Little Sarge Striking Out

>Okay, let’s get this out of the way: I am not a Gary Matthews Jr. fan. I didn’t understand why the Mets gave up Brian Stokes in exchange for a quad-A center fielder, and then signed that quad-A center fielder to what amounted a two-year contract by picking a few million dollars left on his albatrocity* of a contract.

*I can’t remember where I saw that word used, but someone somewhere used it to describe Ryan Howard’s contract, and I love it.

I didn’t understand the deal, because I apparently didn’t see whatever it was the Mets were seeing, or thinking they saw. In his three seasons with the Angels, Gary Matthews Jr. hit for an OPS+ of 85, or an OPS roughly 7.5% worse than the average American League hitter, which is to say: not good. But still, that would be acceptable offensive production from a center fielder, provided that Matthews was still an outstanding defender, as his reputation had it – after all, he made that spectacular catch for Texas a few years ago. He must be good, right?

Reputations, however, often outlast the lifespans of the skills that create them – and then you end up with The Who stumbling around at the Super Bowl, and no one is a happy jack. The problem with Matthews was that despite his reputation as a defensive wizard, over those three seasons with the Angels, Little Sarge was consistently rated by every defensive statistic (Fangraphs’ UZR, John Dewan’s Defensive Runs Saved, Baseball Prospectus’ Fielding Runs Above Average) as being a miserable outfielder, one of the major league’s worse players patrolling center field. Even the wonderful Fan Scouting Reports – defensive scouting reports filled out by regular people like me who just watch their teams play – had Matthews rated as a poor defensive outfielder, worse defensively than his teammate Bobby Abreu. And Bobby Abreu, an outfielder in name only, often looks far more like he’s chasing down butterflies in right field than fly balls.

So while in Los Angeles of Anaheim, or the Anaheim of Los Angeles, or whatever it’s called, Matthews didn’t hit very well and he didn’t field very well. He really didn’t do anything very well – but I guess you could argue he just needed a change of scenery. It worked for Jeff Francoeur for a few months last season. Milton Bradley was obviously miserable in Chicago and needed to get out to the rainy caffeine anonymity of Seattle. Matthews, who was not playing regularly with the Angels, may not have been so obviously miserable, but he was certainly a change of scenery candidate, a fifth outfielder with a massive contract who wasn’t playing and may not have been happy about it.

Unfortunately for everyone who isn’t Jason Pridie, in his new Flushing scenery, Gary Matthews Jr. has been impossibly awful. He has struck out 14 times in 42 plate appearances, or one out of every three trips to the plate, with just five walks to accompany those fourteen strikeouts. He has just five hits, with a .238 on-base percentage and a slugging percentage of .166, good for an on-base plus slugging of .404. He has hit as many line drives as he has pop-ups on the infield, two apiece. He is 0 for his last 13.

Still, that’s just 42 trips to the plate, and there’s no way a batter who got on-base at a .338 rate last season has suddenly fallen off a cliff this steep, right? Gary Matthews Jr. is not longer close to what he used to be, but there can’t be anyway he’s actually this bad. (Spoiler Alert: Yes, there is). After all, he posted an .697 OPS last season, and actually got enough clutch hits to push his win probability added – a statistic the measures how much a batter or pitcher altered his teams chance of winning a game for better or worse – into the two win range in limited at-bats. He wasn’t great, but certainly not as unspeakably awful as this incarnation of Matthews has been.

Here’s the thing though: Gary Matthews Jr., at age 35, might really be this bad. Baseball-Reference lists the ten hitters most similar to Matthews Jr. at age 34, his age last season:

Michael Tucker
Scott Spiezio
Glenn Wilson
Ken Henderson
Mike Devereaux
Kevin Bass
Bernard Gilkey
Lee Mazilli
Jay Johnstone
Hector Lopez

Five of those listed hitters – Spiezio, Wilson, Henderson, Gilkey, and Mazzilli – did not play after their age 34 season. Two more of them, Tucker and Devereaux, combined to play in just 44 more games after age 34. Bass and Lopez hung around for two part-time seasons a piece, and only Johnstone was able to stick for a while, accumulating 593 at-bats over five more seasons.

Or, to put it another way, seven of the ten hitters MOST similar to Gary Matthews Jr. combined to play in all of 44 games after the age of 34, and only one batter lasted more than two seasons. It appears that, for whatever reasons, batters similar to Matthews Jr. – think middle of the pack on-base guys who flash decent power for a few years in their prime – tend to not fare well into their mid-thirties, and often don’t make it past age 35.

What I suspect happens, is that once these guy’s power and defense disappear with aging, there’s nothing left to support their average on-base skills. If you’re only skill is getting on-base at an average rate, there really isn’t much room for you anywhere.

On the other hand, Matthews Jr. has indeed been bad, but he’s certainly not THIS bad. No one is this bad. I suspect that Gary Matthews Jr., if given enough plate appearances, will fight his way out of this slump and come closer to something resembling a .700 OPS. And a .700 OPS would at least be slightly better than the .404 he is putting up now. On the other hand, if a player’s only skill is putting up a powerless .700 OPS with poor defense, when the league average OPS is sitting around .750 and league average defense is, by definition, something resembling league average defense, then I’m not sure I see the point of having that player around anymore. Gary Matthews Jr., with his poor defense and lack of pop, is Luis Castillo, minus Luis Castillo’s particular talent at not swinging at anything, and plus Matthew’s proud stallion trot in place of Castillo’s limp.

The Mets took a gamble on a change of scenery candidate – though it was probably a bad gamble on an old center fielder, one to whom many unfortunately comparable players can be found – and it appears that they lost. I disagreed with the move, but there are intelligent people in the Mets front office who thought it was the right way to go. They have a say, and I just get to write one that doesn’t matter, and I’ll happily accept that there’s a good reason for each of our circumstances. They had their reasons. It was a gamble similar to the one the Mets took on Francoeur, and similar to the one that the Mariners are taking on Milton Bradley, but it hasn’t worked out. Matthews’ problems apparently have much more to do with age than with being disgruntled, now that he is presumably gruntled. It is clear the gamble has not paid off.

So here’s what it comes down to: Gary Matthews Jr. is going to get paid no matter what the Mets do. If he plays in Flushing for the next two years, he gets paid, and if he sits on a beach in Florida, he gets paid. Where he goes isn’t all that important, as the company card has already been charged in advanced. Here’s what is important: If Matthews plays for the Mets and stinks, he will help the Mets lose games. If he doesn’t play for the Mets, maybe someone else can help them win games. Even if he bounced back into .700 OPS form, he won’t help the Mets win many games.

So while I think it’s obvious what the Mets SHOULD do, but I’m not sure it’s so obvious what they’re GOING to do. I suspect Matthews will be around for a bit more. If Gary Matthews Jr. wasn’t being paid for this season and next season, it would be effortless to bring up Jason Pridie and his glove to back up Angel Pagan in ce
nter. However, Matthews is getting paid a certain amount of money, and the Mets take far too long to accept that their investments are bringing them no returns, and are in fact only causing them to go deeper into debt.

It’s hard to admit you made a mistake, and it is just May, and it is just a backup center fielder and there are so many other problems to worry about, and blaming Gary Matthews Jr. for them all seems silly. And the Mets are just a half-game out of first.

And, really, it is JUST a backup center fielder – but it’s also JUST a backup middle infielder, and JUST a left handed pinch-hitter that can’t pinch hit, and JUST a couple of rotation spots and JUST the back end of the bullpen. Some of those are pieces that could easily be improved internally, and I imagine the Mets will get around to fixing their mistakes eventually, but not quickly, as per their usual time-line. And it’s a shame, because every day the Mets drag their feet is another day the brilliant window of opportunity provided by David Wright and Jose Reyes gets a day closer to shutting.

The Mets don’t like to appear panicky and make quick decisions, which is too bad. Think of how long the Willie Randolph managerial death watch was dragged out. How long other older players hung around. How long Jorge Sosa was kept in the rotation. The way everyone’s rehabilitation seems to be handled. None of that needed to happen. Sometimes it’s okay to be panicky – they should be panicky. Sometimes you only get one shot.


Filed under Columns, Mets, Words

2 responses to “Little Sarge Striking Out

  1. William

    >The sunk-cost fallacy: just about sums up the Mets' approach to contract management. That's high school Econ right there.Sigh.

  2. Anonymous

    >I don't think the Francoeur trade compares. Francoeur was only 25 and already had more success. Though the change of scenery I think most definitely helped.

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