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Last summer I was unemployed and wasted a great deal of time flipping channels in the early afternoon. One day, in late August, I found SNY airing a “Mets Classic” from 1991 against the Phillies. Howard Johnson was coming to the plate, men in scoring position, two outs, late innings. 1991 you’ll remember was one of HoJo’s better campaigns, where he hit 38 home runs, drove in 117 runs, and finished 5th in the MVP race. He was the Mets best hitter at the time and he was in a clutch situation.
As HoJo struck out, getting beat on a couple of fastballs, I thought, “Just like David Wright.”
Think about that for a second. If asked in 2006, I would’ve said David Wright reminds me of Mike Piazza at the plate. He was clutch, he hit for average, and he was developing 30+ HR power. In 2010, David Wright is our team’s Howard Johnson–the ability to be great but unreliable at the plate because he can be beat by a fastball. And in my opinion, that means the opposing pitchers beat Wright’s approach at the plate.
Personally, I think the Mets need to dismiss Howard Johnson and pray the damage can be undone. Wright’s the poster child of a widespread symptom in the Mets lineup–they are lost at the plate, have a poor approach, take good pitches to hit early in the count, and get beat late. They try to “work the count” and wait for a good pitch to hit, rather than go to the plate looking for a good pitch to hit. It’s a difference between being passive and being aggressive. It’s the difference between Luis Castillo and Manny Ramirez.
This is a column about how the Mets get healthy for a playoff run in 2011. And, while Howard Johnson is certainly not the number one offender of the Mets’ failings over the last few years, his presence on the coaching staff is symptomatic of this team’s fatal flaw. Preparation, strategy, and situational baseball are lacking. Instead, the Mets seem to have an overconfidence in the raw skills of their players and a trust that the game will come to them.
And, that philosophy seems to guide the common logic that the Mets need to replace Jerry Manuel with Wally Backman, that Backman’s temperament will give the clubhouse the boost they need to achieve a return to the Playoffs.
As this video shows (http://boston.barstoolsports.com/random-thoughts/must-watch-wally-backman-gets-ejected-and-unloads-a-giant-can-of-awesomess/) (Note: NSFW Language), Backman’s certainly fiery and he certainly will be fun.
But, did the Jerry Manuel era underachieve because Jerry’s too casual and calm? Did the Willie Randolph Mets underachieve because his demeanor was too calm?
Or, did the Mets over the last five years underachieve because they went with managers who were weak on strategy and did not surround themselves with coaches who complimented their flaws? Did the Mets fail to make the playoffs in the last three years because Jerry sat on his hands too often, or because Jerry’s dream bullpen has 27 relievers to each get one out?
Despite having Jose Reyes, who when healthy is arguably this generation’s greatest leadoff hitter, Jerry Manuel repeatedly hit Luis Castillo 2nd. Why? So that in the first inning, if Reyes got a hit, Castillo could bunt him over and position the team to put an early run on the board. Never mind that the first thing any casual stat-guy learns about baseball is that the sacrifice bunt costs runs because it jeopardizes the chances of a big inning. That strategy is, in itself, silly because Reyes can get to 2nd on his own, without anyone sacrificing an out. The fundamental flaw of Castillo batting 2nd appears in big situations, when he comes up with a men in scoring position and 2 outs. We all know this situation: Castillo eventually works the count to 3-1 or 3-0. The pitcher grooves fastballs over the plate to work the count full, because everyone knows Castillo isn’t swinging. At 3-2, Castillo chops a weak ground ball to an infielder, and the threat ends. And, the fundamental flaw of the Castillo strategy appears in Reyes’ overall performance, where Reyes historically struggles in games when Castillo bats behind him, hitting for a much lower average and no power because pitchers do not need to challenge him.
For the Mets next manager to be the opposite of Manuel, I don’t want to look at temperament. I want a manager who knows that batting Castillo (or players like Castillo and Alex Cora) 2nd in the order is not ideal. I want a manager who knows that batting Mike Jacobs 4th just to break up two right-handed hitters is a bad idea. (In fairness, the Mets don’t have a #4 hitter this year.) I want a manager who knows it is much better to bring a right-handed pitcher in to face a switch-hitter than it is to let Pedro Feliciano face that batter. I want a manager who can manage a bullpen, a lineup, and a game.
(Lineup construction for the Mets goes deeper than the manager. Under the Omar Minaya regime, the Mets have a habit of bringing in Free Agents, asking them to adopt a new role, and paying them to fill that role. I give you Exhibit A, Carlos Beltran. Beltran’s ideally suited to be a #2 hitter, so Minaya brings him in to hit 3rd in the lineup, and pays him like a #3 hitter. Exhibit B, Jason Bay, who is a #5-6 hitter on a good offensive team, like he was with Boston last season. Minaya brings him in to be the clean-up hitter, choosing him over a legitimate clean-up hitter in Matt Holliday, and pays him clean-up money.)
Fiery may translate to a few extra wins over the course of the year, as players pick it up in direct response to a bat tossing tirade. Players knowing that the manager has their back in a confrontation might translate to a few extra wins each year–it’s worked for Bobby Cox. But, if the manager also lacks the ability to manage a game, to leverage situations to put his team in the best position to win, and the players recognize this flaw in their leader, how many losses does that add to the end of the season as players are disheartened, discouraged, and lose confidence?
Terry Francona didn’t give the Red Sox the extra push they needed in 2004 because he had a fiery personality, the opposite of Grady Little’s casual approach. He gave the Red Sox the extra push they needed because he understood situational baseball and how to manage a bullpen, the opposite of Grady Little’s gut approach.
Bobby Cox hasn’t been successful because he’s been ejected somewhere north of 160 times. He’s been successful because his players know that at the end of the game, Bobby Cox will make the right moves.
I am not saying that Wally Backman lacks the skills to be a successful manager.
I am saying, all we know about Backman as a manager is that he succeeds in the low minors and he has a fiery personality. Let’s not anoint him until we know more.
Written by Dan Branda
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