Ah, the bat off the bench. Perhaps not the foremost thought in most minds when it comes to roster construction, but one that ends up being a major consideration at times, particularly when a game is on the line in the late innings. Bill James has held that the prototypical pinch hitter is a left-handed line-drive producer, able to take advantage of the natural excess of right-handed relievers in the game. He says that possessing a swing designed for hard, consistent contact when putting the ball in play is of the utmost importance.
For the past two seasons (and a small piece of 2011), Mike Baxter was the primary source of that element for the Mets, turning in a spectacular performance in 2012 with 11 pinch hits and 8 BB’s in 32 PA’s, good for a .458 batting average and an OBP of .559. While he dropped to a more pedestrian, but still respectable .286 average in the role in 2013.
Baxter’s overall numbers remain impressive: 21 hits and 11 BB’s in 71 pinch hitting appearances, good for a .350 BA and a .451 OBP. In addition, he knocked in 11 runs and struck out 11 times (guess there was something about the number 11) while also providing plus defense when being inserted into the game. Had he possessed a greater element of power or been able to play around the infield as well, the team might have considered retaining him as a utility player rather than allowing him to be snapped up off waivers by the Dodgers.
So who will take on the role now that the Whitestone kid has moved on to Chavez Ravine?
It would be safe to assume that another left-handed hitting outfielder will occupy a spot on the Mets’ 2014 bench, but with 2 ½ months or so to go until opening day and rumor of machinations involving Messrs. Davis, Duda, and Murphy still floating around, the composition of the roster that is fielded come April 1st may still provide some surprises.
Regardless, if we go with the most likely configuration based on current personnel, the Mets should field a team with 13 position players, and among the 5 reserves will be one catcher (Anthony Recker most likely), 2 infielders and 2 outfielders. With Josh Satin and Andrew Brown seemingly in line as RH bench players, and with Sandy Alderson avowedly searching for an additional backup middle infielder, Eric Young emerges as the likely candidate to succeed Baxter.
This is assuming that Juan Lagares prevails as the choice to man CF going into the season, and that Daniel Murphy remains at 2B (and likely becomes the default leadoff hitter). While these conditions are certainly not a lock considering the team’s desire to get EYJ and his league-leading SB total into the lineup, it may still shake out thusly unless moves are made. If so, Young possesses some desirable elements as a late inning option. Chief among these is his speed, something that can turn a dribbler into a hit easier than for most, and decrease the odds of a rally-killing DP being turned off a grounder. Additionally, as a switch-hitter and defender capable of playing both outfield and infield, his versatility can provide Terry Collins with an important element of flexibility. As a starter, his less-than-stellar OBP has drawn criticism in past years, but as pinch hitters are generally encouraged to be aggressive at the plate, this dimension of his game may be less of an issue going forward.
If circumstances conspire to rearrange the Mets’ roster to the point that Young is made a starter in the outfield or at second going into the season, the next candidate as the “new Baxter” will likely come from a group including Lucas Duda (if he is not traded or installed at 1B following a trade of Davis), Kirk Nieuwenhuis, and Matt den Dekker. Of these, Nieuwenhuis has had the most experience and a surprising amount of success, registering 9-for-26 in the role over the past two seasons, good for a .346 tally. His 3-1 ratio of K’s to BB’s (12 K/4 BB) is the only cautionary mark, but one would hope that with Capt. Kirk’s history of adjusting to levels after advancement, we could anticipate a smaller percentage of whiffs if he finds himself on the big league club again.
As with many things with the Mets at this point, this role remains TBD. And while it is on the surface perhaps a minor element of the team, I’ve always valued a reliable bat in the pinch. Go get ‘em, Mike B., I’m sure the Dodgers will get your best effort. I just hope the Mets don’t have too much trouble finding a suitable replacement.