Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Do-Do Walk

The Mets had a pretty good weekend, as they tend to do when they head to Arizona. They won two of three and put their theoretical everyday lineup on the field for the very first time in the season's twenty-ninth game. Moises Alou and Brian Schneider are back, Carlos Delgado is starting to hit and the Mets are just half a game out of first place in the NL East. It's enough to trick you into not worrying so much about this team.

Well, almost enough. In reality, the Mets, 16-13 and in the thick of the division race though they may be, are far from easy to root for right now. Their modest success seems to have been achieved by the skin of their teeth and this is born out by their unimpressive run scored to runs allowed ratio of 135 to 132. Their offense is right in the middle of the National League pack and this is disappointing, but not too surprising given that Alou has only played two games and nobody named Carlos has done much hitting yet. The "runs allowed" side of the ledger is a bit more troubling.

The Mets' pitching was supposed to be the team's real strength but so far they've allowed 4.55 runs per game, about average for a National League team this year. The fact that Pedro Martinez has only pitched three and a third innings has been a blow to preseason expectations, but his replacement, Nelson Figueroa, has been okay. The problem has been disappointing performances from just about everybody else.

I've talked before about the starters failing to pitch deep in the games leading to an overreliance on the bullpen and this continues to be a problem. The main culprits have been John Maine and Oliver Perez, who are both pitching fewer innings per start than they did last year. But a more fundamental problem, and one that is plaguing almost the entire staff, is the base on balls. Entering Sunday, the Mets had walked 4.1 batters per game, fifth worst in the league.

The Mets have ten pitchers who have pitched a significant number of innings (more than three and a third) in the majors this year and last year. Six of them are walking batters more frequently than last year, nine are striking out fewer batters and seven have a worse strikeout-to-walk ratio. Only Billy Wagner and Scott Schoeneweis have significantly improved their K:BB ratio, while Joe Smith has slightly improved his. Those three and Johan Santana are the only Met pitchers with K:BB ratios of 2.0 or better. Figueroa and Duaner Sanchez, who didn't pitch in the majors last year, also fall below 2.0. Aaron Heilman is the only pitcher whose strikeout rate has improved, to more than a K per inning, but he's also walking more than five batters per nine innings.

The season is still young, but these are some pretty disturbing trends. More and more voices are calling for Willie Randolph's head, but perhaps Rick Peterson deserves a little more scrutiny. The supposedly elite Mets pitching staff is, across the board, walking more batters and striking out fewer. Not surprisingly, seven of ten pitchers, including all four returning starters, are throwing more pitches per inning than they were last year. Willie's bullpen management is far from perfect, but the fact that his pitchers need more pitches to get through an inning than they did last year isn't helping him any.

The Mets pitchers' season-long search for the strike zone now takes them to Chavez Ravine as they begin a series on Monday against the second place Dodgers (17-14). Perez (2-2, 4.03, 26:21 K:BB), Figueroa (2-1, 4.08, 22:15) and Maine (3-2, 3.48, 29:19) will start for the Mets. The Dodgers will counter with Chad Billingsley (1-4, 5.20, 40:17), Hiroki Kuroda (1-2, 3.82, 20:8) and Brad Penny (5-2, 3.19, 20:14).

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