Recently the New York Mets took the lead in the top of the first inning for the fifth straight game, setting the tone early in their 11-1 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies. The Mets hitters looked extremely comfortable in the batter’s box, taking aggressive swings at good pitches all game. The result was 11 runs all scoring through six home runs. After hitting only two home runs in the first eight games of this season, the Mets have hit 17 home runs over their last five.
Every good team hits home runs, especially timely home runs. However, great teams don’t need a lot of home runs. Great teams live by the old adage, get on, get over and get in, meaning, get on base, advance on the base paths and score.
Since the wild card playoff system began in 1995, only two of 21 World Series championship teams finished in the top four in home runs during the regular season (2008 Phillies, 2009 New York Yankees). However, during the same span of time, eight of 21 World Series championship teams finished in the top four in on-base percentage during the regular season, including 13 champions finishing in the top 10.
Home runs are an exciting, quick confidence boost for a batting lineup. The only problem for a home-run-reliant team is home runs come in bunches. Between facing MLB pitching every night and the natural difficulty in hitting a home run, sustaining home runs every game and the corresponding confidence is extremely difficult.
Conversely, a lineup with high on-base percentage forces the pitcher to uncomfortably pitch from the stretch more often and drives up pitch count which helps get the opposing starting pitcher out of the game earlier and into the opposing team’s weaker bullpen pitchers.
Currently, the Mets rank sixth in Major League Baseball with 19 home runs, two behind the third-ranked teams. However, the Mets rank 21st in MLB in on-base percentage, 20th in batting average and have scored 56.6% of their total runs through home runs (30 of 53 runs).
Comparatively, the St. Louis Cardinals rank third in MLB with 21 home runs. However, the Cardinals are second in MLB in on-base percentage, fifth in batting average and have scored 44.2% of their total runs through home runs (38 of 86 runs).
Additionally, the Mets are 24th in contact rate (percent of swings on which contact was made) and 29th on O-Contact rate (percent on which contact was made on swings outside the strike zone) according to FanGraphs. What does that even mean?
A low contact percentage creates fewer balls in play resulting in a lower opportunity for the Mets to get hits and a greater challenge advancing runners along the bases. The O-Contact rate shows the Mets aren’t hitting bad pitches, particularly two-strike pitches, well, a staple of many great teams (see 2015 Royals, recent Cardinals and Giants teams). Making high contact percentages with pitches outside the strike zone lowers strikeout rates, forcing opposing pitchers to throw more pitches and puts additional pressure on the fielders to complete more defensive outs.
Additionally, in the nine games the Mets hit one home run or none, they averaged 2.9 runs per game. In the other four games hitting two or more home runs, the Mets averaged 6.8 runs per game. Obviously, runs per game will be higher when two or more home runs are hit but the disparity shouldn’t be as high as almost four runs or 2.3 times as high.
I’m not suggesting Mets hitters can’t manufacture runs through singles, extra-base hits and taking extra bases (not only by steals but going first to third on singles). I’m not suggesting it’s time to panic. I’m suggesting it’s something to pay attention to as the season progresses.
Stat Line: 6 IP, 0 R, 3 H, 6 SO, 2 BB
In the New York Mets’ 2-1 victory over the Miami Marlins, Logan Verrett showed why he would be in the starting rotation for 29 of 30 Major League teams. Verrett attacks opposing lineups differently than the Mets’ big three power pitchers, looking to induce poor contact early in at-bats rather than inducing a high whiff/miss and strikeout rates.
Logan Verrett continues showing more than scouts prepared us for, exhibiting an above-average breaking ball while keeping four pitches low in the strike zone.
Verrett’s breaking ball (slider and curveball) is a viable MLB strikeout pitch, inducing a strong 16.6% whiff/miss rate (swing and miss rate). His breaking ball, particularly his slider, shows sharp, late, downward movement and has enough velocity to deceive the hitter into thinking the pitch is a four-seam fastball. The reason behind defining it as a breaking ball is because it’s tough to decipher the difference between his slider and curveball.
Verrett’s four-seam fastball sits 90 to 93 mph while his two-seam fastball, also referred to as a sinker, dials in at 88 to 92 mph. At times, Verrett’s two-seam fastball/sinker seemed to move 6 to 10 inches with sharp 10-to-5 downward movement (think of 10 to 5 on a clock). Although he didn’t show consistent fastball command on the corners of home plate, Verrett kept his pitches between ankle and thigh high.
Staying low in the strike zone with two pitches having sharp downward movement makes it nearly impossible for opposing hitters to lift the baseball for hard hits and extra base hits.
Verrett’s Four Keys to Success
Verrett has to focus on four aspects of pitching to be successful with a fastball/sinker primarily sitting 88 to 92 mph:
Verrett commanded his fastball thigh-high or below on 46% of fastballs but excluding the five intentionally thrown high four-seam fastballs the percentage moves to a respectable 52%. However, Verrett only threw 34% two-seam fastballs/sinkers, another reason his “fastball low in the strike zone” percentage wasn’t higher. Verrett threw 52% off-speed pitches at an outstanding 70% strike rate. Lastly, Verrett threw 77% first-pitch strikes. Three out of four isn’t bad for his first spot start of the 2016 season.
Cause for Concern
Verrett showed a stronger out pitch than scouts reported but didn’t exhibit fastball command on each corner of home plate needed for a pitcher throwing in the low 90s. In fact, he threw 27 of his 85 pitches (31%) on the inner half of home plate or inside to hitters but only eight of those were commanded well on the inside corner. Understandably, Verrett lives on the outside corner but must learn to throw inside with a purpose and control. Lacking control and a presence on the inside corner allows MLB hitters to feel comfortable in the batter’s box and gives them the ability to look for predictable outside pitches. When an MLB hitter is able to predict or feel comfortable guessing a certain pitch type or pitch location, the more aggressive and confident their swings become. This makes Verrett vulnerable to higher home run, hard contact and walk rates.
Steven Matz’s season debut quickly went south, with him giving up seven earned runs in the second inning en route to a 10-3 New York Mets loss against the Miami Marlins. Matz exhibited one mechanic flaw leading to his lack of command, particularly in two-strike counts, resulting in the Marlins’ second-inning carousel around the bases.
Steven Matz (L, 0-1) 1.2 IP, 7 R, 6 H, 1 SO, 2 BB
Arrows were pointing up after watching a 1-2-3 first inning with fastball velocity at 95 mph, culminating in striking out one of Major League Baseball’s best power hitters, Giancarlo Stanton.
Unfortunately, Matz started the second inning breaking one of the cardinal rules of pitching: walking leadoff man Martin Prado. When a leadoff hitter makes it to first base, he scores approximately 35% of the time. Making matters worse, Matz walked the following batter, Chris Johnson. Five of the next seven batters ground out hits, including a Giancarlo Stanton man-bomb home run to left field, knocking Matz out of the game.
The frustrating aspect for Matz and Mets fans alike was during all three Marlins RBI single at-bats, Matz was ahead in the count 1-2 or 2-2. Matz proceeded throwing hanging curveball after hanging curveball. Even in Marcell Ozuna’s pop-out, both two-strike pitches were hanging curveballs which thankfully Ozuna missed (Side note: Ozuna can’t hit an outside pitch….at all). Obviously, Matz’s objective was not to hang curveballs or throw hittable two-strike pitches. The reason lies in Matz’s release point.
Simply, Matz’s throwing arm lagged behind his body forcing his release point to be late, rushed and higher than normal as opposed to his normal release point out in front of his body. This results in an inability for Matz’s throwing fingers to stay on top of the baseball.
Matz, and every other Major League pitcher, needs his fingers on top of the baseball at release, allowing his fingers to stay on top of the seams on the baseball. This allows his fingers to manipulate the spin of the baseball at release, whether ripping down on the seams for a four-seam fastball or getting over the top of the baseball throwing a curveball.
Consequently, Matz’s fingers come around the seams of the baseball instead of over the seams of the baseball when throwing his curveball, resulting in a weak spin rate and a floating or hanging curveball. Additionally, fastballs tend to sail high and towards the throwing arm side (up and to the left for Matz) out of the strike zone as seen in four straight fastballs during Prado’s leadoff walk.
Why Matz’s arm lagged is a separate question I couldn’t unveil through the TV broadcast. Originally, Matz appeared throwing across his body, meaning his stride/planting leg lands too far left towards first base, blocking off his arm from releasing the baseball out in front of his body. But this was not the case as Matz was landing with good alignment towards home plate. Other reasons could include rushing his motion or opening his front shoulder and glove hand too soon but I didn’t see those either.
Whatever the reason, pitching on ten days’ rest is very difficult, especially for a starting pitcher in a rhythm and routine created during spring training. Do not put too much stress in the results of this start.
Rafael Montero is one of the New York Mets’ top pitching prospects, and he was given the spot start the other evening against the Mets’ division rival the Miami Marlins. Montero got the loss after giving up three runs in the sixth but looked sharp striking out six and walking one over 5.2 innings. Although Montero was sent back to the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate in Las Vegas, he will be back up later this season for bullpen help and will be the first called up to replace any starters that get injured during the long 162-game season.
Fastball movement and command
Although Montero’s fastball is not overpowering (90-93 mph, topping out at 94 mph), he placed it on both sides of the plate and kept it knee-high throughout his start. This translated into Marlins hitters taking called strikes early in their at-bats, striking out looking (See first inning Dee Gordon and third inning Adeiny Hechavarria) and a good groundball rate of 48.1% for Montero (50%+ is considered an above-average groundball pitcher). Montero’s fastball also showed strong arm-side run and sink at 90-93 mph, which projects a continued strong groundball rate in future outings.
Kept pitches down in the zone
Montero kept nearly all of his fastballs and off-speed pitches thigh high or below which resulted in very few hard-hit balls by Marlins hitters. The only three pitches that were hard hit off of Montero were:
Use of slider
After a few appearances last year where Montero threw nearly 80% fastballs, the Mets have pushed him to throw his off-speed pitches more often. Although Montero only threw 46% of his sliders for strikes last night, he did throw his slider for a strike when he needed to (see sixth inning Stanton 3-1 slider for called strike). The 46% strike percentage can also be misleading because many of the times Montero threw his slider low and out of the strike zone in an attempt to cause a swing and miss.
Analyst that argue first-pitch strikes are overrated due to the small differences in 0-1 and 1-0 batting averages fail to understand that the first pitch of an at-bat will dictate which pitches will be thrown in the following pitches. This is the reason that every pitching coach in America stresses the importance of first-pitch strikes to their pitchers.
Having said that, Montero did an average job getting ahead of hitters with first-pitch strikes or creating balls in play on the first pitch at a combined rate of 60%. If Montero wants to become a second or third starter in a rotation, it will be imperative to get the first pitch of the at-bat into the strike zone closer to 75% to 80%. When Montero does not get ahead of hitters, it is difficult for him to come back in an at-bat from 1-0, 2-0 and 2-1 counts because his off-speed pitches aren’t sharp enough to create many swing and misses. This will force him to throw more predictable fastballs that will be hit into play harder.
Pitches up in the sixth inning
There were two notable pitches in the sixth inning that led to the Marlins go ahead runs:
On both of those fastballs, Montero didn’t get his hand on top of the baseball during his release or more commonly known as “finishing his pitch”. This causes his four-seam fastball to stay up in the zone and allows his two-seam fastball to come back on a flat plane over the plate as opposed to a sinking plane left to right over the plate. The reason Montero wasn’t able to finish his pitches well was most likely due to his small frame becoming tired on his 90th pitch of the game.
Montero’s body type is similar to Pedro Martinez with his six-foot, 185-pound frame but large enough hands to have the ability to manipulate movement on the baseball. The one main difference is Martinez threw a consistent mid-90’s fastball and much sharper breaking off-speed pitches. Montero’s repertoire of pitches can better be compared to Tim Hudson with his low-90’s two-seam sinker and the ability to locate an above-average slider.