For left-handed pitchers, the scouting report on nearly every left-handed power hitter is that they are susceptible to breaking balls. High up on the “What Not To Do” list is throw a changeup.
Yet Hisanori Takahashi did not heed that advice Wednesday against the Phillies, whiffing Ryan Howard in the sixth inning on a dandy of a changeup, the pitch breaking down and in toward Howard. Indeed, Takahashi challenged Philadelphia’s left-handed hitters with changeups all night, shunning conventional wisdom every step of the way.
“I’m the type of guy who likes to pitch to my pitcher’s strength, and not necessarily the hitter’s weakness,” catcher Rod Barajas said. “And his strength is a changeup.”
Barajas, a right-handed hitter, recalled facing Takahashi in an intrasquad game this spring and expecting him to throw two consecutive changeups.
“He threw them, and I swung and missed at both of them,” Barajas said. “That’s what he does. He does that well. It’s not the norm to see a lefty-lefty changeup. But when you have a guy who’s got such a good changeup and that’s his money pitch, you’re not going to put it on the back burner and forget about it.”
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Because he only completely committed himself to the knuckleball five years ago, R.A. Dickey figures he’s “about 26 in knuckleball years.” Which means he’s still in the process of learning.
“The scouting report on me over the past couple years has been get into fastball counts, and you’ll get fastballs,” Dickey said. “Well this year it’s been a little bit different, and I think that’s really helped. I don’t just throw a token fastball 2-0 or 3-1 now. You’re going to get a knuckleball.”
Dickey has been throwing more knuckleballs on the whole. In comparison to years past, when he threw between 63 and 67 percent knucklers, according to the web site Fangraphs.com, Dickey has thrown the pitch nearly 75 percent of the time over his first two starts of this season.
By comparison, Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield has thrown the pitch 84 percent of the time over his 18-year career.
When Wakefield and Dickey spoke prior to Tuesday’s game, Wakefield told him simply to trust in the pitch. For the first time in his career, Dickey is doing so, providing the most convincing evidence that he may be able to sustain his recent gains at the age of 35.
I think it’s just a matter of the maturation of the pitch,” he said. “This is my fifth year to throw it, and every year you learn a little something more with it. That’s why it’s been a nice journey with me for this pitch.”
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Throughout their struggles in recent years, the Mets have done remarkably well in the one department that matters least: All-Star selections. After sending an unfathomable six (!) players to the 2006 game in Pittsburgh, the Mets had four selections in 2007, two in ’08 and four in ’09.
In the first National League ballot update released Tuesday, David Wright was the only Met within striking distance at his position, some 73,000 votes behind Phillies third baseman Placido Polanco. But Wright is having a down year both offensively and defensively, so if he is not voted in as a starter by the fans, he almost certainly will not make the team as a reserve.
No other Met is particularly close. Jose Reyes ranks fifth among NL shortstops and is a longshot to catch the uber-popular Hanley Ramirez or Jimmy Rollins. Jason Bay is 10th among outfielders, but is running out of time to make a serious bid for a starting nod.
If fans do not elect any Mets position players into the starting lineup, then it’s possible that Rod Barajas, who leads all NL catchers with 10 home runs, could become the team’s lone representative in Anaheim. All-Star Game rules stipulate that every organization has to have at least one representative on the 34-man roster.
In the first tally of fan votes, Barajas didn’t even rank in the top five at his position. But he may wind up the Mets’ lone representative nonetheless.
Mike Pelfrey and Francisco Rodriguez have both produced strong numbers to date this season, and either could make the NL pitching staff. But both players will face stiff competition from rotations and bullpens throughout the league, in what is shaping up to be a strong year for pitchers.
Players, coaches and managers select eight pitchers (five starters and three relievers) each season. The National League manager (this year it’s Charlie Manuel) selects the rest.
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Francisco Rodriguez and bullpen coach Randy Niemann had to be separated after an altercation Sunday stemming from the closer’s bullpen use, according to a report in the New York Times.
Rodriguez, reportedly upset over how he is being used, had to be separated from Niemann by other relievers, according to the report. Afterward, he told the Times that they “were just fooling around … just kidding each other.”
The altercation came three days after Mets manager Jerry Manuel had a heated exchange with starter John Maine in the dugout in Washington, and less than a year after Rodriguez and former Mets official Tony Bernazard got into a verbal altercation on a bus in Atlanta.
The move that was supposed to put the Mets over the top came in January of 2008, when they acquired Johan Santana from the Twins in a five-player deal. It didn’t quite work out that way, with the Mets stumbling at the end of ’08 and then falling flat in 2009. But Santana has been one of the lone bright spots for the Mets.
Sunday, he beat the team many people thought might be his next employer: the Yankees. After a winter of speculation regarding the Yankees and Red Sox, the Mets swooped in at the end of the offseason, when the Twins were growing desperate and the Mets’ budget package of prospects suddenly didn’t look so meager.
Santana, though, very easily could have been a Yankee. And he knows it.
“Past is past,” he said. “I was always open to come here to New York to either team. In the end, Minnesota had everything in their hands. I don’t even know what happened between those two teams, but reality is here with the New York Mets. I’m very happy to be here.”
In the aftermath of the Mets’ 5-3 victory over the Yankees on Saturday, Mike Pelfrey talked about how when Johan Santana pitches, the Mets take the field expecting to win.
“I want everybody to feel that way about me,” Pelfrey said.
They are starting to. Just as impressive than Pelfrey’s 6-1 record and 2.86 ERA through nine turns of the rotation has been his consistency. Six of Pelfrey’s nine starts have been quality starts — same as Santana. In four of them, Pelfrey has gone at least seven innings — same as Santana.
He’s not an ace yet, but Pelfrey is showing flashes of developing into one. That’s big for a pitcher that was beginning to convince Mets fans he might never figure things out.
In sum, Hisanori Takahashi’s repertoire includes six pitches: a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, changeup, curveball, slider and sinker. And variations thereof.
“It’s almost like it’s a videogame,” said Rod Barajas, who caught Takahashi’s six scoreless innings Friday night. “You can control it. You can make the ball move wherever you want to different locations. You have a comfort level as a catcher because regardless of the count, you can call anything and there’s a good chance it’s going to be a strike.”
In his big league starting debut, Takahashi struck out Nick Swisher and Derek Jeter on what Barajas called his best pitch: a late-moving changeup that breaks away from right-handed hitters.
“The changeup is probably his pitch,” Barajas said. “It has that tumbling, late sink on it where it’s there one second, you go to swing at it and it just kind of disappears at the last moment.”
With the Mets up one run and two outs in the eighth, Jason Bay crept off first base. No one cared. So he bolted.
Ultimately, the stolen base proved inconsequential — Jeff Francoeur flew out to end the inning, stranding Bay at second. But the fact that Bay, an average runner, was able to swipe his third bag in seven games was telling. Every stolen base attempt for Bay is a calculated risk, with an emphasis on the calculation.
“It’s a part of my game,” said Bay, who stole 21 bases with the Pirates in 2005. “A few years ago, it was a big part of my game and I’ve gotten away from it a little bit. Jerry’s been really good about saying, ‘Hey, it’s up to you.'”
It’s another weapon for a player who right now, despite an 11-game hitting streak, is not hitting with nearly the type of power that everyone expects. For Bay, every small contribution has become significant.
“We have a team with Jose and Luis and David,” he said, “and all these guys that we can make things happen when things haven’t been going well.”
Mets manager Jerry Manuel shook up his lineup Saturday, shifting Jose Reyes back to leadoff and plugging Angel Pagan into the third spot. Maybe that will give the Mets a jolt, but I just don’t see it.
I’m from the school that you want to have your best hitters bat most often. And as well as Pagan is playing right now, he just does not qualify as one of the Mets’ best hitters. Which is why I’d prefer to see him lower down the lineup, with the more productive hitters clumped up top.
Here is the lineup I would try. Note that the Mets’ three leaders in on-base percentage (Wright, Davis and Bay, in that order) are all in the top half of this configuration:
1. Jose Reyes, SS
2. David Wright, 3B
3. Ike Davis, 1B
4. Jason Bay, LF
5. Rod Barajas, C
6. Angel Pagan, CF
7. Jeff Francoeur, RF
8. Luis Castillo, 2B
If you want to let Chris Carter start over Francoeur for a couple days, I won’t argue. If you want to keep Castillo in the two hole and push everyone else down a spot, I won’t fight you there, either. And if Francoeur ever starts swinging the bat well, he could shift as high as five in this configuration, making it more ideal.
It’s a little radical, and maybe it wouldn’t work. But I’m not just sure how much Manuel’s minor shakeup is going to change things.
Though wasn’t ready to come out and say it, Jerry Manuel seemed all but committed to removing Oliver Perez from the Mets rotation after Perez’s latest stinker Friday night in Miami.
But who might replace him?
THE FAVORITE: Hisanori Takahashi, LHP
You know Takahashi for his versatility out of the bullpen, giving the Mets everything from three innings of stellar relief to some one-batter reprieves. But Takahashi, 35, was previously a rotation stalwart in Japan, going 10-6 with a 2.94 ERA last season for the Yomiuri Giants of Japan’s Central League. Two years earlier, he was 14-4 with a 2.75 mark, throwing 186 2/3 innings. Could Takahashi replicate those numbers with the Mets? Of course not. Major League hitters are stronger and more advanced. But once stretched out, a process that would take a few weeks, Takahashi could certainly act as a serviceable fifth starter — something Perez was unable to do.
THE SAFE BET: Pat Misch, LHP
Giving the injury-ravaged Mets 59 valuable innings down the stretch last season, Misch, 28, proved that he could (somewhat) hang with the big boys, going 3-4 with a 4.12 ERA. Given another opportunity, Misch — who has a 2-0 record and 4.15 ERA through six starts for Triple-A Buffalo — would probably give the Mets more of the same. It’s unlikely that he would thrive in the Majors, but it’s equally unlikely that he would get blown out of the stadium. Those aren’t bad traits to have for a fifth starter, which is precisely what the Mets need. But his raw stuff is not as good as that of Takahashi.
THE DARK HORSE: R.A. Dickey, RHP
He’s a knuckleballer, which tells you all you need to know about Dickey, really. Born without an ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow, Dickey reinvented himself with the fluttering pitch earlier this decade, and has seen some tangible success at Triple-A this season: a 4-2 record and 2.23 ERA, including a complete game one-hitter last month. It would be a neat story if Dickey returned to the big leagues and flourished as a knuckleballer, even for a while. But the Mets have more dynamic (Takahashi) and safer (Misch) options, so it’s unlikely they will go down this route, even despite Dickey’s recent success.