The Mets and the Magic of Baseball

In an analytics-driven era, the New York team has defied statistics and predictions to tell a more compelling story.

USA Today Sports / Reuters

In the days leading up to the 2015 baseball season, the Washington Nationals were anointed the Team to Watch. They had won 96 games in 2014, they’d just added the former Cy Young winner Max Scherzer in the winter, and their precocious superstar, the outfielder Bryce Harper, seemed on the verge of fully tapping his enormous potential. Of the 88 ESPN writers polled before the season’s start, nearly all predicted the Nationals would win their division, and they were the top pick to win the World Series. One of Sports Illustrated’s season preview issues featured Scherzer and Harper on the cover, next to a headline positioning them as a rare superteam in an age of parity.

Those high hopes have since vanished. Two weeks ago, the New York Mets beat the Nationals 5-3, capping a series sweep and growing their division lead over the Nats to seven games with the regular season coming to a close. This nearly universally unpredicted outcome was the result of divergent strands of fortune: The Nationals had endured a season marred by injury and underperformance from some segments of their celebrated roster. Meanwhile, the Mets, largely thought to be chum for the purported D.C. leviathan, managed to hang in the division race for most of the summer before starting their impressive stretch at the beginning of August.

There are more exhaustive explanations than the one above for how the National League East has unfolded. Of the major American professional sports, baseball is the least stylistically variable and has the most data points over its 162-game season. As such, it’s the ideal laboratory for the now-encompassing movement of sports analytics. Managers have a firmer grasp on individual players’ values than at any point in history, and projection systems tasked with playing out entire seasons before the first pitch has even been thrown. Which is to say: The ESPN writers who picked the Nationals to skate to a division title had a great deal more than gut feelings and appraisals of pluck to go on. They can also do a great deal more than shrug their shoulders by way of explaining what went wrong.

For a certain strain of fan, though, teasing out the reasons for the flipped script is less rewarding than simply basking in it. As baseball has become smarter, it’s also become more predictable, and supposedly sure things are surer than ever before. A team like the present Mets, then, carries with it the hopes not only of a single fanbase but also of those who miss a certain kind of shock baseball once seemed more inclined to provide, back when its mechanisms were more inscrutable and its explanations tipped toward the mythic.

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This Mets season is best appreciated not as a culmination of years of modern baseball preparation—scouting, analyzing, player development, budgeting, free-agent signings, cheap buys, and timely sells—but as a mad, miraculous rush. The complaint common about “Based on a True Story” Hollywood films is that they sand down rough edges and confine everything to a tidy package of causality and archetype. But I defy fans to watch the Mets for even an hour without giving into the urge of turning the players into characters in a story.

There are the gifted kids—the long-coiffed pitchers Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard. There are the wizened old hands—the 42-year-old pitcher Bartolo Colón and the 36-year-old infielder Juan Uribe, both well past their All-Star primes but beloved for their clubhouse tutelage and sense of joyful ease. David Wright, a third baseman and lone holdover from the last Mets team to win the division, missed much of the season due to injury but hit a soaring home run in his first at-bat back. Matt Harvey, the All-Star pitcher who set off a brouhaha recently when he and his agent raised the possibility of an innings limit after Harvey missed 2014 recovering from elbow surgery, provides ability and controversy in equal measure. Yoenis Céspedes, the trunk-torsoed and omni-talented outfielder brought to New York at the trade deadline, both bats third and personifies the optimism surrounding the team—their hottest stretch of the season coincided with his arrival.

If portions of the Mets’ essence belong to its individual members, the soul should be divided equally between Terry Collins and the utility man Wilmer Flores. The former, a 66-year-old baseball lifer, has helmed three Major League teams for a total of 10 seasons, never reaching the postseason; the Mets’ current postseason drought stands at eight years, nearly a mirroring decade. The latter wept on the field one night in July, using his sleeve to dry his eyes so as not to disturb his glove, when he heard he was about to be traded. He had been a part of the Mets organization since he was 16 years old, when the team signed the young Venezuelan to a minor-league contract. The rumor turned out to be unfounded, or the trade rescinded, and Flores has since become a cult hero in Queens, the rare athlete whose care fans can be sure isn’t just a projection of their own.

Hanging over everything is the pall of persistent trouble, the cloudy skies that lend noble tales heft. One part of the trouble comes from lore—these are the Mets, after all, kid brothers to the dapper and well-funded club a borough over, seemingly fated to receive forever the bad breaks balancing the Yankees’ good fortune. Their champions dissolve instead of calcifying into dynasties; their fallow periods span decades. Another part of the trouble comes from that rough luck’s latest iteration. The Mets owner Fred Wilpon invested with Bernie Madoff a few years back; since then, his hamstrung ballclub has spent sparely. The young pitchers may soon age out of affordability, and there’s no telling if Céspedes, a free agent at year’s end, will receive enough of an offer to convince him to stay in New York.

With all this—the franchise’s financial straits, its sorry history, the knowledge that whatever gains are accrued this year may evaporate with the season’s final out—it would take a robotic temperament to resist viewing this season through the lens of narrative, to consider it anything other than evidence of baseball’s sub-statistical, human pulse. Successes, in the Mets’ current climate, seem to owe less to sheer compiled talent than to interplays of experience and optimism and gravity. Failures become sustenance, morsels of worldliness stocked for the next time around.

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Can Wright’s return homer, Céspedes’s timely line drives and heat-seeking throws, and Colón’s jolly dugout counseling signal anything other than the efficacy of this team’s mix of tabloid fervor, clubhouse guidance, youthful fearlessness, and hard-earned aspiration? Of course they can. The Mets’ run from afterthought to contender is unusual but, in the long history of professional baseball, hardly unprecedented. It fits neatly within the game’s tradition of aberration and has many of the common causes, for those looking for them. There were injuries and regression on the Nationals’ side; undervalued talent, timely acquisitions, and some fortuitous bounces on their own.

But the fan’s memory is unscientific, and it’s hard to remember a team in recent history that has made fortune look as much like fate as this one. New York now stands almost 10 games up on the collapsed Nationals, and a division win and postseason appearance seem more certain by the day. After that, nothing is assured; the short series of October are fickle and can make any team look blessed. The happy kismet of the 2015 Mets may carry to early November, or it may fizzle out a couple weeks from now. In any event, this team will stick in the mind of anyone who grows tired, now and again, of the notion of a baseball season as a proof to be solved. Its story will be remembered, if only for being a story in the first place.