Duda and Thole making their case for 2012 and beyond

Lately there hasn’t been much to get excited about when it comes to the play of the Mets. They continue to be ravaged by injuries and are seemingly dead in the playoff hunt. That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to look forward to down the stretch.

Although a lot will happen between now and next April, when it comes to the roster makeup of the New York Mets, the development of Lucas Duda and Josh Thole is making things worth watching as the season winds down.

The biggest off-season question mark for the Mets, of course, is if they will resign Jose Reyes and give him his big bucks. If not, will the Mets look to Ruben Tejada as the solution at shortstop?

And assuming they are healthy and not traded (which seems highly unlikely), Ike Davis should be back manning first base for the Mets with David Wright back at the hot corner.

So, after Reyes (if he is resigned), Davis and Wright, no jobs seem to be guaranteed going into next year as Terry Collins has already attested.

Other roster questions also remain abound.

What will the Mets do at second base? Do they keep Justin Turner around despite him being nothing more than an average player? Do they dare let Murphy go back there? And if not at second, where else do you put Murphy- in left field? If that’s the case, what do you do with Jason Bay and his debilitating contract?

What about Angel Pagan? Some pundits are saying Pagan might be non-tendered this offseason and that these could be his last two months with the Mets. So who then would play center?

General Manager Sandy Alderson has a lot of tough decisions to make on the makeup of the 2012 Mets.

However, with the recent play of Thole and Duda, the decision on their future with the team is becoming less murky by the day as they both looked poised to be everyday starters for the foreseeable future.

Both Duda and Thole have been scorching hot of late and have picked up the slack while the team copes with the injuries to Reyes and Murphy, the lingering effects of the Carlos Beltran trade and the general inconsistencies of Bay and Pagan.

Thole is in the midst of a torrid streak in which he is batting .314 in his last 29 games. Early on while Ronny Paulino was swinging a hot bat, Thole was mired in a miserable slump and sat on the bench as a result. But credit Thole for sticking it out, working hard and forcing his way back into the lineup. With the way Thole is hitting, it might behoove Collins to play him more against lefties to see if he can handle that workload. At the age of 24, it’s obvious Thole is the future at catcher since there seems to be no other promising catchers in the Mets’ system.

While platooning Thole and Paulino to start off the year made sense, it would be a wise idea to start Thole more often to gauge how he can handle lefties. Thus, this will give Thole a better grasp on things heading into 2012.

As for Duda, I have already lauded his improvement before, and since that post he has only gotten better.

Since he was recalled from the minors on June 10, Duda has hit .310 to go along with five home runs and 28 RBI in 166 at-bats.

The maturation that Duda has shown in the last few months has been very encouraging. He seems to be tackling the nuances of the game and will only get better with time. Duda seems to have a cerebral approach at the plate and could offer the team plus-power for years to come.

Now the only concern for Duda is if he can comfortably play right field on an everyday basis. Since Murphy went down with his season-ending injury, Duda has exclusively played first base out of necessity. However, Collins wants to play Duda more in right field to know what he’s playing with. Additionally, there are tentative plans for Duda to play right field in winter ball.

Regardless, outside of any major trades or free agent signings shaking up the team, expect Duda and Thole to be starters and major contributors in 2012. Hence, the next few weeks could be vital in the development of these young two blossoming Mets.

Josh Thole’s big game fits in nicely with last 15 weeks

Catcher Josh Thole had a big game Saturday night, with three hits, seven total bases, a walk, two runs scored and an RBI. He also threw out a runner who tried to steal. The story for Thole is that he finally has a big game. Instead, the story should be Thole continues his strong play.

The first seven weeks of the season, Thole was lost. After 128 PA, Thole had a dismal .205/.281/.241 line and he had just four extra-base hits (all doubles) in 112 ABs. Additionally, Thole had 22 Ks in that span, an uncharacteristic number for him.

But it’s been a different story here now for over twice as long. While Thole has been swinging a much better bat, he does not have the same rate of PA as he did in the beginning of the season as manager Terry Collins has given Ronny Paulino significant time behind the plate.

In the last 15 weeks, Thole has 140 PA. But in that span, he has a .308/.407/.425 line, numbers closer to what we expected from him coming into the season. Part of that has been Paulino getting the vast majority of PA versus LHP, but part of it has been Thole stabilizing with his BABIP.

Last year Thole had a .305 BABIP for the Mets, a pretty normal rate. In the first seven weeks of the season, he had just a .244 BABIP. Since then, he has a .330 mark in the category. Perhaps that’s slightly elevated, but from a guy who generally trades power for contact, not a number that should be a huge surprise.

The underrated thing about Thole’s stretch is not only is he hitting the ball with more authority, he’s also making much better contact. In the beginning of the year he fanned 22 times in 112 ABs. Since then he has 12 whiffs in 120 ABs.

Thole’s OPS is now up to .683, the highest it’s been since the seventh game of the season. That ranks just 26th out of 42 catchers with at least 150 PA this season. However, his .832 OPS over his last 15 weeks would rank 5th.

For whatever reason, fans seem slow to warm to Thole. At first they didn’t want to give him a shot in the majors because of alleged defensive weaknesses. But then he comes up and became the personal catcher for R.A. Dickey, a knuckleball pitcher – traditionally the toughest pitcher on the staff to catch.

Then he starts off slow this year and everyone wants to give more playing time to Paulino. Thole gets criticized for his batting style and his lack of power. But even though Paulino is having a fine year at the plate with a .304 AVG, he has just a .083 ISO. Compare that to Thole, who has a .077 ISO. Not much to choose from in 2011 power-wise between the two backstops.

Paulino also was credited with helping Mike Pelfrey, as he supposedly took charge more efficiently when he caught the enigmatic pitcher. But whatever benefit Paulino brought to Pelfrey seems to have evaporated. In his last eight games, Pelfrey is 2-4 with a 4.07 ERA, with 19 BB, 24 Ks and 6 HR in 48.2 IP.

I really like the Thole-Paulino catching duo, although I still believe that Thole should get the majority of ABs. For the remainder of the season, I hope Collins will move more towards a strict platoon, one that will get Thole somewhere around 70 percent of the remaining starts.

How will Terry Collins deploy his catchers in 2nd half?

Last year at the All-Star break the Mets were 48-40 and in second place in the NL East. They were a game behind the Dodgers in the Wild Card race. But they started the second half of the season going 2-9 and never recovered. This year the picture at the All-Star break is not nearly as rosy, as the Mets are 46-45 and are in third place in the NL East and 7.5 back in the Wild Card.

The Mets open the second half with a three-game set against the Phillies. It’s hard to imagine a worse way to start, as the Phillies have the best record in baseball and the Mets are just 3-6 against their rival. But last year’s start to the second half looked good, as the Mets started off against two teams with a combined 81-96 record. New York went 1-6 against those two clubs.

One thing in the Mets’ favor is that they avoid both Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, along with the injured Roy Oswalt in this series. While they do have to go up against Cole Hamels, the Mets have done well historically against the 2008 World Series MVP. Hamels is just 3-9 lifetime against the Mets in 15 starts, with a 4.22 ERA.

One thing that will be interesting is to see how manager Terry Collins handles his catchers in this series. Recently, Collins has been playing them both equally and not in a strict platoon. Both catchers have been hitting well and have developed a rapport with at least one pitcher in the rotation. Mike Pelfrey has pitched better since being teamed with Ronny Paulino while Jonathon Niese has done likewise with Josh Thole.

Here’s how the Mets’ primary two catchers have fared this season when matched with the five starters:

Chris Capuano
RP — .286/.338/.407
JT — .254/.316/.429

R.A. Dickey
RP — .259/.308/.411
JT — .256/.325/.385

Dillon Gee
RP — .254/.342/.373
JT — .214/.294/.327

Jonathon Niese
RP — .316/.350/.434
JT — .259/.325/.386

Mike Pelfrey
RP — .237/.282/.411
JT — .256/.325/.385

Collins has been trying to pair Paulino with Pelfrey and Thole with Niese. But against the Phillies both catchers would have the platoon disadvantage, as Niese squares off against Hamels and Pelfrey goes up against the righty Kyle Kendrick. Will Collins play Thole against the LHP to keep him with Niese? There’s an increase of 83 points in OPS when Paulino catches Niese.

Two things stand out when looking at these pitcher-catcher pairings besides the Niese and Pelfrey matchups which we’ve already discussed. First, while Thole is often paired with Dickey, there appears to be very little difference in the results if Paulino catches him. With Thole as his catcher, Dickey limits opposing batters to a .710 OPS. With Paulino as his catcher, Dickey has a .719 OPS against.

The other thing is that there is a big difference with Gee. When Paulino catches him, Gee allows a .715 OPS but when Thole is behind the plate, it’s a .621 OPS allowed. All of these pitcher-catcher splits are small samples and in regards to Gee, it could be a chicken-egg thing. Gee has struggled in his last four starts and Paulino has been behind the plate in three of those. Has Gee struggled because of Paulino or has Paulino simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Collins has generally made a lot of good decisions as manager and it will be interesting to see how he handles his catchers going forward. Let’s see if he will give up the platoon advantage to have Thole catch Niese and if he will try to pair Thole and Gee more often in the second half.

Josh Thole outhits Ronny Paulino in last six weeks

Manager Terry Collins has given more playing time recently to Ronny Paulino, essentially splitting time equally behind the plate between Paulino and Josh Thole for the last six weeks. Before the season started, I suggested that the duo would make an ideal platoon team, with Thole getting the majority of the ABs due to being a lefty hitter. But Collins seems to be simply splitting the at-bats, with Paulino getting starts against RHP, but not when Dickey is pitching.

It’s hard to argue with getting Paulino more playing time. He is batting .333 overall and in his last 25 games, he’s batting .346 with an .818 OPS. There’s only one problem here. Over that same time span, Thole has been better. This gets obscured because Thole got off to a terrible start, and his full season numbers look underwhelming, but in the last six weeks, Thole has been better than Paulino.

Here are their stats since May 24th, when Paulino broke out of 1-14 slump with a 2-for-4 game.

RP – .346/.361/.457 for an .818 OPS in 84 PA
JT – .329/.430/.438 for an .869 OPS in 86 PA

Thole has an .869 OPS in this span, 51 points higher than Paulino. Paulino holds the edge in AVG but that’s due to his .391 BABIP in that span. Thole’s BABIP is .348, which is elevated, but much closer to a sustainable mark. Also, Thole has a huge edge in OBP. Plus, when we compare their ISO, we see that Paulino is not making up much ground with his slugging. Paulino’s ISO (SLG-AVG) is .111 while Thole has a .109 ISO.

There is an old joke about the guy who has an ugly scarecrow in the front yard of his suburban house. When his neighbor asks him why, he replies, “It’s to keep the elephants away.” When his neighbor tells him that’s ridiculous because there’s no elephants anywhere close, the man exclaims, “See, it works!”

Some people may claim that Thole is doing better because he cannot handle being the primary catcher. When Paulino’s playing time went up, so did Thole’s average. But that’s the “scarecrow to keep the elephants away” argument.

Thole had a .247 BABIP before May 25th. Thole may not be a great defender. He may not ever hit for much power. But no one doubts that he is a major league hitter. And quite simply, major league hitters with little power do not carry a .247 BABIP over an entire season. Thole was due to start hitting and the fact that it happened when Paulino got hot is merely a coincidence.

If we look back to last year, we see that Thole got off to a horrible start in the minors. At Triple-A Buffalo, Thole posted a .172/.242/.259 line in April. There’s more evidence that Thole is simply a slow starter than there is that he cannot handle the full-time catching duties.

But it is hard to argue with success. So long as Paulino is producing, there’s little reason to change the status quo. However, we can see from last year what happens when Paulino carries a heavy load over an extended period of time.

In his first 74 games, Paulino had a .313/.351/.432 line and nobody on the Marlins was missing the injured John Baker. But in his next 37 games covering 139 PA, Paulino had a .177/.252/.234 slash line and looked wore down before his PED suspension ended his season.

I still think that Thole and Paulino should platoon. Thole gets the majority of the ABs and the charitably-listed 250-pound Paulino stays fresh and ready to mash LHP and Mariano Rivera. But even if you prefer Paulino to get more playing time, please remember that Thole has been the better hitter the past six weeks.

Mets struggle with 2nd spot in lineup

Fans often make big deals about who bats where in the lineup but in the overall scheme of things it does not matter very much. Now, that does not mean teams should pull their lineup out of a hat or start batting their pitcher leadoff. But the standard lineup does not come out much worse than the optimized lineup over an entire season and if Joe Star wants to bat third – that’s an easy concession to make.

But you will have to forgive members of the 2011 Mets if they check the lineup and then mutter if they see themselves batting second on a particular day. This year, the Mets have gotten less production from the second spot in the order than they have from the eighth. And it’s not any one person you can point to and blame for this, either. The Mets have had 11 different players get at-bats in the two-hole this season.

The National League average for hitters in the second spot is .258/.318/.370 for a .688 OPS. This is higher than the average for the either the seventh (.682) or eighth (.656) spots in the average NL lineup. Overall, the Mets rank 14th in OPS production from the second spot in the order, a point ahead of the Nationals. The Marlins bring up the rear with a .564 OPS, with most of the damage done by Omar Infante, who has a .575 OPS in 241 PA.

Here are how the Mets have done with the second spot in the lineup:

G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS BAbip
Justin Turner 35 163 143 15 36 8 0 1 19 12 19 .252 .333 .329 .662 .282
Dan Murphy 22 95 86 11 22 6 0 2 7 6 9 .256 .319 .395 .714 .267
Willie Harris 11 48 40 13 11 1 0 1 4 7 16 .275 .396 .375 .771 .435
Angel Pagan 8 35 31 2 2 0 0 0 0 3 6 .065 .171 .065 .236 .080
Josh Thole 8 32 27 3 5 0 0 0 4 5 6 .185 .313 .185 .498 .238
Ruben Tejada 2 9 8 1 2 0 0 0 1 1 2 .250 .333 .250 .583 .333
Chin-lung Hu 2 5 4 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 2 .000 .200 .000 .200 .000
Jason Pridie 3 5 5 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 3 .000 .000 .000 .000 .000
Scott Hairston 2 2 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 .000 .500 .000 .500 .000
Ronny Paulino 1 2 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 .000 .000 .000 .000 .000
Carlos Beltran 1 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000 .000
Francisco Rodriguez 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
D. J. Carrasco 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Pedro Beato 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Team Total 100 397 348 45 78 15 0 4 35 36 64 .224 .314 .302 .616 .263
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/5/2011.

Now let’s compare their OPS while hitting second compared to their overall OPS and their OPS at whichever position they’ve hit in the most outside of the second slot.

Overall OPS OPS batting 2nd OPS in other position
Turner .696 .662 .700 (6th)
Muprhy .774 .714 .745 (4th)
Harris .644 .771 .627 (7th)
Pagan .697 .236 .831 (5th)
Thole .660 .498 .734 (7th)

Of the five players who’ve batted the most in the second slot, only Harris has done better there than elsewhere. Most players have performed noticeably better when they hit elsewhere in the lineup, no one more so than Pagan. That .236 OPS is not a typo – he really stunk up the joint when he was hitting second.

The fact that the Mets have one of the better offenses in the National League is surprising given how many big bats have spent time on the DL for them this season. It’s even more of a shock given how poor they have been at the second spot in the lineup.

Hopefully, when David Wright returns after the All-Star break, he replaces Turner in the lineup and Pagan replaces Turner in the second spot in the order. I do not believe that Pagan will be the anchor he was earlier in the season and I expect him to provide better production going forward than any of the team’s numerous other candidates did in the first half of the year.

Murphy among struggling Mets starting to hit

The Mets salvaged the final game of their three-game series against the Phillies as the bats finally came alive. The first two losses were tough to take, as the Mets held leads after seven innings in both games. They both fall into the category of toss-up games that I mentioned how the Mets are struggling in earlier in the month.

But instead of dwelling on the negative, let’s instead focus on what good came out of this weekend. The obvious was the return of Angel Pagan, who raised his AVG 26 points over the weekend. But the hitting of Pagan was hardly the only bright spot. In fact, all of the Mets who were struggling with the bat seemed to perk up against the Cubs and Phillies. Let’s look at what these players had done before and after their respective hot streaks:

Before After
Josh Thole .207 4-6, double, 2 RBIs
Daniel Murphy .233 13-33, .394/.429/.576
Jason Bay .227 6-19, .409 OBP
Angel Pagan .159 4-12, 3 runs, 2 SB

When Ike Davis and David Wright went on the disabled list, the Mets offense went into the tank, as they scored 14 runs in seven games before tallying 25 in their last five.

A pessimist may point out that their two big offensive games came when the opposing starting pitchers were Casey Coleman and Vance Worley. But there’s nothing wrong with scoring runs when the other team does not trot out its ace. Each team should have two or more pitchers like this and good teams should tee off against the bottom of their opponents’ rotation.

The Mets now open up a four-game set against the Pirates and square off against pitchers who will not be confused with Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels. Here are the pitchers they are about to face:

Charlie Morton – He’s having a super year so far because a change in pitching style has made him tough on RHB, who he has limited to a .443 OPS. But the Mets will face him with a lineup featuring five of their eight batters batting from the left side. Morton allows lefties to post a .921 OPS this year. Three of the four hitters listed above bat from the left side, including the switch-hitting Pagan.

James McDonald – The Pirates had high hopes for McDonald coming into the year based on some strong outings down the stretch in 2010. But so far he’s been the weak link in their rotation with a 5.23 ERA. McDonald has been walking too many batters and allowing too many HR, a certain recipe for disaster.

Kevin Correia – A free agent signing from the Padres, Correia has put up better numbers this year than he did last season pitching half his games in Petco Park. A .259 BABIP has helped him to a solid 3.44 ERA this year. But he does not strike out any batters ( 3.82 K/9, the second-lowest total of the 113 qualified starting pitchers) and his xFIP is three-quarters of a run higher than his ERA.

Paul Maholm – He leads Pirates pitchers with a 1.2 WAR but has just a 2-7 record. He’s always posted peripherals better than his actual ERA and this year he once again has strong component stats. Maholm has strong FIP (3.39) and xFIP (3.67) numbers but this year his ERA is even better (3.18). The lefty is succeeding thanks to a BABIP 54 points below his career average.

It will be interesting to see if the Mets can continue their recent five runs per game output against this foursome. They certainly seem like pitchers the Mets should be able to handle. While the 1-2 record against the Phillies was disappointing, the Mets can still have a productive homestand if they take care of business the next four days against the Pirates.

*****

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Will Paulino cut into Thole’s playing time?

While Ronny Paulino will not make you forget about Mike Piazza, he could possibly make it easier for you to dismiss Josh Thole and his slow start.

Paulino has come back from the DL with authority.

Although it’s a very small sample size, the club likes what it sees in Paulino. Paulino is 7-13 thus far and is hitting righties just as well as lefties (he is 3-4 against lefties and 4-9 against righties).

Paulino has even delivered in the clutch.

In the 14th inning in a game none of us will likely ever forget (obviously in reference to the news of Osama bin Laden being captured and killed breaking during the game), Paulino delivered the game-winning RBI with a double off the Phillies’ Kyle Kendrick. This was a game the Mets had to have. Mind you this was Paulino’s first ever game as a Met, and he introduced himself to Mets’ faithful with a career high five hits.

Paulino has now started two games (one against a righty in Tim Lincecum). Paulino was also expected to start in Thursday’s game vs. the Giants (naturally against lefty Jonathan Sanchez).

It was a long and arduous road for Paulino to finally play for the Mets.

First there was a 50-game suspension he had to serve for violating MLB’s drug program. Then there were visa issues prior to camp. A bout with anemia and an oblique strain had him miss the opening month as well.

But now that he is back and swinging a hot bat, Paulino is cutting into Thole’s time behind the plate. So, just how much playing time does Paulino get over Thole going forward?

Is this eventually going to morph into a righty/lefty platoon as we thought all along? Or is one catcher going to emerge, and could that catcher eventually be Paulino?

Obviously the Mets see Thole as the catcher of the future, but right now Terry Collins is riding the hot hand in Paulino. Thole has struggled mightily of late as his bating average has dropped to .253, with his OBP now a meek .308. Thole has only three extra base hits in 83 at-bats with eight RBI’s.

Playing time at catcher could depend a lot on how the Mets play as a team in the coming weeks.

With not much on the line at the end of last year, Thole got extended playing time in favor of grizzled vets like Rod Barajas and Henry Blanco. Thole played well enough that the Mets traded away Barajas.

Paulino was signed in the off-season to a one-year deal worth $1.3 million. The Mets don’t have a lot invested in Paulino, considering he is a .276 career hitter. So, it’s not like they got to play him.

At this point, whoever is playing better will simply get more playing time.

But with the Mets in a hole right now and six games below .500 (8.5 games back of the Phillies), it makes enough sense to ride the hot hand in Paulino.

As for Thole, just chalk it up to growing pains. He is adjusting and learning the game while pitchers around the league are exploiting his weaknesses. Another point to consider is Thole isn’t exactly lighting it up on defense and his arm has teams running at will on him (he has only thrown out four of 26 baserunners)

Eventually Thole should right the ship and make Paulino the back-up catcher the Mets envisioned him being in the first place. For now, enjoy Ronny mania!

Murphy, Thole remind Mets offense is important, too

Last year the Mets got rotten offensive production from the second base position. It did not matter who they threw out there, that person could not hit. Now when I say that, an idea probably comes into your mind of a couple of guys being bad and dragging down everyone else’s numbers. But that’s not the case, as everyone who trotted out to second base seemingly swung with a bat made out of balsa wood.

Here are the offensive numbers of the team’s second basemen in 2010:

Rk G PA AB R HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS BAbip
1 Luis Hernandez 10 34 32 3 1 4 1 0 1 6 .250 .294 .375 .669 .280
2 Luis Castillo 72 287 236 27 0 16 8 3 39 21 .242 .347 .275 .622 .263
3 Ruben Tejada 48 155 137 18 0 8 0 1 12 19 .226 .301 .307 .607 .261
4 Justin Turner 1 5 5 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 .200 .200 .400 .600 .200
5 Alex Cora 43 158 144 11 0 18 4 1 9 12 .208 .261 .271 .532 .224
6 Fernando Tatis 2 2 1 0 0 1 0 0 1 0 .000 .500 .000 .500 .000
7 Joaquin Arias 9 21 20 1 0 1 0 0 1 5 .150 .190 .200 .390 .200
Team Total 162 662 575 61 1 48 13 5 63 63 .226 .307 .285 .592 .250
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/3/2011.

Now, it did not take a genius to expect that the Mets would get better production from the position in 2011. Only Brad Emaus, the guy they picked to be the Opening Day starter, was even worse. A lot of people were upset because Emaus did not get a long look at the job, but given what the Mets received last year, is it really so surprising that they cut ties with a guy who would have stood out for being bad among last year’s putrid hitters?

Overall this year, the Mets’ second base production has been slightly better than last year. But as we can see, the team has three players whose output would be at home with the 2010 misfits and one player who is doing great.

Rk G PA AB R HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS BAbip
1 Dan Murphy 16 61 55 8 1 8 1 1 4 6 .291 .361 .455 .815 .313
2 Justin Turner 4 15 14 0 0 1 0 1 1 2 .214 .267 .214 .481 .250
3 Brad Emaus 11 39 34 2 0 1 0 0 4 7 .147 .256 .147 .403 .185
4 Chin-lung Hu 4 6 6 1 0 0 0 0 0 3 .167 .167 .167 .333 .333
Team Total 28 121 109 11 1 10 1 2 9 18 .229 .306 .312 .618 .267
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/3/2011.

Murphy, the only player who is hitting, has still not been anointed as the team’s full-time starter. Currently, he is in a platoon with Turner. The Mets did not give him an honest shot to win the job in Spring Training, as they wanted him to be a super-sub. Allegedly, they were worried about his ability to handle the position defensively.

With very little professional experience to go by to accurately judge Murphy’s defensive performance, the club wasted defensive reps in Spring Training on players who had no chance to make the Opening Day roster. Instead, they just declared him to be sub-par defensively and that was that.

Now, the public has seen Murphy in the field and we’re able to make our own judgments. While he will not make anyone forget Frank White, his glove is more than adequate for the position. So, did Murphy improve dramatically in the last, I don’t know, 30 days? Or were his defensive problems overblown to begin with? Or, is the current braintrust incapable of making accurate decisions of this type?

It would be one thing if this was an isolated incident. But we just have to look back to last year, when the Mets decided that Josh Thole could not handle things defensively and wasted half a year on over-the-hill veterans with good reputations.

Rk G PA AB R HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS BAbip
1 Josh Thole 58 211 188 16 3 14 1 0 22 23 .271 .351 .367 .718 .296
2 Rod Barajas 69 266 248 30 12 34 0 0 8 39 .226 .264 .415 .679 .220
3 Henry Blanco 43 141 127 10 2 8 1 0 11 25 .213 .270 .299 .569 .243
4 Mike Nickeas 4 9 9 0 0 0 0 0 0 4 .222 .222 .222 .444 .400
Team Total 162 627 572 56 17 56 2 0 41 91 .238 .294 .371 .665 .253
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/3/2011.

When Thole was given a shot, we saw that his defense was much better than advertised. His defense was so good, that he became the personal catcher for a knuckleball pitcher, typically the hardest guy on the staff to catch.

Defense is important and the last thing I want to see is a bunch of guys in the field who turn every ball into an adventure. But offense is important, too. The next time the Mets have a player who can hit but the brass says can’t field the position, let’s not be so quick to swallow the company line of thinking. Let’s see what the player can do with the glove on his hand in real games before we declare him a defensive liability, like so many did with Murphy and Thole.

That is unless you enjoy the offensive exploits of post-April Barajas or Blanco or Castillo or Tejada or Hernandez or Arias or…

Predictions for the 2011 Mets

My first go round at Opening Day predictions at Mets360 did not go so well. So, I could go one of several ways:

A. Try to make “easy” predictions to make me look good in hindsight.
B. Make off the wall assertions and when one of them came true, trumpet the fact that I picked it.
C. Repeat last year’s idea of being a combination of realistic/optimistic and hope for better results.

I’m going for the third path. So, here are my 2011 predictions for the Mets:

1. Josh Thole hits at least 7 HR, which bests Felix Millan’s single-season best.
2. Ike Davis reaches 85 RBIs.
3. David Wright’s K% drops at least five points from last year’s 27.4% mark. Assuming last year’s AB total of 587, that would mean 131 (or fewer) strikeouts rather than 161.
4. Jose Reyes establishes a career-best in OBP, besting his .358 mark in 2008.
5. Angel Pagan finishes in the top 10 among full-time CF in SLG%
6. Carlos Beltran becomes the first Mets RF to play (at least) 110 games and put up (at least) a 110 OPS+ since Bobby Bonilla in 1993.
7. Mike Pelfrey pitches 200 innings for the third time in four years.
8. R.A. Dickey has an ERA of 3.75 or lower, which is lower than all of the projection systems at FanGraphs predict.
9. Jonathon Niese will top Johan’s Santana’s 17 Quality Starts from a year ago.
10. Chris Capuano makes 25 starts.
11. Chris Young has a K/9 below 6.00 compared to his 7.82 career average.
12. Francisco Rodriguez saves 35 games.
13. Blaine Boyer does not end the year with the club.
14. RHB post an OPS of at least .900 versus Tim Byrdak, who makes us long for Feliciano and even Schoeneweis.
15. The Mets will score at least 20 more runs with the bases loaded than the 97 they had last year.
What are your predictions for the 2011 season?

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With Opening Day for the Mets falling on April Fools Day, we’re playing it straight this year at Mets360. But click here if you want to see last year’s April 1st entry.

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Can Josh Thole add power to his game?

When you hear the name Josh Thole, an image automatically pops in your head of the pudgy lefty-hitting catcher who chokes up on the bat. You probably think of him as a pretty good hitter, one who does a nice job of getting on base. The only problem is that because of his batting style and approach, he does not hit for much power.

But what if he did?

Last year Thole had a .277/.357/.366 line for a .723 OPS. That ranked 18th out of 44 catchers with at least 200 PA last year. Thole tied for ninth in that same group with his .357 OBP but was tied for 25th with his .366 SLG.

A poor September really did in Thole’s slugging mark. Through August 30th, he had a .308/.386/.410 line in 132 PA. This was right in line with what he did when he was called up to the Mets in 2009, when Thole had a .321/.356/.396 slash output.

But in September, the Mets backstop had a .235/.316/.306 line. He had just 20 hits and four extra-base hits in the final month-plus of the season, and five hits and three extra-base hits came in his last four games of the season. Thole went through an 80 PA stretch where he had a .494 OPS.

That’s not that unusual – players go through slumps like that all of the time. But when you only have 227 PA on the season, it’s tough to be sub-replacement level in 80 of them. That worked out to 35 percent of his total for the season.

So, where do we rate Thole offensively at this point in his career? His lifetime major league batting line shows him with a .373 SLG in 286 PA. Basically, that’s what the Fans projections over at FanGraphs thinks Thole will do this season. The 38 people who filled out projections on Thole have him with a .377 SLG mark for the upcoming season. ZiPS is right there, projecting him for a .380 mark while the Bill James system (frequently cited as the most “optimistic” one) has him for a .385 SLG.

Let’s look at what similar catchers to Thole did. Here are the six catchers closest to Thole in SLG who had at least 200 PA in the majors at age 23 over the past 20 years and what they slugged at age 24:

Miguel Montero .397 .435
Javier Valentin .381 NA
Dave Nilsson .375 .451
Josh Thole .366
Jarrod Saltalamacchia .364 .371
Mike Sweeney .363 .408
Dioner Navarro .356 .407

Valentin did not play in the majors at age 24 and only played 39 games in the minors, so an injury is a very real possibility here. The others all saw their SLG go up for their age-24 season, with four of them improving by 38 or more points. Only Saltalamacchia basically repeated his SLG from his age-23 season and even his went up a few points.

Excluding Valentin, the other five catchers combined to slug .369 at age 23 and .415 at age 24 for a 46-point increase in their SLG. If Thole had this bump, his SLG in 2011 would be .412 for the season.

Through games of March 24th in Spring Training, Thole has a .409/.447/.705 line in 47 PA. He has 18 hits, with four doubles and three homers. Thole did not hit his third HR last year until his 217th PA of the season. The most likely explanation here is that this is a small sample fluke during Grapefruit League play.

Obviously, Thole is not going to come remotely close to his Spring SLG numbers. Still, it’s nice to see the extra-base hits and it does give hope that he can increase his power output this season. If Thole kept his 2010 OBP and meets his expected age 24 SLG of .412, that would give him a .769 OPS, which would have been the eighth-best mark in the majors last year for a full-time catcher.

We’re conditioned to think of Thole as a catcher with a good OBP. Hopefully after this year, we’ll say he’s got a little pop in his bat, too.

Odds stacked in favor of Mets

In yesterday’s New York Post, Joel Sherman wrote a column entitled, “Odds stacked against Mets.” In the piece, Sherman laid odds on varying events occurring. It was a mix of positive and negative things. Here’s what the oddsmaker wrote:

Carlos Beltran has 500 PA – 20%
Johan Santana makes 10 starts – 30%
Jason Bay 500 PA – 80%
R.A. Dickey for real – 80%
Mets currently have a Major League 2B – 5%
Jose Reyes is healthy and productive – 80%
Chris Young and Chris Capuano combine for 50 starts – 10%

You can quibble with the individual odds listed here but I think there’s more to the story than what Sherman wrote. Here are some additional things that I would like to lay odds on, things that make the outlook not seem so bleak.

Mets get improved numbers from catchers – 80%
Last year Rod Barajas and Henry Blanco combined for 411 PA of .222/.266/.375 production for a .641 OPS. Josh Thole had a .723 OPS in 2010 and figures to get the lion’s share of time at catcher this year. He certainly can improve on last year’s numbers, but even if he doesn’t, it will be a huge upgrade from what the Mets got a year ago. Plus Ronny Paulino had a .665 OPS last year, better than what the Mets received. Keep in mind that Paulino had a .769 OPS at the end of June before being worn down by catching every day, something he will not have to worry about this year in New York.

Mets get improved numbers from second basemen – 90%
While Sherman may not think much of the guys who the Mets have in camp for second base, he should take a second to review what the Mets got from the position last year. Luis Castillo, Alex Cora and Ruben Tejada combined for 741 PA of a .220/.314/.275 line for a .589 OPS. Last year 27 second basemen in the majors had at least 400 PA and the worst number was a .633 OPS. So, assuming the Mets hand the job to anyone – and they turn out to be the worst offensive second baseman in baseball – it will still be a significant improvement over what the Mets received from the position in 2010.

Mets get improved numbers from right field – 95%
Old pal Jeff Francoeur in 447 PA put up a .237/.293/.369 line for a .662 OPS last year. That’s poor for a shortstop and it’s disgusting for a corner outfielder. Among right fielders last year, that ranked dead last among players with at least 400 PA. The next worst was Roger Bernadina, who had a .691 OPS. Even if Beltran is unable to go, whoever the Mets put in right is going to represent a massive upgrade from Francoeur.

So, the Mets should easily see improvement from three spots in the batting order. If Ike Davis just duplicates what he did in 2010 over a full season, that’s still an upgrade from a year ago, as what Mike Jacobs did in his month of action at first was Francoeurian. Jason Bay, while covered by Sherman, is likely to improve upon what he hit a year ago.

Now we are looking at a team that is likely to improve by significant amounts in five of the eight everyday lineup spots. Two of the other spots are covered by Jose Reyes and David Wright, so it’s hard to imagine a big dropoff in production there and in Reyes’ case, it’s even possible that we will see improvement.

Which brings us to Angel Pagan. The projections on FanGraphs have him essentially matching what he did offensively in 2010. And there’s reason to be optimistic that he can beat those numbers. Last year, Pagan had an .845 OPS before the All-Star break and a .678 mark afterwards. Did pitchers figure Pagan out or did the constant switching in both the outfield and the batting order do him in?

Of all the hitters on the Mets, Pagan might be the most likely to regress from 2010. But the projection systems see him maintaining his 2010 numbers and there’s even a shot he improves from what he did a season ago, if switching between RF and CF really did hurt his offensive production.

What kind of fan do you want to be? Do you want to go all Eeyore and talk about how Beltran and Santana will miss significant time and the club doesn’t have a second baseman and Dickey is going to turn back into a pumpkin? Or do you want to focus on a lineup that has a realistic chance to be better at six positions compared to a year ago and a non-zero chance to be better in all eight spots?

Virtually no team has all of its questions heading into the season answered either positively or negatively. Maybe Beltran misses half the year, Dillon Gee and Pat Misch make more starts than Capuano and Young and Bay’s power is still MIA. But that still leaves a lot of things to go right. Davis takes a step forward from his rookie year, Pagan hits like he did in the first half and Reyes returns to being a dynamic leadoff hitter.

The bottom line is that no one knows how these questions will be answered over the 162-game season. It’s wise to keep in mind the volatility and not expect a 95-win year. But it’s just as smart not to expect the worst and predict a 75-win season, either.

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Mets’ Thole and Paulino could be elite catching duo

The Mets’ catching situation in 2011 is potentially a team strength, but that fact has been all but lost given all of the hoopla around the ownership situation plus speculation how the big guns will do. Before we look at what the Mets might get from Josh Thole and Ronny Paulino this year, let’s look at what all teams got from the catching spot in 2010.

Rk PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS TB
1 ATL 689 579 81 158 37 2 22 98 5 3 93 122 .273 .380 .458 .838 265
2 PHI 631 545 71 154 36 2 15 76 0 1 76 93 .283 .377 .439 .815 239
3 CIN 649 567 65 168 34 1 13 91 12 5 63 84 .296 .375 .429 .804 243
4 MIN 678 602 86 179 46 2 10 76 1 3 59 80 .297 .364 .430 .795 259
5 BOS 692 630 82 172 39 0 27 95 1 0 55 100 .273 .330 .463 .793 292
6 CHC 628 548 70 141 36 1 19 75 1 1 74 148 .257 .343 .431 .774 236
7 NYY 648 545 66 144 32 4 13 80 4 2 78 104 .264 .364 .409 .773 223
8 SFG 672 609 79 167 28 2 21 76 0 2 47 93 .274 .333 .430 .764 262
9 TOR 621 579 71 154 29 0 27 80 1 0 23 146 .266 .304 .456 .760 264
10 ARI 655 574 66 141 35 2 20 80 1 1 73 157 .246 .332 .418 .750 240
11 CHW 652 603 65 165 33 0 18 79 5 4 30 72 .274 .314 .418 .732 252
12 COL 661 594 77 146 23 7 21 81 8 4 56 173 .246 .314 .414 .728 246
13 SDP 658 588 63 153 31 2 14 75 7 10 56 131 .260 .325 .391 .716 230
14 LAD 648 559 64 144 23 0 10 56 6 2 72 107 .258 .348 .352 .701 197
15 BAL 639 571 51 144 27 2 10 65 1 1 59 114 .252 .321 .359 .680 205
16 STL 656 586 45 154 22 0 10 80 7 4 49 72 .263 .327 .352 .679 206
17 MIL 658 586 59 139 28 1 15 66 5 2 61 99 .237 .311 .365 .676 214
18 LAA 592 542 59 120 27 3 20 68 6 1 34 162 .221 .274 .393 .667 213
19 NYM 627 572 56 136 23 1 17 56 2 0 41 91 .238 .294 .371 .665 212
20 CLE 612 525 67 114 36 0 11 59 10 1 72 113 .217 .315 .349 .663 183
21 PIT 634 564 48 123 22 1 17 62 1 0 59 118 .218 .300 .351 .651 198
22 OAK 678 615 68 142 22 2 16 82 4 2 47 90 .231 .295 .351 .646 216
23 TBR 653 559 74 122 25 2 10 54 3 1 75 115 .218 .319 .324 .643 181
24 WSN 642 605 46 154 30 1 9 71 2 3 25 99 .255 .285 .352 .637 213
25 FLA 647 585 52 132 33 3 9 58 2 0 52 137 .226 .289 .338 .628 198
26 KCR 675 605 52 157 29 0 1 61 14 8 46 74 .260 .316 .312 .628 189
27 DET 622 557 51 124 24 0 12 55 5 3 52 119 .223 .294 .330 .624 184
28 TEX 631 546 52 116 16 1 13 59 1 2 52 113 .212 .288 .317 .605 173
29 HOU 593 551 47 121 22 1 9 39 3 4 35 122 .220 .269 .312 .582 172
30 SEA 599 541 50 109 25 0 10 42 1 2 43 146 .201 .263 .303 .566 164
TOT 19340 17232 1883 4293 873 43 439 2095 119 72 1657 3394 .249 .319 .381 .701 6569
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/13/2011.

The average works out to 645 PA with a .249/.319/.381 slash line. Last year the Mets were below average across the board with the production from their catchers. Rod Barajas and Henry Blanco combined for 407 PA of lousy performance. The only silver lining was that Barajas combined all of his positive production in the first five weeks of the season.

Barajas was sold to the Dodgers last season and the Mets cut ties with Henry Blanco after the year was over. Thole performed well in his first extended shot in the majors last year and the club brought on Paulino as a free agent. Allegedly, it is an open competition between the two for the starting job. However, the two seemed destined for a platoon situation and their splits suggest it could be an ideal match. Here are their career numbers:

Thole versus RHP – .309/.382/.401
Paulino vs. LHP — .338/.390/.491

All enthusiasm should be tempered by the fact that Thole has just 246 PA in the majors versus righties while Paulino has but 531 versus lefties. But for the sake of argument, let’s say the above numbers are accurate representations of their true talent and are also what they will deliver in 2011. What could the Mets get from the catching position this season?

Let’s assume that the Mets get last year’s MLB average of 645 PA from their catchers and that Thole gets 2/3 of those and Paulino gets the remainder. That works out to 430 PA for Thole and 215 for Paulino. Since Thole has 246 lifetime PA versus RHP, let’s multiply his numbers by 1.7 to get him up to 430 PA. Likewise, since Paulino has lifetime PA versus LHP, let’s multiply his numbers by 0.4 to get him down to 215 PA. Here’s what their respective lines would look like:

PA Hits 2B 3B HR BB K AVG OBP SLG
Thole 430 114 12 3 5 44 43 .309 .382 .401
Blanco 215 66 10 0 6 16 27 .338 .390 .491
Total 645 180 22 3 11 60 70 .311 .383 .417

An .800 OPS would have been the fourth-best mark for any team in MLB last year, trailing just the Braves, Phillies and the Reds. The Mets will be paying roughly $1.75 million for their catchers this season, with Paulino getting $1.35 and Thole getting somewhere around minimum wage. By contrast, the Braves will pay over $8 million to McCann and Ross; the Phillies will pay $4.25 million to Ruiz and Schneider and the Reds will pay roughly $3.5 million for Hernandez and Hanigan.

Obviously, other catchers besides Thole and Paulino will get PAs this year for the Mets. Paulino opens the year on the suspended list so Mike Nickeas is likely to catch at least one game in that span. But it is not out of the question for the team’s catchers to have an OPS near .800 this season, compared to the .665 they received from the position in 2010. How many teams have the realistic potential for an increase of 135 points of OPS from any position?

Among full-time catchers last year, John Buck had the closes OPS to what we might expect from the Mets’ duo, with an .802 mark. According to FanGraphs, Buck had a 2.9 WAR. The three primary catchers for the Mets last year combined for a 2.1 WAR. The Mets could be looking at an additional win just from their catchers this season if all goes according to plan.

So, while a lot of things this season for the Mets revolve around players staying healthy and getting back to former elite levels, all the Mets need is for their two catchers to hit their career averages. If they do that, the club will receive terrific production at a cut-rate cost. It is possible that the Mets will receive top-5 production from their catchers while paying bottom-5 dollars for the position.