The Only Thing Mets Fans Have Left to Root For

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R.A. Dickey is having an amazing season pitching for a team that's got no hope of making the playoffs.

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Reuters

It's that time of year when fans of most baseball teams try to decide if there's anything left to hope for. That's what makes baseball different from most other sports. In football or basketball when your team is hopelessly out of contention, there's not much to do except give in to despair. But in baseball there are still individual players to root for and their records to think about.

The fans of the New York Mets have a real big one to occupy their minds and possibly console themselves with: Robert Allen Dickey. As the Mets get ready to play the Cincinnati Reds tonight with Dickey on the mound, they have a 55-61 record and are 16.5 games behind the front-running Washington Nationals in the National League East without a realistic shot at even a wild card slot.

For Mets fans, the year has been doubly disheartening. Last season, as team owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon staved off the threat of a disastrous financial meltdown due to their business dealings Bernie Madoff, fans stayed away in droves. No one, after all, expected anything from a team that had let its best player, NL batting champ Jose Reyes, go to free agency without even an offer.

Then, as Opening Day approached, the Madoff-related lawsuits were settled and something strange happened at Citifield. The Mets, with a roster of players obscure even to their fans, began to win. At the All-Star break, they were a respectable 46-40 and just 4.5 games behind the Nationals. But suddenly, things changed. As if in mockery of their fan's hopes, the Mets have won only 9 of the 30 games since the All-Star break. Last night, after holding the Central-division leading Cincinnati Reds scoreless for 8 innings, lost a 3-0 heartbreaker in the bottom of the ninth.

And yet, despite these enormous setbacks, the Mets have the league's best pitcher and the worthiest candidate for most valuable player: pitcher R.A. Dickey.

Dickey has a 15-3 record with a 2.72 ERA. He is leading the league in victories, strikeouts, shut-outs with two, and complete games with four. (He's the only NL pitcher who has completed more than two games.) In games where Dickey has not been involved in the decision, the Mets are 40-57. Let's say the same thing another way: Dickey's win-loss percentage is .833, while the W-L of the rest of the Mets' pitching staff is .444, a difference of 389 points. No other pitcher in the National League, or in all of baseball—no other player at any position—has meant as much to his team as Dickey has to the Mets this season.

Of course, baseball analysts are quick to point out that you can't always trust a pitcher's win-loss percentage or gage his value by it—he might be the beneficiary of extraordinary good luck in the form of run support or excellent relief pitching. In Dickey's case, though, neither is true. The Mets are a mediocre hitting team, seventh in the NL in runs scored, and dead last in bullpen ERA. Both stats indicate that Dickey's victories are attributable not to luck but to his own ability. In fact, the Mets' bullpen is so bad that Dickey's only chance of getting a win is to either complete it himself or go so far into a game that the Mets' relievers have little opportunity to blow it for him. That may be why his average of seven innings per start is the highest in the NL.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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