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The Mets Shouldn’t Be This Good

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to The Lineup! This is a weekly column that will examine — you guessed it — nine topics from the world of baseball in numbered order.

1 Andrew Cashner is following his face.

Not to make The Lineup into a weekly commentary on facial hair policy, but ever since I grew my first wispy Sidney Crosby–quality goatee when I was 15, I’ve been waiting for someone to do what Andrew Cashner is threatening to do.

When he was in San Diego, Cashner went to John Bell Hood’s barber, but since then he’s had to shave in order to comply with the Marlins’ personal-grooming policy. Certainly a team with such a long and dignified history as the Miami Marlins must defend that legacy against … beards. Turns out Cashner is rather attached to his beard and will factor his freedom to wear a beard into where he signs.

Not that there’s going to be a huge bidding war for a pitcher with Cashner’s injury history and 82 ERA+ since 2015, but I like that he’s taking a stand. I also like that he’s throwing a wrench into the normal public free-agent calculus, which usually just includes money, the team’s ability to contend for a championship, and how close the team is to the player’s birthplace.

Playing baseball is a job, and like any job, money and prestige are important, but they’re not the only thing. Cashner’s beard stand is just like not taking a job because you feel like you wouldn’t be able to get along with your boss, or because you don’t like the weather. I hope Cashner’s next team makes him, and his beard, happy.

2 The Mets are burning trash for power.

On August 22, the New York Mets put left-hander Steven Matz on the disabled list with a shoulder strain. He joined fellow pitcher Matt Harvey (thoracic outlet syndrome), first baseman Lucas Duda (stress fracture in his back), second baseman Neil Walker (herniated disk), center fielder Juan Lagares (thumb), and third baseman and franchise legend David Wright (generally broken against the rocks by the ravages of time). Since then, Jacob deGrom has also gone on the shelf with forearm soreness.

Terry Collins may have let a wildly overmatched Rafael Montero wear it against Washington on Monday night, but it’s not like last year, when he had more good pitchers than he could use.

On top of all the injuries, the Mets ran headlong into moral disaster by reacquiring and feting José Reyes, and then they managed to turn their Triple-A manager’s resignation into a low-grade PR crisis. By many standards, they’ve been a garbage fire.

The good news is that you can generate electricity by burning trash, and the Mets are roaring and crackling with power, giving off the unmistakable odor of the postseason.

On August 19, Baseball Prospectus gave the Mets a 7.6 percent chance of making the playoffs. As of today, that number is up to 78.5 percent. In the past seven days, the Mets have increased their playoff odds by 22.6 percentage points, the highest mark in baseball in that time.

In the past 30 days, here’s what’s happened: The Mets have posted a 116 team wRC+, second best in baseball, despite running James Loney (and his 44 wRC+ in that time) out at first base for 77 plate appearances, and despite big deadline acquisition Jay Bruce hitting .213/.292/.338 with a strikeout rate just south of 30 percent. They’ve also posted a middle-of-the-road ERA (4.16), despite the heretofore unknown Seth Lugo throwing the third-most innings on the team and deGrom putting up a 9.82 ERA before (or perhaps because) he got hurt. Put all that together and they’ve posted a 19–10 record, tied for the best in baseball, taking them from fifth place in the wild-card race on August 13 to second on September 13. They’ve made up three games on the next-best wild-card contender over that span, St. Louis, seven games on the Pirates, and 7.5 games on the Giants.

While many of the Mets’ stars are on the shelf, they’ve seen complementary players step up: Reyes hit .275/.330/.455 overall and .307/.368/.456 in the past 30 days. Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera’s two-year, $18.5 million contract looks like a bargain, as he’s got a 114 wRC+ on the season and a 198 wRC+ in the past 30 days. And despite being unknown, the rookie sinkerballer Lugo has filled in admirably, with a 2.40 ERA in 48.2 innings, including five starts, since his debut on July 1. And certain players have met expectations, particularly the back-of-the-bullpen duo of Addison Reed and Jeurys Familia, and the Equestrian Twins, Noah Syndergaard and Yoenis Céspedes.

The division title is out of reach at this point, but if the rotation works out the right way, the Mets could throw Syndergaard in a potential wild-card game, which by no means guarantees victory, but it helps. Matz and deGrom are throwing, and could come back as tandem starters by the end of the season, which would be a huge boost, too.

The Mets aren’t safe yet — if the season ended today, their reward for their resilience would be a road playoff game against Madison Bumgarner or Johnny Cueto — but all things considered, it’s incredibly impressive that they’re even thinking about October, much less in position to go there.

3 Rich Hill throws seven perfect innings in an imperfect world.

This was tough to watch.

On Saturday night, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts lifted Hill after seven perfect innings and 89 pitches against Miami. Nobody in baseball history had ever gotten that far into a perfect game and not been given the chance to either complete or lose it.

I don’t know if I’d call the argument for removing Hill compelling, but it’s certainly got a logic to it. The Dodgers acquired Hill (and Josh Reddick) at the cost of three prospects because if he’s healthy he’s one of the best pitchers in baseball, and they need him to be that pitcher in four or five postseason starts if they’re going to make it to the World Series. The problem is that Hill has been legendarily injury-prone throughout his career, and he missed June with a groin injury and then most of the second half with a persistent blister problem.

The return of the blister could force Hill to go back on the DL and miss the rest of the regular season, if not part or all of the playoffs, so I absolutely understand the Dodgers’ impulse to be cautious. Roberts said one of the spots where Hill had previously had blisters was showing signs of inflammation on Saturday, while Hill denied experiencing any discomfort.

Here’s the argument for letting Hill finish:

Professional athletes shout, throw things, and even break down in tears, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one get that upset in that specific way: pacing up and down the dugout, eyes glassy, muttering “I can’t believe it” to nobody in particular. His reaction really went beyond upset to something more like shell shocked.

The very injury history that would inspire the Dodgers to treat Hill with kid gloves made his pursuit of a perfect game all the more compelling. Few pitchers in baseball have overcome more to get to where they are, and a perfect game — briefly pitching as well as any pitcher ever has — would have been a fitting narrative capstone for what Hill has achieved in the past year.

Everyone, including Roberts and Hill, is in this to win a World Series first and foremost, but that’s not the only barometer for success, nor is it the only goal a player or team sets out to achieve. Short of making it to or winning a World Series, a perfect game for Hill might be the best memory the Dodgers could create this year.

This wasn’t pitch no. 135 in a college start on three days’ rest. This was a healthy 36-year-old veteran, who’s expected to carry a no. 2 starter’s workload in the playoffs, being lifted from a game in which he was literally unhittable after 89 pitches in the middle of a pennant race. No matter what else happened, Hill was not going to face more than six more batters on Saturday night. Either he’d get them all out and finish the perfect game or he’d allow a baserunner, breaking up the perfect game and giving Roberts an opportunity to pull him.

Either way, it’s not as simple as choosing between the perfect game and having a healthy Hill for the playoffs; he could’ve grown a blister on pitch no. 90 or never, or the blister could come back in his next bullpen session even after Roberts pulled him early. After all, the one time Hill had to leave a start with a blister, he had thrown only five pitches.

Maybe reducing the chance that Hill would grow another blister, even by a fraction of a percent, was worth the shitstorm to Roberts and the Dodgers front office. (Roberts, who looked like he wanted the earth to open up and swallow him after he pulled Hill, clearly had instructions from his superiors on Hill’s usage.) It might have been a rational decision, and maybe ultimately a winning one: Hill’s blisters haven’t returned. But what turns out to be a winning decision in the long run sometimes feels chillingly inhuman in the moment.

4 “Baseball is a white man’s sport.”

So says Orioles outfielder Adam Jones — correctly — in response to questions about why MLB hasn’t had its own protests after 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Seattle Reign midfielder Megan Rapinoe, and most recently several other NFL players refused to stand for the national anthem.

To paraphrase Jones: It’s because black baseball players don’t have the same safety in numbers that black football or basketball players do. In making these comments, Jones also became one of very few people to actually address what Kaepernick is actually protesting — systemic violence against people of color by police — instead of turning the conversation immediately to whether Kaepernick (and everyone who’s followed him) is being disrespectful to the military, as if our nation’s most important and sacred function were to serve as an instrument of war.

Of course, the headline isn’t “Ballplayer Shares Incisive, Cogent, and Well-Reasoned Thoughts on Race,” it’s “Baseball Is a White Man’s Sport.”

MLB players are a diverse group in general, with players from 22 different countries and territories appearing in the big leagues this year. While only 8 percent of MLB players are African American, it’s not like all the rest are white. But 59 percent are, and if we’re touting baseball as a global game, 59 percent of the world’s population is definitely not white. There absolutely are social and economic barriers to entry for baseball that often track along racial lines, and baseball is even whiter than its players make it look.

MLB rosters don’t need to be a perfect demographic cross-section of the United States. In fact, even if the game’s labor force were as ethnically and racially diverse as a UNICEF poster, the power structure would still make the game white in every way that counts. How many managers are people of color? How many GMs? How many club presidents? Owners? A lack of diversity in the power structure isn’t dangerous because it’s somehow right to meet a quota — it’s dangerous because otherwise well-intentioned people might not consider experiences and viewpoints they haven’t lived through themselves.

Even with an almost all-white management class, MLB is cloyingly self-congratulatory about its role in the civil rights movement, as if Jackie Robinson trotting out to first base in 1947 solved racism forever and we all just moved on.

Jones is using his position as one of very few African American baseball players with any history of political activism to deny the white baseball establishment this easy out. Systemic racism is a problem not only because of the danger it poses to people of color, but because so many white Americans show, or even flaunt, an incomprehensible lack of empathy toward the plight of people who don’t look like them. It takes a special kind of callousness to look at a problem this obvious, this serious, and this baked into our culture, and say, “It’s not my problem.”

Despite Jones’s comments, MLB is going to sit this one out — not only because it’s a white man’s sport, but because it’s a for-profit entertainment venue and not an instrument for social justice and the betterment of society. This is America; corporations have a right to be amoral. But the next time MLB pretends to be something else, remember that it has to go almost 70 years into its past to find a civil rights victory worth celebrating.

5 The WPA Graph of the Week goes to the Phillies and Nationals.

This week wasn’t given to particularly wild swings in win probability, so here’s a game that just stayed in neutral until the decisive blow was struck.

FanGraphs
FanGraphs

Before Bryce Harper’s go-ahead home run in the bottom of the eighth, the Nationals’ win probability got above 60 or below 40 on only five plays, four of which came in the five at-bats that directly preceded the home run. This game had an unnervingly slow burn: The Phillies were way overmatched, but they hung around way longer than expected, and without any runs the game lacked the kind of back-and-forth that baseball watchers are conditioned to expect. Even though it ended only 3–0, this was every bit as tense as a wild back-and-forth 10–8 game.

6 Hiroki Kuroda has his title shot.

If you’re looking for great pitchers who never got their due, might I present Hiroki Kuroda. Big Hirok was an 11-year Nippon Professional Baseball veteran when he signed with the Dodgers before the 2008 season, making his major league debut at age 33. You wouldn’t think that a guy in his mid-30s would break into MLB and dominate immediately, but that’s what Kuroda did, flummoxing big league hitters with his sinker for the better part of a decade. In seven seasons with the Dodgers and Yankees, he was a model no. 3 starter, throwing 180 or more innings six times and never posting an ERA+ below 103. In 2015, after 21.7 WAR and a little more than $88 million from MLB, he returned home to his original team, the Hiroshima Carp.

You’d think that playing for the Dodgers and Yankees for seven seasons at any time in history would lead to a title, but Kuroda’s teams were stopped in the LCS in 2008, 2009, and 2012. Kuroda’s Carp teams never made the Japan Series in his first stint in Japan, nor was he selected to the Japanese teams that won the World Baseball Classic in 2006 and 2009. The closest he’s come to a title in a 20-year career is an Olympic bronze medal in 2004.

Now 41 years old, Kuroda won the regular-season Central League title for the Carp on Saturday — Hiroshima’s first in 25 years — with six strong innings against the Yomiuri Giants. That gives the Carp a bye into the second stage of the Climax Series, one step away from the Japan Series.

7 Yasiel Puig is your cheerleader.

After his brief exile to the minor leagues, nobody can accuse Yasiel Puig of lacking team spirit.

This is the latest chapter in the great L.A. sports epic “Yasiel Puig Makes Jared Goff Wear His Bad Takes.” This is also a brazen excuse to show Puig in a cheerleader outfit. Not a lot of guys could pull that off, but I think Puig looks great.

8 Dansby Swanson has some trouble with the curve.

Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson left Monday night’s game with a right groin contusion.

Yikes. Swanson’s Vanderbilt teams played South Carolina to a relatively even 5–4 record in his three years in college ball, so the Cocks getting beat up on the baseball diamond is a new experience for the rookie shortstop. That might be why Swanson, somewhat foolishly for an infielder, has started wearing a cup only in the wake of his accident.

I’ll tell you what else: It’s a little troubling that Braves catcher Tyler Flowers not only misfired on his throw back to the mound, but that he missed by that much. Braves manager Brian Snitker said after the game that Swanson shouldn’t stand behind people while they’re playing catch, but he was well off to the left of pitcher Ryan Weber when the throw came back. Wherever he was positioned, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for Swanson to expect his teammates to not hit him in the junk with a baseball.

9 Go out of your way to check out Roman Quinn.

If you have a soft spot for fast guys in baseball, you’re going to love Phillies center fielder Roman Quinn. A second-round pick in 2011, Quinn has gotten lost in the Phillies’ system among a string of top-10 draft picks and the players who came back in the Cole Hamels and Ken Giles trades, but he made his big league debut on Sunday and figures to get significant playing time through the end of the year.

The 23-year-old Quinn had some bumps in his developmental path, as he struggled to play shortstop in the low minors, then ruptured his Achilles tendon in November 2013. Think of him as a less extreme version of Billy Hamilton — a switch-hitting center fielder whose primary asset is his pace, but with a more traditional and better batter’s profile and a little less speed.

I don’t know where he fits in with the Phillies’ long-term plans, though God knows they need outfielders. Quinn is exactly the kind of new, toolsy youngster who can make September call-ups exciting. I haven’t been this jazzed about a Roman since Scipio Africanus.