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Sunday, May 09, 2004

Down and Out: Yates Down, Mets Future Out 

After taking the loss against the Brewers yesterday, Tyler Yates was optioned to AAA and James Baldwin (no relation to these guys) was brought up to take his spot in the rotation. Simply put, the Mets gave up on a talented, hard throwing rookie who will be a key cog in the future of this team after only 6 starts in favor of a washed up 33 year old scrub with a career 5.02 ERA who will be a key cog in AARP soon. But hey, the scrub had a decent 33 innings in Norflok. Can someone please get me something, I think I'm going to be sick.

What makes my stomach turn is that Yates' did not crash and burn, a la Grant Roberts, but rather his problems stemmed from ordinary run of the mill rookie mistakes: 1) missing his spots; 2) getting a little too much of the plate in pitchers' counts; and 3) combined with 2, problems finishing hitters off. These are problems that will stay masked or worsen in the minors and can only get better in the bigs facing Major League hitters under the watchful eye of Rick Peterson. In the minors, Yates has been able to get away with not burying a 1 and 2 fastball inside enough. In the majors it gets drilled. In the minors Yates doesn't learn because he gets away with it. In the majors, after watching said 1/2 fastball sail over the outfield wall, Yates learns. To think Yates should have made these adjustments in only 6 starts is laughable.

What's not funny, however, is the demotion of Yates and the promotion of the scrub signals that the Mets brass does not have the stomach to handle a rebuilding project. Yes Yates, while showing flashes of brilliance, also displayed poor decision-making and execution that you will get with any rookie, save the very rare phenoms. Yes, a 6.04 ERA is not pretty. Welcome to rebuilding, a necessary present evil in hopes of achieving future success. But Yates' 1 and 4 record and 6.04 ERA is not nearly as bad as it looks. First of all, take away the awful game against Atlanta that should have never been played in that weather and Yates' ERA dips to 4.98. Again, not great, but not that bad for a rookie feeling his way through his first few starts. Second, consider that the Mets offense has only averaged 2.4 runs of support in those 5 games for Yates and we see that his poor win/loss record is deceiving. Lastly, consider that the defense has been God awful when Yates pitches. The Hardball Times stats through 5/6 (thanks to Jeremy for directing me over there), show us that Yates has had the worst Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER) of all the Mets starting pitchers. In other words, the new and improved Met defense is not converting batted balls into outs when Yates pitches. Not surprisingly, Yates' Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), which is basically the proportion of ERA that can be directly attributed to the pitcher, has been 1.69, better than both Jae Weong Seo and Steve Trachsel. Add 3.20 to that FIP to get an approximation of what Yates' ERA would be with an "average" defense behind him, and we're looking at a 4.89 ERA. Again, not great but not bad for a rookie through his first 5 big league starts. Compare this to Yate's actual ERA through 5/6, which was 5.63, and you can see that the Mets defense has been particularly bad when Yates starts. A veteran pitcher should be expected to overcome a defense that puts almost a full run onto his ERA and still walk away with a win, not a rookie 5 or 6 starts into his first season.

Some argue that the only success Yates has had has been against the Montreal Expos, which, as the logic goes, are only a minor league team masquerading as a big league club. I don't think that's a fair critique. First of all, the Expos have some very good hitters on their team, like Carl Everett and Jose Vidro to name a few. Secondly, Yates faced the Expos in his last spring training game so the hitters had seen and had time to prepare for him in his first start on 4/9. They couldn't, as Yates blanked them through 6 IP. Then Yates had to go up against the Expos again on 4/19 and by this time those hitters had a chance to see Yates twice in only a few week period. They could not adjust again, as Yates held them to one run in 5.2 IP. Lastly, whenever anyone criticizes any Met pitcher for "only" beating the Expos or any Met batter for their success against Expos pitching, I remind myself that these "lowly" Expos were picked by many so called "experts" to finish ahead of the Mets this season.

Others argue that 6 games should have been enough for Yates to show that he is able to adjust and improve. My first response to that is to say that 6 starts is nothing. However, assuming 6 starts is enough for a rookie pitcher to make noticeable improvements on the Major League level, I contend that Yates was indeed improving. That is, improving until he was given a one-way Greyhound ticket to Virginny. Yates had much success in the minor leagues primarily due to his solid strike out numbers, where he punched out 8.5 batters per 9 IP throughout his minor league career. Yates even maintained this number after Tommy John surgery and switching over to be a starting pitcher. Yates' problems this year stemmed from the aforementioned piss poor defense combined with the fact that he wasn't missing many bats. Through his first 5 starts Yates had only struck out 4.7 batters per 9 IP. In his last start, however, Yates struck out 5 batters in only 5 IP, including back to back Ks with the bases loaded to get out of a jam (i.e. learning and adjusting). But for one errant pitch to Lyle Overbay, one of the hottest hitters in baseball right now, Yates was well on his way to a solid outing.

While Yates has pitched better than his numbers indicate, sending him down is part of a bigger issue. Whether its Yates, Seo, Aaron Heilman, Matt Peterson, or Scott Kazmir, early big league struggles should be expected and worked with. Instead, the Mets made a move as if they were in the thick of a pennant race by hindering the progress of a young pitcher who will be essential for the future, in an effort to gain a few more wins this year - a year that just about everyone agrees will not include October play. I don't know about you, but I'd forego those "meaningful games" this September for playoff games the next few years. The Mets, on the other hand, would rather risk the playoffs and a possible World Series title in 2005 and beyond to simply put some fannies in the seats this year. Perhaps it's Fred Wilpon who needs this and not me because to get better the team has to be able to stomach suffering through some growing pains.
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