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The Met Who Would Be King

Posted By Greg Prince On September 3, 2011 @ 9:13 am In 1 | Comments Disabled

I’m very happy David Wright launched a three-run homer to give the Mets an immediate lead in Washington. I’m very happy David can now say he’s homered at Nationals Park, the last N.L. holdout where his slugging was concerned (he’s homered in all the other Senior Circuit ballparks — even Citi Field).

I’m very happy Nick Evans and Lucas Duda joined him as partners in power. It was too long since a Met hit a home run (it hadn’t happened since they were last on the road; what a coincidence), so having it come in threes was welcome.

I’m very happy that despite R.A. Dickey deeming his knuckler “putrid,” it was pitch enough to baffle the battlin’ Nats.

I’m very happy that our bullpen was uncommonly leakproof, with two new fellows, Josh Stinson and Daniel Herrera, providing eighth- and ninth-inning sealant.

I’m very happy Stinson drew a walk his first time up in the majors, and that somebody packing uncommon curiosity thought to look up how many other Mets pitchers did that (two homegrown hurlers of varied renown and one DH-league refugee, per literally the most curious Mets fan I know [1]).

Such happiness for such a solid win [2] when the Mets are playing generally solid ball again. The last time they won on a Friday night in Washington, I was ever so close to considering them contenders [3]. Then they went out and lost 17 of 22, and I reverted to considering them roadkill [4]. Now they’ve taken seven of eight and I’m happy to consider them at all this late in a generally lost season.

Happy, happy…but not so much joy where the one thing for which I’m really rooting this September is concerned.

When is Jose Reyes going to start hitting again? I mean really hitting? I mean hitting enough to put distance between himself, the leading batter in the National League by average, and his closest competitor, Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers?

What’s happening now is the opposite of that. Back in the halcyon days of June [5] and earliest July, it was Jose who was setting the pace, pulling away, altering our perception of what a “good” season was.

Then…hamstrings. Stupid hamstrings. Saboteur hamstrings. They’re Jose’s, but it’s like they’re conspiring with Braun.

When Reyes went out the first time, on July 2, his league-leading batting average was .354. Second to him, for all intents and purposes, was nobody. He had this thing cold. I wasn’t worried about Ryan Braun or anybody on any other team in 2011. I was focused on Jose and looking forward to him necessitating new lines in the 2012 media guide.

He could top John Olerud’s .354 from 1998.

He could top Lance Johnson’s 227 from 1996.

And, if all concerned parties came to their senses, he could continue to be listed in the current players’ section next year, not just as a set of fabulous notations where they list the Met records.

The first injury [6] made One Dog tough to catch, but for a while the DL stay didn’t put Jose out of Lance’s hit range. The second one [7], on August 7, took care of that. And Olerud’s average didn’t seem so out of the question, either, not as late as July 27, when Jose was at .347. Two weeks later, Jose was down to .336 and out for three more weeks.

So the King of All Met-ia wasn’t available to Jose Reyes at this time. Still, there was the National League batting crown. His lead wasn’t as robust as it was before the first DL trip, but when the second one lapsed, he remained out in front of the field. Thus, all Jose Cubed had to do was line some balls into some gaps on a fairly regular basis and the batting title — a Met first after fifty years — would take care of itself.

As of this morning, Jose Reyes is batting .333 and Ryan Braun is batting .332, making him the first Met to hold a batting average lead in September. Nevertheless, it’s close. It’s too close for proverbial comfort or daylight. It’s extend-the-decimals-rightward close. If you do that, it’s Jose at .333333 and Braun at .331924.

Jose Reyes leads Ryan Braun by one point. This feels a bit like it felt when the Mets led the Phillies by one game [8] in another September after they had their division cold.

Strangely enough, Braun went out for several games in early July at the exact same time Jose did. He trailed Jose by 34 points (or .034, if you want to be mathematical about it). But he came back right after the All-Star break and began finding his groove just as Jose was rehabbing. Then, while Jose cooled his hammies most of August, Braun heated up. On the day of Reyes’s return, August 29, Braun greeted him with a .334 average, hot on the heels of Jose’s .336.

Jose has an adorable, little hitting streak of five games going since his re-emergence, yet his average has dipped three points. What’s more, I’m almost certain that just about all of his hits have been lucky ones this week (or, put more fancily, beneficiaries of defensive misplays [9]). You need some luck to win a batting title, but where’s the Jose who made his own luck? There’s not always going to be an Emilio Bonifacio fumbling around an infield near you. Sooner or later, if you want to be the best batter in your league, you have to bat like it.

Batting titles have been devalued in the advanced statistical onslaught of the 21st century. By itself, a high average doesn’t prove that much, except that you’ve succeeded in a higher proportion of your at-bats than anybody else, and that maybe you had a friendly official scorer giving you a hand. It doesn’t speak to production or situations or full base-reaching ability or all-around value. It is almost a vestige from another time, when nobody stopped to think about what else there was to baseball than wins for pitchers and averages for hitters.

But y’know what? Now that one of these is within our grasp, I’m interested in batting average on its own merits, exclusive of revelatory implications or sophisticated conclusions. I’m interested that one of the oldest, most revered measurements of a player can be earned by one of ours. No Met has done it. It’s right there with no Met has won an MVP award and no Met has pitched a no-hitter.

Only once has a Met seriously contended for a batting title — Cleon Jones, in 1969. He led the league much of the year, topping everybody as late as August 12. He was surpassed late in the season by Roberto Clemente whom, in turn, was passed by Pete Rose. Not bad company to keep in a Top Three, but how nice it would have been had Cleon beaten them out instead of falling .008 short of Rose and .005 shy of Clemente.

Injury did in Jones’s quest. A cracked rib sidelined our left fielder for the better part of three weeks as September dawned. He was batting .351 when August ended, .346 entering the N.L. East clincher, and .340 when the season was over. That was a phenomenal mark — the best any Met achieved until Olerud in 1998 — but it wasn’t enough. Rose was at .343 on August 31 and surged, while Clemente, who had ridden as high as .362 on August 18, slumped.

Of course while Pete and Roberto sat idle after October 2, 1969, Cleon was still playing baseball clear to October 16. He caught  a fly ball from 2011 Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson to end that day’s game and engrave his image into the collective Mets consciousness [10] for eternity. Placing third (behind two all-timers, no less) in a batting race was just a detail compared to winning the World Series.

We don’t have that kind of consolation on the table presently. Jose Reyes’s Mets of today won’t be doing what Cleon Jones’s Mets of 42 years ago were doing across September and October. The Jose Reyes Mets pale next to the John Olerud Mets of 1998 and, for that matter, the Dave Magadan Mets of 1990 in terms of presenting broader team-oriented goals at this time of year. Oly finished second to Larry Walker (.363) in ’98, but was never really close to wearing the crown despite briefly nosing ahead of the pack at the turn of September. Mags, at .328, finished two points behind Eddie Murray in ’90, but seven points in back of a statistical apparition [11]: Willie McGee, shipped to the American League at August’s conclusion but with still enough plate appearances to qualify for the National League lead. When Magadan’s average was at its peak (.369 on July 4), he was — having started the season on Davey’s bench — still trying to gather enough PA’s to be eligible for the title.

Notice the nomenclature attached to all this. The title. The crown. So much regality and dignity attached to having the best batting average in a given year. You can be overrated if you win a batting title, but you can’t be underrated if you’re wearing a crown…and wouldn’t one of those validating headpieces look absolutely nifty atop Jose’s dreadlocks? The only thing that would look better would be a New York Mets cap on his noggin in 2012 and beyond.

We don’t know if he’ll deign to wear one or if the Mets will deign to (or be able to) compensate him satisfactorily for the privilege. You might figure yet another credential, like “batting champ,” on Jose’s CV might make him that much more expensive as a free agent, but at this point, a few points isn’t going to make or break his next contract.

So give us this much, Jose. You couldn’t sustain enough of an average to beat Olerud. You couldn’t collect enough hits to beat Johnson. You couldn’t stay healthy enough to start in front of Tulowitzki in Phoenix in July even though you had the votes to do so. You’re way off the pace in categories you seemed destined to own. Others lead in runs, doubles, hits and steals, and Shane Bloody Victorino and Dexter Fowler are breathing down your neck in your signature segment, triples.

Leading the National League in batting average is all that’s left for you and us now. You take that and no matter where you are next year, we’ll always have it. We’ll always be able to literally point to Reyes N.Y. and tell the doubters and the legions of uninformed, “Look — we had a Met who was better at anybody at this big thing. We had Jose Reyes, the best hitter by this revered measurement in 2011. He held the title. He wore the crown. We could show you video or go into detail, but we don’t have to. He’s got the average that was farther above average than anybody’s.”

I’d like to be able to do that, Jose, so fend off Ryan Braun and the rest of those pretenders to your throne, would you?


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URL to article: http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com/2011/09/03/the-met-who-would-be-king/

URLs in this post:

[1] literally the most curious Mets fan I know: http://twitter.com/#!/msimonespn/status/109801657939918848

[2] solid win: http://espn.go.com/mlb/recap?gameId=310902120

[3] ever so close to considering them contenders: http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com/2011/07/30/neither-here-nor-there/

[4] considering them roadkill: http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com/2011/08/24/stream-of-5-17-consciousness/

[5] halcyon days of June: http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com/2011/06/29/jose-reyes-in-‘breaking-away’/

[6] first injury: http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com/2011/07/02/the-mets-to-dont-list/

[7] second one: http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com/2011/08/07/asking-terry-collins-the-‘tough’-questions/

[8] when the Mets led the Phillies by one game: http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com/2007/09/27/this-teams-got-the-disappearing-first-place-blues/

[9] beneficiaries of defensive misplays: http://espn.go.com/blog/new-york/mets/post/_/id/29758/w2w4-jose-reyes-extra-value

[10] engrave his image into the collective Mets consciousness: http://www.sportsblink.com/product_images/cleon-jones-new-york-mets-last-out-autographed-photograph-3368775.jpg

[11] statistical apparition: http://www.amazinavenue.com/2011/9/1/2397817/jose-reyes-and-the-ghost-of-willie-mcgee

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