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Ken What-the-'Ell Rationalization: Can the Mets win a Dog of a Division?
2004-07-06 22:36
by Mike Carminati

The good generally displeases us when it is beyond our ken.

—Friedrich "Fat Freddie" Nietzsche

Jealousy is the tribute mediocrity pays to genius.

—Bishop "Brad" Fulton Sheen as quoted by Daniel "Miss It" Noonan

When we consider…that what lies within our ken is but a small part of the universe, we shall then discover an huge abyss of ignorance.

—John "Don't Call Me Don" Locke

Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

—Thomas "Don't Call Me Pete" Gray

I saw my friend Ken at the wedding of our mutual friend Barry last week just as the Yankees and Mets were getting ready to start a day-night doubleheader. Ken convinced me to dedicate something to him and his Mets if they beat the Yankees in one of the two games that day. I did it begrudgingly, given that the Mets are chasing my mediocre Phils, but unfortunately (or fortunately, depending in hiw you look at it) the Mets dropped two that day.

Let me first say that Ken is the quintessential Mets fan, and I mean that in the best sense. The New York media, perhaps encouraged by the Yankees perennial success, seem to overestimate the Mets' chances every spring. And every spring Ken gets overly excited for their chances. Mets fans are perhaps the most optimistic in baseball, the antithesis of Red Sox fans. Maybe that's why they think that every high fly to center is a homer. The Mets are so optimistic that they brought back Roger Cedeno and Jeromy Burnitz after failed trials. Can you imagine the Yankees having brought back Eddie Whitson or someday brining back Jeff Weaver?

And it doesn't hurt that the Mets do succeed from time to time. I remember rooting the Mets on in 1986 mostly for Ken's sake. Besides, they played in two great playoff series that year. About that time Ken had a poster that had a stamp-size picture of every Met all time (about 25 seasons). Posters were big in college. I thought it was remarkable that they could fit them all on a poster. What the Phils lacked in success, they made up for with longevity. There's no way, even if anyone wanted to do so, they could fit all the Phils pictures let alone names on a poster-size piece of paper.

At this point, I had no problem with the Mets. The Mets and Phils had never been successful at the same time, at least that I could remember. And I could pull for the Mets out of divisional pride. I didn't actually come to dislike the Mets until I moved to Queens in the early '90s when the Mets were the brunt of David Letterman jokes and I could get free tickets aplenty. No one wanted to see the Mets, and everyone had tickets at their office. And I am never one to turn away free tickets.

(Actually, I think many other who were, incredibly, less desirable as fans than even me gained access to Shea by the same means creating a rather unpleasant environment as if the stadium's droning jet engines weren't enough. I remember a run-in with one "fan" when I asked him to put out a cigarette right after they announced that smoking was not allowed. He asked me if I owned the stadium. Instead of the "Yeah, I'm Mr. Shea, that's how I got these prime seats next to you" response, I went with "I asked you nicely" and the guy relented though it made for an uncomfortable ending to the game. That was my image of a typical Met fan in the mid-'90s. In all fairness, with the success of the late '90s, the quality of fan improved as well.)

Anyway, back to the 2004 version of the Mets. They swept the Yankees last weekend and have now moved into second place just two games behind the Phils after a 4-1 win tonight. This is a team that had fallen to 9-15 on May 1 and 28-33 on June 12 after five straight losses. Since June 12, they are 14-7 and have won five of their last six games. (That includes the Yankees sweep. By the way, the last team to sweep the Yanks was the Art Howe-managed A's, a fact that would be interesting if Howe were a truly great manager.)

So my question is are the Mets, a team that finished 66-95 and 34.5 games out of first just last year, for real? Can they really compete while still paying off Mo Vaughan's ridiculous contract (I think they owe him $15 M this season)?

I didn't think so at the start of the season. I picked the Mets to finish last in fact. But the Marlins and Phils have been underachieving their way to mediocrity, opening the door to the Braves and the Mets. Of the four, the Mets seem the most well directed. The Mets cobbled together this team after the excesses (Vaughan, Cedeno, Alomar) of the last few seasons. They seemed to be importing the Yankee role players of the last few seasons (Garcia, Spencer, Stanton, Zeile). They even had to get their own, inferior Matsui.

When the Mets picked up Richard Hidalgo on June 17 for superfluous middle reliever David Weathers, I thought that it was a decent gamble. Hidalgo had a hefty price tag but was still young enough (29) to fulfill some of his potential. And I thought that Weathers would be worth more to a playoff team, which I didn't think described the Mets. So far the gamble has paid off. Hidalgo has hit 8 homers, 16 RBI, and 14 R in his 16 games with the Mets, and he is batting .344 with a .403 on-base percentage, .787 slugging average, and 1.190 OPS. And they are winning while Mike Piazza has a minor slump (.762 OPS and no homers on the month).

The arrival of Hidalgo pretty much coincides with the Mets ascending to mediocrity. He seems to have ignited the Met offense as well. Hidalgo's numbers in July are through the roof: .500 batting average, .593 on-base percentage, 1.364 slugging, and 1.956 OPS with 5 HR, 9 RBI, and 8 runs scored in the Mets' six games so far this month. As a team the Mets are batting .297 in July (with a .963 OPS), have outscored the opposition 43-29, and have out-homered them 15 to 4. Kaz Matsui's numbers in July are .423/.483/.769/1.252 with 2 HR, 5 RBI, and 12 runs. Ty Wigginton: .348/.400/.826/1.226 with 3 homers and 6 RBI.

The Met starters are 3-1 in July and own a 2.97 ERA and 1.24 WHIP. If you ignore Tom Glavine's 0-1, 9.00 and Matt Ginter's 0-0, 7.36 numbers in July, the rest of the rotation has a 1.01 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, and is 3-0.

Those are the highlights. The Mets bullpen in July has a 6.02 ERA and 1.97 WHIP but is somehow 2-0. They do have an overall ERA of 3.72, but losing Weathers may be a strain on the pen. Looper has been masterful as the closer (1.91 ERA, 17 saves in 47 IP) and his control (6 BB and 40 K) has been great. However, he started to give up some hits (In July: 6 H in 3.2 IP for a .353 opponents' average) and if his control issues return (29 BB in 80.2 innings in 2003), the strain will be greater.

The Mets have really only had three starting pitchers all year: Glavine, Trachsel, and Leiter. Jae Weong Seo is a serviceable 4-5 with a 4.79 ERA but has gotten out of the sixth inning just twice in 13 starts. Glavine started the season well and still has very good numbers (2.49, 7-6). He jumpstarted the team on June 13 with a 5-2 win over the Royals. Since then he has allowed at least 2 runs per start and has completed seven innings just once. He got rocked the other day by the Phils with 6 runs in 6 IP. It could be a blip on the radar screen or he could be returning to last year's form (9-14, 4.52). Additionally, Glavine and Leiter are both 38 and Trachsel is no spring chicken at 33. Leiter already lost a chuck of time to injury this season.

Also, Hidalgo has never hit nearly as well over a full season as he has in his first month with the Mets. Compare his numbers in Houston (.256/.309/.412/.721) and for his career (.280/.357/.507/.864) to his Mets numbers (.348/.403/.788/1.191). Actually, his overall 2004 numbers (.279/.332/.506/.838) are pretty close to his career averages, so maybe this past month was just a natural readjustment.

Kaz Matsui had pretty poor numbers (251/.321/.373/.694) prior to July. So are these numbers to be believed? Is he starting to learn the league or is it an aberration? There's no way to know.

Besides, The Mets still have offensive problems. They are ranked 11th in the NL in OPS for third basemen, 12th for center fielders, 10th for right fielders, 11th at first base (even with Piazza sharing time there), and dead last at second.

So what is the Mets' fate? I'm still not convinced that they are a playoff-caliber team. However, if they get a reliable fourth starter (either Seo or someone else), Matsui's offense is for real, and Hidalgo has one of his good years, they could snatch the division away from the plodding Phils. And aside from the ugly multivariegated uniforms and deplorable stadium, it's hard not to pull for them. At least they seem to care, which may be enough in this division.

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