Baseball has been swallowed by advanced metrics and number-crunching over the past decade, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If we have data, why not use it? People who don’t want to believe in climate change simply point to the 10-feet of snow this winter they shoveled this winter. But that’s where average global temperature spiking, the annual increase in sea level, and arctic ice minimum stats come in handy. Let’s use the information to make better decisions.
The sabermetricians have their VORP, FIP, and wOBA, which certainly helps explain why baseball teams add talent at the trade deadline. But the other part is the human condition, and you need both to tell the story.
The Mets and Blue Jays have been white hot since the deadline. Toronto has won 11 straight, New York 11 of 13. And both have surged to rip away first place in their divisions. No doubt, when you add elite players like David Price, Troy Tulowitzki and Yoenis Cespedes, your metrics improve. But there’s something else, and I went to Citi Field Thursday to ask about it.
The Mets have had one of the most delirious turnarounds in recent Big Apple history. They were a .500 team, flailing to score any runs, an already cynical fan base watching another year go up in smoke like the exhaust of a garbage truck in the Flushing chop shops. Negativity? You’ve never seen an unhappier fan base than when the Mets are good, not great. Because good always amounts to heartache. That’s just the way it goes in Queens.
But since acquiring Cespedes, Tyler Clippard, Kelly Johnson, and Juan Uribe, the team has walked on clouds. Wilmer Flores thought he was traded and cried on television (mirroring how it often feels to be a Mets fan). The Carlos Gomez trade fell through, because… what, the Mets pulled out? They blew a 7-1 lead to the Padres in the rain drops the next day, and the season was lost. It was guaranteed.
And then a funny thing happened. It all turned around. The new guys started hitting. The other new guy helped the bullpen. That helped the old guys do their jobs better. And it became a glowing stream, game after game, like the taillights leaving the stadium on the Grand Central Parkway. Everyone has picked up each other, helped the next guy do his job better.
After yesterday’s 12-3 thrashing and a 4-game sweep of the Rockies, I asked manager Terry Collins if that was a sign to him that things had definitively changed. Instead of being content with taking the first three, and coming out sluggish for a 12:10p first pitch (early start for Kids Camp Day), they stepped on the gas and didn’t let up.
“It’s a good way to describe it.” Collins told me. “It starts to spread, when your name is in the lineup, get involved. Do your part. It does catch on. We knew coming in, this would be a big series for us. We have teams in the race that we have to play. We have to get it going.”
The Mets have one of the best home records in all of baseball (42-18). Is that all about metrics, or assisted by a fan base that has been desperate for something to cheer for? Mets fans are by nature a simultaneously romantic and cynical bunch. Many of us are fans because of the Brooklyn Dodgers. My family is all from Brooklyn, who grew to love the Boys of Flatbush, then adopted the Mets when the Dodgers left. So that twinkle of ’69, and ’86, and Piazza’s homerun after 9/11, that’s all in the DNA, a nod to the 1955 Bums. Life can be good. Momentarily.
But there’s also Soscia’s homerun, and the ’07 collapse, and all those losses to the Braves that are mixed in there too. Plus, Vince Coleman’s firecrackers, Bret Saberhagan’s bleach, Bobby Bo’s earplugs (and contract), and all the nonsense that seems to swirl around the franchise. Hey, Madoff, hope you’re enjoying solitary confinement (kinda like Jason Bay). Life can be bad too.
So the crowd now has juice. You hear things like, “I don’t want to be hurt again, but man I love this team,” all over the city. And even when things are good, Mets fans worry about whether Cespedes can be resigned or if David Wright’s imminent return will ruin some delicate cosmic balance. And what would we be without worry? We’d be Yankee fans. Yuck.
I asked young fireballer Noah Syndergaard if the fans make a difference. When he, Jacob deGrom, or Matt Harvey pitch at Citi, the Mets are 27-6 with a sub-two ERA. “The crowd definitely plays a factor. We’re just a lot more comfortable being able to pitch at home, as opposed to being on the road.”
Michael Cuddyer was brought in this offseason for his steady bat, but also for his experience and savvy. Fifteen years in the game will give you some perspective. I asked him if he had ever witnessed a complete turnaround at the deadline like this one.
“We had a trade back when I was in Minnesota when we acquired Shannon Stewart (2003), and that kinda took us over the hump. He ended up (fourth) in the MVP voting that year because of the vault and the emotional lift he gave us. We ended up making the postseason because of it.”
Is that the baseball part of this? The stats, the numbers, the metrics? Or is it something else? The lift. The vault. Cuddyer was slumping and injured before the trades. Since his return, he’s had a jolt too.
“As much as we like to think so, baseball is not where one guy can be a savior,” Cuddyer told me. “One guy can jump start things, but the guys we have in the dugout have also picked things up.”
New York is a cranky town. Too many people. Too many tourists. Too much traffic. Too much noise. It’s too hot, or too cold, or too expensive. But one guy who has had a perma-smile stitched on his face has been Curtis Granderson. Between the Bronx and Queens, Grandy has played for six years here. And he never seems to be in anything but the best mood ever. How does he do it when the fans and media are so critical and impatient?
“Regardless, you know you’re gonna have ups and downs,” he told me. “Gotta try your best to stay as positive as you can be. When things are going well, the positive obviously shines through. When we’ve run through the tough spells that we’ve had over the season, continuing to remain positive, that’s the tough part. Hopefully to get everybody to jump on board and do it.”
Yeah, but it’s gotta be hard when everyone in the city wants more wins, more hits, more playoff games, right? It’s 162 Game 7’s in NYC, a daily drama unfolding on the radio airwaves and the back pages.
“The fans here have the ability to go both ways, there’s 8 million people here,” Grandy says. “There’s a lot of teams to cheer for and be a fan of. Regardless, it’s still us in this clubhouse. No matter who happens to watch us, or not watch us we just have to worry about ourselves here. As long as everyone in this clubhouse remains positive that’s a good sign.”
Positivity. The Vault. Starts to spread. Something is happening in Queens and Toronto and Houston, the same way it’s happened in Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore recently. The long-dormant baseball towns are alive and electric. Yeah, it’s about numbers. But it’s also about a lot more.
D.A. hosts 6-10pm ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.