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The Taylor Teagarden Era Begins

You can all thank me now.

In the bottom of the sixth, with the bases loaded and two outs and 981st Met in history Taylor Teagarden [1] at the plate, something I’d been wondering about for a day or two finally coalesced in my head, and so — as happens these days — emerged as a tweet.

I got there because they say it takes two points to make a line, and I found myself with three.

The first point had shown up on Metsblog [4] a couple of days back: a note that the Mets were 8-17 in one-run games. Every baseball fan knows such extremes aren’t sustainable: Here’s some proof [5] if you’re feeling mathy; if not, the lowdown is that too good or bad a record in one-run games suggests luck is at work, and a regression to the mean is on the way. And that’s important: Metsblog noted that if the Mets had even managed a mediocre 12-13 record, they’d be tied for first place. In the underwhelming NL East, granted, but it counts.

The second point arrived via ESPN’s Mark Simon, who posted this during the afternoon:

Basically, the Mets are in the middle of the pack in terms of balls hit hard, but at the absolute bottom when it comes to converting those balls to hits. When I asked Mark if he hadn’t essentially posted a Luck Index, he warned that big ballparks could have an impact too. (And indeed, you’ll find the A’s and Giants a bit lower than you might have expected.) But it seems safe to say that there’s a fair amount of luck involved — I wasn’t surprised to see the Blue Jays in the top spot.

Then, finally, there was a note tonight from the SNY booth, not long before Teagarden stepped into the box: The Mets were ranked third in baseball at getting runners into scoring position, but 24th in on-base percentage with runners in scoring position.

You can chalk that last one up to ill-advised hitting philosophies, the fear of fans booing, or mental toughness. (If you must. Perhaps sunspots and the Illuminati are involved too.)

Or maybe that one is also shaped by a fair amount of luck.

Anyway, all this came together in my head, I tweeted my serious question, and approximately two seconds later Teagarden hit a liner over the right-field fence for a grand slam, turning a 2-1 lead you figured wouldn’t last into a 6-1 prelude to a rare and incredibly welcome laugher [8].

We don’t like to think too much about the role luck plays in the outcome of baseball games, let alone seasons. Or at least I don’t — it makes watching baseball feel a bit too clockwork, like I’m staring at some kind of flesh-and-blood version of Pachinko. So instead we do something that’s more satisfying but no more logical: We make up stories to fit the data. You know the drill: Good teams are resilient and well-led and have chemistry; bad teams are lazy and rudderless and selfish.

This isn’t something we do just with sports. We’re wired for it as humans — we’re extraordinarily good at finding patterns and ferreting out connections. Most of the time that helps us learn and plan and succeed. But the side effect is we’re also pretty good at finding patterns where there aren’t any, insisting we hear signal when there may not be anything but noise. And that can lead us to silly conclusions — or sometimes ones that are unfair and/or dangerous.

Look, the Mets have a lot of problems that are definitely signal: a withered payroll, untrustworthy owners, and too many ABs and innings given to subpar players. But on top of that, they sure look like they’re contending with more than their share of lousy luck — noise, in other words. If that sorts itself out, as such things tend to do, perhaps things aren’t quite as bleak as they appear.

And if not, what the heck — at least it’s a nice thought to kick off the Taylor Teagarden Era.