Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Scouting Report: Mets at Nationals (9/17)

Statheads tend to believe that 'clutch hitting' ability doesn't exist, or among the less dogmatic that it exists but is a relatively minor factor lost in the statistical noise and sample size.

For me this is one place where common sense trumps mathematics. Poise under pressure exists. And it's a big factor, not a small one. If a player is feeling confident, focused, not rattled or overly nervous, etc., he'll tend to do better.

The reason why poise doesn't appear as a repeatable skill (in addition to all the statistical noise and sample size) is that we're not really talking about a skill. We're talking about emotions. Human beings are weird, complicated, unpredictable things. Emotions tend to be unpredictable and inconsistent.

Some people can't perform under pressure at all ever. You see people on game shows who suddenly can't remember their own names. No pro athlete is in this category--the very nature of their job every day requires them to perform in front of large crowds. But that doesn't mean they're all robots.

Experience isn't a silver-bullet--doubts can both be created and erased by experience. And sometimes you're just feeling a bit less confident because you had a fight with your girlfriend or you ate a fatty lunch or you just have some chemical thing happening in your brain that science doesn't understand.

Of course, it's not fair to just say every time a player doesn't come through in the clutch that he's choking either. In a sport where the very best fail 2/3s of the time, it's a statistical fact that great players will go 1 for 20 from time to time, as Wright, Reyes, and Beltran have this series.

But the Mets do seem to be pressing. They're more aggressive at the plate, swinging at a lot of junk out of the zone. Wright in the 9th struck out on what looked like a really long swing, trying to hit a homer when his #1 job was to not make an out. Reyes actually kinda looks like one of those people on the game shows who can't remember their names. And really, the pressure has to be tremendous. How could they not be feeling it right now?

Here's my take on game 3. (For more on New York's offense and bullpen, check out my preview of game one of last week's two game series. Nothing's changed except that Ramon Castro is back, but it looks like Schneider is still getting most of the starts.)

Pitching Match-Up
Brandon Knight: Last year, with the season on the line, facing a 3-game sweep at the hands of the Washington Nationals with just five games to play, the Mets turned to a 24-year-old named Phil Humber making his first major league start. Humber went four innings, giving up 5 runs on 6 hits and 2 walks. The Mets lost the game, part of a 1-6 skid in their last seven that cost this aging team perhaps their last best chance to win it all.

Tonight, they turn to 32-year-old journeyman Brandon Knight, making his second career start. With John Maine (shoulder) on the DL and the Mets coming off a double-header last Saturday, they need a spot start, and Knight is the guy.

Knight throws a fastball at around 91, a slider, change and curve. He has big strikeout numbers (11.42) at AAA this year and played for Team USA in Beijing. I frankly can't find much info on him, but he must have had a ton of injuries because he didn't pitch a single inning of pro ball in '03, '04, '05, or '07. After tonight, you'll probably never hear from him again.

Given that the Mets' bullpen is their weakest point, this isn't looking like the most optimum situation for a team that desperately needs a win.

Shairon Martis
: The Wowin' Curacaoan has two starts, 10 IP and a 2.70 ERA. He's been fortunate to have a nearly 80% strand rate and a silly .225 BABIP. But he struck out 9 Marlins in his last start and showed a change-up that was better than advertised. Command has been his biggest problem in the minors, and true to form he has a whopping 8 walks in his 10 innings. Long-term, K rate is probably the single most important stat for evaluating the high-end potential for a pitching prospect, so I'm excited by that. But short-term, gravity is pulling hard on Martis.

Fearless Prediction
(Season record: 28-18)
I've been predicting doom for Martis from the start, so why stop now. Knight can't be very good either, or else he wouldn't have made his first MLB start at 32. But we got shut out by someone named James Parr earlier this year, so I think it's more likely that the Nationals make Knight look adequate than Martis continues to defy gravity against the Mets. I see a Mets blowout, 11-4.

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