2003-06-27 / Sports

Is Age Catching Up With Mets’ Al Leiter?

By Bryan Hoch Baseball Columnist
Is Age Catching Up With Mets’ Al Leiter?

Is Age Catching Up With Mets’ Al Leiter?


By Bryan Hoch Baseball Columnist

You look at the Al Leiter, his 8-4 record firmly in tow, and you think that the veteran lefthander is off to a fine start, having another good season for the Mets.

It’s a mirage.

Despite his winning record, Leiter has struggled mightily this season for New York. After being tagged by the Florida Marlins for eight runs (seven earned) and eight hits on Tuesday night, Leiter’s ERA ballooned to 5.54 overall, including a ghastly 8.76 ERA in the month of June.

Leiter says he can’t quite put his finger on what’s going on, but a pretty good guess is just that this is the beginning of the golden sunset for the old battle warrior.

We get spoiled watching the power pitchers like Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan cruise past the age of 40, still blowing away major-league hitters who were even born when they were throwing heat in The Show. The truth of the matter is, not every pitcher is a lock to be effective into their late thirties, and Clemens and Ryan are the exception rather than the rule.

Leiter’s a power pitcher, one who gives his all with every pitch – anyone who’s listened closely to a TV broadcast and heard his grunts above the din of the crowd can attest to that. Lately, however, the glimmer of Leiter’s power seems to have dimmed slightly.

Are we saying Leiter can’t still be an effective pitcher for the Mets? We hope not; he’s under contract through 2004 – another one of those big-money Met blunders. But recently, he just hasn’t looked like the same bulldog, the veteran stalwart of the rotation, that he’s always been.

"I’d be lying to tell you that I feel great, or even very good, every night," Leiter said. "That just comes with age. … I feel 37. It’s part of getting older. This is what it is."

Leiter can usually tell when he’s going to have a good outing or a bad one based on how he throws in his bullpen session – there’s no David Wells mixups here, like when Boomer threw a terrible warmup in a drunken haze (so he says, anyway) and went out to pitch a perfect game against the Minnesota Twins in 1998.

Flash forward and across town to Tuesday, when it was another bad warmup and another bad outing against Florida – a team against whom Leiter’s given up three, five and eight runs against in his three starts this season.

Those numbers are in order of his starts, and Leiter – although he was careful to note that he didn’t want to be known as a "crybaby pitcher" – partially blames baseball’s unbalanced schedule for that.

"I absolutely believe that the hitter has the advantage," Leiter said. "We only have so many pitches, and they get to see our release point. All those guys over there [on Florida], I’ve faced them so many times."

Hey, blaming the schedule seems to be the hip thing to do around Shea these days. Manager Art Howe griped about the fact that his Mets have to see the Yankees for six games while other teams in his division see the Orioles and Devil Rays – a legitimate complaint, if the Mets were near a division race (which they aren’t).

For the record, Howe doesn’t think that having to face the Marlins, a team gasping for air on the outer fringes of the wild card hunt, is the problem with Leiter.

"The walks (5 on Tuesday, 56 overall) are what’s causing him not to be out there," Howe said. "It’s just too many pitches."

Indeed, it seems as though Leiter is trying to be too fine with his pitches of late. He soaked up information on working both sides of the plate from Tom Glavine this spring and began toying around with a change-up that runs away from righthanded hitters, a good idea, but not if it detracts from Leiter’s bread-and-butter pitch, the cutter high and tight to a righty.

Over his last nine starts, he’s needed to throw more than 100 pitches in seven of them – the two exceptions were a start against Seattle where he was in the showers after two innings and a disaster at San Francisco in which he allowed 10 runs and 13 hits in 4-1/3 innings. The results haven’t been kind: Leiter has only had one decent start in the month of June, a 109-pitch effort at Texas that saw him fire six shutout innings. The other three were just plain terrible, with the Mariners and Marlins (twice) slugging Leiter all the way to the bank.

"He’s a deep count guy," Howe said. "He’s got such good stuff that they don’t center the bat on it. Sometimes you wish they’d just make solid contact and put it in play, instead of wasting all those pitches."

A lot of times, you’ll hear the rap on a rookie pitcher that he doesn’t use his brain enough enough on the hill, that maybe he’s more of a ‘thrower’ – not a complimentary term. Leiter says that he may be the opposite: perhaps he’s over-analyzing each pitch, double and triple thinking every sequence to every hitter.

That gets mentally exhausting rather quickly, which leads to physical exhaustion, which leads to a lot of walks and a lot of earned runs. None of the above has been much of a stranger to Leiter. "Sometimes, I’m giving the hitter too much credit," he said. "But you can’t just throw the ball over the middle of the plate, because that doesn’t get the job done either … Contrary to what it looks like and seems statistically, I don’t feel that far off."

Email: bryanhoch@yahoo.com

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