The Mets take a hearty Beltran

2019-11-02 CarlosBeltran

From crossing home as a Mets player to coming home as their new manager.

Leave it to a few too many Met fans. The organisation hires one of the best respected former players in the game to manage the team, and all they can remember is that he was frozen solid to end the 2006 National League Championship Series.

So let’s get it out of the way once and for all. No, I wasn’t any more thrilled than you when the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright nailed Carlos Beltran with strike three to end that NLCS. Especially after Beltran to that point had thirty at-bats in that NCLS before that one, with three bombs, four steaks, and a .307 batting average.

But Wainwright had baseball’s nastiest curve ball that season. It would have frozen Willie Mays himself. The heartbreak when your team gets beaten isn’t always mitigated when your arguable best gets beaten by their arguable best. But unless you’d rather Beltran frozen by Braden Looper it’s long past time to forgive what needs no forgiveness.

Certainly it didn’t freeze Beltran for the rest of his baseball life. He didn’t look for the nearest mouse hole into which to spend it. He merely played 548 more games as a Met with ninety home runs, three All-Star teams, two Gold Gloves, and a few MVP votes, before he was traded to the Giants for a kid named Zack Wheeler.

And he even put up with the indignity when he defied the Mets’ powers that were at the time to undergo surgery on a bothersome knee, thanks to the past sane thought that just maybe his chosen doctors knew a little bit better than the Mets’ designated quacks what his knee needed. (Indeed, the day would come when the Mets would finally overhaul their medical brain trust.)

He knew enough to play seven more useful seasons including a farewell with the Astros’ 2017 World Series winner. It’s not that he put on a show in that Series (he batted three times, struck out once, and had nothing else to show for it), but there wasn’t an Astro to be found who didn’t benefit from his counsel, either.

As a Met Beltran was invaluable not just because he was a Hall of Fame-level player but because, in the middle of any maelstrom buffeting the team in the city that rarely forgives and rarely forgets, he was a stand-up man no matter the scandal or the struggle amidst the team.

He mentored and shepherded players, he faced the press no matter how hard the loss or how ridiculous the externals, he answered any and every question without evasion, and he was maybe the only baseball man in New York this side of Joe Girardi who couldn’t be T-boned by an unsuspected disaster running the figurative red light.

Now the Met who couldn’t be caught off guard even in testy New York gets to manage them. And they’re in slightly better shape than people think. Their rather stupefying second-half run in 2019 wasn’t enough to save the head of the hapless, often clueless Mickey Callaway, but it might be enough for Beltran to lead them to next year’s postseason after all. Might.

They have the National League’s likely Rookie of the Year. They have arguably the league’s best pitcher still, with arguably several more seasons of comparable performance yet to come. They have a youthful core who showed mettle, flair, and adaptability in 2019. If the Mets give Beltran the thing he needs most—a bullpen overhaul that leaves him more than just bull—he’ll have an advantage even before spring training begins.

Beltran also has a unique ability to connect with even the most disparate players and coaches, something he was known for as a player and a skill he refined even further in two years working in the Yankee front office. Show Beltran two players about whom fire and gasoline would be understatements, and Beltran will show you two players he kept from further combustion.

SNY’s Andy Martino has a classic example. Carlos Gomez and Brian McCann once clashed on the field after Gomez, the punk, had fun hitting one out against the Braves and McCann blocked him up the third base line from scoring to finish the homer over, you know, the Sacred Unwritten Rules. It was hard to know who looked more foolish, Gomez for having his fun or McCann for deciding he had no right to touch the plate.

Mirabile dictu, Gomez and McCann ended up teammates on the same 2017 Astros World Series winner. While they were there, both the Fun Boy and the Fun Fuzz accepted Beltran as a mentor. Beltran could and did counsel Gomez how to have fun without bruising egos; he could and did counsel McCann, we presume, that nobody likes a self-appointed gendarme putting on the cuffs before the not-so-bad guy finishes his job.

Beltran’s reputation, Martino observes, includes that he was the de facto hitting coach for every team who employed him as a player, and that he has a genius for picking up on the tiniest missteps by the other guys and exploiting them, from off-kilter field positioning to pitch tipping. It’s not impossible that Beltran was one of the Astros who caught Yu Darvish tipping pitches early in 2017 World Series Game Seven, enabling the Astros to run him off the mound while securing the Promised Land lease before his departure.

A baseball mind married to a people person gives a brand new manager a leg up already. Right away Beltran isn’t a candidate to blow up his clubhouse before he has a chance to secure it. He also has the advantage of distance on his side. He’s not being handed the Mets’ bridge immediately after his days of playing for them ended.

That was the mistake the Yankees made with Yogi Berra when handing him their bridge for 1964. Berra was too freshly removed as a player to establish a clubhouse rhythm or to avoid a few too many of his veterans from using manager-turned-general manager Ralph Houk as a behind-Yogi’s-back sounding board. Especially when it took Berra awhile to stop lifting his starters too soon and stop looking for bullpen saviours he didn’t yet have.

The ’64 Yankees had other problems, of course, most notably the subterfuges involved in the team’s sale to CBS and the lack of a viable bullpen between April and September. They rehorsed in time to win the pennant and lose a thriller of a seven-game World Series.

Yogi never saw it coming when he was beheaded the following day in favour of the man who’d just beaten him in the Series, Johnny Keane. And Keane himself dodged more than a few similar backstairs betrayals on the season and was actually offered the Yankee job-to-come behind the channels, well before both teams came back to win their pennants after all.

The Mets these days aren’t exactly a model baseball administration, either. Beltran could find himself only too soon wondering what on earth he got himself into when he finds his front office hands him or can’t diffuse a logjam or a bomb.

But it isn’t as though first-timers on the bridge can only fail—-see Alex Cora (a World Series ring his first time out), Aaron Boone (only the second Yankee manager ever to pilot back-to-back 100+ win seasons his first time out), and Rocco Baldelli. (He managed the thumping Twins to this year’s American League Central title.)

And, so far as we can predict, Beltran won’t be managing (yet) the way Boone had to manage the Yankees in 2019—unable to determine whether he was trying to win a division and a pennant or the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

Beltran also becomes the ninth Mets manager who ever played for the team in an earlier life. The roll includes, in ascending order, Gil Hodges (an Original Met before his knees betrayed him for keeps), Yogi Berra (a few pinch-hit appearances for the 1965 Mets before returning to the coaching line for keeps), Joe Torre, Bud Harrelson, Dallas Green (briefly a pitcher on the 1966 Mets), Willie Randolph (he ended his distinguished playing career on the sorry 1992 Mets), and Bobby Valentine (he split 1977 between the Mets and the Padres).

You may care to note that three of those men—Hodges, Berra, and Valentine—won pennants managing the Mets; Hodges, of course, won a World Series managing the 1969 Miracle Mets, and Berra got to within a game of winning the 1973 World Series. Hodges apprenticed as a manager with the second Washington Senators; Yogi spent seven years on the Mets’ first base coaching line; and, Valentine spent eight prior seasons commanding the Rangers before he took the Mets’ bridge.

Beltran’s going to have to show he can develop in-game tactical and strategic smarts fast enough to match his skills at picking up field nuances and missteps and at fostering relationships. But you won’t expect him to be caught flatfoot if questioned over as questionable a move as the now-deposed Callaway was in Chicago in June.

When Callaway left a gassed Seth Lugo in for a second inning only to get him and the Mets clobbered despite a fresh option or two for whom to reach. And, when Callaway accepted the inevitable post-game questions by demanding his questioner be removed from the room and doing nothing when one of his other pitchers threatened to knock the questioner the [fornicate] out.

But when you decide Beltran is the man you want over such candidates as Nationals first base coach Tim Bogar (whose playing career began as a Met), Brewers bench coach Pat Murphy, or Eduardo Perez (former Astros and Marlins coach whose tenures were short lived but who ended up a finalist with Beltran for the Mets job), you’d better know something we don’t know yet.

Which is what Mets observers said when Callaway was handed the Mets’ bridge for 2018, after several years as the respected Indians pitching coach. Callaway proved to be in so far over his head managing the Mets that he needed a periscope just to see a mile below the surface. He’s since moved on to the Angels in the gig for which he’s suited best, pitching coach for their new manager Joe Maddon.

If Beltran proves a capable manager, never mind the kind who can lead the Mets to consistent excellence, he could also accomplish something only Yogi Berra has ever done as a Met—stand at the 2023 podium in Cooperstown, as Yogi did in 1972, accepting his Hall of Fame plaque for his playing achievements while he’s managing the Mets. Never underrate the power of that kind of symbolism.

Beltran goes in with one very key endorsement, from a man with whom he grew up friends in their native Puerto Rico and to whom he reached out after his playing days, as a Yankee advisor, and as he went through the Mets’ hiring process. A man who thinks there’s more than just a marquee name involved in Beltran’s hiring.

“This is something he earned. He has made adjustments throughout from a guy who was quiet to all of a sudden is eager to share information and to talk to players, coaches and front office people,” said Alex Cora, the Astros’ bench coach during the 2017 World Series run he shared with Beltran and who went from there to nail a World Series managing the Red Sox in 2018.

Cora told the New York Post that Beltran did his homework and prepared himself fully after showing he could stay on top of the game by evolving.

“I had him as a player in 2017 and we had long conversations,” Cora continued. “We had some radical ideas of how to do things to kind of prepare myself for what was coming. He would tell me things and I would share stuff with him on how to run a big league team. He helped me out a lot.”

Never underrate the power of a World Series-winning manager’s endorsement, either.

Mickey’s monkey is off the Mets backs

2019-10-04 MickeyCallaway

Now the former Mets manager . . .

The least unpredictable fact when the regular season ended was Mickey Callaway’s job status. Never mind the Mets’ little comedy of an organizational meeting without him; the question was when, not whether Callaway had a date with the executioner.

Thursday proved the when. Mickey’s monkey is off the Mets’ backs.

At least Mets chief Jeff Wilpon and general manager Brodie Van Wagenen had the decency to fly to Callaway’s Florida home and tell him to his face. They didn’t send a flunky to do the firing for them, the way George Steinbrenner once did with Clyde King when he decided he wouldn’t fire Yogi Berra because the players did.

Even the Mets’ deceptive second-half self-resurrection, pulling them as close as two games from at least a wild card game entry but not quite close enough, wasn’t enough to save Callaway’s job. Or, for that matter, bench coach Jim Riggleman’s.

They brought Riggleman in to help shepherd Callaway through game situations. Riggleman doesn’t exactly have a sterling managerial record himself. And based on a lot of the Mets’ results this season, whether in the first half nightmare or the deceptive second half revival, it didn’t seem as though Riggleman was the best bridge lieutenant.

It’s a shame after a year during which the Mets yielded up the likely no-questions-asked National League Rookie of the Year (Pete Alonso) and possible second-straight National League Cy Young Award winner. (Jacob deGrom.) It’s no surprise, though, after the Mets played thrilling baseball one minute and looked like crisis junkies the next.

But time and again in the diciest moments Callaway’s moves blew up in his face, sometimes because that’s the way of the game and oftentimes because he wasn’t exactly the most in-tune observer of the moment.

One of them almost cost him his job in June. Against the Cubs in Wrigley Field, Callaway let Seth Lugo go out for a second inning’s relief work on a day Lugo didn’t exactly have his A game in his first inning’s work but Callaway had a fresh (and as yet uninjured) Robert Gsellman and his closer Edwin Diaz ready in the pen.

So Lugo went out for the eighth, fed Kyle Schwarber a hanger he was lucky didn’t disappear across the street but went up the middle for a shallow hit, walked Anthony Rizzo a fly out later, and served Javier Baez a meaty slider to serve into the right field bleachers, turning the game into a 5-3 Cub lead that held up through the ninth.

There wasn’t a reporter in the room who wouldn’t ask why Callaway stayed with a faltering Lugo who’d struggled to survive the seventh, or why he didn’t think to bring in Diaz to try for a five-out save after Schwarber’s single. Callaway snapped at Newsday writer Timothy Healey in particular, and so did then-Mets pitcher Jason Vargas, who threatened to “knock you the [fornicate] out.”

Right then and there another team’s general manager would have dumped Callaway and shuttled Vargas right the hell out of town. Right then and there nothing of the sort happened. It wasn’t Callaway’s first head-scratcher from the bridge and it sure as hell wouldn’t be the last:

* He often pulled his starting pitchers when they were more or less cruising and at extreme minimal pitch counts only to be caught by not having allowed his relievers enough warmup time. And this was from a manager who probably knew in his heart of guts that he could trust most of his bullpen the way a cobra would trust a mongoose on a dinner date.

* He never quite clued in to the idea that a lot of his pitchers were more comfortable throwing to Tomas Nido behind the plate—with the numbers to back them up—than Wilson Ramos. This is probably on general manager Brodie Van Wagenen as well, but it merely amplified a key Mets dilemna: choosing between a catcher who could hit but didn’t always get the best out of his pitchers, or a catcher who usually got his pitchers’ best but couldn’t hit with the Washington Monument.

* Granted he had a bullpen of 98 percent arsonists, but he sometimes over-used his better bulls and never really defined who’d be doing what, particularly with his high-priced closer Edwin Diaz, who turned into a season-long mess wondering who’d burglarised him and made off with his once-deadly slider.

* In early September, with the Mets down 9-6 in the seventh, Callaway ordered an intentional walk to the Phillies’ number eight hitter to load the bases, even knowing Bryce Harper, who hadn’t started that day, loomed as a pinch hitter for Phillies reliever Mike Morin, merely because Callaway wanted Morin out of the game—which Morin was liable to be, anyway, after the inning ended.

Then Mets reliever Taylor Bashlor walked Harper unintentionally to bring home the tenth Phillies run. Be careful what you wish for.

Well respected as a pitching coach with the Indians, from whence the Mets hired him, Callaway—according to several published reports since his execution—rarely if ever drew on his pitching knowledge to give his pitchers more than cursory counsel. About the only thing he may have done, the reports say, was fume when pitching coach Dave Eiland was canned in favour of octogenarian Phil (The Vulture) Regan, who actually proved a lot more effective with Mets pitchers.

Callaway may also have helped cook himself by contravening earlier promises to open wider communication lines with his players. He’s said instead to have isolated himself in his office far more often and delegated far too many more responsibilities to his coaches.

And Mets players weren’t the only ones tempted to believe Callaway was really a front office plant who didn’t always call the shots. Nobody seemed to know whether his marching orders and in-game maneuvers came from Callaway himself, or from Van Wagenen, or even from chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon.

The only thing anyone knew was that, whether the Mets looked falling apart or looked like they’d really sneak into even the wild card picture, Callaway resembled a ship’s captain who couldn’t really believe torpedoes were striking for the hull and wouldn’t give the appropriate orders to cut them off.

So the question becomes whom the Mets will bring aboard to succeed Callaway. The answer may not be simple. And some of the options a lot of fans seem to favour may end up being worse.

One rumour has it that the Mets have eyes on former Cardinal manager Mike Matheny. Because he has postseason experience. Never mind that Matheny blew a couple of postseasons with his own head scratchers and refusal to contravene The Book, and blew up his own clubhouse in early 2018 (hence the advent of Mike Schildt) when he turned out to have a taste for engaging veteran snitches to play fun police with his young team.

Another suggests former Yankee manager Joe Girardi. Postseason experience. World Series ring. Itching to get back on the bridge. Except that Girardi is better suited, really, to a mostly veteran club, not a largely youthful club such as the Mets are now, something he may have proven when he had the vaunted Yankee youth in their first true season together but may have lacked for real communication with them.

A third suggests former Yankee, Diamondback, and Oriole manager Buck Showalter. Nice idea until he gets you to the postseason, refuses just like Matheny to throw The Book to one side despite the game situation demanding it, leaves his best relief pitcher in the bullpen because it’s just not a proper “save” situation, and watches a three-run homer fly into the left field seats with the other guys’ pennant attached.

A fourth suggests freshly deposed Cub manager Joe Maddon. Wonderful with youth and vets alike. Actual or alleged cursebuster. World Series winner. Postseason entrant. And probably more likely to have his eyes on southern California, where the Angels for whom he worked eons need to replace freshly executed Brad Ausmus and the Padres need to replace last-minute in-season execution Andy Green.

But a fifth pair presents a little intrigue. One involves Edgardo Alfonso, once a fine third baseman for the Mets and lately a winning manager for their Brooklyn Cyclones farm. The other involves Luis Rojas, currently the Mets’ quality control coach, who also managed a lot of the younger Mets in the minors and who’s said to have enormous respect from most Mets players.

Rojas comes by his baseball knowledge more than honestly: he’s also the son of longtime player and respected former manager Felipe Alou. (No, there was no extramarital hanky panky: The family name is Rojas, actually, and reads properly as Rojas-Alou, in the Spanish custom of the paternal family name coming first. The Giants scout who first signed Felipe Alou mistook the matronymous “Alou” for the proper family surname.)

Other candidates? Depending on where you look, they include current Astros bench coach Joe Espada (whose boss A.J. Hinch is a Van Wagenen friend), current Nationals first base coach Tim Bogar (once a Met player), former Mets bench coach Bob Geren (now Dave Roberts’s consigliere with the Dodgers), current Pirates third base coach Joey Cora (brother of Red Sox manager Alex and former Mets minor league manager), and former Mets infielder Joe McEwing. (Now White Sox manager Rick Renteria’s consigliere, but was a finalist for the job Callaway got with the Mets.)

But if Callaway really was just an errand boy for Van Wagenen as often as not, maybe the Mets need to re-think Van Wagenen, too. It seems strange to say about a team that finished third in the National League East and ten games over .500, but the Mets are probably due for the overhaul few seem to think they’re ready to deliver. Third and .531 look a lot better on paper than the Mets really looked this year.

Feud for thought

2019-09-15 NoahSyndergaard

Noah Syndergaard isn’t exactly being a prima donna when he insists throwing to Tomas Nido behind the plate is both his preference and better for him.

One of the first baseball legends I can remember reading about as a child is the 1927 feud between Pirates outfielder Kiki Cuyler and manager Donie Bush in 1927. I read about it in a pulp early 1966 paperback called Baseball’s Unforgettables, which had the ink-painted heads of Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax on the front jacket and cartoon baseball images—several of also which illustrated the chapters—surrounding them.

The way I read it in that book, Bush “stubbornly and foolishly” held a grudge against Cuyler for refusing a lineup shift out of his number three slot to bat second. Not to mention that the feud between the two may have cost the pennant-winning Pirates the World Series. And neither is entirely true.*

In his first season as strictly a manager (he’d been a player/manager for the 1923 Washington Senators), Bush wasn’t thrilled about the usually mild-mannered Cuyler’s defiance. But if Baseball’s Unforgettables quoted Cuyler as pleading, “Don’t do it, Skip, it’s a jinx for me,” Cuyler himself had a different take: as The Sporting News quoted him in his 1950 obituary, Cuyler didn’t think his kind of freer swinger really belonged in a lineup slot demanding more precise contact hitting.

According to Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders, the argument didn’t do Cuyler any favours with Bush, but it came to a head not over the batting order but over a potential double play. On 6 August 1927, running from first, Cuyler elected not to slide into second on a double play attempt because he thought he had a better chance of obstructing the relay throw to first by arriving standing up.

The Pirates lost the game and fell three behind the Cubs. Bush didn’t buy Cuyler’s reasoning over the running play. Maybe marrying that to the batting order dispute prompted Bush, at last, to bench Cuyler for the rest of the season (save one early September game) and the Series. Then, the Pirates traded Cuyler to the Cubs after the season.

The legend became that benching Cuyler cost them the Series. The legend is bunk. Cuyler wasn’t the Pirates’ best player in 1927; the Hall of Famer wasn’t even their tenth-best player. (The two best the Pirates had in ’27: Hall of Fame outfielder Paul Waner and pitcher Ray Kremer.) The Pirates went 34-18 after the Cuyler benching to win the pennant. But the only team on the planet who could beat the 1927 Yankees might be the 1998 Yankees, if not this year’s Astros.

The worst thing the feud did was to alienate Donie Bush with the Pirates’ fan base. Cuyler was popular enough that Bush couldn’t recover his public image in Pittsburgh, and he resigned in August 1929. He’d have 65 years in baseball total before his death in 1972 while scouting for the White Sox.

My revisiting the Cuyler-Bush feud was instigated by the current apparent debate between Noah Syndergaard and the Mets. Syndergaard isn’t the first pitcher to think about having a particular catcher working with him or even about having a personal catcher. But the issue amplified Friday night.

That’s when Syndergaard took three shutout innings and a 1-0 Mets lead against Clayton Kershaw into the fourth, with Wilson Ramos behind the plate. After a leadoff groundout, Syndergaard and Dodgers star Cody Bellinger wrestled to a ten-pitch walk. Corey Seager singled Bellinger to third at once; then, A.J. Pollock singled through the right side of the infield to score Bellinger, and Gavin Lux, a rookie September call-up, smashed a three-run homer.

Syndergaard worked the fifth the better to keep Mets manager Mickey Callaway from having to turn to his rickety bullpen too soon. It didn’t keep the Dodgers from piling five more on at that bullpen’s expense. And it re-opened the question of whether Syndergaard should get to throw to his preference, backup catcher Tomas Nido, instead of regular catcher Ramos.

There were those who thought (and probably still think) that Syndergaard wrestling with the Mets over his catchers is going to be one more reason for the Mets to put him on the trading block at last after the season ends. There are those who thought (and probably still think) that forcing Syndergaard to throw to a catcher with whom he’s not comfortable may cost the Mets a by-now-too-slim shot at the postseason.

We’ll know soon enough whether the former proves true, but the latter? The Mets’ postseason chances went from new and much improved with that magnificent post-All Star break run to strikingly slim after losing one too many key contests despite a .600+ record in each of July, August, and September thus far.

What really ruined their postseason chances was their horrible, drama-dominant April through June. They looked like a Mess, acted like it often enough, and still have a few things from those three months returning to bite them in the butts just a little too often even in the middle of their second-half success.

Callaway remains under a white-hot microscope over his tactical missteps and strategic vision-challenges. Saturday’s next-to-the-eleventh hour shutout win against the Dodgers, 3-0, magnified it, when he was forced to pinch hit for one of his few relief jewels, Seth Lugo, with the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth, where he could have double-switched Ramos out after the backstop ended the seventh and kept Lugo’s lineup slot eight slots away from arriving.

He got lucky with pinch hitter Rajai Davis, who hadn’t had a base hit since late August and took an 0-for-10 string to the plate. Davis yanked Dodger reliever Julio Urias’s 1-2 changeup down the left field line to clear the pads. And he said afterward that he didn’t want to leave the Mets without Ramos’s bat in the lineup.

There’s part of the issue. Ramos has been one of baseball’s hottest hitters since the All-Star break. Nido by comparison can’t hit with a hangar door. But have a look at how Syndergaard—and Cy Young Award defender and 2019 candidate Jacob deGrom—pitch when Ramos or Nido are their catchers:

To Wilson Ramos: G ERA BAA XBH K K/BB K/IP K/G
Jacob deGrom 19 2.68 .209 24 145 5.0 1.3 7.6
Noah Syndergaard 16 5.20 .258 32 97 4.4 1.0 6.1
To Tomas Nido: G ERA BAA XBH K K/BB K/IP K/G
Jacob deGrom 11 1.88 .202 18 91 7.0 1.2 8.3
Noah Syndergaard 10 2.45 .217 20 63 3.3 0.9 6.3

Syndergaard’s -2.75 ERA differential when throwing to Nido instead of Ramos bears out his argument in favour of Nido on purely pitching/defense terms. DeGrom’s differential is -0.80. DeGrom to Ramos still has a Cy Young Award-caliber 2.68 ERA. Syndergaard looks like a Cy Young Award-caliber pitcher with Nido behind the plate and like a Sayonara Award-caliber pitcher with Ramos behind the plate.

Syndergaard strikes batters out just a shard more often than he walks them with Ramos than he does with Nido—but he strikes them out a speck less throwing to Nido than to Ramos.

DeGrom is simply a better pitcher almost regardless of who’s behind the dish for him; you could send bullpen coach (and ex-major league pitcher) Ricky Bones behind the dish and deGrom will pitch like a Cy Young Award winner. If he’s striking out 8.3 hitters a start with Nido behind the plate, assuming deGrom’s average seven innings per start continues, he’s still striking out 7.6 per start with Ramos behind the plate.

While I was at it, I looked up the Mets’ other starters. Zack Wheeler’s ERA is 3.03 lower with Ramos behind the plate than with Nido. Marcus Stroman, who pitched his first truly quality start as a Met Saturday, has a -0.20 differential when throwing to Nido. It may not make a great difference if Stroman throws to Ramos.

(Where’s Steven Matz, you ask? Easy: Matz only threw to Nido once this season, in a relief appearance against the Phillies just before the All-Star break. You can leave Matz with Ramos behind the plate safely, especially with Matz’s turnaround second half. Matz in the second half has a 2.52 ERA and an 8.5 K/9 rate, both far above his first-half struggling. Matz-Ramos is one battery you don’t want to break up.)

Maybe we should look at the walks and hits per inning pitched (WHIP) when each catcher is behind the plate for deGrom and Syndergaard:

To Wilson Ramos G IP H BB WHIP
Jacob deGrom 19 114.0 87 29 1.02
Noah Syndergaard 16 97.0 96 22 1.22
To Tomas Nido G IP H BB WHIP
Jacob deGrom 11 72.0 53 13 0.92
Noah Syndergaard 10 66.0 52 19 1.07

It might have made plenty of sense if the Mets had spent more time reviewing the actual performance papers and decided that, yes, it would be smart to start Tomas Nido every time Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard pitch. And, with the need for Ramos’s live bat as profound as it is, switch Ramos into those games after lifting deGrom or Syndergaard.

Dreaming, you say? This season, Ramos is hitting .314 when the games are late and close—and he’s hitting a whopping .379 with a 1.003 OPS in high leverage. And, yes, that’s mostly thanks to his bristling second half at the plate. Now, try to imagine the outcome of more than a few games if Nido was sent out to start with deGrom and Syndergaard regularly, and Ramos got switched into those games after those two pitchers were lifted.

Curiously, deGrom pitched a gem Saturday with Ramos behind the plate and outpitched Dodgers Cy Young candidate Hyun-Jin Ryu while he was at it: three hits and eight strikeouts in seven innings; nineteen called strikes and eleven swinging strikes; and, a 2-to-1 ground ball to fly ball rate.

But remember that even with Ramos catching him deGrom pitches like the ace he is. Syndergaard, who’s almost as talented, needs every break he can get. You can say Syndergaard is responsible for executing pitches, and you’d be right, of course. But ponder this, as New York Post writer Joel Sherman does:

Kershaw is the best pitcher of his generation and when he was Syndergaard’s age, he insisted on throwing to A.J. Ellis, a light-hitting backup. A main task of a manager is putting players in position to succeed—and that is not happening currently with Syndergaard.

Syndergaard’s not exactly being a prima donna by insisting he’s better off with Nido than with Ramos behind the plate. Kershaw, a Hall of Famer in waiting, really, wasn’t the first to think about personal catchers and he won’t be the last. And a lot of pitchers have credited their success to one or another particular catcher.

Hall of Famer Whitey Ford once said throwing to Hall of Famer Yogi Berra made him the pitcher he became. And those pesky statistics also bear out that every Yankee pitcher not named Ford when Berra was the regular Yankee catcher pitched better throwing to Berra than at any other time in their entire careers.

(You want to argue success? With Yogi as their regular catcher, the Yankees won nine pennants and seven World Series including five straight despite pitching staffs composed mostly of pitchers who shone as Yankees but were comparative non-topics elsewhere.)

That’s not quite the same as the personal catcher concept, of course, but it’s not something to dismiss too readily.

Tim McCarver had a fine playing career but a lot of it included being Steve Carlton’s preference behind the plate. Charlie O’Brien and then Eddie Perez were a lot more valuable to the Braves because Greg Maddux preferred pitching to one and then the other when the one left as a free agent. Those catchers weren’t exactly in Berra’s league but a pair of Hall of Famers must have known and seen something, right?

You can’t really say that obstinance over who catches whom will sign the Mets’ 2019 death warrant if they don’t make even the wild card play-in game. Of course, if by some alchemy the Mets do sneak into the second wild card and play the likely first card-winning Nationals in the play-in game, they should be broiled and basted if they send anyone not named Nido out to catch either deGrom or Syndergaard in that game.

No Syndergaard-vs.-Mets feud will cost the Mets. Any more than a Kiki Cuyler-Donie Bush feud really cost the 1927 Pirates. Those Pirates won the pennant without Cuyler down the stretch, but they were done in in the World Series by an immovable threshing machine. These Mets will have done themselves in with a first half that, for all their second-half perseverance, still seems like the insurmountable burden.


* Baseball’s Unforgettables also managed to get the spelling of Donie Bush’s name wrong—the book spelled it “Donnie.”

Born Owen Joseph Bush, his original nickname as a Tigers shortstop was Ownie, which teammate Ed Killian got changed to Donie based on Killian describing a pitch on which Bush struck out as a “donie” pitch, “donie” happening to rhyme with Bush’s original nickname. Teammates picked up on it—and began calling him Donie Bush.

Defiance yields dividends

2019-09-13 Mets911Shoes

You can do anything but lay off the Mets’ 9/11 commemorative shoes . . .

Baseball’s unwritten rules are ridiculous enough. Some of the written or at least known-to-be rules are even more ridiculous. Which is why Mets rookie star Pete Alonso’s 9/11 defiance ennobles and should elevate him and shame baseball’s government.

When the Mets played their first home game following the original 9/11 atrocity, they wore hats brandishing NYPD, NYFD, and other first responders with their uniforms. They defied baseball government then, too. And ever since, baseball government has shot down subsequent similar bids to honour the rescuers and the fallen. And others.

As the Mets pondered violating the edict on 9/11’s tenth anniversary (they ended up obeying baseball government orders for nothing more than an American flag on their caps), the Nationals had ideas about wearing Navy SEALs caps during a game around the same time, honouring those SEALs killed in Afghanistan that August. Baseball government said sure—pre-game only. During the game, don’t even think about it.

Alonso—a first grade Florida kid when the World Trade Center was attacked on 9/11—wasn’t having any of that nonsense.

If baseball was going to shoot down his original idea for custom hats featuring New York police, fire, and assorted first responders* and others, Alonso was going to shoot his own weapon—he got his teammates’ shoe sizes and footed the bill himself for Adidas, New Balance, and other top athletic shoemakers to make special 9/11 commemorative game cleats.

“I’ve just been thankful and gracious for this opportunity,” Alonso said to Yahoo! Sports‘s Mike Mazzeo, referring apparently to both his surrealistic rookie season and his chance to do honour to 9/11’s victims and responders.

“For me, this season has been an absolute fantasy. I just want to give back. I want to help. I don’t just want to be known as a good baseball player, I want to be known as a good person, too. And I just want to really recognize what this day is about. I don’t want it to be a holiday. I want it to be a day of remembrance of everything that happened. It was an awful day.”

Baseball government at least had the Mets, the Diamondbacks, and other teams wear patches on their caps showing MLB’s official logo converted to an American flag backdrop, a red-white-blue ribbon behind the logo, and “We shall not forget” embroidered into one side of the surrounding blue circle. Royalties from replica sales will go to three national 9/11 memorial groups.

That’s something commendable, but the idea that Alonso—who gave ten percent of his Home Run Derby prize money to two 9/11-related charities, the Wounded Warriors Project and the Stephen Stiller Tunnel to Towers Foundation (Stiller was a New York firefighter killed during 9/11 rescue efforts)—should have had to defy his game’s governors to honour those killed in America’s arguably worst single-attack atrocity, is grotesque.

Maybe the Mets being one and all on board with Alonso’s footwear helped keep the Manfred regime from slapping the team with a fine or other disciplinary measures. Or maybe the sense that fining or otherwise disciplining Alonso and the Mets for it would bring the regime more negative publicity kept it on its better behaviour.

And maybe the Mets’ defiance delivered them a little favour from the Elysian Fields gods.

First, they flattened the visiting Diamondbacks Wednesday, 9-0—nine runs on eleven hits including a five-run first. Then, as if to prove that some good deeds go unpunished, the Mets finished a four-sweep of the Snakes Thursday with an 11-1 battering.

Again, the Mets used eleven hits, including a single-game team record six clearing the fences, including center fielder Juan Lagares doing it twice, while Marcus Stroman nailed his first genuinely quality start on the mound since becoming a Met shortly before this year’s new single trade deadline.

Lagares’s first blast was only the biggest blow. Todd Frazier’s second-inning leadoff blast against Diamondbacks starter Alex Young and J.D. Davis’s two-out RBI single in the third off Young opened the game 2-0 Mets. A base hit and a walk loaded the pads for Lagares in the third when he wrestled Young to a full count.

Then Young threw a fastball arriving under the floor of the strike zone, and Lagares picked the perfect moment for his first career salami, hitting the equivalent of a five-iron shot into the left field seats.

The center fielder joined the long ball party in the bottom of the fifth, too. Aging second baseman Robinson Cano opened the inning with a line drive into the right field bullpen at Snakes reliever Robby Scott’s expense. Michael Conforto drew a one-out walk and, a strikeout later, exit Scott, enter Jimmie Sherfy, and exit another Lagares launch, this one landing in the seats near the right field foul pole.

Mets catcher Tomas Nido—the backup to Wilson Ramos, and the receiver half the Mets’ starting rotation seems to prefer throwing to (the Mets’ team ERA with Nido behind the plate: 3.68; with Ramos: 4.46), but who doesn’t hit enough to enable them to cement that preference—batted next. He didn’t give Sherfy a chance to breathe after Lagares’s second blast, lining one off the back left field wall above the thick orange line marker that denotes a home run.

Two innings later, and after pinch-hitter Ildemaro Vargas doubled home the only Arizona run in the top of the frame, Conforto punished reliever Kevin Ginkel for a third straight four-seam fastball, driving the down-and-in service into the upper deck in right.

Nothing, however, made even half the impression Alonso’s defiance in tribute to 9/11’s fallen and heroes made. The rook plotted the subterfuge for weeks and, by all known accounts, got the Mets’ team leaders including defending Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom on board with the plot.

Threats of fines or other disciplinary measures against Alonso or the Mets have proven unfulfilled, so far.

The fact that such a threat was made or implied and even had to be taken seriously tells you plenty of what you need to know about why baseball’s government has such a rotten public image while the game itself and most of those who play it have one of simple beauty.

Thus does baseball remain very much like its country—our government has a rotten image that’s very well deserved, but our country and most of those who call it our own have one of simple beauty.


* In my college years, briefly, I dated a Long Island nursing student named Kathy Mazza. It never became serious between us, but we had a few pleasant dates including a couple that ended with an all-night hunt for bialys—they differ from bagels in being smaller and based in flour, not malt—which I remember were a particular favourite snack of hers at the time.

Kathy eventually became an operating room nurse turned Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police officer whom, her eventual police officer husband once swore, became a cop to show him how policing was really done. In due course, she became the second woman to earn captain’s bars on the PAPD and the first to command its police academy.

Her achievements there included convincing the Port Authority to install portable heart defibrillators in the airports it oversaw and training the 600 PAPD officers posted to those airports on how to use them. She also taught emergency medical procedures at the PAPD academy.

And, she died in the 9/11 atrocity.

Joining PAPD responders at the North Tower, she shot out the glass walls of the North Tower’s mezzanine enabling hundreds to escape; the tower ultimately collapsed while she and fellow PAPD officers tried leading more out of the tower. Her body was found a month later, I believe.

Kathy Mazza was one of 37 PAPD officers including its then-chief killed on 9/11. She’s still the only woman ever killed in the line of duty on the PAPD, which suffered the largest single-event loss of life of any single law enforcement agency in history on 9/11.

This column is dedicated to her and their memory.

Discouraged even when the Mets win?

2019-09-04 AmedRosarioJoePanik

Amed Rosario and Joe Panik (2) celebrate the Mets’ Wednesday win over the Nats. So why does it still feel discouraging?

Four months ago, Dave Martinez couldn’t live five minutes without yet another pundit or sports talking head measuring him for the electric chair. Four minutes after the Mets blew one to the Nats in the bottom of the ninth that they led by six in the top, on Tuesday night, Martinez can live like a skipper who has about a 99 percent chance of seeing the postseason even by way of the National League’s first wild card.

Even if he and his Nats lose the afternoon after.

And a few moments before the Nationals started their off-the-charts Tuesday overthrow, Martinez had only one message for his players: “If you let this game go like this, it’s not going to be good,” as he put it in his post-game press conference. Kurt Suzuki in the bottom of the ninth finished making damn sure the game didn’t go like that. He also made sure that what was left of the Nationals Park crowd went from chaos to bedlam while he was at it.

After Suzuki’s three-run homer landed halfway up the left field seats Tuesday night, the Mets looked like they wouldn’t live another five minutes without someone, anyone, preparing to stage an intervention on behalf of the Crisis Addiction Anonymous organisation for which this year’s Mets ought to be the founding fathers.

“It kind of just seemed like a bad dream,” said Mets outfielder Brandon Nimmo, who accounted for two of the Mets’ ten Tuesday runs with a fourth-inning sacrifice fly and a ninth-inning homer.  “I don’t know. That’s hard to do even in a Little League game I feel like, come back from [six] runs down in the bottom of the ninth against guys throwing 99 mph. I don’t really have words for it.”

Mets fans thought it was bad enough watching the Mets blow a seven-run lead in what looked like a blowout in the making against the Braves in Atlanta while almost letting the Braves win it at the eleventh hour? That was just a hard day’s night of a 10-8 win. Tuesday night’s 11-10 loss after the Mets had the damn game locked in the vault was they should have known better. And didn’t.

“We had a six-run lead,” lamented Mets manager Mickey Callaway, whose own neck looked as though it were being measured for a guillotine in May. “Major league pitchers got to be able to hold that.”

How could Martinez and his Dancing Nats, the guys who’ve been baseball’s best since 23 May and think nothing of turning the dugout and the clubhouse into Soul Train after epic home runs or hard-earned wins, know that their still-testy, still-implosive bullpen was going to be taken off the Tuesday night hook by a Mets bullpen that would have fought the Chicago Fire with incendiaries instead of water and other retardants?

A Wednesday matinee between the two, their final meeting of the regular season, promised to be an anticlimax if the Nats won. Or, if the Mets’ self-immolating bullpen incinerated themselves and the Mets yet again. Well, some promises are made to be broken, after all. Some.

Come Wednesday, Luis Avilan struck out Juan Soto swinging after Jeurys Familia surrendered an RBI single (to ex-Met Asdrubal Cabrera) and a two-run double (to Anthony Rendon); Seth Lugo—who wasn’t allowed to work a second inning Tuesday night, with results that will still live in Mets infamy—got his usual two-inning gig and shook off a pair of hits with no runs; and, Justin Wilson pitched a spotless bottom of the ninth.

And the Mets held on to win 8-4. Which cynics, meaning practically any Met fan on the planet, might suggest means it just isn’t safe anymore to trust these Mets with any lead more than four runs. They even had another six-run lead in the middle of the sixth—and let the Nats get a little frisky in the bottom of the inning.

They tied the Nats at a run in the top of the third when spaghetti-bat outfielder Juan Lagares, of all people, led off and hit Nats starter Anibal Sanchez’s hanging cutter over the center field fence. They doubled their pleasure in the top of the fourth when aging second baseman Robinson Cano, returning fresh from the injured list, blasted a first-pitch splitter the other way, into the Mets’ bullpen in left center, with right fielder Michael Conforto (leadoff double) aboard.

And they kicked the train into overdrive when Pete Alonso sent his National League-leading 45th bomb inside the left field foul pole with one out in the top of the fifth.

But with Mets starter Zack Wheeler labouring through five innings and 101 pitches despite surrendering nothing more than Nats shortstop Trea Turner’s two-out RBI single in the bottom of the second, Callaway decided he had no choice but to open the bullpen, and Familia came forth to open the Washington sixth.

Once the Mets’ effective closer, Familia hasn’t been the same since the Mets’ defense blew three World Series saves for him in 2015, or since Conor Gillaspie homered off him to help the Mets lose the 2016 wild card game, not to mention a domestic violence suspension and a blood clot putting paid to his 2017 before the Mets traded him away during 2018.

This season Familia’s been somewhere between lost and implosive, though he had a recent stretch of serviceability before he turned a two-all tie into an eventual 5-2 loss to the Phillies with a little help from a walk to Rhys Hoskins and, in due course, a three-run double by Scott Kingery on Sunday.

Now he took the mound in Nationals Park, walked Gerardo Parra and pinch hitter Andrew Stevenson back-to-back, and struck Turner out swinging. But he threw Cabrera—still bent on making the Mets pay for failing to re-sign him last winter—a creamy pitch that got turned into an RBI single. And he threw Rendon more fodder for the Nats third baseman to solidify a Most Valuable Player case in a walk year, Rendon driving one to the back of right center for a two-run double.

After Avilan dispatched Soto for the side, it took until the top of the eighth for the Mets to thicken the cushion, when Jeff McNeil squirted an RBI single through the right side for the seventh Mets run. The Mets made a push against returning Nats reliever Sean Doolittle in the top of the ninth but Doolittle managed to strand first and third with no scoring damage.

Then Wilson got a ground out, a line out, and shook off a walk to Suzuki—after spinning him around and into the dirt on the first pitch, perhaps just a little reminder against getting too comfy following Tuesday night’s discomfort—to end the game by getting Victor Robles to force Suzuki at second.

You’re encouraged to see a team recover that swiftly from a disaster like Tuesday night. Whether or not it means said team has one more run of derring-do in them before the regular season’s over. But maybe the Mets picked up a piece of Tuesday night news out of Pennsylvania that helped remind them it could always be worse.

Because as bad as it was for the Mets Tuesday night, it was absolutely worse for their Syracuse Mets AAA affiliate. The Mets blew a six-run lead in the ninth? The S-Mets blew a seven-run lead in the eighth, with the International League’s North Division title at stake in a tiebreaking game. But the S-Mets bullpen let the Scranton-Wilkes Barre RailRiders overthrow them, 14-13.

The Mets have been playing for a mere second National League wild card that looks more and more distant the deeper the stretch drive runs. Playing with dynamite, or matches at least, isn’t the way to reach it.

By and large the big boys have reminded the Mets how invincible they aren’t when they look like champions in the making but do it mostly at the expense of the bottom crawlers. Taking two of three from the first NL wild card-leading Nats, just like sweeping the American League second wild card-tied Indians last month, may yet prove aberrational.

Hi! We’re the Mets! And we’re crisis junkies. So who’s going to be the first Met to stand up, make the confession, and begin the recovery process?

The Mets have now won twelve of their last sixteen series, and have won the season series against the Nats, 12-7, but they don’t make you feel too encouraged anymore when they win. And the Nats don’t make you feel discouraged even when they lose two of three. (Even when you think they might think about joining CAA themselves.) Not until they open against the Braves Friday night, anyway.