Tankersley dominating LHB in Grapefruit League

Every year you hear some variant of the theme that “Spring Training stats are useless.” Yet, each year countless jobs are determined by how well players perform in this period. The Mets this season are no different. Several bullpen jobs are up in the air, a situation made even more competitive with the last-minute addition of Jason Isringhausen to the mix.

With the loss of Pedro Feliciano, the Mets have no obvious LOOGY out of the bullpen. It’s not even a sure thing that the Mets will carry a lefty reliever on their Opening Day roster, a far cry from a few years ago when the team had Feliciano, Scott Schoeneweis and Billy Wagner as lefties out of the pen.

While there was thought from some corners that Chris Capuano was in the mix as a lefty reliever, he seems likely to be in the rotation. Which leaves four men vying for a job as a lefty out of the pen: Tim Byrdak, Pat Misch, Mike O’Connor and Taylor Tankersley.

Misch throws lefty but it is extremely unlikely that he makes the team in the sense of being a guy brought on to get lefty hitters out. In his career in the majors, LHB have an .806 OPS versus Misch while RHB have a .768 mark. If Misch makes the club, it is much more likely as a swing man/long reliever who is a lefty rather than as a LOOGY.

Of the remaining three candidates, Byrdak and O’Connor have yet to give up a run, while Tankersley sits with a 10.80 ERA. But here’s where we get to the part about not taking Spring Training stats at face value.

First off, the three pitchers have combined for a total of 9.1 IP, hardly a large enough sample to make any decisions. Just as importantly, the relievers are being used in a way to get innings more so than to maximize their effectiveness. During the season, the LOOGY would be brought on to face lefty hitters in key situations. But in Spring Training, they’re brought on to pitch a designated inning, regardless of who is due up for the other team.

Let’s take a look at Tankersley and his four outings so far this Grapefruit League season. In parentheses will be how the batter hits.

2/28 – IP, 3H, 3 ER, 3 Ks, HR
(L) Brown – K
(R) Bixler – 2B
(R) Frazier – 2B
(R) Morse – HR
(L) Harper – K
(R) Flores – K

3/6 – IP, H, ER, 2 Ks, HR
(R) Middlebrook – K
(R) Linares – P6
(R) Federowicz – HR
(L) Spears – K

3/8 – IP, H, 2 Ks
(R) Norris – E5
(L) Nix – K
(L) Bernadina – K
(L) Barker – 1B
(S) Lombardozzi – FC

3/10 – 0.1 IP, H, K
(L) Cora – 1B
(L) Morgan – HBP
(R) Desmond – K

Assuming Lombardozzi hit righty, that breaks down to the following splits for Tankersley:

vs RHB: .400/.400/1.200 — 1.600 OPS
vs LHB: .286/.375/.286 — .661 OPS

In eight plate appearances versus lefties, Tankersley has struck out five batters, allowed two singles and hit another. Righties meanwhile have four hits, all of which have gone for extra-bases, including two home runs.

As we learned with Schoeneweis, even a guy who should only face LHB will still face a fair number of righties. But if a player’s main value is what he does versus Howard, Utley, Ibanez and other lefty big bats, we should judge him mainly by what he does against lefties. And this leaves Tankersley still in the mix with the other lefties, who have much better looking numbers overall this Spring.

Regardless of who ends up being the team’s lefty out of the pen, we hope that Terry Collins will not handle him the way Jerry Manuel did with Schoeneweis, leaving him in to face a RHB with the playoffs on the line in the final game of 2008. Because that’s no place for a LOOGY.

An interview with Mets LHP Taylor Tankersley

One of my freelance jobs is working as the official scorer for the Copperheads in the Coastal Plain League, a summer collegiate baseball league a la the Cape Cod League.  Last week I received a call from David Camp, the team’s general manager, who told me that new Mets pitcher Taylor Tankersley was working out at the team’s stadium.

Through Camp, I was able to get in touch with Tankersley, who graciously agreed to answer some (okay, a lot of) questions from me.  Here are some of those questions:

You went 13-0 with a 0.44 ERA as a senior at Warren Central HS.  What was it like being recruited by both college and pro teams?

It was a busy year. I had already committed to Alabama in the fall. I had signed early to go to Alabama. Education is very important in our household. Being from a small town, I really wanted to go to school. There was talk that I was going to be drafted. The Royals called me in the fifth and asked if I would sign for a certain amount of money and I said no. They didn’t draft me.

I got a call the next day they drafted me in the 39th round, a little (draft-and-follow) maybe if they had some money freed up later in the summer they would come at me but they never did. I was glad that it worked out the way that it did. Maturity-wise I needed to go to college. I wasn’t immature but professional baseball is a tough life and at 18 it’s really tough. So I’m glad it worked out the way it did.

Why Alabama?

I always wanted to go to Mississippi State and play for Ron Polk. But during my recruiting year he was gone, he had left to go to Georgia for a couple of years. Ole Miss made me a very good offer but I just didn’t like Ole Miss. It really came down to Southern Miss and Alabama. I really liked Southern Miss a lot, I liked the coach there, but I wanted to play in the SEC so I went to Alabama.

You spent a lot of time both starting and relieving in college.  Was that a problem in your development?

It was a blessing, very much a blessing. It opened the door to what my future would be like in professional baseball. Obviously in high school I was a starter, everyone was a starter, but in my freshman year (coach Jim Wells) said my delivery was a little herky-jerky and he didn’t know if he could start me. I just wanted to pitch. I had a great year.

Sophomore year he told me he was going to start me but I had to make some adjustments but those didn’t work out too well. Then in my junior year I went back to being a swing man, but mainly as a reliever. I liked that. I can get loose quickly, I like pitching with the game on the line. A position player comes to the park everyday preparing to play. A starting pitcher comes to the park every five days to prepare to play and the work in between is on his own. I have a position player’s mentality. I like to come to the park preparing to play.

Despite notching just two wins your final year at Alabama, you were a first-round pick of the Marlins.  How was the time leading up to the Draft and what are your memories of the actual day?

I did not go my career with the label of a first rounder. I was not a standout for the whole time I was in high school and college. But I did very well at the right times and I was a college lefty. If you go back to the 2004 Draft, the bottom half of the first round included six or eight college lefthanded pitchers. J.P. Howell, Zach Jackson, myself, Jeremy Sowers went a little bit ahead of us. My agent told me that once a college lefty gets picked they all come off the board quickly because teams know there’s not many good ones. And so the draft worked out just perfectly for me to get picked where I did.

How hard were you throwing that last year in college?

I think the fastest I’ve ever thrown a ball is 94 and that was rare. Usually my top is 92, at that time.

Talk about your minor league experience

Greensboro, Jupiter, Fall League in ‘05 and then in ‘06 eight weeks in Double-A and then the big leagues.

When did they transition you to a reliever full-time?

When I went to the Fall League. If you were to go back and look at my Fall League stats, if I had 12 appearances, the first six were pretty brutal and then I don’t know what it was but something clicked and the last six I was lights out. Somewhere out there I figured it out.

In 2007 and 2008, you split time between the majors and minors despite pitching well in Florida.  What were the reasons for being in the minors?

It’s a “What have you done for me lately” environment. That’s part of the business, part of being a relief pitcher. You have to get the job done each time out and if you have two or three bad ones, they’ll find someone else.

When did you hurt your elbow?

July of ’08.

You tried to do rehab

The first approach was rest, bone growth stimulator, calcium pills, things like that hoping the bone would heal on its own. I came back in Spring Training of ’09 and knew the whole time I could not pitch with that elbow. In April of ’09 I had surgery and missed the whole season. I came back last year and the elbow held up.

Most people hear elbow and they think Tommy John ligament replacement surgery but you had a screw put in your elbow

Two screws. I fractured my olecranon. The olecranon is the knob of your elbow. Basically I had cracked it by hyperextending and bouncing my elbow off of itself. It cracked diagonally and now I have two screws that sit perpendicular to the crack.

What was involved in the rehab?

Initially it’s range of motion and after that it’s strength. Basically it’s like any other rehabilitation – long, slow, at times painful – you just keep plugging away and keep working.

Last year you made it back to the majors and did great your first 19 games (.161/.297/.290).  How does this success compare to making it to the majors initially?

No, I will say that when I made it to the majors the first time I felt like it was on my own merit, like something I had done and earned. I realized with surgery and the game being taken away taught me is that it’s a gift, it’s given. I was born with a left arm that could throw. I didn’t do anything to earn that. I could always throw a baseball. When that was taken away from me and now that it’s given back, I realize it’s a gift. So when I got back to the big leagues last year it was an overwhelming feeling of gratitude and thanks instead of pride. It was completely different.

Your last 8 games you got hit pretty hard (.412/.450/.1.059) including 3 HR to your last 20 BF.  What happened in this stretch?

Fractions of an inch. If you were to go back and look at video of those splits that you spoke of, I can remember getting Adrian Gonzalez out twice in Dolphins Stadium and combined he hit the ball about 750 feet and both got caught on the warning track in center field. I got Josh Hamilton out; he hit a screaming line drive right at the left fielder. Things like that, the ball was bouncing my way, I had good fortune. The last half of my big league outings last year the ball was falling in the gap or sinking over the fence. On paper it looked like a dramatic difference but there really wasn’t.

What happened with the Marlins after the season was over?

They released me. They said, “That’s it.” That ship sailed. I was a little disappointed with the way they handled it initially but it quickly sunk in that they make decisions based on business. It was nothing personal. I appreciate everything they did for me and the opportunities they gave me. Jeffrey Loria, the owner of the Marlins, changed my life. They drafted me in the first round, gave me a jump start financially on my adult life and I was in the big leagues two years later. I will forever be in debt and grateful for the opportunities they gave me.

How did the contact with the Mets work out?

Adam Wogan contacted my agent and said there was some interest, that they might be willing to make me an offer. They eventually did. Actually it’s a small world. My wife’s cousin is married to a girl that was sorority sisters with Adam Wogan’s wife at Wake Forest. She texted me and said, “You know there’s a guy I know who works with the Mets that I know very well and I can shoot him an email.” So, I’m thinking this guy is like an equipment manager or someone who doesn’t have any pull, so I say, “What’s his name?” She says, “Adam Wogan.” I said, “Really, that’s who’s been in contact with my agent.” She goes, “Let me shoot him this email and see what happens.” Two days later the Mets made me an offer. I don’t know if that had anything to do with it but she gave me a good personal endorsement.

Do you have any friends on the Mets?

Ronny Paulino caught me last year in Florida. Great guy, great teammate. On a personal level we’re not that close but on a professional level he’s a solid, solid baseball player. The guy I know the best is Mike Nickeas. He and I were on the same Fall League team and we clicked very well. We’ve been playing phone tag back and forth. We haven’t spoken yet but we will and I’m sure we and our wives will get together and spend some time together.

What’s it like knowing your job is to come in and face just a few lefty batters, knowing that your primary job is to retire big stars like Ryan Howard and Chase Utley on a regular basis?

Yes, I’ve got a long history with those guys because I did the same thing with the Marlins. I love it. I really relish the opportunity to pitch with the game on the line. I love having runners on base, two outs and Ryan Howard standing in the box and it’s me and him. It’s either going to be my day or his. I love that and hopefully I get that chance again.

You’ve had great success in the majors versus LHB but have struggled versus RHB.  What can you do to be more successful versus righties?

Get them out with whatever’s working the best that day. I really don’t put that much stock in the numbers, the splits, the average against. Those are things the higher-ups worry about. If there’s a guy in the box, I have confidence in my ability to get him out.

What’s your main pitch?

Strike one. I don’t mean to throw the quotes at you but honestly it’s day-to-day. When I’m warming up in the bullpen you can tell maybe my fastball’s got some pop on it. On days like that I come out knowing that I’ve got a little juice on it  and so I can use that to attack and put guys away. And I’ve got days when my slider is nasty and I’ll come out here and use that. Day to day, it’s not like it’s Ryan Howard and this is how I pitch him, I go A-B-C. Because A might be brutal that day, so I might go B-B-C. Then the next time out B sucks, so I go A-C-A. You just know yourself. My job is to get him out right then. My job is not to light the gun up, my job is not to do anything else but get him out right then.

What kind of action does your change have?

Down. I throw a split now, I switched grips from a change to a split and my breaking ball to more of a slider grip. It’s similar action but I took my index finger off the ball and I really like the results I’ve gotten from both of those adjustments.

What role do pitching coaches play in the major leagues? Do you have any knowledge of Dan Warthen?

I don’t other than he must be doing something right. Because he and Adam (Wogan) are two of the only holdovers from last year. A lot of the coaches are new, a lot of the front office is new but Dan has kept his job. They must have a lot of confidence with him.

In my experience in the major leagues the main job of the pitching coach is the scouting reports and getting you the information that’s applicable to you. It’s up to you to take that information and use that in your game and how you’re going to attack the hitter. Also minor adjustments throughout the year, a pitching coach can be very helpful. Those are more with the starting pitchers than the relief pitchers. As a reliever you’re coming out with a “here it is, hit it” type of mentality. Starters have to come out and throw a fastball down and away 65 times during a game, so repeating your delivery is much more important to them. And confidence. Not enough people put emphasis on confidence. It’s not whether you have the ability to perform the task at hand, it’s whether you believe you have the ability to perform the task at hand.

What was your take as an outsider the last few years on the Mets?

I don’t think it’s a matter of talent, they’ve always had very talented ball clubs. From the outside looking in, I would say cohesiveness, playing together as a unit and health has been a huge issue.

Any Mets you hated to face or thought you had great success against?

The guys that I’ve faced the most, in my memory, was (Carlos) Delgado, Shawn Green and maybe at times turn (Carlos) Beltran around. I faced Ike (Davis) a couple of times last year. There’s nobody that sticks out in my mind that I’m going to walk in the clubhouse and get a funny look from. If I joined the Phillies I think I would get maybe a look from Howard or Utley like, “So you’re that guy, the bald white guy who comes out spitting at us.”

Do you expect better command and fewer walks and HR now that you’re one more season away from surgery?

That’s always the goal. When I’m operating at my best or close to it, I’m just on the edge of “Out of control.” It’s a fine line. Sometimes you miss or sometimes you see a guy yank a breaking ball 40 feet into the dirt, that’s because he’s doing everything max effort.

With you, Chris Young and Chris Capuano all battling back from arm surgeries – do you expect any kind of fraternity with them?

Probably not, hopefully not to be honest with you. I don’t feel like I’m coming off an injury anymore. I came off an injury last year. While I did not pitch in the big leagues all year, I did not go on the DL; I stayed healthy for the entire season. That was a feather in my cap last year coming off surgery. This year I’m stronger, I’m one more year removed from surgery. I’m healthy and I’m strong. Elbow issues and the surgery I had are in the past and have no influence on this season.

With R.A. Dickey, Capuano and Young the Mets have assembled some pitchers known for their intelligence.  Will you fit in with this brainy group?  Does intelligence help pitchers more than hitters?

Yes I would place myself in that category when it comes to knowledge of the game. If we took the SAT I’m sure those guys would beat me out. So would Nickeas, too, he’s a smart cat.

Memory and retention of past experiences are more important than someone watching “Jeopardy” and being able to answer all the questions.

Yes, being intelligent helps pitchers more than hitters. But I’ve also played against some very intelligent hitters. Carlos Delgado was Albert Einstein in the box, he knew what was going on. Shawn Green doesn’t have that same reputation but he was very intelligent at the plate. As a hitter and as a pitcher too, you have to be one or the other. If you like to take an intelligent approach or if you like to guess, a lot of major league hitters are guess hitters, but to be a guess hitter you have to do your homework and have an educated approach so you know when to sit on what pitch. You either have to sell out to one approach or the other.

Did the Mets tell you what to expect in Spring Training?

I’m hoping to get a lot of that information from Mike (Nickeas), just a feel for how it goes, what their routine is. But he may not know too much himself because it’s a new staff. Terry Collins is going to implement a lot of his own ideas. I’m going to be down there a week from yesterday. January 31st I’m going to be down in Port St. Lucie. I’ll have almost three weeks to get acclimated to the organization, make some relationships, get into a routine, find out what they’re going to expect. That’s the reason I’m going to go down early is so that I do get acclimated.

*****

Initially, my reaction to the Mets signing Tankersley was – Sure, why not, we need a lefty in the bullpen.  But now I am actively rooting for him to make the club.  I hope this piece gives some insight to how thoughtful and likeable Tankersley is in real life.

What to expect from Mets’ newest pitching additions

The unanimous feeling amongst Mets fans this offseason was that the franchise needed to acquire more arms to compete, especially with the loss of ace Johan Santana, who will most likely be out for half the year with a shoulder injury. Many Mets fans were upset that the team stood idle while divisional-rival Philadelphia snatched the biggest prize on the market in Cliff Lee.

However, new General Manager Sandy Alderson has preached financial responsibility and has mostly scoured the scrap heap to find hidden gems. So, will the addition of Chris Young, Chris Capuano, Taylor Buchholz, D.J. Carrasco, Taylor Tankersley, Pedro Beato, Mike O’Connor and Tim Byrdak turn into the Mets’ treasure, or rightfully some other team’s trash?

The Mets, while working with a tight budget, bypassed on some of the bigger free-agent arms (notably Lee) and avoided making any trades (Matt Garza, etc.) while trying to keep payroll flexible for 2012, when they can be actively aggressive. So, this ragtag collection will have to do for now.

Let’s breakdown what each can bring to the table:

Chris Young: If there is a jewel in the group it would be Young. Young has battled many injuries in his past, most recently a shoulder injury, and the former all-star will look for a new beginning in Queens. While he is losing speed off his fastball, Young is crafty and his flyball-pitching ways can lead to success at Citi Field, much like it did at Petco Park. At this point, it’s fair to expect an injury. Hopefully he can give the Mets more than 100+ innings.

Chris Capuano: Capuano is another ex-All-Star who is trying to recapture past glory. Tommy John surgery had him miss all of the 2008 and 2009 seasons. However, in 2010, while pitching in 24 games (nine starts), Capuano had an effective run down the stretch finishing with a respectable 3.95 ERA and 1.30 WHIP to go along with 54 strikeouts in 62 innings. The cavernous gaps of Citi Field can only help him as well, as he looks like a decent replacement to fill Hisanori Takahashi’s old role.

D.J. Carrasco: The well-traveled set up man comes to the Mets after a successful season with both the Pirates and the Diamondbacks last season. Carrasco has shown the ability to pitch well against both lefties and righties, and he eats up a lot of innings too. Carrasco will compete with Bobby Parnell to be the team’s primary set-up man.

Taylor Buchholz: Buchholz is another decent low-risk/high-reward type pitcher to gamble on. Buchholz is another Tommy John survivor who could bounce back. He is not overpowering, but he once was the prominent set-up man in Colorado back in 2008. He is no lock to make the roster, but odds are he finds a spot.

Taylor Tankersley: Tankersley is a lefty-specialist who missed all of 2009 with a stress fracture in his elbow. The 2004 first round draft pick has not made good on his talent, and will have to prove something in spring training. Tankersley was only signed to a minor league deal, so the chances of him making the opening day roster looks slim at this point.

Pedro Beato: Beato, a Rule 5 Draft selection, has to make the roster or else be sent back to the Orioles. Beato is a hard throwing righty with a lot of upside. Like most of the other additions, a lot depends on how Beato does in spring training. If not for anything else, Beato is a local product out of Brooklyn.

Mike O’Connor: O’Connor is a lefty specialist without much of a ceiling. O’Connor will have to battle the likes of Tankersley and Byrdak for the role as the team’s LOOGY. O’Connor has posted mediocre numbers while pitching in the majors with Washington (5.47 ERA, 1.42 WHIP). Consider O’Connor an extreme long-shot to make the roster.

Tim Byrdak: Byrdak is the most recent signee. Byrdak is in the driver’s seat to be this year’s LOOGY. Left-handed batters hit .210 against him last year. While with the Astros last year, Byrdak had a 2-2 record with a 3.49 ERA. Byrdak has enough veteran moxie to replace Pedro Feliciano.

As it stands right now, Young and Capuano are likely to start off in the rotation, while the rest (sans Carrasco-who is a lock) will fight it out to make the bullpen. Read here to see Brian Joura’s take on how the bullpen might shake out.

While these new additions will not produce a buzz in Queens-and subsequently put butts in seats- they are projects that could turn into fools’ gold. All Alderson wanted was flexibility for next year’s payroll and he got in this group.

Manny Acosta and the bullpen competition

After a flurry of moves in the past 10 days, the Mets seem set with the people they will bring to Spring Training to compete for jobs. There should be plenty of competition for a slot in the bullpen, as there should be no fewer than nine relievers vying for the final four spots. Earlier in the offseason, I thought Manny Acosta was likely to wind up with a place on the Opening Day roster. Let’s see if that’s still the case.

First, we know that three spots in the bullpen are set with Francisco Rodriguez, Bobby Parnell and D.J. Carrasco. All three of those are righties, so it is a reasonable guess to assume that the Mets would prefer one of the final four spots to be filled by a lefty. Here are the nine main contenders for the bullpen jobs, along with some stats from 2010. I used major league data whenever possible.

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Name L/R Avg FB SwStr% K/9 K/BB
Manny Acosta Right 94.1 9.6 9.53 2.33
Pedro Beato Right low 90s Unknown 7.54 2.63
Taylor Buchholz Right 89.0 10.2 6.75 1.50
Tim Byrdak Left 88.9 9.8 6.75 1.45
Dillon Gee Right 89.1 7.9 4.64 1.13
Pat Misch Left 85.7 7.7 5.5 5.75
Mike O’Connor Left 85.0 7.0 8.92 4.12
Oliver Perez Left 88.0 7.1 7.19 0.88
Taylor Tankersley Left 87.4 8.2 5.25 1.0

Acosta’s advantages are that he throws the hardest of our remaining candidates. He has the top fastball velocity and the most strikeouts. Acosta also is among the leaders in Swinging Strike percentage and K/BB. And while he is a righty, Acosta limited lefties to a .473 OPS last year.

Beato’s numbers are from Double-A, with an approximation on his fastball velocity. When he was in junior college, Beato regularly threw in the 90s and could dial it up to 96. His velocity had dropped his first few years in the minors, but reports had him throwing harder last year, his first in the bullpen. A Rule 5 selection, Beato has to make the Opening Day roster or be offered back to the Orioles.

Buchholz is not overpowering but he gets a lot of swings out of the strike zone, plus swings and misses, thanks to his curve ball and changeup. The Mets gave Buchholz a major league deal, one that includes a $400,000 bonus if he makes the Opening Day roster and is not on the DL.

Byrdak has not officially signed but I included his numbers here, anyway. If the Mets agree to terms with the 37-year old, he is more of a traditional LOOGY, a guy to bring on to face a tough lefty and get him out of the game if a righty steps into the box. In his nine-year career in the majors, Byrdak has limited lefties to a .677 OPS but righties smack him around to an .886 tune.

Gee is still in the mix for a starting job, but with the signing of Young, his best bet to make the team is probably as a reliever. Without having to pace himself, he probably could throw a little bit harder than the numbers above show, which are limited to his time in the majors last year.

Misch is in the same boat as Gee, perhaps slightly better situated because he throws lefty and is out of options. While he is a southpaw, Misch enjoys no platoon advantage, as lefties in the majors have an .804 OPS against him, compared to a .768 mark for righties.

O’Connor pitched very well at Buffalo last year. The K/9 and K/BB numbers above were taken from his time in Triple-A in 2010. The other numbers were from his major league trial with the Nationals in 2008 and probably are not a good reflection of his current talent level. O’Connor is now a long shot to make the Opening Day roster, but is a good bet to make it to the majors during the 2011 season.

Perez comes to camp with a chance to win a spot in the bullpen but virtually no one expects him to be with the club when it begins the regular season.

Tankersley is signed to a minor league deal but the lefty has a good shot to make the team. Tankersley is recovering from elbow surgery which kept him out of baseball during the 2009 season. Last year in Triple-A, he limited lefties to a .118 AVG and when he was promoted to the Marlins, LHB had a .200/.286/.433 line in 35 PA.

We know that Spring Training stats are meaningless but the Mets will probably make some bullpen decisions this year based on what the above pitchers do in Florida. Acosta and Misch are out of options, Beato is a Rule 5 guy and Buchholz gets extra money if he makes the team. I still like Acosta to make the team, but a strong Spring showing would certainly help his cause.