Free-Falling Mets: Feeling the Heat; or, Bench Pressed

The Mets are free-falling. They’ve just wrapped an 0-6 homestand and probably can’t wait to beat it out of town for a West Coast trip. Maybe they’re not as good as they looked in the first half. Maybe nobody should have expected them to stay the race course. But this is getting ridiculous: the bench calling the wrong pitch at the wrong time and letting the other guys put a reachable game further out of reach than it should have been.

What did he know . . .

They got pasted by the Washington Nationals Wednesday afternoon. The possible key, other than Stephen Strasburg keeping them quiet with eleven punchouts in seven innings: if the Mets think calling pitches from the dugout can be successful without bothering to know what the batter in question likes to hit and hits most often, the Mets need to re-adjust their thinking. Fast.

If manager Terry Collins wants accountability, as he demanded appropriately enough when he ripped into the Mets after the 5-2 loss, he may want to start with pitching coach Dan Warthen. Sending his players a message is one thing, but it’s only right to send his coaches a comparable message if and when need be. And it seems to need be right now.

The scenario: Reliever Tim Byrdak facing Adam LaRoche with two out, top of the seventh, and the game still within the Mets’ reach, the Nats leading 3-1. Byrdak had LaRoche to deuces wild. Catcher Josh Thole put down a sign for a fastball. Byrdak wanted to throw LaRoche a curve. He must have known something about his opponent: LaRoche this season (according to FanGraphs) crushes fastballs compared to what he does with a curve ball. He’s hit curve balls only 11.9 percent of the time this year, compared to 51 percent fastball hitting and 14 percent slider hitting.

Byrdak shook off the fastball sign twice. The fastball sign kept coming. Finally, he threw the fastball. And LaRoche sent it into the right field seats. 5-1, Nats. Byrdak first had a thing or two to say to Thole, who must have indicated the signs were coming from Warthen, and Byrdak then trained his fire on the pitching coach. Byrdak acknowledged he didn’t execute the fastball well; it went right down the pipe.

But something is dreadfully wrong when a pitcher wants to throw a pitch he knows the hitter isn’t hitting well, yet his pitching coach insists on throwing him a pitch he can murder. Maybe LaRoche would have sat on the curve; maybe he would have beaten it into the ground or fouled it off. Don’t discount the possibility that the heater Byrdak did serve, under some duress, had less on it than it might have had if he were throwing the pitch with a clear mind. At the very least, letting Byrdak throw the curve he wanted to throw on 2-2 would have given him that much better to beat his opposing hitter, if the hitter isn’t hitting curve balls with any great authority this season.

. . . and when did he not know it?

If LaRoche strikes out, inning over. If LaRoche fouls it off, then Byrdark could have thrown LaRoche a better fastball, one slightly out of his wheelhouse, and gotten himself out of it. If LaRouche beats the curve ball into the ground, you get a ground out for your trouble and inning over. If the man isn’t hitting the curve ball and you’ve got him 2-2, you should be thinking curve ball since you’ve got at least an 88 percent chance (and probably higher) of getting him out for the side.

So Byrdak was probably right and Warthen was probably wrong. Is Warthen is being given more autonomy over pitch selection than he should be given? If so, is he bothering to scout the opposing hitters appropriately? Has he paid much if any attention to LaRoche’s hitting tendencies? Did he pay any before insisting Byrdak throw LaRoche a pitch that landed in the right field seats. For that matter, did Thole not know enough about LaRoche’s tendencies that he didn’t feel sure enough in shaking off the bench signs and letting Byrdak have his head?

The Mets have enough problems since the All-Star break with an incendiary bullpen, an injury-compromised starting rotation, and scattered offence. The last thing they need is the bench pouring gasoline on the bullpen’s fires by calling the wrong pitches at the wrong times to the wrong hitters.

“We’re gonna get through it,” Collins told reporters, after the game and (presumably) his verbal spanking of his players, “and you’re gonna see a different team in the next two weeks. I don’t deal with excuses. I deal with accountability, standing up and being a man and playing the game right. We’re gonna get back on track. I’m not gonna mention names, but I just know that when times get tough, it’s human nature to forget to look in the mirror once in a while.”

Collins isn’t wrong. But his pitching coach shouldn’t be exempted from the accountability rule.

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