Pinch-hit hero Mike Baxter can't crack the Mets' starting outfield, for some reason
Just what do the New York Mets have in Mike Baxter?
This week, they've had a hitter capable of ending games. Baxter came off the bench and delivered the game-winning single on Tuesday night to beat the Chicago White Sox. Thursday night, he did it again, this time in the ninth inning to beat the Pittsburgh Pirates, 3-2.
"Kind of talking to the players that we've had in the past that have had a lot of experience pinch hitting, and Teuf [Tim Teufel] and some of the guys on the staff that have done it quite a bit in the big leagues, I think the consensus among them is you've got to be a little more aggressive right from the start of your at-bat, just because you've been idle all game and you don't have that rhythm of the game," Baxter told reporters after the game Thursday night. "Sometimes it's beneficial if you get a pitch in the zone, a fastball that you're looking for, you probably should go ahead and get your timing on that first one."
The approach Baxter described is at odds with Baxter's results since coming to the Mets on a waiver claim from the San Diego Padres in July 2011. He's walked 38 times in 314 plate appearances over three seasons, allowing him to post a robust .366 on-base percentage despite an ordinary .260 average. Add in some decent power, and Baxter has a 116 O.P.S.+ as a Met.
Since he plays the outfield, at times spectacularly (see Johan Santana's big night), and the outfield is not exactly an area of strength for the Mets ... why has Baxter started just 11 times in 31 games?
One answer is his splits. He's a .798 O.P.S. hitter against righties, which is good. He's a .398 O.P.S. hitter against lefties, which is poor for a pitcher, let alone an outfielder. He's gotten just 32 plate appearances against lefties, hardly a fair sample. But he didn't hit lefties in the minors, either, and there's little to suggest he should be playing against them more.
But there's another platoon split that could be playing into Terry Collins' mind, and it is one that shouldn't. Baxter is a career .709 O.P.S. hitter as a starter, but .901 off the bench. The difference is magnified in 2013, with a .665 O.P.S. as a starter, .940 as a substitute. And for all his talk about aggressiveness off the bench, his walk rate is actually higher as a reserve than as a starter.
Collins is unusually intrigued by Baxter's bench work.
"This guy comes off the bench with a plan, with something in his mind, and he executes it," Collins said after the game Thursday night. "It's truly amazing, because that is one tough job. And for a young guy to do it as well as he does, it is truly remarkable."
Still, even if it turns out Baxter is no good as a regular, the Mets might want to do what it takes to find out. They don't have three outfielders competent enough to hit at above league average rates and field the outfield positions well. And Baxter is 28, under team control for the next four years if they so choose. He's not a prospect, but he's as close an approximation to one as the Mets have on the team or in the upper minors.
When the Mets are facing righties, there's no good reason Baxter should be on the bench.
Elsewhere in New York sports: