Thursday, June 19, 2008
Thanks for nothing, Tom Nieto
By Howard Megdal Special to Page 2
Lost in the media turmoil surrounding the firing of New York Mets manager Willie Randolph and pitching coach Rick Peterson was the long-overdue dismissal of first-base coach Tom Nieto. While Randolph was blamed for his failure to prevent 2007's epic collapse, and Peterson was faulted for his inability to summon decent performances from Guillermo Mota and Aaron Heilman, a careful study of the recent Mets failures clearly indicates that Nieto has been the problem.
The overall numbers say it all. From Opening Day through Monday, the Mets collected 419 singles, but just 124 doubles. The man holding runners up at first base, time and again? That's right -- Tom Nieto. This is not a result of small sample size -- in 2007, with "Red Light" Nieto on the case, the Mets hit 294 doubles, but an astounding 1,045 singles. Not surprisingly, the team failed to make the playoffs.
With Tom "Red Light" Nieto on the staff, it was as if the Mets had speed bumps on the basepaths.
A closer look at the way Nieto handled his coaching duties provides more insight into the team's ineptitude. Any first-base coach knows the importance of the congratulatory butt slap after a base hit. But "Questionable Rhythm" Nieto would often vary the number and tempo, even the force of his butt slaps. In an Aug. 29, 2007, game against the Phillies, he responded to Jose Reyes' first-inning bunt single by butt slapping while saying "Shave and a haircut -- two bits." The startled Reyes was promptly picked off. New York lost the game 3-2.
But it's not just the butt slap that helps to make a first-base coach; it's the ideas behind the butt slap. And Nieto's messages were often shockingly erroneous on matters of grammar and syntax. In the second inning of a game against the Diamondbacks on June 10, David Wright blasted a two-run homer to give the Mets a 5-1 lead. As he rounded first base, "Fundamentally Misreading Strunk and White" Nieto called out, "You hit that one real nice, David!" Devastated by Nieto's use of "nice" rather than "nicely," the Mets bats became silent, and Arizona rallied for a 9-5 victory. Indeed, during Nieto's reign of terror, the Mets have been consistently near the bottom of the National League in adverbs.
Most inexcusable is Nieto's shackling of would-be base stealer Ramon Castro, an extra weapon who could have made the difference in New York's one-run losses. The deceptively fast catcher reached base at a .336 clip in 2007 and a .356 rate in 2008, but how many steals did he have to show for it? Zero. Considering his five thefts in 10 attempts for the 1994 Gulf Coast League Astros, as well as his steal in 2005, clearly talent isn't what kept Castro from utilizing his speed. But a quick look at Nieto's playing record, with his 251 games, 619 at-bats and zero stolen bases make it clear that "If I Couldn't Read the Pitcher's Move, No Catcher Can" Nieto simply didn't recognize that the fleet-footed Castro was a double waiting to happen.
Notice that Ken Oberkfell, who had been the Mets' Triple-A manager at New Orleans, takes over in the first-base coaching box. His time in the home of Dixieland Jazz will make butt-slap rhythm problems a thing of the past. Indeed, all of New York's primary issues listed above, along with secondary concerns such as the lack of reliable setup men, two injured outfielders with unknown timetables for return and a completely ineffectual bench should disappear faster than a Ramon Castro dash from first to third. The Mets' rebuilding plan is coming along nicely.
Howard Megdal writes for the New York Observer and other outlets. His book on Jewish baseball players will be published by HarperCollins in 2009. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.