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The Glue Guy

The 2016 Mets were on the verge of coming apart. Asdrubal Cabrera kept them together. Move over Elmer, there’s a new glue guy in town.

There was so much to like about Cabrera and so little to detract from his season and his contribution that we are stuck on the idea that nobody was more valuable to the cause than our power-hitting, solid-defending shortstop. He made it stick, so Faith and Fear in Flushing will attach to Asdrubal Cabrera the title of Most Valuable Met of 2016.

Where would have we been without him? Probably not in the playoffs. Probably not in contention for the playoffs. Probably not in as many games as we were. Asdrubal was almost all upside almost all the time. When he was less than his best, he didn’t kill us. When he found himself, he made us stronger. This was a baseball player’s baseball player, a Mets fan’s Met.

And a year ago, despite a career that dated to 2007 and encompassed two All-Star appearances, we were barely aware of him. Beautiful how that can work.

He filled a need. Shortstop, by consensus the most important position on the field, was kind of a black hole for four seasons, no offense to Ruben Tejada (whom we don’t mind offending anymore [1], I suppose), Wilmer Flores and whoever else stood stage left to David Wright’s glove hand post-Jose Reyes 1.0. Let’s just say the position rarely felt fully settled. Cabrera settled that once and for all, starting at 134 games, more than any Met shortstop since Reyes in 2008. “He made all the plays” may be a cliché, but, yeah, basically, he made all the plays. You didn’t worry when Asdrubal was out there, no matter who his double play partner was (and he had five of them).

He was literally a winner. The Mets won more games with Asdrubal Cabrera playing than they won with anybody else. Play a lot on a winning team and you’ll win a lot when you play, one supposes, but thanks to Baseball Musings [2], we can quantify on Cabrera’s behalf. The Mets won 87 games; Cabrera played in 79 of them, or two more than runner-up Curtis Granderson did. The Mets’ winning percentage with Asdrubal playing was .560, just an eyelash off that compiled when Yoenis Cespedes participated (.561). When the Mets and Cespedes made official their long-term intentions, Sandy Alderson noted, “it has been clear that when Yoenis Cespedes plays for the Mets, the Mets win.” It’s just as clear the same result occurs when Asdrubal Cabrera is in the game.

He persevered through pain. How’s your left patella tendon? Asdrubal’s wasn’t so good all year. He hurt it in Spring Training. He played anyway. Only when it got too bad to put pressure on did he go on the DL in August. He was missed. He returned. He wasn’t in the best of health down the stretch. He played anyway. The Mets made the playoffs, you might recall. There was a quad problem, there were back spasms, there was all kinds of mishegas that made you cringe when you watched the shortstop not rest, but you, like he, knew that what’s the offseason is for. Cabrera’s gamer-manship postponed the offseason as long as it could be put off.

He made a difference. The shortstop who comes back from the disabled list and pulls the infield together is a legendary figure in Mets lore. That’s what Bud Harrelson did for the 1973 Mets, the direct linear ancestors of the 2016 Mets. That’s what Cabrera did forty-three Septembers later.

He solidified the batting order. On August 20, Terry Collins wrote in Reyes, then Cabrera, then Cespedes at the top of his lineup card. This was the beginning of the 27–12 stretch that clinched the Wild Card. RCC (or JAY, if you prefer) forged a formidable unit that anchored a Met offense that had meandered all year. Cabrera in the two-hole was key. Before August 20, he bounced around. Once we had a 1-2-3 that was as solid as that rock Ashford & Simpson serenaded, Granderson slipped in beautifully behind them as the cleanup hitter, and suddenly the Mets had stability, like a real playoff team. Asdrubal was in the middle of that alignment — slashing .350/.413/.650 as the Mets rampaged to a clinch — just as he was in the middle of the Reyes-Cabrera-Cespedes trio said to define the heart of the team off the field.

He overcame adversity. There was a point when the Mets had this one guy who could never get a hit with runners in scoring position. His name was Asdrubal Cabrera. He went 0-for-32 during one vexing RISP stretch, a span covering more than two months. It didn’t overwhelm him (he claimed he wasn’t aware of the schneid). That it became an asterisk to his year rather than its calling card reminds us what a long season 162 games can be — and good players will eventually play well if you give them time.

He showed uncommon power. For what seemed like a million years, Eddie Bressoud held the Met record for home runs in a single season by a shortstop as a shortstop, with 8 in 1966, including the last home run any Met ever hit off Sandy Koufax. Then Kevin Elster came along and shattered the shortstop mark…OK, barely topped it, with 9 in 1988. Eventually Reyes made the whole thing moot with 19 in 2006. Cabrera outmooted them all, blasting 22 from the shortstop position (plus one as a pinch-hitter). In this regard, Asdrubal looked less like Harrelson and more like Howard Johnson. HoJo, though primarily a third baseman, hit 45 as a shortstop between 1985 and 1991. His most memorable homers came as a shortstop, actually, including the bomb off Todd Worrell that sent the Cardinals reeling in early 1986, and the one later that year that put the Mets ahead in the fourteenth inning at Cincinnati in one of the two craziest games the Mets ever won (a.k.a. the Eric Davis-Ray Knight/Gary Carter at third base/Orsoco and McDowell in the outfield affair). The other craziest game, the nineteen-inning game of July 4-5, 1985, also featured a Howard Johnson home run when HoJo was a shortstop. Asdrubal now takes a back seat to no Met shortstop when it comes to dramatic home runs, not after his bat-flipping, arms-raising, game-winning shot of September 22, the eleventh-inning three-run walkoff job that gave the Mets a 9–8 decision over the Phillies, reversed the tide from the Ender Inciarte Game the night before and deserves to air as a Mets Classic until the end of time. It was the signature moment from the signature player of 2016.

He was the most pleasant of surprises. You knew Yoenis Cespedes would be an important part of the 2016 Mets. You figured Noah Syndergaard was likely to fully establish himself as a top starter. You could be confident in Jeurys Familia after 2015. You had no idea, however, that Asdrubal Cabrera was going to be granite throughout the year and a meteor down the stretch.

Mets didn’t come any more valuable in 2016.

FAITH AND FEAR’S PREVIOUS MOST VALUABLE METS
2005 [3]: Pedro Martinez
2006 [4]: Carlos Beltran
2007 [5]: David Wright
2008 [6]: Johan Santana
2009 [7]: Pedro Feliciano
2010 [8]: R.A. Dickey
2011 [9]: Jose Reyes
2012 [10]: R.A. Dickey
2013 [11]: Daniel Murphy, Dillon Gee and LaTroy Hawkins
2014 [12]: Jacob deGrom
2015 [13]: Yoenis Cespedes

Still to come: The Nikon Camera Player of the Year for 2016.