Going in to tonight's game against the Yankees, Mets' fan should not be nervous about Hisanori Takahashi making his first major league start against the Yankees tonight. Far from it. In fact, those who have followed the history of this Subway Series rivalry know that Takahashi could be just the right person to have a breakthrough effort in Flushing.
The Mets have had unlikely hitting heroes (Matt Franco’s two-run walk-off single vs Mariano Rivera at Shea in 1999 comes to mind), and baserunning stars (think Steve Bieser forcing a balk from David Cone in a key spot to tie a Yankees-Mets clash in 1997 at Yankee Stadium) in this rivalry. But starting pitching has been an area of high-volume and surprising performance.
Case in point the very first game of Mets-Yankees interleague play on June 16, 1997, when Dave Mlicki scattered nine hits in a 6-0 shutout win over Andy Pettitte and the defending World Series champions. Mlicki finished his career with Mets 24-30 and his major league career with a 66-80 mark. But he has earned a soft spot in the hearts of fans forever with that performance.
A year later (June 28, 1998), the Mets and Yankees engaged in perhaps their best pitchers duel among their 72 meetings. Orlando Hernandez would set the stage for some memorable performances in his Yankees career by striking out nine over eight innings of one-run, two-hit ball.
Hernandez was matched, and almost bettered by unheralded Japanese rookie Masato Yoshii, who whiffed 10 in seven innings and only gave up two hits. His shutout bid spoiled by a Scott Brosius home run. The Mets would win in bizarre fashion in the bottom of the ninth on Luis Lopez’s sacrifice fly, one nearly spoiled by Brian McRae aimlessly wandering off first base.
Put Baseball-Reference.com and the Bill James Game Score metric (which awards points based on innings, strikeouts, runs, hits, and walks allowed) to use, and you’ll discover the two best Mets' pitching performances belong not to Al Leiter, Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine or Johan Santana (Santana and Glavine have three of the four-worst…Martinez does have the third-best), but to Kevin Appier and Shawn Estes.
Appier rates highest with a 79 for eight innings of scoreless baseball in Yankee Stadium on July 7, 2001. This was another great pitchers duel with Mike Mussina, though Appier scored higher for surrendering only four hits and striking out eight. The Mets would win, 3-0, in 10 innings when the unthinkable happened --five-straight batters reached base against Mariano Rivera, plating three runs to break the deadlock.
The James system doesn’t reward extra points for a pitchers offensive performance, but if it did, Estes would rank highest for his win on June 15, 2002. He finishes with a 77-point score for an 11-strikeout, five-hit , scoreless gem to beat Roger Clemens, 8-0.
This game is best remembered for Estes missing Clemens with an attempted brushback pitch (revenge for Clemens’ beaning of, and throwing the shard of a bat towards, Mike Piazza), though some forget that Estes also homered off Clemens in that contest. That made Estes both an unlikely pitching standout, and an unlikely offensive one as well. The only other pitcher who compares for what he did with his bat was reliever, Dae-Sung Koo (nicknamed “Mister”), for his double, and daring baserunning efforts to score a run against Yankees hurler Randy Johnson.
There’s one other unlikely star worth mentioning, though his victorious performance rates only 25th on the James scale. That would be current Mets reliever Fernando Nieve, who gave the Mets 6 2/3 innings of two-run, four-hit ball against the Yankees last June 13th.
That win came one day after the dropped popup by Luis Castillo that cost the Mets a win, a play that served as symbolic for a hopeless year. If we’re going to look for bonus points, Nieve should get many, for the emotional lift he provided the team and its fans in a season otherwise filled with dismal --memories.
The most immediate concern for Takahashi today: How to pitch to Derek Jeter. The Yankees shortstop may be dealing with some offensive struggles, but the Mets southpaw may be just what’s needed to cure those.
No one has a better career batting average against the Mets (minimum 100 AB) than Jeter (.386 avg.), but dig a little deeper and the numbers get even more amazing.
Jeter made outs the first four times he faced a Mets lefty. That foreshadowed absolutely nothing. For his career, Jeter is 46-for-102 with five home runs and 11 walks against Mets' left-handed pitching. That’s a .451 batting average, a .504 on-base percentage, and a 1.151 OPS.
Jeter is 4-for-4 with a walk in his last five turns against Mets lefties. The last one to get him out? Oliver Perez in 2008.
Three follow-ups to our David Wright piece from Thursday.
1- Regarding: the 0-for-46 since-the-beaning stat we presented regarding two-strike pitches out of the strike zone. Volume-wise, that’s almost entirely against right-handed pitchers (0-for-41), though it’s also worth noting that Wright was 5-for-11 from April to August of 2009 win at-bats against two-strike, out-of-the-zone pitches from lefties.
Since returning from being hit in the head, he’s 0-for-5 in those circumstances.
2- Wright’s bases-loaded double in the first inning statistically rectified another issue with which he’d been dealing. Wright, normally a devastating hitter with the bases loaded, was 1-for-7 with six strikeouts in his previous seven plate appearances vs right-handed pitchers before that hit against Luis Atilano.
3- We may have our next target for some video review analysis in Jose Reyes. Andrew Davis of ESPN Stats and Info pointed out last night that Reyes has had trouble all season in areas in which he’s previously been stellar: with two strikes (a .147 batting average, a more than 100-point drop from the well above-average .252 mark he posted in 2006 and 2007) and against offspeed/breaking pitches (.159 in 2010, after he hit .275 against them as recently as 2008). We’ll look closer as the sample-size accumulates.
Our leftover note of the night from Thursday’s win, via some Baseball-Reference investigation: Raul Valdes became the third Mets reliever to throw at least five innings AND earn a win, after entering the game in the first inning. The other two: Bill Wakefield in 1964 and Cal Koonce in 1969, which happened to be a pretty good season.