For all it’s mainstream appeal–a game and an institution synonymous with and ingrained in American culture–baseball is a profoundly weird sport. It’s an individual sport disguised as a team sport, the defensive team is the one that controls the ball, and for over a century, the highest level of the game has operated as two separate but affiliated leagues that have two different sets of rules. The institutional weirdness of baseball is one of my favorite things about the game, but the weirdness of baseball also makes the game more difficult to market because great players do not always have the same impact on the game.
In the NBA, if you have the best player, you are automatically a contender. LeBron has taken some truly inferior rosters to the Finals on multiple occasions in Cleveland, and I am not ready to write off the Lakers just yet for that reason. In baseball, it takes more than one or two transcendent players. Ted Williams made one post season in his career. The Los Angeles Angels have the game’s best player (Mike Trout) and the game’s most interesting player (Shohei Ohtani), and that is enough to get them to 4th place in the American League West, while a roster of relative unknowns is in the playoff hunt up in Oakland. But the weirdest disparity between individual greatness and team success is with Jacob deGrom and the New York Mets.
The 2015 World Series between the Mets and Kansas City Royals feels like a decade ago given how far both teams have since fallen. It wasn’t that long ago that the Mets rose from the ashes built up by a young and homegrown starting pitching rotation. For a year or two there, it looked like things were better for the Mets than they were for the Yankees, and that hardly ever happens. But the team has not been able to hit enough, and relying on young arms has proven to be a risky business. They gave up on Matt Harvey earlier this year, trading the former ace to Cincinnati, and Noah Syndergaard’s health will always be a concern because of how hard the throws. But in 2018, as everything has gone wrong for the Mets, Jacob deGrom has been among the best pitchers in all of baseball. And yet, for all his greatness, the Mets still struggle to win when he is on the mound.
In both traditional and new age statistics, deGrom has been truly great in 2018, except for one. The 30 year old right-hander has an ERA of 1.68, 230 strikeouts, and a 0.963 WHIP over 188 innings thus far. But perhaps the most traditional of stats does not glow in deGrom’s favor. His record is 8-8. If you are what your record say you are–which the point of this post is that in baseball, you’re often not–then Jacob deGrom is a typical Jeff Fisher-coached football team. deGrom has, according to Baseball Reference’s method of calculation, a WAR of 8.6. In other words, Jacob deGrom has more wins above replacement than actual wins… as a starting pitcher! It’s not like he was dominating the eighth or ninth inning and never getting decisions. A phenomenal anomaly like this is just a perfect fit for the New York Mets.
The Mets were built on misery. Born out of the despair of two New York boroughs losing their National League franchises to California in 1958, the Mets inaugural season was one for the ages, going 40-120 in 1962. For context, as terrible as the Baltimore Orioles have been this season, they already have 41 wins with a few weeks to go. They had Yankee legend Casey Stengel as their first manager when the Yankees thought he was too old and too tired to still be useful. A decade later, they had Giants legend Willie Mays when The Say Hey Kid was a kid no more, too old to be the hero fans in New York remembered. Their triumphs have been so strange and so fleeting that Mets fans have still managed to maintain the position of devotees to a sad sack franchise even after they prevailed over the sadder sack Boston Red Sox in devastating fashion in the 1986 World Series. Some of it is always being compared to the Yankees because of geography, and some of it is an unconditional love of baseball that inflicts such pain on fans who could still have the Dodgers or Giants in an alternate universe.
It just makes sense that deGrom would put in a season like this for a team this unworthy of his greatness. That is baseball at its weirdest, and stuff like that never ceases to fascinate me.