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In Defense of Defense

Mike SteffanosThursday, August 31, 2006
By Mike Steffanos

When I was growing up a million years ago in the late '60s, early '70s, I was fortunate enough to become a New York Knick fan in the golden years of the franchise. Those Knicks used to win against bigger and more athletic teams because they emphasized teamwork on offense and a stifling team defense. I can remember many a tight game from that era with the Knicks swarming all over the opposing team's offense while the entire Garden rocked with the deafening cheers of "defense, defense!"

I think two things came out of that for me. The first is that it was damned cruel of the Knicks to delight me with a level of play in the formative years of my fanhood that I'd never see again. The second is that I've always been a sucker for defense after that, no matter what the sport.

The first Mets teams I watched in the magic year of 1969 and for a few years afterward were solid defensively. They couldn't score to save their lives, but the pitching was great and the defense was tight. Gradually, though, through the lean years of the late '70s and early '80s, the Mets became one of the worst fielding teams in the league. Even during those great years in the mid to late '80s, while the pitching was top-notch, the defense -- apart from the scintillating Keith Hernandez -- was mediocre at best, and some years below that. Davey Johnson was an unapologetic offensive-minded manager, who would often play the hitter over the glove guy, and moreover never seemed to demand a high quality of play from his club in the field.

Then the Mets stunk for a while, and their defense regressed back to putrid. Bobby V's Mets were much better, particularly that golden infield. They were magic to watch. The outfield -- well, not so much. And then we stunk again under Art Howe. He lacked both the players and the will to demand the best from them. Because that's the point of defense in any sport, but especially baseball -- if the manager and coaches don't demand defense from their players on an ongoing basis, even a team with good athletes will play mediocre defense. It's not enough to expect your players to "be professional". Defense is a mindset and a discipline that needs to be nurtured constantly.

While watching the Rockies outfielders approach everything hit to them like it was a live hand grenade the past couple of nights, it occurred to me how often I have watched Mets teams over the years that were guilty of that type of sloppy play, and how grateful I am that I don't have to watch it this year. From day one, Willie Randolph has demanded that commitment to defensive excellence from his players. He and his coaches make defense a priory every day, and the great play we've been witnessing is the fruit of that commitment. In today's New York Times, Ben Shpigel has a nice feature on the subject of the Mets' "D":

It is a recurring theme of the Mets' season: The offense stands out, the overachieving pitching staff keeps chugging along, and the defense, improving every day, is overlooked. Heading into Wednesday night's game against the Rockies, the Mets needed one more error-free game to tie the franchise mark, 12, set in June 1999.

"You hear that we score seven runs a game and have all these great hitters, but that doesn't mean much if you give all the runs back," second baseman Jose Valentin said.

There is nothing more demoralizing to a team and its pitching staff than to give extra outs and free runs to the other team. In the 1980s, the Mets finished behind Cardinals teams that weren't as good, but played more solidly. Part of the dominance of the Mets by the Braves over the past few seasons was that the Braves made the plays and the Mets often didn't.

I understand you can't win without scoring runs, and offense has become more important than defense in today's game of baseball, but that doesn't excuse the absolutely horrific defensive ineptitude shown by so many teams. Of the many things that I am grateful to Willie and his terrific coaching staff for is the fact that I don't have to watch Mets fielders play the kind of shoddy defense Colorado has played the last two days. Baseball is a lot harder to watch when your team looks like they are auditioning for the blooper reel. God knows we've seen enough of that over the years in Flushing.

Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin: Humber Shines Again
From the Press & Sun-Bulletin's Brian Moritz:

This is the Philip Humber the Mets have been waiting nearly two years to see.

Poised and in command of all three of his pitches, Humber threw six masterful innings in the Binghamton Mets' 4-1 victory over the Portland Sea Dogs on Wednesday night at NYSEG Stadium.

Humber, the Mets' top pick in the 2004 draft, allowed just four hits and had six strikeouts in pitching the B-Mets to a victory in a must-win game.

"That was one of the top two or three (pitching) performances I've seen all year out of our guys, and we've had some good ones," said B-Mets shortstop Corey Ragsdale.

Humber's return from Tommy John surgery has gone as well as anyone could have possibly expected. He's pitching in the Arizona Fall League this year, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if he showed up in New York sometime late next season.

NY Post: Victor Diaz
The Mets swapped Victor Diaz to Texas for 23-year-old Double-A catcher Mike Nickeas. It's good Victor has moved on to another organization, because he had obviously worn out his welcome here. As for Nickeas, he seems to be one of those good glove, no stick catchers the Mets organization seems to specialize in.

Baseball Prospectus: Right-Handed Pitching Prospects
Kevin Goldstein breaks down his top 20 right-handed starting pitcher prospects in baseball, and three Mets propsects made the list:

7. Mike Pelfrey, Mets
: 22.6 H/9: 7.57 BB/9: 3.08 K/9: 10.18
... At 6-foot-7, Pelfrey gets a strong downward plane on a sinking 92-95 mph fastball that has touched 98, and he commands the pitch well when many young and tall pitching prospects struggle to find a consistent release point. For anyone who saw his four big league starts, in which he had a 5.48 ERA and a sub-standard 13/12 K/BB ratio in 21.1 innings, Pelfrey's issues were clear. While the fastball is plus-plus, both his curveball and changeup are no more than average, and he lost confidence in the pitches, learning a difficult lesson about the need for a three-pitch arsenal. He's expected to get another look in September as the Mets put things into cruise control, so we'll see if he's made any adjustments. The secondary pitches don't have to be great, but he will need them to keep hitters on their toes.

14. Philip Humber, Mets
: 23.7 H/9: 6.99 BB/9: 2.52 K/9: 9.65
Another one of those pitchers who had Tommy John surgery, returned quicker than expected and has looked as good as he ever did, if not better. Pitching very well in Double-A, both he and Pelfrey will compete for Opening Day rotation slots in 2007.

19. Deolis Guerra, Mets
: 17.4 H/9: 6.75 BB/9: 4.39 K/9: 7.18
His ratios aren't great, but this is a guy born in 1989 (feel old yet?) who is already in the Florida State League and holding his own. Sitting at 89-91 mph with plenty of projection thanks to a 6-foot-5, 200 pound frame, Guerra's changeup is already a solid offering and his curveball has made great strides. The Mets need to slow down his development, but his ceiling is sky high.

The Hardball Times: Omar's the man
THT's Dave Studeman looks at "Ten Great Pickups by Omar Minaya."

More Mets Stories:
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Continuous Mets Coverage:
Hot Foot

Comments (6)

Throw the ball. Hit the ball. Catch the ball.

That's the game. You have to do all three.

I used to feel cheated when the Mets won (or vice versa) by virtue of the other teams's gaffs in the field. But that's the game! Them's the rules. You gotta catch the ball. You gotta throw it to the other guy. If you can't do it then you can't win.

It's yet another reason the DH is a total abomination to the game. You have 2 players in the game who only perform two of the three skills needed to play baseball.

It's also why Ryan Howard wouldn't get my vote for MVP.

Everyone on the team seems to have stepped up their defense this year. There have been occasional times when Delgado has looked Hernandez-esque. D-Wright no longer makes some of the boneheaded throws that he used to. You could go on and on about the contributions from each player, but the overall value that the defensive performance has had on the team has been significant and noticeable, so it's good you covered it.

Deolis Guerra and Fernando Martinez, with the way they look, are going to be monsters come their time to step up to the Majors. Granted, there's still a long way to go for both of them, but each has been completely tearing it up at a strikingly young age. The fact that Guerra is 17 and has already had double digit strikeouts in a game is ridiculous. It makes me grin like an idiot when I think about it.

Matt -- I wish the Mets would televise a few minor league games (besides Brooklyn) so we could see guys like this play.

Here, Here,
Great post Mike, I agree. One of my favorite plays to watch is a well turned double play. (The one started by Wrigh in the 9th against the Rockies to bail out Wagner comes to mind) I think that a sharp solid defense that can take hits away can be as demoralizing as adding a run to the lead. (Coco Crisps take away of Wright's potential tying hit in Fenway comes to mind) One of my favorite things to watch from Bobby's 99 over achievers was a Double play started by Ordonez to Fonzie to Johnny O.

Keep up the good work, buddy.

Thanks, Dan.

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