Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Reasons For Hope and Concern in Week One

Even this guy might not be
able to fix Carlos Carrasco
Some analysis and one big item of worry from the first few games of the New York Mets' 2023 season.

Since I last wrote here, the New York Mets enjoyed a pretty good opening series in Miami, followed by a very bad first game in Milwaukee. The Mets have now navigated a full turn through their starting rotation. While Kodai Senga showed promise of being a good MLB pitcher in his first time pitching here in the States, Carlos Carrasco did nothing to alleviate the concerns I had about him heading into the season. Every pitcher in their bullpen has pitched at least once, with Dennis Santana already appearing 3 times.

For the position players, new Mets Omar Narváez and Tommy Pham enjoyed hot starts for their new clubs. On the other hand, Eduardo Escobar — who desperately needed one to hold off the calls for Brett Baty to replace him — has managed one single in his first 17 PA while amassing 9 Ks. Escobar has a couple of games left in Milwaukee to find something at the plate. If he returns to New York on Thursday still looking completely lost at the plate, he's likely to be the recipient of the fan displeasure that Darin Ruf escaped with his release from the Mets.

As I sit here writing this on Tuesday afternoon, Baty was taken out of Syracuse's game with an apparent hand injury. I obviously have no idea how bad it is, but if it takes Baty out of action for a while that might take some immediate pressure off of Eduardo Escobar, but he needs to show that he still has a pulse at the plate nonetheless.

And so it goes in baseball. Unlike sports which proceed at a more leisurely pace, once the baseball season begins, you're fully immersed in it. It's even more the case this year. The Mets don't have their first day off until Friday. It always strikes me, after 5 decades of being a fan, how you experience the thrill of Opening Day and then slide directly into the middle of another baseball season.

It's tempting to go out on a limb extrapolating from what is still just a handful of games. We do our best to avoid those sports talk radio takes in this space. A couple of weeks from now, Eduardo Escobar might be red-hot at the plate, and Carrasco might reclaim some of the velocity that he seems to have misplaced so far. One of my favorite things about baseball is that it demands a longer attention span than most popular entertainment does these days. All we can fairly say about what we've witnessed so far is that it gives us things to keep an eye on going forward.

But the way Carlos Carrasco pitched in Milwaukee on Monday night was exactly what I hoped not to see out of him in the early going. Carlos managed to pitch pretty well without premium velocity last season, but it certainly gave him less margin for error, particularly against good opponents. To see Carrasco's velocity dip even more his first time out was disheartening.

Going back almost a couple of decades now, Steve Trachsel was a polarizing player for Mets fans. He'd typically give the club 30+ starts. In 2003 and 2004, Trachsel pitched over 200 innings for the Mets at a tick above league-average effectiveness. That's a valuable pitcher if he's your third or fourth starter. Unfortunately, Tom Glavine and Al Leiter were both on the downside of their careers, and those Mets clubs sucked. Also, Trachsel pitched so slow he was dubbed the Human Rain Delay. It was tough to watch, particularly when he wasn't pitching well.

In 2005, when the Mets signed Carlos Beltrán and Pedro Martinez and spent most of the season relevant again, Steve Trachsel missed most of the season after requiring back surgery. He returned for 6 starts at the end of the season.*

*Note: In my original version of this piece, I erroneously stated that Trachsel made 6 starts before needing back surgery. As Greg Prince from Faith and Fear in Flushing was kind enough to point out, those 6 starts by Trachsel came at the end of the season, after he returned from getting the surgery. It doesn't change the point I was making about a pitcher with diminished stuff but, in the interest of accuracy, I have changed the info in the above paragraph. In the interest of honesty and transparency, I also confess to the original mistake. Thanks, Greg.

Trachsel was healthy in 2006 when the Mets would make it back to the playoffs. If Steve could have given the club the sort of production he had back in 2003 and 2004, that would have been invaluable to a club that desperately needed starting pitching all season. Steve Trachsel did manage to make 30 starts and somehow win 15 games, but he was a 5-inning pitcher who allowed 1.6 baserunners per inning with an ERA+ of 88 — well below average. In 03-04, opponents slashed .263/.328/.437 against Steve, not terrible for the steroid era. In 2006 those numbers jumped to .288/.365/.465. Trachsel won 15 games because the Mets scored a ton of runs for the guy.

When Steve Trachsel returned from back surgery, he came back lacking a couple of mph on his fastball. He was 35 in 2006, so it might have happened anyway. I remember hoping that Trachsel might find a way to compensate for that lost velocity. He always was somewhat of a finesse pitcher who possessed an excellent curveball. But the reduced velocity didn't only cost him when he threw the #1, it also meant Trachsel's breaking pitches lost some of the sharpness of their break. Most of all, what it cost him was the margin of error that took him from being slightly above average to well below average. The pitches were coming in at lower velocity with less sharpness, giving batters more time to adjust and punish anything over the plate.

I started to see this lower margin for error from Carlos Carrasco last season. It continued this spring and was pretty obvious Monday night. It's something I plan to keep an eye on when Carlos pitches in the early going. I'm a bit pessimistic right now that Carrasco finishes the season in the Mets' rotation. Pitch clock violations can be fixed, but diminished stuff, not so much. I guess we'll see.

A couple of quick hits:

  • It's good to see Tommy Pham shake off those spring training doldrums and hit the ball with some authority. The Mets are going to need a lot of ABs from their fourth outfielder, given the fragility of the starting three. If Pham could even approach being the productive hitter he was earlier in his career, he could really help the Mets.

  • When the Mets picked up Dennis Santana on waivers, it seemed like a reach. He's out of minor league options and, although he's shown promise, he's bounced around quite a bit. Like many promising arms, Santana's problem has been too many walks. While he's allowed a couple of free passes in his 2.2 IP so far, Santana has 5 Ks and looked pretty good out there. If pitching coach Jeremy Hefner can unlock some of Dennis Santana's potential, it would go a long way to solidifying the post-Edwin Díaz bullpen. Look, it's early. Dennis Santana might falter and depart the Mets before the end of April. But, in a year without trumpets when the Mets need so much from the rest of their bullpen, Dennis Santana's early success offers the potential of someone who could earn his way into the late-inning mix.

  • Not to be a downer, but Monday night's blowout loss to the Brewers brought back unfond memories of what felt like a few too many big losses last season, particularly from a club that won 101 games. I'd really like to see far fewer of those stinkers this season, please.

That will do it for me today. Be well and take care. Let's go Mets!

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