Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Roger Craig was 10-24 in 1962, 5-22 the next year.

Distant Karma: The Ancient Curse of the Mets

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, October 4, 2007:
Hell froze over. A month of Sundays hit the calendar. The 500-to-1 shot came in ... literally: in Clay Davenport’s computer simulation of the possible outcomes given the standings in the National League East on September 13, when the Mets led the Phillies by seven games with 17 left to play, the Mets made the playoffs 99.8 percent of the time. According to this simulation, even the Colorado Rockies’ wild run to the wild-card spot in the NL playoffs, in which they won 14 of their final 15 games, was — at its statistically most improbable date of September 17 — 10 times more likely than the collapse of the 2007 Mets.

But how bad was it, really? Worse than the crackup of the 1951 Dodgers or the 1964 Phillies or the 1995 Angels?

Yes. Attribute it to choking, or hubris, or karma, this was the worst September implosion of a first-place club in all of baseball history, and we’ve consulted the record going back to 1882, when the Providence Grays spurred the wrath of their fans by blowing a three-game lead to the Chicago White Stockings with 15 left to play. But before we can do a combined C.S.I./R.I.P. of what happened to our Metropolitans in the final weeks of the 2007 campaign, and propose some changes for 2008, let’s get our arms around the enormity of this swoon for the ages.

Frank Vaccaro wrote, in the days before the debacle dreaded by Mets fans was confirmed: “No major league team had owned a lead of seven games or more with 17 to play and failed to finish in first place.... The 1938 Pittsburgh Pirates (September 1) and 1934 New York Giants (September 6) also led by seven games in the final month only to tailspin.” But in examining other flops of historic proportions we risk mixing apples with oranges. Leads larger than that of the 2007 Mets were lost by the California Angels (11 games over the Seattle Mariners in August 1995), the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951 (13 games over the Giants on August 11), the Red Sox in 1978 (14 games over the Yanks on July 19). And then there is the all-time champion fold of the 1914 New York Giants, who on July 4 held a 15-game lead over the last-place Boston Braves, who proceeded to win the pennant by 10.5 games, thus gaining 25.5 games on their rivals in half a season. Other clubs with calamitous conclusions include the 1942 Dodgers, 1969 Cubs, and 1987 Blue Jays; you can probably come up with another one or two.

But for a greased-pole slide from the top in mid-September, the Mets are now the champs, and it is fitting that their beneficiaries are the Phillies, who in 1964 led the NL by six and a half games with only 15 games left. One might argue that this 43-year-old collapse was thus even greater than that of the Mets, as the Phils lost their last ten games in September, the first seven of which were played at home. But the teams that vanquished them — Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and St. Louis — were all first-division teams, two of which caught or passed the Phils in the early days of October. Still, the Phils were so demoralized by their meltdown that in the next five seasons they finished sixth, fourth, fifth, seventh, and fifth again. They didn’t win a pennant until 1980.

For pure suffering, however, Mets fans have a long way to go before playing in the same league with the Brooklyn Dodgers. In the postwar era the Bums tied for the flag in 1946 but fell in a playoff with the Cards. Then they lost two World Series to the Yanks and in 1950 came up one game short of the pennant by losing to the Phils on the final day on Dick Sisler’s home run. In 1951 they “blew” a 13-game lead to the Giants, who it must be said won the flag at least as much as the Dodgers lost it, closing out the 1951 campaign by winning 37 of their final 44 contests and then capturing a best-of-three playoff on Bobby Thomson’s ninth-inning homer. But even the Dodgers weren't ahead by seven games with 17 to play and, as Mike Lupica noted, “they didn't get to play the last two weeks of the season against teams whose combined record was more than 40 games under .500 the way the Mets did.” So, in pairing apples with apples, here is the sad list that the Mets now head.

2007 7.0 NY-N

1951 6.5 BKN-N
1964 6.0 PHI-N
1995 6.0 CAL-A
1934 4.5 NY-N
1891 3.5 CHI-N

1915 3.5 PIT-F
1965 3.5 SF-N
1981 3.5 STL-N

Note that the Mets are joined on this list by the Dodgers and the Giants. It occurs to me, in this 50th anniversary of the Dodgers’ and Giants’ departure for the Golden West, that they may have left some unexpired karma behind. The Giants played their last game on September 29, saying farewell at the Polo Grounds, future home of the Mets. The Brooklyn Dodgers on that day in 1957 also represented New York for the last time, in a loss at Philadelphia behind Roger Craig, who with those Manhattan Mets of 1962-63 would go 15-46. On September 30, 2007 the Mets trusted their season to the limp-noodle left arm of Tom Glavine, who was slapped around for seven runs in the first inning while recording only one out. This ought not to have been an unexpected result, except to the hopeful whose spirits had been lifted by John Maine’s near no-hitter the day before: including Sunday’s farce, Glavine registered an ERA of 14.81 ERA in his final three starts, culminating in Met losses of 8-7, 10-9, and 8-1. Now pitching for the Mets, Dorian Gray.

Might the Mets have fallen victim to a curse nearly as powerful as the one that afflicted the Red Sox from 1919 until 2004? After all they do wear the black and orange of the Giants and the blue and white of the Dodgers...

A more probable cause for the 2007 collapse is not an ancient curse but a curse of the ancients: an elderly cast of characters combined with a management determined to win now and distrustful of youth. Martinez and Hernandez are still formidable talents, but the only young starting pitchers the Mets have developed lately are working elsewhere: Scott Kazmir and Brian Bannister (Perez and Maine came to New York via trades). The Mets’ pitching staff has been built from bullpen out, the strategy being to amass plenty of middle relievers and then expect no more than 5-6 innings from superannuated starters who could be picked up off the scrap heap. This strategy collapsed in 2007 when the starters repeatedly ran into trouble in the third or fourth inning, forcing middle relievers to warm up early and then throw too many pitches in the bullpen or in the game. That Duaner Sanchez and Ambiorix Burgos were of no use all year was unexpected but their absence was not filled. The only remedy is to get some younger starters who trust their hard stuff, who don’t nibble at the strike zone and fall behind in the count, and thus can give you six innings reliably. Easier said than done, I know, but the Mets will go south by hanging on to guys who throw 20 pitches per inning.

In their 5-12 nosedive while the Phils went 13-4 to win the title on the final day, the Mets failed in all areas of execution, but certainly they scored enough runs to have won most of their games, especially at home against weak opposition. Look at the runs allowed in nine of their 12 concluding losses:

Starter Opponent Score
Perez Phillies 10-6
Lawrence Nationals 12-4
Maine Nationals 9-8
Glavine Marlins 8-7
Pelfrey Nationals 13-4
Glavine Nationals 10-9
Humber Nationals 9-6
Perez Marlins 7-4
Glavine Marlins 8-1

Pedro pitched well on an evening when Joel Pineiro, of all people, shut out the Mets. El Duque did his best in relief despite an injury that should have shelved him and will now require surgery. Perez and Maine were unpredictable, as capable of a shelling as a masterpiece. Although Phil Humber and Mike Pelfrey, young pitchers of undemonstrated ability, were awarded starts down the stretch, the staff in New York and at triple-A New Orleans was characterized by soft-tossing righthanders and purportedly crafty lefties.

So much for the starters. Excepting Aaron Heilman, who pitched well down the stretch (1.50 ERA), every other Met reliever struggled, to put it mildly. The ERAs over the final 14 games were:

Scott Schoenweis 4.70
Pedro Feliciano 4.70
Billy Wagner 5.40
Guillermo Mota 5.63
Joe Smith 6.35
Jorge Sosa 8.31

Others pitched too few innings to matter, from Aaron Sele to Carlos Muniz to Willie Collazo.

I expend so much space here on the pitching because its intersection with gerontology is the Mets’ principal issue. Even down the stretch, they hit enough to win. The team has everyday players who are long in the tooth as well, but in Carlos Beltran, David Wright, and Jose Reyes they have three stars for years to come. Reyes will learn to elevate neither his swing nor his hands in on-field celebration.

Moises Alou, Paul LoDuca, Billy Wagner, and Carlos Delgado will return in 2008, I expect, because the Mets have no adequate replacements for them. Shawn Green will not, nor will Tom Glavine. The rest of the roster is fungible, although the inside word is that the Mets are more likely to offer Lastings Miledge in trade than Carlos Gomez.

Whether they have cast a curse on the Mets or not, the old New York City teams do offer a possible beacon for Mets fans bewildered in their postseason wilderness. The Dodgers, after their epic failure in 1951 — and unlike the Phillies after 1964 — went to the World Series in four of the next five seasons, winning it in 1955. Losing does not create character; it reveals it. What happens in 2008, the club’s last year at Shea Stadium, is pivotal for the future at Citi Field.

--John Thorn