospectus’s new book Baseball Between the Numbers that’s in line with some of this thinking.) In the ever-continuing quest to find the quotient which yields objective answers to subjective questions such as “who’s the best?”, there are few universally accepted standards. One stat that has achieved widespread acknowledgment for approaching the answer to “who’s the most clutch,” however, is RISP2, a player or team’s offense with runners in scoring position with two outs. Bear with me as I delve deep into numbers-crunching geek vernacular to describe how the Mets have been at RISP2 hitting: really, really, sucky.

The Mets simply haven’t done themselves any favors with their performance when opportunity has knocked. Their overall numbers rank in the top five or so of the National League, and they’ve even put up decent marks over their recent 3-7 stagger; unfortunately, it doesn’t tell the story of their woes. Until we develop categories such as “Rallies Squandered,” “Great Performances Wasted,” “Clutch Moments Gacked,” “We Were Good, They Were Better Tonight,” “They Were Lousy, We Were Worse Tonight,” and “We Played a Great Game and Inexplicably Lost,” you’re just have to put aside the stat sheets and keep watching these Mets play ball to come away with any conclusion.

Trachsel’s fine outing Wednesday night was another dreary example of the Metropolitans’ day-late, buck-short M.O. over the past fortnight. If they’re going to live up to our inflated expectations, timing of all sorts has to work out better. The hitters need to start driving balls when it really matters, pitchers have to make that key pitch when the situation most calls for it, and the defense must bear down at the most pressing of moments.

On the “out of their hands” side of this Timing conundrum, the schedule needs to lend itself to the Mets’ favor more; catching an elderly Yankees squad now, fairly early in the season, is usually less advantageous than when they’re inevitably waist-deep in broken hips, cataracts, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer’s come late August, but this year the pains have caught up with the Bombers early, so maybe it’s a break upon which the Mets can capitalize this weekend. And as much as the Phillies now look like a pest that won’t be going away for some time, if they limp into Shea next week after a painful sweep by the Brew Crew and the Sox taking at least two of three (a deal is a deal), the timing would be just right for the Mets to step on their collective throat. Unfortunately, the new, new Mets have been reluctant to do just that thus far.

Speaking of injuries, the Metmen suffered a rash of starting pitcher wounds to the point where Lima Time! has made multiple appearances on the Mets’ schedule. Sure, it was a problem foreseen by nearly every resident in our neighborhood of the blogosphere after Omar dealt away two starters this winter, but it can still sort of, partially, somewhat be considered bad luck . . . –ish. The club hasn’t been able to shake it off and keep the pace despite the tough breaks, which bodes ill for the long term, but they just need to keep trying keys until one fits the lock. Aaron Heilman may not be the skeleton key that we have touted him as, but it’s clear that Jose Lima looks more like a piano key (a minor, flat one at that), one I seriously doubt will be unlocking anything in the near future. In the meantime, rapping out a clutch RISP2 hit now and then might go a long way into solving the riddle of timing that has plagued the Mets for some time. There is every reason to believe that this team is going to keep setting itself up with chances to tilt the majority of games in their favor; unless they learn to come through in those spots with some regularity, potential will never evolve into performance, and more frustration will ensue.

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