Balanced Mets lineup sets example for MLB

The New York Mets’ recent acquisition of Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco sent a welcome message to fans that Steve Cohen was not just an owner who would talk about winning, but would walk the walk. While other MLB teams have pointed to millions in lost revenue from 2020 and the free agent market has been notably sluggish, the Mets have established themselves in buying mode.

In addition to building a team that should be a legitimate pennant contender, Sandy Alderson and Jared Porter have put together a roster for 2021 that above all else will be fun to watch.

As an entire sport baseball has a problem. Even analytically-minded people like Theo Epstein agree. The rise of the three true outcomes hitter has turned baseball from an exciting, aesthetically-pleasing sport to a plodding game with a pronounced pace of play problem.

Epstein was just hired by MLB as a consultant regarding on-field matters, had this to say to reporters this week: “We need to find a way to get more action in the game, get the ball in play more often, allow players to show their athleticism some more, and give the fans more of what they want.”

When he departed the Chicago Cubs front office late last year, Epstein took some of the blame for helping turn baseball into what it has become.

Of course you can point to the abundance of hard-throwing pitchers and different pitching and defensive philosophies that have helped baseball become this way, but sabermetrics has undoubtedly led to lineups with less diversity. A lot of players are just kind of – the same. It has made the game boring to the average fan. Home runs are exciting, but when they are the primary mode of run-scoring, they lose their luster.

As they stand on the morning of January 18, the 2021 Mets lineup has a chance to be one of the most exciting in baseball simply because it is not a monolith. Built on players with a diverse skill set, it has the potential to be one of the most-fun to watch in MLB.

Sluggers

Starting with what has become the most-common category of hitter in baseball, unlike most of their franchise history, the Mets are well-stocked with power hitters. Pete Alonso, Michael Conforto, Dominic Smith and Lindor are all threats to hit 30 home runs given a 162-game season and the presence of the DH in the National League. The Mets have never had a season where more than two players have mashed 30 round-trippers.

Both J.D. Davis and Jeff McNeil surpassed 20 home runs in 2019, and Brandon Nimmo’s career high is 17 in 2018. New catcher James McCann hit 18 during his all-star season in 2019 with the Chicago White Sox. The club record of 242 home runs in 2019 could very well be in play in 2021, but of course the whole point is that these Mets should be able to do it in many ways.

Speedsters

A fun trivia question is “Who is the last MLB player to steal more than 70 bases in a season?” The answer is Jose Reyes in 2007, when he swiped 78. In fact, nobody has stolen more than 50 in a season since Dee Gordon had 60 thefts with Miami in 2017. The stolen base has ebbed and flowed throughout baseball history – Dom DiMaggio led the American League with 15 in the 1950 season – but we are definitely in a down-swing now.

After swiping a whopping 57 bases in 2019, the Mets stole only 20 in the shortened 2020 season. In each of the last two full seasons (’18 and ’19) Lindor swiped a combined 47 bases and was caught 15 times. Paired with Nimmo, the Mets have a duo who get on base at a high clip and can fly, a combination they haven’t had much of in recent years (e.g. Billy Hamilton). Nimmo has never really been a base stealer in his professional career, but even if they don’t put up huge totals, the top of the Mets lineup will have the speed to create chaos on the bases.

High Average

The importance of batting average has been on the decline in recent years, and for good reason – we have more informative statistics available. Just take this example from the 2020 Mets: Alonso hit .231 while Wilson Ramos hit .239. Nobody could possibly make a good-faith argument that Ramos was the better hitter last year, though.

But that doesn’t mean a .300 hitter isn’t valuable to every lineup. McNeil is the kind of throwback hitter that has gone by the wayside over the past 30 years. He hits for a high average, has strong but unspectacular patience, and has gap-to-gap power. He limits strikeouts and puts the ball in play, creating action that the game needs.

How much of a throwback is McNeil? Baseball Reference similarity scores rank the 10 most similar hitters to him through age 28, and the top nine all played before World War II.

A Model Team?

As Epstein and MLB search for ways to bring more action into the game and make it more free-flowing and athletic, the Mets could very well serve as a team which achieves that style more naturally. While they explore the measures of banning the shift and putting an end to the ludicrous “opener” trend, the Mets have assembled a lineup filled with players with diverse skill sets.

While the New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins feature lineups capable of whacking 300 home runs the Mets are looking like a more well-balanced offense. Even the “other” guys like McCann and Davis can be capable hitters. Should the Mets sign George Springer as well, you’re looking at a top three lineup in the game and one of the best in franchise history. And maybe, just maybe, they can be the model franchise for getting baseball back to a more exciting version of play.

Joe Vasile is a broadcaster for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders (NYY, AAA) and Bucknell University. He hosts the baseball history podcast Secondary Lead.

Where will Steve Cohen stand in labor fight?

There were seven work stoppages in Major League Baseball from 1972 through 1995. Since the disaster of the 94-95 strike ended, the sport has seen a 26-year window of peace, unprecedented in the times of unionized athletes. As profits surged throughout the late 90s and into the 2000s both players and owners were happy with the economics of baseball.

It is abundantly clear that peace time is over.

After enduring ugly and public fights with Minor League Baseball and the union throughout 2020, Commissioner Rob Manfred and the owners are digging in for their next fight. Reports have leaked out in the past week that MLB is seeking to start the season late, so that the COVID-19 vaccine can have time to be deployed and fans can safely attend games. Players are pushing for a full 162-game season. They argue that they played safely without a vaccine in 2020, and they can do it again in 2021.

Much like the fight over the 2020 season, this clash has nothing to do with the pandemic – it has to do with money. Owners are seeking a way to not pay the players as their contracts stipulate, and the players are seeking full compensation. After all, they made major sacrifices in 2020 after fighting for longer seasons to eventually accept a 60-game schedule.

MLB’s problem in this particular fight is two-fold. First, when you sign a player to a contract, you assume all of the risks involved, including a pandemic that makes it impossible to have fans in the stands. If you say you are going to pay someone a certain amount for work performed, you have to honor that.

Second, while their argument for 2021 may be a good one, a long history of half-truths, lies and manipulation in labor disputes grants teams no benefit of the doubt. Just last month, Phillies owner John Middleton said the team lost $2 billion in 2020, only to walk it back and say they only lost $145 million after enough people had the common sense to know that was a lie.

That is not to brush aside a $145 million loss, that is very significant. But the idea that it was initially presented as nearly 1400% greater only breaks down public trust in what ownership says and causes automatic skepticism of all claims.

Even before the labor fights of 2020, there were rumblings that the next Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations would be contentious. The way free agency has progressed over the past three seasons has left many players furious. The luxury tax as structured in the last CBA has acted as the very salary cap that players struck against. It is likely that Tony Clark and the union will push back against the gains the owners have made, and that won’t be pretty.

With a new owner in place and this brewing labor dispute on the horizon, the main question is where will Steve Cohen come down? While he has been impressive during his short time in control of the team, ultimately the first real test of how good of an owner he will be comes at the end of the 2021 season when the CBA negotiations open up.

The first possibility is that he falls in line with the rest of owners and either holds the line where it is or joins a push for a hard salary cap. It is hard to imagine that Cohen would have been approved by MLB so resoundingly in his purchase of the team if they thought he was going to step out of line and go rogue in CBA negotiations.

But of course as the man who is by far the richest owner in baseball, a hard salary cap stands to hurt the Mets more than any other team. Cohen has the competitive advantage of being able to pay players more money than anybody else, so why would he fight to neutralize that? In 1994, Bud Selig was able to persuade George Steinbrenner to relent and support a cap, but will Manfred really have that same kind of power over Cohen?

Ultimately it will come down to answer to this question: “Does Cohen view his ownership of the Mets as an investment or is it fun?” Early indications say that he thinks of it more as fun than a business investment, and hopefully that is the case. But of course words are one thing, but actions are another. Let’s hope Cohen’s actions back up his words.

Joe Vasile is a broadcaster for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders and Bucknell University. He is the host of the baseball history podcast Secondary Lead.

Signing George Springer good for Mets on and off the field

Heading into 2005, Mets GM Omar Minaya made big strides toward turning the team into a true contender. Perhaps the move that signaled that more than any other was his signing of Carlos Beltran to a seven-year, $119 million contract to patrol center field. In the years since, the world learned who Bernard Madoff was, and the Mets haven’t landed the prime free agent on the market.

As the 2020 offseason stands, we know two things: one of the biggest needs for the New York Mets moving forward is center field, and the top free agent George Springer is a center fielder. With new owner Steve Cohen signaling a willingness to spend freely on a winner, the time is now for the Mets to make a splash in free agency and make a legitimate push to sign Springer.

There have been calls coming from all ends of the New York media and fans for the Mets to go after Springer this offseason, and for good reason. He has hit .273/.363/.500 and averaged 37 home runs per 162 games over the last five seasons, and is about to enter his age 31 season. While that is a touch on the older side, there is reason to believe Springer still has several productive seasons left in him. He gets on base, hits for power and plays solid defense in center, which is a combination of skills the Mets haven’t seen since Beltran.

Signing Springer, a Connecticut native, would send a message to the rest of Major League Baseball that the new Mets are not just talk, but that they mean business. Making this signing is the kind of thing a team does when it wants to win a title in the next two to three seasons, as Cohen said in his introductory news conference.

But just how much of an upgrade would Springer be for the Mets? Let’s take a look at what the past tells us.

Since Springer’s first year in the majors in 2015, Mets center fielders have hit .248/.334/.434 and have been worth 2.1 fWAR/150. Meanwhile Springer has hit .274/.363/.494 and has produced at a 5.2 fWAR/150 clip. So on average over the past three seasons, Springer would have been a 3-win improvement for the Mets in center field.

That was surprisingly open-and-close, but obviously it isn’t that simple. Springer is at the end of his prime, and that means age regression is coming. So what do the projection systems think? We’ll use ZiPS 3-year projections (which at this point only cover ‘21 and ’22) to compare Springer and incumbent center fielder Brandon Nimmo.

ZiPS sees Springer being worth 8.0 fWAR in the next two years (4.3 and 3.7, respectively), continuing his place as one of the best center fielders in baseball. A move from Minute Maid Park to Citi Field isn’t likely to make a meaningful impact on that projection.

Nimmo, however, is projected at 3.8 fWAR over the next two seasons (1.8 and 2.0). Part of that has to do with his inability to play a full season in the majors except for 2018 at the time of these projections. Of course some of it has to do with him being a subpar defender in center. As a corner outfielder, Nimmo’s outlook is probably more optimistic than that.

And that’s really the crux of the whole acquisition. Signing Springer isn’t about just sending a message, it is about improving the team, first and foremost. It doesn’t just improve the Mets in one position, it helps them out in three – center, left, and depth on the bench. Those are areas that the team has been sorely lacking in for a long time.

Bringing Springer into the fold immediately makes the Mets a better team, and one that is more capable of competing for a playoff spot. Money is only an object as it relates to the luxury tax penalties, but the Mets don’t have to worry about those for several years, and even at that point it is unknown what the new Collective Bargaining Agreement brings after the 2021 season.

By no means would that mean the Mets could rest on their laurels as a catcher and starting pitchers need to be brought in to create a well-balanced team. However, Springer would anchor the team’s outfield for years to come, and be the kind of signing that Beltran was for the Mets 15 years ago – one that signals that the team is ready to go all-in to win now.

Joe Vasile is a broadcaster for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders and Bucknell University. He is the host of the baseball history podcast Secondary Lead.

Should the Mets consider trading Jeff McNeil?

Since his call up in the 2017 season, Jeff McNeil has quickly made his mark on the New York Mets. Even as he has garnered headlinesnfor his strong hitting, knobless bat and defensive adventures around the diamond, it almost feels like he still is one of the more underrated players in the game.

In only 248 games played, McNeil has accumulated 9.2 bWAR, tied with Todd Hundley for 33rd all-time in Mets history. He is ahead of such names as Lucas Duda, Ron Hunt and Rusty Staub. His .319/.383/.501 career batting line is good for a 139 wRC+. He has been excellent, and one of the real bright spots on two Mets teams that have disappointed. There are no more questions if McNeil is the real deal.

Assuming an on-time start to the 2021 season, McNeil willmstill be only 28 on Opening Day, and won’t be eligible for free agency until 2025. He’s a high-end lefty hitter in his prime making a pre-arbitration salary who can passably play defense at three positions. Players like McNeil are not only on championship teams, but are the reason championship teams are championship teams.

It is obvious that McNeil fits in with the Mets moving forward, especially with the pending sale to Steve Cohen promising changes in how the team will try to compete. The question is how and where does he fit in?

McNeil’s primary defensive position for the past two years has been left field, but it’s hard to imagine keeping him there being the best thing for the team. That’s not necessarily a knock on his abilities, but rather more that left needs to be Brandon Nimmo’s home. With how Dominic Smith hit in 2020, it’s hard to imagine him not being penciled in as the DH in 2021, assuming that change is made permanent.

Even with Steve Cohen’s deep pockets, it’s hard to see the Mets benching Robinson Cano in favor of McNeil in 2021. That is especially true since Cano just put up his best offensive season since 2014 and is going to be chasing down 3,000 hits. As long as he can still be serviceable with the glove and he hits his weight, I don’t see Cano losing his starting role next year.

For the immediate future, third base seems to be the best choice for McNeil. He has shown the ability to handle the position defensively and has a bat which plays at third. J.D. Davis’ disappointing season in 2020 perfectly opens the door for a change, and outside of a 36-year-old Justin Turner there aren’t any intriguing names in free agency. That is unless the Mets go big and sign DJ LeMahieu and move him to the hot corner.

So, there it is, problem solved. McNeil is your everyday third baseman. But of course, it’s not that simple.
For the past several years, the Mets utter lack of pitching depth has come back to bite them. There are very good pitchers available both as starters and relievers as free agents this season. But if the Mets want to bring in a pitcher or two with a trade, it might be worth considering parting with McNeil.

Obviously, the Mets should not be in a rush to trade McNeil and should try to avoid doing so. But the very things that make him such a valuable player, make him an attractive trade piece. If a team wants to dump salary but bring in a low-salaried MLB player, it could be a solid match.

With Andres Gimenez, Amed Rosario and J.D. Davis all in the picture for 2021, the Mets have options at third base, even if they are less attractive than McNeil. If the Mets have the opportunity to trade from a strength to fill a weakness, it would be reckless to not at least consider it.

The same stands if the Mets decide to go the other way for 2021 and build up a minor league system that has been gutted by Brodie Van Wagenen in pursuit of a playoff berth. McNeil is the type of player who could expedite that process and bring back two or three top 15 prospects. Being under team control until 2025 could help the Mets in dealing from a position of strength.

The hope is that a Cohen ownership with Sandy Alderson back in the picture would realize keeping McNeil is a smart idea, and that making the playoffs in 2021 is attainable. Since it was Alderson who drafted him back in 2013, that might help his case to stay put.

McNeil is a good and valuable player. But of all the Mets good hitter, he is the one they could most survive parting with and come out a stronger team on the other side of the deal. And it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the Mets to test those waters.

Joe Vasile is a play-by-play broadcaster for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders and Bucknell University. He hosts the baseball documentary podcast, Secondary Lead.

Edwin Diaz is ‘breaking’ Statcast in 2020

Since coming over in a trade with the Seattle Mariners before 2019, Edwin Diaz has been the most-maligned member of the Mets pitching staff. After a dreadful first season in New York, the flame-throwing righty had a 7.71 ERA through three appearances in 2020 and was demoted from the closer’s role.

Entering Monday, Diaz is quietly working on a stretch of eight straight scoreless appearances, and has only allowed one earned run in his last 12 games. Importantly, that includes three straight scoreless appearances against the Philadelphia Phillies from September 15-17 – the first time he pitched in three straight games since April 2019.

But even as the righty has been re-installed as the Mets closer and he has pitched incredibly well, many fans have a sense of uneasiness when he comes into a game. For sure, some of this is the fatalistic, Murphy’s Law mentality that goes along with being a Mets fan, but Diaz has found a way to not make it easy. His last appearance against Philadelphia is a good illustration:

He loaded the bases on two walks and a hit batsman, but two strikeouts and a groundout bailed Diaz out of the game and sealed the win for New York. No runs allowed, but plenty of agita stirred. It was a nail-biting four-run win for the Mets.

That is the most frustrating thing with Diaz this season. While he has been far less hittable (strikeouts are up, hits and home runs are down), his control has completely failed him at times. In his 2018 All-Star season with the Mariners, Diaz walked 2.1 batters per nine innings. This year, he has walked 5.3 per nine. More on that in a bit, but first let’s look at what has gone right this year.

The Good

Statcast loves the season that Diaz has been putting together compared to the league. He is ranked in the top 1% of MLB in strikeout rate (50.0%), xBA (.135), xwOBA (.231), xSLG (.217) and Whiff% (50.5%). Those are the same categories he dominated in from 2016-18 with Seattle, and took a step backward in during 2019. It is a tremendously positive sign.

Fig. 1 – Edwin Diaz Career pitch usage

Diaz’s pitch usage is interesting. For each of his first four years, he was mainly a two-pitch pitcher: a four-seam fastball and slider. But in 2020, he has started to throw a sinker more frequently (more about that in a bit), and it now accounts for 16.7% of his pitches. After throwing three pitches registering as sinkers in 2019, he has thrown 71 so far in 2020.

Statcast shows the average velocity of the sinker has been close to the four-seamer – 97.9 mph to 97.7 mph, respectively – but the difference has been in the break. Diaz’s arm slot gives him good natural arm-side run on his fastball, but the sinker breaks three inches more horizontally and 1.5 inches more vertically than the fastball.

At essentially the same velocity, that extra break is the difference between a whiff and a barrel.

What is interesting about his sinker usage, is that he predominantly uses it against left-handed batters. Of the 71 sinkers thrown, 43 have come against lefties, and 28 against righties. Opposing batters have just a .242 wOBA against the pitch this year.

It is obviously a small sample size, but in 2019 lefties hit .293/.294/.398 against Diaz with a .288 wOBA. In 2020, they are hitting .235/.304/.243 with a .265 wOBA. That is a marked improvement, although in both seasons right-handers have hit him harder.

Importantly, while Statcast registers this pitch as a sinker, PITCHf/x data at Brooks Baseball lumps it in with his fastball. It is quite possible that Statcast is considering a four-seamer with more movement to be a sinker, which is interesting and points more to the differences in the systems than anything else.

One can be inclined to think that the sudden spike in “sinkers” is really just a Statcast error. If it is that is still a good thing. Diaz’s four-seam fastball is showing more horizontal and vertical movement this season than any other season of his career, and so much sometimes that he is “breaking” Statcast.

The Bad

The extra movement can be a double-edged sword. While it makes his fastball harder to square up, it may be part of the reason for Diaz’s control problems. Only 45.6% of Diaz’s pitches this season have been in the strike zone, the lowest rate of his career. Of the 64.4% of pitches out of the strike zone, opponents are chasing at only 29.0% of them. The average chase rate in MLB in 29.2%, but that number is far below his career rate of 31.5%.

Fig. 2 – Edwin Diaz 2020 Pitch Locations

Hitters are having a hard time making contact against Diaz, but he has had a difficult time getting them to chase out of the zone. Fig. 2 unlocks the key to that. When Diaz misses with his fastball, he misses badly high and away to lefties and high and tight to righties. His sliders out of zone are in a better spot, one of several reasons that his whiff rate is nearly 50 percent higher on the slider.

If Diaz can harness his control, he could unlock being one of the elite relievers in baseball again, a crazy thing to say about someone whose ERA is 1.64 in 2020. With Diaz still under Mets control until 2023, if he can build on the success of this season, he could be the cornerstone closer the team thought it was acquiring in 2018.

Joe Vasile is a play-by-play broadcaster for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders (NYY, AAA) and Bucknell University women’s basketball. He hosts the Views from the Booth and the upcoming Secondary Lead podcasts.

Three days in Monterrey: The Mets’ historic trip south of the border

After a rough stretch in the early 1990s, the 1996 season was a transitional season for the New York Mets. The team finished with a dreadful 71-91 record, good for fourth-place in the NL East, but gave fans a foreshadowing of the success which followed in the later part of the decade.

Generation K was supposed to be the cornerstone of that success. Bill Pulsipher and Jason Isringhausen both reached the major leagues in 1995, but Tommy John surgery at the end of spring training in ‘96 derailed Pulsipher’s season and career. Isringhausen and Paul Wilson each had their first full MLB seasons and underwhelmed.

New York’s offense was a different story. The Mets got career years from Todd Hundley, Bernard Gilkey and Lance Johnson, and Rey Ordonez proved to be a defensive whiz in his rookie season. Edgardo Alfonzo and Carl Everett didn’t play like the All-Stars they would eventually turn into, and GM Joe McIlvaine probably wishes he could hit the reset button on the Carlos Baerga for Jeff Kent trade he swung in July.

The Mets never got themselves in serious contention in ’96, but a five-game winning streak at the end of July pushed the team to 52-56 heading into the final two months of the season. They went 1-5 in their first six games in August, and were still clinging to the hope for a winning season in the middle of the month. Then they went south of the border and things took a turn.

Why Monterrey?

As much as one would like to think this series was a good-will mission from Major League Baseball to Mexico, that was only a side benefit of the trip. Strangely enough, the Republican Party set the wheels in motion for this historic series.

When the 1996 MLB regular season schedule was announced, the Padres were supposed to host the Mets in a three-game series at Jack Murphy Stadium from August 16-18. Then, a problem arose. First, the Republican National Convention was to be held in San Diego from August 12-15, and Jack Murphy Stadium was in the running to host the festivities.[1] By the time the GOP settled on the San Diego Convention Center as its venue, Padres President Larry Lucchino had made plans to play in Mexico.

Lucchino joined the Padres management team after a successful stint with the Baltimore Orioles, where he was responsible for the vision and conception of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. He brought several fan-friendly innovations to the Padres – planting palm trees beyond the outfield fence, becoming the first team to display pitch speed in the ballpark, and making players incredibly accessible to fans. Playing games in Mexico was another tremendous concept by Lucchino, owner John Moores, and their staff.

“What began as a scheduling problem evolved into a real opportunity for us to break new ground for Major League Baseball,” said Lucchino. “Monterrey is a great sports city, our first choice to host these landmark games.”

Home to the Sultanes de Monterrey of the Mexican League since 1990 the Estadio de Beisbol Monterrey holds over 26,000 fans, making it the largest baseball stadium in Mexico. The outfield dimensions are intimate, just 325 feet down the lines and 405 to center and inviting power alleys in left and right center. The Mets and Padres sold out all three games that weekend.

“At first we were a bit apprehensive,” Mets Manager Dallas Green said. “But everything has been great so far. We’ve tried to view this as just another road trip. But this is a historic event and we’re pleased to be a part of it.” In the mire of a very mediocre season, being part of this groundbreaking series was a highlight.

The Padres season was anything but mediocre heading into that weekend. Led by Tony Gwynn, Ken Caminiti and the newly-acquired Greg Vaughn, the San Diego was making a run for its first playoff appearance since 1984. They needed a strong push over the final month and a half to get past the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West. They found exactly that jolt in Monterrey.

Friday, August 16, 1996 – San Diego 15, Mets 10

“Mets are first major league team to lose in Mexico” declared the headline in the New York Times, recapping the wild game which was filled with enthusiastic fans and a six-piece mariachi band entertaining the crowd in between innngs.

The Padres aligned their rotation so that 35-year-old Fernando Valenzuela got the start in the series opener. “El Toro” was also honored with a standing ovation from his national crowd, and threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Robert Person took the ball for the Mets. San Diego took a 2-0 lead in the first inning on a Steve Finley home run, and built a 15-0 lead by the end of the sixth inning on the strength of four long balls. The Mets rallied for three runs against Valenzuela and reliever Dustin Hermanson in the top of the seventh.

The game got wild in the top of the ninth. Edgardo Alfonzo led off with a double against Hermanson, then Rey Ordonez walked. A double from Chris Jones plated Alfonzo and touched off a stretch where the Mets scored runs on four straight plays (two groundouts and an Andy Tomberlin home run) to cut the deficit to 15-7. A passed ball and a throwing error plated two more runs for the Mets against Sean Bergman, and Alfonzo singled home Alex Ochoa to run the score to 15-10. With the tying run still in the hole, San Diego’s third pitcher of the inning, Dario Veras, got Jones to line out to deep right to end the game.

Saturday, August 17, 1996 – Mets 7, San Diego 3

It was the Mets’ turn to build an early lead. Alfonzo put the Mets up 1-0 with an RBI single against San Diego’s Tim Worrell in the second and the team never looked back. They plated four more runs in the bottom of the third, and after the Friars cut the lead to 5-3, tacked on two insurance runs in the top of the ninth to seal the win. Mark Clark was good enough on the mound for New York, allowing three runs (one earned) on nine hits in 5.2 innings. Dave Mlicki and Doug Henry combined for 3.1 innings of scoreless relief. Gilkey and Hundley each had two hits and scored two runs, and six different players had at least one RBI for the team.

Sunday, August 18, 1996 – San Diego 8, Mets 0

The Sunday afternoon rubber game lives on as one of the most legendary games in the history of the San Diego Padres organization, known simply as “The Snickers Game.” Ken Caminiti was already playing the entire 1996 season with a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder, and was battling a severe case of food poisoning on this morning. He didn’t sleep a wink the night before and struggled to make the team bus to the ballpark. Padres hitting coach Merv Rettenmund remembers simply: “He looked like death.”

Padres trainers had him lay down in Bruce Bochy’s office and hooked him up to an IV bag suspended on a coat hanger on the ceiling. Less than 10 minutes before first pitch, Caminiti took the IV out of his arm and was ready to go. As he warmed up, he asked a trainer to go to the clubhouse and get him a Snickers bar. He ate two of them after the first inning, and led off the bottom of the second against Paul Wilson.

He swung and homered to left-center. 1-0 Padres. He batted again with two on in the third inning. Home run, 4-0 Padres. Caminiti batted one more time, striking out in the fifth before he was removed from the game and returned to the clubhouse where he was hooked back up to the IV. Members of the ’96 Padres still light up when talking about this game, and universally declare it to be the most impressive thing they’ve ever seen.

“You had to see it to believe it,” Tony Gwynn said. “It was a superhuman effort.”

Wilson’s troubles, however, were far from over. He surrendered a home run to opposing pitcher Joey Hamilton and allowed six runs in 6.0 innings. San Diego tacked on two more against reliever Paul Byrd en route to the series win.

Aftermath

National League President Leonard Coleman said the series was “a significant step in the international growth of baseball.” After three straight sell-out crowds, MLB has returned to Monterrey several times, most recently in 2019. In the last two and a half decades, baseball has made a conscious effort to play more games outside the continental US and Canada.

Regular season games have been played in Japan, Australia, England and Puerto Rico, and baseball has played games in non-traditional US markets like Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Cooperstown, New York; Williamsport, Pennsylvania; Nebraska and Hawai’i. In 2021, MLB will stage a game featuring the Chicago Cubs in an Iowa cornfield. As controversial as some of MLB’s decisions have been, its attempts to grow the game internationally are commendable.

Beginning with the Snickers Game, Caminiti hit .399/.485/.833 with 16 home runs for the remainder of the season and was unanimously chosen as the NL MVP after the Padres won the NL West. He signed an endorsement deal with the candy company and the San Diego’s rallying cry for the rest of the season was. “Get me an IV and a Snickers!” He led the Padres to the NL West title, which was won in dramatic fashion by sweeping the Los Angeles Dodgers at Chavez Ravine in the final series of the season.

The historic series marked the beginning of the Mets freefall in 1996. The team went just 1-9 in their next 10 games and fired Green on August 26 after returning home from the west coast swing that also saw the Mets play in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Bright spots down the stretch were watching Hundley and Johnson set single-season team records in home runs and hits, respectively, and watching a young core develop.

The Mets hired Bobby Valentine to replace Green as manager and also committed to a youth movement for the rest of the season. The team sputtered through an 11-15 September, but the experience gained down the stretch in ’96 set the stage for a much-improved 88-win team in 1997. With some tweaks to the roster, New York was ready for a runs in 1999 and 2000.

Joe Vasile is a play-by-play broadcaster for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders and Bucknell University, and the host of Secondary Lead, an upcoming baseball history podcast.

[1] The Houston Astros hosted the 1992 Republican National Convention at the Astrodome, which resulted in a record-setting 26-game road trip for the team. Coincidentally, Ken Caminiti, Steve Finley and Willie Blair were all members of both the ’92 Astros and ’96 Padres.

Inside Dominic Smith’s 2020 breakout

In a season that has already featured its share of frustrations for the New York Mets, one of the most positive developments has been the play of Dominic Smith. More than any player on the roster, Smith has benefited from Yoenis Cespedes’ opt-out and the addition of the DH to the National League.

Even though we are dealing with a super small sample size of only 60 plate appearances entering play on Sunday, the 25-year-old first baseman and outfielder is on pace to smash his career highs in every statistic. By rWAR (0.8), this has already been the best year of Smith’s young career, which comprised of 194 games before this season.

Heading into Sunday, Smith led all of Major League Baseball in slugging percentage (.780) and OPS+ (218). One shouldn’t expect him to continue hitting like prime Barry Bonds for the remainder of the season, but the underlying numbers are quite promising that this is a legit breakout for the 2013 first round pick.

Hitting it hard

One of the biggest differences for Smith this year has been a significant jump in the quality of the contact he makes with the ball. According to Statcast, his average exit velocity this year has been 90.3 mph, up from 88.3 in 2019. Players who also have a 90.3 average exit velo in 2020: Rafael Devers, Mookie Betts and Luis Robert.

That extra two mph improvement makes a big difference: batters generally hit around .216 at 88 mph exit velocity and .246 at 90 mph. Of course, launch angle and spray angle make a difference, too, but more on those later.

Smith’s hard hit percentage is a career high 44.7, which puts him in the same tier as Shohei Ohtani, Franmil Reyes, Trevor Story and Carlos Correa. Pretty good company. Last season, only 34.8% of Smith’s batted balls were categorized as hard hit by Statcast.

Statcast has categorized 18.4% of his batted balls as “barrels” in 2020, which is among the elite in baseball. Part of a larger definition of a barrel is a batted ball that has an expected batting average over .500 and expected slugging of over 1.500. Smith ranks 16th in MLB in barrel% — ahead of Aaron Judge, Juan Soto and Bryce Harper in that category.

Better pitch selection

Another key to Smith’s success this season comes down to what he has and has not been swinging at. While his overall swing rate is right around his career average, the makeup of those swings has been very different.

Smith has swung at more pitches in the strike zone and fewer outside the strike zone than in any other year of his career. He is also making contact on pitches in the zone more often than at any point in his career. The added selectivity has helped to boost his walk rate to 11.7%, another career-high.

Interestingly, pitchers have been throwing Smith more fastballs and fewer breaking balls this year than at any point in his career. That might make it easier to lay off pitches out of the zone, but it is also curious given how that is the opposite trend of the broader MLB shift toward more breaking balls and fewer fastballs.

Swing zone data at Brooks Baseball suggests that Smith has improved greatly at not chasing at balls horizontally out of the strike zone, that is to say off the plate away or inside. He has made a dramatic improvement on pitches that are high and tight. Most of his chases in 2020 have come on pitches which are over the plate but are vertically out of the strike zone.

His biggest strides in swinging at balls in the zone have come on pitches middle-in. Smith has swung at 83% of all pitches in the six middle-in zones of home plate in 2020, and the results have been outstanding. It also might explain how and why his spray angle has radically changed this year.

Fig. 1 – Dominic Smith Swing Rate, 2019 Season

Fig. 2 – Dominic Smith Swing Rate, 2020 Season

Dead pull Dom

From 2017-19, Smith was a spray hitter. While he pulled the ball frequently, he still hit the ball to the opposite field nearly a quarter of the time. That is not the Smith of 2020, where he is pulling the ball a whopping 47.4% of the time (up from 37.6% in 2019), and going up the middle another 42.1% (up from 34.6%). That leaves a paltry 10.5% of batted balls going to the opposite field. A warning, as the spray charts in Fig. 3 and Fig. 4 will illustrate, we are dealing with a super small sample size in these numbers.

Fig. 3 – Dominic Smith Spray Chart 2019

Fig. 4 – Dominic Smith Spray Chart, 2020

This is not necessarily a surprising thing to find based off of Smith’s raw numbers: when players pull the ball more they generally hit for more power. What is notable is the dramatic rise in balls hit both up the middle and to his pull side in the span of one offseason.

Not only has he been pulling the ball more frequently, but has been hitting it in the air more often as well. Smith’s ground ball rate (34.4%) is the lowest of his career, which has helped him counter the shift. While teams have shifted against him in 60.0% of his plate appearances, Smith has posted a phenomenal .530 wOBA against shifts.

Finally given a chance to get consistent, every day at-bats Smith has taken off in the early part of 2020, and the underlying numbers suggest his success might be more than small sample size luck. At 25, he is blossoming into the offensive threat that was his potential when the Mets picked him 11th overall seven years ago.

Sometimes the best trades are the ones you don’t make. Smith was bandied about in trade rumors during the offseason but Brodie Van Wagenen kept him in New York. That’s a non-move that is paying off handsomely.

Joe Vasile is a play-by-play broadcaster for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders and Bucknell University, and the host of Secondary Lead, a baseball history podcast.

Where to hit Robinson Cano is a good problem for Mets

With baseball finally back in the form of exhibition games between the Mets and Yankees over the weekend, it is feels nice to get to nit-pick manager’s lineup decisions again. First year manager Luis Rojas has the luxury of a talented and deep set of hitters to draw from, but already he has raised some eyebrows.

Sunday, Brian Joura broke down Saturday’s box score and raised the same concerns that have come up on social media about Rojas’ lineups – Robinson Cano batting third. Brian mentioned a preference for batting Cano sixth or lower, which we’ll address later. However, assuming a lineup full of regulars for the Mets, Cano presents an interesting case to be the No. 3 hitter.

“Definitely features very well to hit third in the lineup,” Rojas said of Cano to the media on Saturday. “We don’t have the lineup set for Opening Day yet, but he’s a guy that features to be there in the middle of the lineup.

“There’s a lot of versatility in the lineup, guys that can hit in different positions,” Rojas continued. “We are getting a feel for each one, to hit in different spots. We’ve done it throughout camp and that’s what we’re doing today. He should be in the middle of the lineup. That’s what we foresee.”

It should be noted that while Rojas has coached and managed in the minor leagues since 2006, minor league managers typically don’t have the kind of freedom in making out their lineups that MLB managers do. Like all other MiLB managers, Rojas has been at the mercy of what the player development staff tells him to do. The input is assuredly still there in the majors, but he has more decision-making ability than before.

Much of the disagreement centers on lineup construction theory. Even today, the “best hitter bats third” camp clashes with the “best hitter bats second” camp which has gained more mainstream acceptance in MLB circles. The flip side of that theory is that your No. 3 hitter, traditionally the best overall hitter in the lineup should be the fifth-best hitter as outlined in The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball. For that camp, No. 3 makes the perfect spot in the lineup for Cano.

Cano is 37 and coming off of his worst season since 2008, but the glimmer of hope for him is in his strong finish from 2019. Last year was a story of two seasons for Cano: In the first half he hit just .240/.287/.360 and his wOBA was .276. After returning from injury in the second half of the season he hit .284/.339/.541 and his wOBA jumped to .358.

His second-half offensive numbers are superior to Amed Rosario, Wilson Ramos and even Alonso. It’s not smart to expect a repeat of that second half performance in 2020, but it’s not unfair to expect him to be closer to that than his dreadful first half.

The question becomes: “Is that player the fifth-best hitter in the lineup?” The best answer to that is maybe. Against a right-handed pitcher, Cano probably is. Against a lefty slotting J.D. Davis in that spot or benching Cano altogether probably makes more sense. This is one of the nice parts of Rojas’ problem – with Brandon Nimmo, Alonso, Michael Conforto and Jeff McNeil forming a stellar top four hitters, there are a few players who could fit the slot as that fifth guy. For example, a healthy Yoenis Cespedes could be that guy.

If Cespedes does prove to still have something in the tank after two years away from MLB, then Cano’s case to hit higher than seventh really dissipates. With the new three batter minimum rule for relievers in baseball this year, Rojas has shown a preference to flip-flop lefties and righties in the lineup. Both lineups against the Yankees flip flopped lefties and righties in the first six spots. Doing so all the way down the lineup will make it tougher on ex-LOOGYs now charged with getting through at least one right-handed bat.

A Cano that isn’t batting in the top five in the lineup is then looking at slotting seventh to keep that trend further down the order. No matter which school of lineup construction you subscribe to, that may very well be where he is best suited to bat in 2020. What you hope is that if that is the case, neither Rojas nor anyone in the organization above him doesn’t try to force Cano into the middle of the lineup. It could present a real test of the new skipper’s flexibility and willingness to change his mind when presented with information.

Either way, if where Cano is batting is the biggest problem for the Mets heading into the 60-game season, that’s a great problem to have. The strong, deep lineup should be a force to contend with in the playoffs.