Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Church of Sporadic Offense

This is #1 of 5 Key Mets Players for the 2009 season.

The last man ever to swing a bat in Shea Stadium was Ryan Church.

If things had broken a little better for him during the '08 season, perhaps that final swing could have taken place under vastly different circumstances.

If the 2008 season for the Mets could be best described as long, frustrating and ultimately unfulfilling, perhaps nobody exemplified this more than Ryan Church.

After arriving in New York in a rather controversial trade, Church certainly had a number of questions surrounding him. Could he hit lefties? Could he hit for power and drive in runs on a consistent basis? Would he be able to hold down the bottom third of a batting order that stood to peck and scrape for runs?

At the outset, the answer to all of those questions turned out to be a resounding YES! While the rest of the team seemed to be in their own fog, Church broke from the gate and played like he really had something to prove. Over the first two months of the season, nobody was playing better than Church. He kick started it off with a rally-extending single on Opening Day, and only went up from there, finishing April with a .316 BA and 19 RBIs. His defense in Right Field was more than solid as well, as he chipped in with a strong arm and great range to complement Beltran in Center. May started, and Church continued to swing a hot bat. His power numbers picked up, and by May 20th, Church had a robust 9 HRs and 32 RBIs for a team that wasn't scoring much.

Then, came the nightcap of a miserable May 20th Doubleheader.
Trying to break up what would be a game-ending Double Play, Church's high slide led him straight into the knee of a leaping Yunel Escobar. The resulting collision was brutal, ugly and ultimately short-circuited Ryan Church's entire season.

Whether or not the Mets Medical staff botched the handling of Church's second concussion in three months is academic. Church should have been sent back to New York and immediately put on the Disabled List until his head was clear. But, instead, Church played on. But it was clear that he wasn't right. After about a week's worth of Pinch-Hitting appearances, Church was back in the starting lineup on June 1st. He responded with a fine game, even hitting a HR off Hiroki Kuroda.

Church would go 0 for his next 10 before being placed on the Disabled List for the next few weeks. He wouldn't appear again until June 29th. Clearly, something was very wrong. Again, Church claimed he felt good, and he certainly looked good, picking up a pair of hits in a victory over the Yankees. When he continued to play well the following week, we again thought Church was back. But on July 5th, he left the game against the Phillies in the 8th inning with Dizzy spells.

He would not play again until August 22nd. For June, July and August, he played a grand total of 20 games.

When he returned, he played his heart out, and the fans knew it and appreciated it. But he hit .195 for August and September, and clearly killed the Mets in a number of spots. Instead of being a bottom of the order run producer, Church instead deepened the Black Hole at the end of the lineup. His hits counted, including a Grand Slam in Milwaukee, and a pair of clutch hits (and an even more clutch slide) in the frenetic September 25th game vs. Chicago. It was clear that he couldn't be counted on, and he probably wasn't playing at 100%, and yet Jerry Manuel continued to run him out there day after day, until that final afternoon, when he embarrassingly struck out in his first 3 at bats before making that final swing and lofting that final fly ball out to Center Field.

After the season, there were revelations that he hated New York and wanted to be traded, though the prevailing thought was that this was little more than a Mike Francesa Creation, and Church and his wife were happy, and moved with the fans response to Church, particularly after he returned from the DL. Whether this is true or not, Church is back, and for better or worse will be the starting Right Fielder on Opening Day.

[Note: Some further research revealed Francesa's comments to be totally False. Church sounded off on this in an article here, and was further corroborated here.]

The question is, what, exactly, do we have in Ryan Church? His career norms don't jump off the page at you, and his 2008 season all told didn't vary from those numbers at all. The 43 doubles he hit in 2007 while playing in cavernous RFK Stadium were a good indicator of his gap power, and Church certainly displayed that when he was going good, though he didn't come close to 43 doubles for the '08 season.
It's clear that Church certainly has the capability to play well for a good streak of time. I don't think his hot start was an aberration. But it's unclear as to whether or not he can keep that sort of a streak going over the course of a full season, and end up hitting .290 or .300 with 20 HRs and 80 RBIs. These are the kind of numbers that the Mets are probably going to need out of Church if they expect to challenge for the NL East. Given that it's going to be the same cast of characters playing out there for the Mets in 2009, and given that the Mets didn't bring in a righty bat to platoon with Church if he begins to falter against lefty pitching, it is incumbent upon Church to show that his concussion battles are behind him, and that the hot start he got off to in 2008 was no fluke.

After the season, I wrote that teams were pitching around Delgado and Beltran to pitch to Church, and Church was justifying the move every single time. If Church hits, and hits well, it means that Beltran and Delgado get better pitches to hit in front of him, it means guys like Daniel Murphy don't have quite as much pressure on them to get that big hit, and it means that the Mets lineup looks a lot better from top to bottom.

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