Last week I wrote about why I think the Mets will make the playoffs in 2010. Since then, first baseman Daniel Murphy sprained his right knee, it was announced that Jose Reyes will start the season on the disabled list, and it seems like Carlos Beltran will be out an extra week or two than expected. Having said that, I continue to be optimistic. The Mets have a relatively easy schedule in April, playing 16 of their first 22 games at Citi Field and against average teams at best for the most part, so they really have a chance to get off to a good start to the season.
Now, how do they get off to that good start? Last Spring, the Mets focused the majority of their attention on hitting to the opposite field and working on situational hitting. Believe it or not, it worked, as the Mets led the National League in hitting last year with a .270 team batting average (tied with the LA Dodgers). Of course, an unfortunate influx of injuries prevented this team from being successful in other aspects of the game, causing them to lose 92 games. Provided that this team stays healthier than they were last year, I would like to discuss three areas where I would like to see the Mets improve on from 2009, which can hopefully propel them into the playoffs.
1. The Fundamentals. Last season, the Mets committed 97 errors, which is just way too many for a team that hopes to be in the playoffs. Something I have noticed over the past few seasons is that the Mets do not have very many problems executing on plays where they do not have time to think. Instead, it is the basic fundamentals that haunt this team. The best example is perhaps David Wright, who thinks way too much when a ground ball is hit to him. Particularly when there is a slow runner, Wright tends to sit on the ball, waiting for it to come to him, and will proceed to double clutch after the ball reaches him. It is on these plays where Wright commits the majority of his errors, as he will have too much time on his hands and will not know how to correctly distribute his thoughts. As a result, he will sometimes overthrow the first baseman, or just not get the throw to first base on time.
I remember arriving very early to a Mets game last season where I noticed they spent the majority of their pre-game in the batting cages. That's great, but I would love to see them focus a little more on the fundamentals this season and hopefully cut down on some errors. It's not that these players don't know how to execute simple ground and fly balls, they just need to not let their mentality prevent them from doing so. As Yogi Berra would say "90% of the game is half-mental".
2. Managing the Bullpen. I wrote last week how something the Mets lacked last year was a long reliever. People forget how valuable Darren Oliver was to the 2006 team and how he would hold down a lead whenever a starter got into trouble early in the game. This year, the Mets seem to have an advantage of three long relievers: Fernando Nieve, Nelson Figueroa, and Hisanori Takahashi. By having these three pitchers plus guys like Pedro Feliciano and K-Rod, Jerry Manuel will have a lot more flexibility in who he can put in games. Too often last year Manuel ran into situations where he was putting relievers out on the mound who had pitched two, three, sometimes even four days in a row. Any Met fan knows that the collapses of 2007 and 2008 were largely due to the overworked bullpen at the end of the season. Now, Jerry Manuel has a chance to avoid this problem given his new and improved bullpen. I just hope he takes advantage of it.
3. Location, Location, Location. After Johan Santana, there's no question that the Mets' 2010 starting rotation is very iffy. When Pelfrey, Maine, and Perez pitch, you never know which guy you are going to get. The common factor for all of these pitchers when watching them pitch though is that they do not throw enough strikes. They consistently give up too many walks in the game, making it impossible for the Mets to score enough runs to keep themselves in the game. If the Mets staff can just focus on throwing strikes, they will be a lot more successful. They shouldn't be afraid of letting the opposition hit the ball -- that is why there are eight other guys on the field. The pitching staff has to be aggressive this year. Anyone who has followed Pelfrey, Maine, and Perez during their time with the Mets has seen with their own eyes that each of them has the ability to be very good. We have seen Maine and Perez win 15 games before, and we have seen Pelfrey come close with 13 wins in 2008. All we're asking is for you guys to do it in the same season!
Of course there are several other areas the Mets need to improve on: hitting with runners in scoring position, knowing where to be on different defensive plays, even plain base running, just to name a few. But if the Mets can tread water with the lineup they currently have and focus on capitalizing on these three aspects, they should be a contender once Reyes and Beltran return.