Dominic Smith spent the offseason trying to improve his speed and agility. Taijuan Walker changed everything about his cutter to get more depth and a little bit of cut on the pitch. J.D. Davis is working with Francisco Lindor to improve his throws to first base. For sure, one of the rites of spring are all of the stories coming out about players working to improve and being in the best shape of their life. Sometimes it does mean something and other times, well, it helps us get closer to the start of games, even the Grapefruit League variety.
You know the Spring Training fluff piece I want to read? How Luis Rojas worked on his shortcomings. When the Mets hired Sandy Alderson, he pretty much said that Rojas would return in 2021 and that the in-game decisions that plagued Rojas in 2020 were the easiest thing to fix. There’s no argument that it’s an easy fix. But – you know – what are they doing to, you know, fix it? Is Rojas getting drilled by the front office on game-specific situations? Is he running computer simulations to practice making moves? Is he reading “The Book” or other advanced baseball strategy tomes? Or are we just counting on the fact that Sandy Alderson’s front office will make better managerial decisions than Brodie Van Wagenen’s front office?
It’s really tough to hit elite velocity and wicked breaking balls. It’s incredibly difficult to have pinpoint control with multiple pitches. Few people can radically improve their defensive reactions. But it’s really easy not to bat a guy with a .305 lifetime OBP first or pitch a middle reliever four times in six days when you have a 10-man bullpen at your disposal and other pitchers are going a week between appearances.
It’s wonderful that the players like Rojas. It’s terrific that he handles the media without making gaffes. It’s great that he has the trust of his boss. But as long as he wears a uniform and sits in the dugout, let’s also act like the moves he makes before and during a game are an important part of his job. There’s a school of thought that managerial moves are as overrated as lineup construction. That may be. But just like I don’t want to see the pitcher batting cleanup – it’s just as outlandish to platoon a guy based on 15 PA or think that one relief appearance qualifies a pitcher to be in the rotation. And if we’re subjected to that type of idiocy again in 2021, please don’t tell me how great of a communicator he is.
THE METS’ RESERVE CLAUSE – The makeup of the bench is one of the things the Mets will determine in Spring Training. And while three players seem like locks – Tomas Nido, Kevin Pillar and Jonathan Villar – there’s more uncertainty with the rest of the crew than perhaps you’d like given how expensive the roster is. The biggest question is how many spots the team will devote to extra hitters. Will they go with a 13/13 pitcher/hitter split or will they load up with another bullpen arm and carry just four offensive reserves? With all of the pitchers they have on the 40-man, this idea can’t be dismissed, however much we’d like to do so.
Another question is how committed the team is to having a true backup shortstop on the roster, given how much they liked to play Amed Rosario every day and how much better than Rosario new shortstop Francisco Lindor is. Villar could probably fake it at shortstop once a month so it will be interesting to see if he gets any reps at short in Grapefruit League action. If the club is committed to J.D. Davis as its everyday third baseman, does that influence the decision to carry Luis Guillorme? And with Pillar on the roster, do they need Albert Almora, too? Would they prefer the potentially big RHB of Jose Martinez, instead? There are six guys vying for either four or five spots and there are several things that will go into the club’s decision-making process, including if they’d like a backup first baseman who wasn’t the starter in left field.
MAY THE PERIPHERALS BE WITH YOU – The big offseason acquisition for the bullpen was the signing of Trevor May. After missing all of 2017 due to TJ surgery, May finished his transformation to a full-time reliever and has put up solid numbers the past three seasons. But he’s yet to put everything together in the same year. There was the 1.48 BB/9 and 40.7 GB% in 2018, the 1.12 HR/9 and the 2.94 ERA in 2019 and the 14.66 K/9 and the 21.7 IFFB% of 2020.
Pitching up in the zone last year led to the great strikeout numbers and infield fly ball – which is almost a guaranteed out – rate. But is it possible for him to pitch upstairs regularly and have 2018’s walk percentage and ground ball rate or 2019’s HR rate? And even if it doesn’t, does it matter? In his 113 innings since 2018, May has posted a 3.19 ERA with a 1.08 WHIP. Among the eight relievers to appear in at least 10 games for the Mets in 2020, those numbers would have ranked second and first, respectively.
MEDIOCRE AND UNLUCKY IS NO WAY TO GO THRU LIFE – There are many reasons why the 2020 season was so disappointing for the Mets and perhaps the biggest one was the lack of production from the team’s starting pitchers. Of course, few teams could have thrived losing two of their top three pitchers for the entire season. But veteran pitchers all turned in lousy years due in large part to awful BABiP numbers.
No one expected Rick Porcello to win another CY Award. We didn’t expect a .373 BABIP, either. The expectation was that Steven Matz would be a league-average pitcher. Instead, we were treated to a .370 BABIP and it’s tough to be average giving up hits at that rate. Michael Wacha seemed like a good bounce-back candidate but the only bounce came in his BABIP, which rose to a .375 mark.
The Mets had the worst BABIP for starters in the National League last year, with a .338 rate. The league average for starters was .292 – a mark 46 points below what the Mets’ SP did. It was a priority for the Mets to improve the quality of their SP this offseason and they did a great job of it. Now they just have to hope the good fortune that avoided them in 2020 tags along for the ride in 2021.
TEACHABLE MOMENT – The Mets have brought back Matt den Dekker to be a minor league outfield and baserunning instructor. den Dekker first turned heads with his outfield play during Spring Training in 2013, when he made multiple highlight-reel defensive plays. Unfortunately for him, he got hurt that Spring, an injury that sidelined him until mid-June. By that point, Juan Lagares leapfrogged him in the pecking order, bolstered by impressive-looking surface numbers in the club’s first season with Las Vegas as their Triple-A affiliate.
And almost at the exact same time that den Dekker was starting his rehab in Lo-A, Lagares embarked on a 33-game streak where the hits fell in at a .442 rate. And while he was lucky in the batter’s box, Lagares was legitimately terrific in the field. Late in the 2014 season, it looked like den Dekker was going to get his chance. In his final 22 games of the season, den Dekker posted an .860 OPS, albeit with a .407 BABIP. But unlike with Lagares, the Mets showed no confidence in him, first forfeiting a first-round draft pick to sign Michael Cuddyer then trading den Dekker to the Nationals for Jerry Blevins.
In addition to the BABIP, den Dekker’s successful close to the 2014 season was fueled by a change in approach, one where he traded power for contact. He started this approach in the minors and carried it over to the majors. For whatever reason – perhaps dictated by his new team – den Dekker went back looking for power. He chose poorly. His career ended up in the long line of “what could have been.” Lagares has 2,119 PA in the majors and is in camp with the Angels this Spring on an NRI. Kirk Nieuwenhuis amassed 1,116 PA in MLB. It’s possible that den Dekker was better than both of them yet a poorly-timed injury and a front office that decided to bolster LF instead of SS in the 2014-15 offseason led den Dekker to just 415 MLB PA.
Perhaps this job is Sandy Alderson’s mea culpa to den Dekker.