Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Right On The Nose

My sainted father used to say that a pitcher should have the right to smack his fielders on the nose when they make errors that cost him runs or victories. I couldn't argue then, and still can't.

Of course, it should work the other way, too. A team should be entitled to pummel any starting pitcher who is so atrocious that he doesn't give his teammates a chance to win. That has been the case with Mike Pelfrey in his last four starts for the Mets. When he took the mound in Florida, he had a stellar 10-2 record and 2.71 ERA. That night, he squandered a 3-0 lead and exited in the 5th inning, having been slammed for a dozen hits. The Mets escaped with a late win, but for Pelfrey it marked the start of a descent into Pitching Hell.

Against the Reds on July 5, he survived several early threats before collapsing again in the 5th inning, when he got drilled for six runs. His next time out, he again dodged early threats and again met his comeuppance in the 5th inning, allowing all five runners to reach base. Four of them scored, and he took his second straight loss. A stiff neck postponed his scheduled start last weekend, and instead he opened the series at Arizona last night. It was a disaster from start to finish, and this finish occurred in the 2nd inning. He faced 13 batters and retired only four, and before the Mets could say "Oliver Perez" it was 6-0 Diamondbacks.

Actually I think Jerry Manuel has to take the blame for last night's debacle. A day after closer Francisco Rodriguez threw 47 pitches in vulturing a victory, I'm sure Manuel went to Pelfrey before the game and said, "Listen, I want you to make sure we don't have to use a closer tonight." Pelfrey took care of that, paving the way for a 13-2 drubbing that gave the Mets' more esteemed relievers the night off.

Pelfrey's four-start meltdown looks even worse on paper than it did on the field. In 14.2 innings, he has walked 10 batters and hit another--and that's the good news. Batters have pounded 40 hits off him--twice he has allowed a dozen hits, a difficult feat these days. That's nearly three hits an inning. His ERA has gone from 2.71 to 4.01 thanks to a four-game ERA of 12.89. The WHIP is even more impressive: 3.41. He has recorded 44 outs while 51 batters have reached base. It's enough to make Mets fans think, "jeez, even Oliver Perez wasn't that bad!"

But I digress. I started out to write about Johan Santana, who would have double-digit bloody knuckles if he followed my father's dictum about punching teammates for lack of support. Santana, as usual, pitched like a demon on Sunday; he left his heart in San Francisco, putting out fires in the early innings and getting stronger late in the game, leaving after eight innings with a 3-1 lead which Rodriguez quickly torched in the bottom of the 9th.

For Santana, unfortunately, it was business as usual in 2010. Here's the bottom line: in 20 starts this season, he has allowed zero earned runs seven times. His teammates have rewarded those gems with exactly three wins. Five other times, he has allowed just one earned run; two of those have also been wasted. He got another no-decision the one time he allowed two runs. Yes, he's had some bad starts, notably a 10-run disaster at Philadelphia and a stretch in June when he gave up at least four runs in four straight starts. His record when he gives up more than two runs is 1-5. When he gives up two runs or less, he is 6-0 with seven no-decisions.

Usually the problem has been a lack of run support, especially on the road. Throw out the Philadelphia debacle and Santana's road ERA is 1.69 in 64 innings, good for exactly one win. Remember that April game in St. Louis where the Mets and Cardinals were scoreless until the 19th inning? Santana started that one and allowed just four hits in seven innings, but the Mets didn't sniff a scoring opportunity while he was in there. They got him a run in Florida in mid-May, but an unearned run saw him leave after seven innings of a 1-1 tie.

It got more frustrating in his final May start, where he outdueled Milwaukee's ace, Yovani Gallardo, allowing only three hits in eight superb shutout innings. The Mets got eight hits off Gallardo but no runs thanks to three double plays, and Santana left a scoreless tie in his wake. The bullpen lost that one. His next start was at San Diego, and it was more of the same. The Mets actually got him a run this time, and he battled through seven innings, throwing 123 pitches but holding the Padres runless. It didn't matter. Frankie Rodriguez blew the lead in the bottom of the 9th, leaving Santana with a 4-2 record plus six no-decisions.

Perhaps frustrated by this paltry support, Santana gave up runs early in his next few starts, killing the suspense. Of course, the Mets got shut out twice along the way, so at least he was used to that. Then came July and four scintillating starts in a row. In those four outings he has given up just two runs in 31 innings. That included the 3-hit shutout of the hot Reds that I witnessed on July 6, when Santana had a ton of movement on the ball, threw strikes, and mowed down the highest-scoring offense in the National League. It also included two more no-decisions, the blown save by Rodriguez in San Francisco and an earlier game at Washington in which Santana wasted yet another run by his offense, leading 1-0 before the Nationals tied it 1-1 in the 7th inning and Manuel gave him the rest of the night off.

We've seen this before, of course, a succession of yeoman efforts by the stalwart starter who is getting far more bucks from the Mets (about $18 million a year) than runs (3.0 per start this season). The same thing happened in 2008, his first year with the Mets. Through June he had a 7-7 record and 3.01 ERA, including no-decisions for three starts in which he totalled three runs allowed in 18 2/3 innings with 25 strikeouts (in all three of those, the bullpen blew leads). That was frustrating enough, but the second half of the season was even stranger.

From July on, Santana went 9-0, pitching brilliantly to the tune of a 2.09 ERA. Smooth sailing, right? Try this out for size. His post-June log also included eight no-decisions:

1. July 4: 8 innings, 2 runs, left a 2-2 tie that the bullpen lost in the 9th

2. July 17: his only post-June start with more than 3 runs allowed, he left trailing 5-4 in the 5th inning of a game the Mets won 10-8

3. July 22: after 8 solid innings of work against the Phillies, he left with a 5-2 lead, which the bullpen blew by giving up 6 runs in the 9th

4. August 2: he outpitched Roy Oswalt in Houston, leaving in the 7th with a comfortable 4-1 lead, only to see Billy Wagner blow the save in the 9th and the Astros win in the 10th

5. August 7: he led 3-1 after seven innings, gave up one run while exiting in the 8th, and sat helplessly by as Scot Schoeneweis served up a home run to the immortal Jody Gerut in the 9th, the third time in his last four starts the bullpen blew a potential win for him

6. August 27: after three straight wins (3 runs allowed in 23 innings), he got bailed out this time, leaving after six innings trailing 3-2 and watching the Phillies bullpen blow a lead in the late innings instead

7. September 1: in another miracle, he left with a 2-0 deficit and his teammates came from behind to win 4-2, rescuing him from what would've been a tough loss

8. September 13: this was another tough one as he took a 2-0 lead to the 8th, gave up a pair of singles to start the inning, and was removed; two batters later, the score was tied, and there went another win

Santana finished strong in 2008, winning his last three starts and capping the campaign with a much-needed shutout on the season's penultimate day. So he ended with a 16-7 record, plus seven games in which he left with the lead and the bullpen did him in. In three of his losses he allowed only one earned run. You get the idea. He should've cruised past the 20-win plateau, and incidentally, if the bullpen hadn't screwed him, the Mets would've sailed into the postseason instead of falling by the wayside in their final game.

And here he sits in late July with a measly seven wins to show for his efforts in 2010. Yes, he had a rough stretch when he was apparently tipping his pitches, and he's had an alarming habit of giving up 1st-inning grand slams, but don't let that 7-5 record fool you. The guy is a stud who pitches his ass off every time out, and the Mets would be in the tank without him, especially recently. They've won just three of their last 11 games; those were the three games Santana started. My sidekick Freddy Berowski informs me that Santana currently ranks sixth in the National League in Wins Above Replacement (how much better he is than an average pitcher who would theoretically take his place). That's nice. The problem is that he's only a couple of wins ahead of the apparently below-average pitchers who keep replacing him in reality.

It isn't Santana's fault that he gets as little support as an upstate Democrat. I keep sensing my father rolling around in his grave, muttering "smack them, Johan, right on the nose!" I just hope that when he starts heeding that very sensible advice, he remembers to use only his right hand, so we can keep on having the pleasure of watching him pitch.

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