Rethinking the Lineup and the Question of Chemistry

I’ve never been a reader of the Wall Street Journal and I certainly wouldn’t buy it now that it is a total corporatist, right-wing propaganda tool owned by Rupert Murdoch (although truth be told the New York Post sports section is still a guilty pleasure). But lately Rupe has been throwing free copies to my door step to get me to subscribe and as a media junkie, I figured I’d check out their sports and Mets coverage. Lo and behold I stumbled onto pieces the last two days by their Mets’ reporter Mike Sielski, one suggesting a new Mets lineup and one about the team’s chemistry that had me immediately re-thinking my previous posts on MMO about the team dumping Jeff Francoeur and Rod Barajas.

Sielski’s Thursday piece about the lineup not only made perfect sense but again makes you wonder even more about Jerry Manuel’s managerial acumen, or lack thereof. It wasn’t anything radical, like having Jose Reyes batting third (more on that in the chemistry section), it was more logical given the circumstances and the characters. We all know how Jerry has viewed his lineup since Beltran and Castillo have returned and, on the surface, it does make some sense: Reyes, Pagan, Wright, Beltran, Davis, Bay, Barajas or Thole, and Castillo. But Sielski has tweaked it into something he says “won’t transform them into the Cincy Reds of the mid-1970s but might ignite a spark” in a stagnant offense. Sielski’s lineup is: Reyes, Beltran, Pagan, Wright, Davis, Bay, Castillo, Catcher’s spot.

Obviously, the biggest change is in the two through four holes and I think Sielski’s lineup was definitely the way to go when Beltran came back. Unfortunately, Jovial Jerry was locked into seeing Beltran as the guy he was in 2008 and not the guy he is coming off a year-long hiatus. With Pagan and Wright clearly the two most productive hitters on the team, there was no reason to plop Beltran into the cleanup spot and put all that pressure on him out of the gate. Batting him second, then and now, would allow him to ease back slowly, allow him to see a lot more fastballs with Reyes in front and Pagan and Wright behind him (as opposed to now where he can pitched-around with a slumping Davis behind him). Besides, until Beltran starts showing his power stroke, he’s basically the same kind of hitter as Pagan; a switch-hitting gap guy, so they’re really interchangeable right now.

Pagan has become a prototypical three-hole hitter; a good contact, decent OBP, .300 hitter with gap power who might really thrive hitting between Beltran and Wright. Since David is clearly the Mets’ best RBI and power guy at this point (he shouldn’t be, but that’s another story), the cleanup spot should be his. Davis and Bay could be interchangeable depending on the opposing pitcher and who’s hot. You might say that Davis and Bay don’t offer Wright lineup protection but until Beltran starts scalding the ball consistently, it’s not as if Wright’s getting great protection in the order now anyway.

As far as Castillo hitting seventh as opposed to eighth, I think most Met fans would prefer his slot in the order be “left out.” But as long as we’re stuck with him, Sielski is figuring the Mets might as well maximize him. His average and on-base percentage are clearly better than what the catchers, especially Barajas, would produce. Thole appears to be the kind of hitter who would be disciplined no matter where you put him and if Barajas is going to swing at anything anyway, he might as well be slotted in the order where he’s going to be pitched around with the pitcher behind him.

Speaking of Barajas, that brings us to today’s Sielski piece about the sudden drastic change in the team’s chemistry and demeanor that was really an indictment of Manuel’s maneuvering more than anything else.

Remember the heady days of May and June–which seems so long ago now–when the Mets were playing gritty and inspired baseball and everyone was lauding their spirit and team chemistry? The credit for that welcome change in attitude on the field and in the clubhouse was going to the “new guys”, especially Francoeur and Barajas. It also helped that the atmosphere was temporarily purged of the dour foursome of Beltran, Castillo, Perez and Maine, but the sense that the Mets were now a more upbeat, resilient team was palpable. Of course, chemistry always feels better when the catalysts of said chemistry are also producing, as Frenchy and Barajas were doing for most of the first half. But that doesn’t mean the mixture blows up just because guys go into slumps.

Sielski frames the sudden debate about whether to go with a veteran catcher or the hot-rookie in Thole as a question of loyalty and that if the manager (and by extension the GM) don’t display that loyalty–no matter how the players are producing on the field–it can filter down to the rest of the team and lead to the sudden malaise the Mets have been experiencing since right before the All-Star break. While the Puerto Rico road trip and Reyes’ injury certainly led to the team slumping, it clearly was exacerbated by the notion that Beltran, Castillo and Perez were on the way after the break to mess with the mix.

While Sielki acknowledges that Thole’s “savvy and frequent line drives have been a revelation,” he also got Barajas to offer this revealing quote that is sure to be picked up by the blogosphere the next couple of days.

“To give up on somebody after what they’ve done to help the team, for me, it’s not a good thing,” Barajas said. “It’s not the way a team wants to see their teammates treated.” Later in the piece, Barajas says, “I don’t want to say it in a bad way, but if you look at the scenario, how we got here and how we got in this situation, whatever we were doing before worked. We’ve gotten to where we are because of a certain system we’ve had in place. For me, once you start changing the landscape of the team, it could go either way.”

Now I know a lot of MMO readers and SNY commentators would probably answer with, “Hey, just shut up and produce and you’ll play.” But it’s not as simple as that. With the addition of Thole and Beltran (and to a certain extent Castillo) back into the lineup, Manuel didn’t just replace a couple of slumping players, he was replacing two of the most popular and respected players in the locker room; the two guys credited with helping improve the Mets culture in the clubhouse and get them to over-achieve this year on the field. Other players see that and wonder if it can happen to them and that is not a good thing. Another issue that relates to chemistry: Why would any rational-thinking baseball man take a player like Jose Reyes–not a very cerebral player to begin with–coming off a year-long struggle with injuries, his baseball mortality, and his confidence and take him out of his comfort zone and ask him to bat third? Was it a totally ridiculous thought? Not really, when you consider the rest of the roster. But given the player, his value to the team as a lead-off hitter, and when he was being asked to make the adjustment, it was an incredibly misguided decision. In fact, Manuel’s handling of Reyes has been terrible since he took over the team last year. Add to all that the combustible decision to reinstate Oliver Perez–an awful player who would not accept a minor-league assignment for the good of the team–and you can understand why the Mets’ formula has become baseball version of Jerry Lewis’ alter egos in “The Nutty Professor.”

Which is as apt a name for the current Mets manager as any. We’ve gone from “The Old Professor” to the nutty version; a nice man who in the desperate quest to save his job, changes his opinions about players at the drop of pop up and–as Barajas intimates–with his lack of loyalty to his players has clearly lost the clubhouse. For goodness sakes, doesn’t it show on the field during this road trip? A baseball team doesn’t suddenly lose its “grittiness” overnight. A whole team doesn’t just suddenly forget how to hit all at once, I don’t care how good the opposing pitchers are. The Mets may have not given up on the season, but they’ve given up on their manager because of his management of the players (not to mention his poor strategy and his mishandling of the bullpen and injured players) and Omar and the Wilpons better get that message soon. I, for one, want someone else writing the lineup card next week or the Skill Sets can forget about getting any ticket money out of me the rest of this year.

About Stephen Hanks 29 Articles
Stephen Hanks (Tom Terrific) is a magazine editor and writer based in Brooklyn, NY, who has been the publisher and editorial director of publications ranging in subjects from sports to health to archaeology. He began his career at the late, great SPORT Magazine in 1977 and in 1983, he co-founded NEW YORK SPORTS Magazine (which ceased publication in 1985). He has written and edited coffee table books on baseball history, penned unauthorized biographies of Bo Jackson and Wayne Gretzky, and in 1990 authored "The Game That Changed Pro Football," an oral history of the 1969 New York Jets Super Bowl Season. Even though he grew up near Yankee Stadium, he loathes the team from the Bronx and has been a die-hard Mets fan since attending his first game at the Polo Grounds in 1963.