My second-favorite squadron visits the Dome tonight to kick off interleague play, so I figured I'd elbow my way into the scout's chair for the long weekend. The Mets are 21-17, good for third place in the NL East. On the one hand, we're all accustomed to watching the Jays roll over against NL teams. On the other hand, the Jays will dodge the Mets' two best pitchers plus their starting catcher and shortstop. So, perhaps a miracle is imminent.
The Jays are 4-14 all-time against the Amazins, but that's ancient history. We actually haven't seen these two teams go at it since 2006. The last time the Jays faced the Mets, Carlos Delgado was making his big return to Toronto. New York's starting pitchers were Tom Glavine, Orlando Hernandez and Steve Trachsel. For the Jays, it was Casey Janssen, Roy Halladay and Josh Towers. Needless to say, things done changed.
Tonight, it's Jon Niese, a lefty who underwent plastic surgery during the offseason on a dare from Carlos Beltran. Niese was rewarded with a nice five-year deal. Or maybe it was the fact that he's in counterpart Ricky Romero's K% and GB% class that got him all the cash. Either way, he figures to be a mainstay in Flushing. Niese has a lively fastball in the low-mid-90s and pitches off it with a cutter, a big 12-6er and a changeup. As you'd expect for a pitcher with that repertoire, Niese has a small, 27-point OPS split.
Tomorrow, it's el poeta, Miguel Batista, at 41 the Mets' elder statesman. In effect, he's the new Tim Wakefield - a rubber-armed veteran who doesn't mind being used as a swingman. Batista was the seventh man in the bullpen until an elbow injury zapped Mike Pelfrey; now, he'll keep a rotation seat warm, at least until Matt Harvey forces someone out. On the mound, Batista is Roy Halladay minus the wipeout curveball and pinpoint command. His fastball moves very well, and he pitches off it with a cutter and the odd changeup. When he has a good feel for the fastball, he's tough. He threw seven shutout innings in a victory over Milwaukee on Monday.
Sunday's starter is righty Dillon Gee, whose goatee is extending into Reed Johnson territory. Gee is in his third year in the majors, and his K, BB and GB rates have all taken huge steps in the right direction. Unfortunately, he has been absolutely tattooed this year; he's stuck on a 5.65 ERA, his BABIP sits at .346 (last year: .270), and he's looked meatball-prone whenever I've seen him. Stuffwise, he reminds me of David Bush: his fastball is around 90, he has a big slow curveball which he can throw for strikes, a hard slider/cutter, and a changeup. He arguably comes to a full stop when he steps back into the windup. That may look funky, but it evidently hasn't been fooling anyone this year.
The Mets are an unusual team. They're your textbook long-sequence offense - lots of runners on base, not much power. They easily lead the NL in pitches per plate appearance, with 3.99, and they're second in OBP. Strange for an NL team that plays in a pitchers' park, but it's worked. The Mets would make the playoffs if the season ended today even though they allow 4.8 runs per game, third-worst in the NL.
New York's offense is powered by David Wright, who has emerged from a two-year slump to hit .411/.513/.621 in 2012. It's finally his team to lead, now that Carlos Beltran is in St. Louis and Jose Reyes has taken his considerable talents to South Beach, and I wonder if the added responsibility has helped inspire Wright to go HAM. (Advance Scout makes no assertions regarding the truth or falsehood of this conjectured narrative.) Wright has serious all-fields power, and he will stay on pitches down and away and scorch them to right center. In Yankee Stadium he'd be a mortal lock to hit 30 homers every single year. Not that I'm a scout or anything, but I think the way to attack Wright is to pound him up and in. If he gets around on one, oh well. If Alvarez can fire endless fastballs just below the strike zone, hoping to induce Wright to chase, that might work as well. Alternatively, you could just try to pitch around him, but with Duda, Murphy, Davis and Baxter on deck you run the risk of easing yourself into a jam.
Let's jump to the infirmary, since aside from the fact Johan Santana and R.A. Dickey aren't pitching, the best reason to expect the Jays to win this weekend is that Ruben Tejada (hamstring; .305/.362/.400) and Josh Thole (concussion; .284/.356/.370) are out. One of the Mets' big if unheralded advantages heading into the season was having a shortstop and a catcher who could be relied on to easily beat the league-average OBP, keeping the line moving for the big bats. But the Jays' pitchers won't have to deal with those two, and their respective replacements are the immortal Ronny Cedeno and Vancouver native Mike Nickeas. Cedeno is your quintessential AAAA shortstop - a smooth fielder, not a great hitter, though he did hit a three-run bomb off Logan Ondrusek to polish off the Reds yesterday. Nickeas is a standard backup catcher, I guess, and he's had an odd flair for hitting timely bloop doubles. Rob Johnson, the backup backup catcher, runs well. He has 6 career stolen bases and will bunt for a hit if you let him. Summary: If you find yourself saying, "Wow, that lineup sucks," which in all sincerity you probably won't, do keep in mind that two solid, unsung regulars have given way to two replacement players.
Centerfielder Andres Torres, acquired from the Giants for Angel Pagan, is this lineup's lone speed burner. He's a gap hitter - it seems pretty clear to me that his 16-homer outburst two years ago was a fluke. But he's a quick and adept outfielder, very qualified to man centerfield, a huge defensive upgrade from the relatively klutzy Pagan in my view. And like every other regular on this team, he will work the count and draw walks.
Rookie outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis got his big chance to break into the majors when Torres suffered a calf injury six innings into the year. He's hitting .291/.364/.402. He's a three-true-outcome machine: he walks, he strikes out, he has some pop, he steals the odd base, and he's a much better fielder than Bay or Duda. (Nieuwenhuis was the everyday CF while Torres was injured.) Opposing pitchers have just started to the enter the "don't give him anything to hit" phase, and we'll see how he handles the adjustment.
Lucas Duda hasn't set the world on fire quite the way I expected him to - he only has 4 homers and 4 doubles - but he's starting to heat up. He's up to .279/.360/.410, and his LD rate is above 26%. Duda hits the ball really damn hard, and in light of that, I remain convinced that the power outburst is inevitable. Duda singled off Aroldis Chapman yesterday and is actually hitting above .300 against lefties (albeit with no walks or power). His biggest weakness, of course, is fielding - he is not fast, and he wasn't born with amazing ball-reading instincts. Fortunately for the Mets, unless someone else is tired or hurt, they'll get to DH him as often as they want.
Second baseman Daniel Murphy has picked up right where he left off last year, hitting .327/.367/.395. He's probably miscast as a second baseman - he plays deep all the time, even against RH batters, probably to give himself extra range. If I were one of the Jays' speedsters I might try to sneak a bunt past the pitcher at some point to take advantage.
Mike Baxter is hitting .364 as the Mets' designated pinch hitter, and he's started to earn some regular playing time in left field. Baxter is a native of Whitestone, NY, less than 5 miles away from Shea. Against righty pitchers, he'll probably take the extra outfield spot when Duda DHs.
First baseman Ike Davis has been dreadful. Call it valley fever, bad hit luck or just general sluggishness, but he's working on a .164/.225/.305 line, and he's made enough uncharacteristic errors that the fielding stats actually have him below average. The Mets will pinch-hit Scott Hairston or Justin Turner for him against a lefty in the late innings. At least Davis' stunt double is taking all this in stride. (Actual Ike.)
Bench: Scott Hairston is a righty platoon hitter who will probably spell one of the lefties tonight. Justin Turner is a pest/utilityman who grinds out extremely long at-bats. His at-bat song is "Call Me Maybe," an excellent choice. Jordany Valdespin is a speedster/utilityman whose first major-league hit was an unforgettable game-winning three-run homer off Jonathan Papelbon.
Manager Terry Collins did well to win 77 games with last year's injury-ravaged squad, and I think he's been a positive factor this year as well. He can be a bit demonstrative, but his team does not quit, ever. Even if they fall behind early, which happens often, the Mets' lineup keeps wearing the pitcher out and usually gets to him by the middle innings. Collins also deftly handled a potential beanball situation earlier this week, in which now-DFA'd D.J. Carrasco hit Ryan Braun after giving up a homer in an 8-0 game. Collins pulled Wright and Daniel Murphy (who's hitting .330) to avoid retaliation, over a loud protest from Wright, who insisted on taking one for the team. Everyone involved said all the right things after the game. In any event, I think Collins was probably right.
Now for the bad news. The Mets' stolen base success rate is barely above 50%, largely due to their insistence on calling for the hit-and-run at unbelievably stupid times. Down 2-0, fourth inning, steady drizzle falling all day creating a slow track, Wright on first, one out, Duda(!) batting, Greinke(!!) pitching, 3-2 count? Hit and run, baby. Result: strike 'em out, throw 'em out, game effectively over. This thinking defeats the point of having a high-P/PA, high-walk rate lineup that wears out the opposing pitcher. Nevertheless, I can practically guarantee that the Mets will graciously and voluntarily give away a baserunner at some inopportune time this weekend. But I think that, despite this minor specific gripe, Collins has done a good job with his team.
Collins does have a short leash with his relievers. He's the kind of guy who sees Ramon Ramirez give up two infield hits, sees a switch hitter on deck, and immediately sends for his LOOGY. And I do mean LOOGY: righties have a .286/.403/.473 career line against Tim Byrdak. (Lefties have it a bit tougher.) Byrdak is listed 5'11" according to what I assume is the Frasor scale, but his killer pitch is a slider, so height doesn't really work against him. Byrdak is also no longer the only lefty in the pen, as the Mets just called up Robert Carson, a middling starter who's flourished in his third shot at AA since being converted to relief. Carson has yet to make his debut, so give him a nice hand if he appears this weekend. He replaces D.J. Carrasco, who was DFA'd this week.
The closer is Frank Francisco. You know him, you love him. His ERA is around 8, but he received a vote of confidence on Monday and hasn't blown any games since. The eighth-inning man is Rauch, who remains the same guy he was last year. The best pitcher in the pen is probably Bobby Parnell, a fireballing righty with a nasty knucklecurve; second-best is probably Ramon Ramirez. It's not exactly an inspiring group. Byrdak, as described above, is death on lefties. Hard-throwing righty Manny Acosta has a decent track record but has been bombed regularly this year. All told, the Mets' bullpen ranks fourth-last in the NL in WPA at -1.94, and you can probably guess who's first in the majors but it's still going to take awhile for the shock to wear off.
Song to Advance Scout to: Jag var åtminstone mindre fel
Possible lineup for Saturday and Sunday (and note that this team leans left):
CF Torres - S
RF Nieuwenhuis - L
3B Wright - R
DH Duda - L
2B Murphy - L
1B Davis - L
LF Baxter - L
SS Cedeno - R
C Nickeas - R
Bench - OF Hairston - R, UT Turner - R, C Johnson - R, UT Valdespin - L
Leverage ladder: Francisco - R, Rauch - R, Byrdak - L, Parnell - R, Ramirez - R, Acosta - R, Carson - L.
Chart: All hail Anders, the craftsman of this fine chart.