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Hard Habit to Break

I just started reading a book I’ve had around for a while, The Greatest Game Ever Pitched [1] by Jim Kaplan. It’s a deep dive into the legendary sixteen-inning 1-0 duel between Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal in 1963 and wisely includes a statistical section. For frame of reference, I looked up each Hall of Famer’s numbers from the season in question, and by numbers, I mean the first thing I looked at was wins and losses.

Geez, I thought to myself, if after all these months of Jacob deGrom [2] dominating every starting pitching metric except for wins and losses, and me lobbying the fates like any good Mets fan for Jake to win the Cy Young because wins and losses are the metrics least reflective of excellent starting pitching, I still can’t break the ingrained habit of looking at what we have all agreed is an archaic measurement of effectiveness.

What was Marichal in 1963? Among everything else, he was 25-8, with the thirteenth win earned when he and the Giants downed Spahn and the Braves on July 2 at Candlestick Park. Spahn would be known at the end of ’63 as a 23-7 pitcher, his fourth loss incurred despite 15⅓ scoreless innings hurled ahead of the home run Willie Mays hit off him to capture that same game for San Francisco. Calling Marichal the winner for a shutout spanning sixteen innings seems understatement. Calling Spahn the loser after recording 46 outs in one evening seems absurd.

But there it is and there it’s been across generations. It’s the cross deGrom’s Cy Young candidacy bears, no matter how much we’ve evolved as informed consumers of our national pastime. As his Thursday start against Madison Bumgarner loomed this week, I went to Bumgarner’s Baseball-Reference page to see how the Giant among Giants has been doing this year. The first stat that drew my eye wasn’t ERA or WHIP or anything remotely New Agey. The first thing I focused on was, “Oh, Bumgarner is 4-5.”


By the way, with the Giants having defeated the Mets [3] Thursday afternoon by the kind of score the Mets tend to lose by when deGrom pitches (3-1), Bumgarner is now 5-5 and deGrom is now 8-8. We can not care, but it gets registered that way, nonetheless. Two of the greats of the current decade are just guys who are apparently no better than they are bad — or no worse than they are good. Bumgarner and deGrom are .500 pitchers, which tells us next to nothing if you watched them today or most any day. What does 8-8 mean? Well, if Jake was in the AFC, I imagine he’d be waiting on the final of the Bills-Ravens game to see if he somehow snuck into the playoffs, but in the National League where he pitches, 8-8 when paired with a 1.71 ERA makes 8-8 look more insignificant than a 1.71 ERA looks microscopic.

Those who vote on the Cy Young could strike a blow against the vestigial tyranny of ancient yardsticks by homing in on all deGrom has done well this year, taking fully into account the mediocre outfit he works for and, at least on one occasion, the bottom-of-the-barrel umpire he had to work against. It would really help Jake’s and our cause if there was no extremely viable alternative to his routine brilliance. Alas, as Jake and Madison took on each other at Citi Field, the out-of-town scoreboard kept us posted on the machinations of deGrom’s prime hardware competition, Max Scherzer, and the dark horse candidate galloping along the outside rail — the Gary Johnson of the Cy Young race, to put it another context — Aaron Nola. Nola’s Phillies beat Scherzer’s Nationals, 2-0, which is to say Nola beat Scherzer. Scherzer threw a seven-inning two-hitter, striking out ten. That dubs him a loser in the parlance so popular in previous centuries. His record drops to 16-6. Nola’s, following eight innings of five-hit shutout ball, rises to 15-3. Each man is posting an ERA of 2.13.

That’s an outstanding earned run average. It’s just far less outstanding than 1.71. But did ya see those won-lost records? As Ray Stevens warned in The Streak [4], “Don’t look, Ethel!” But it’s too late. She’d already been ingrained. It’s gonna be hard to cover up for the BBWAA electorate whatever 16-6 and 15-3 wind up being, especially when Jake and his tiny ERA are left nekkid as a jaybird, over by the .500 records.

That the Mets could not aid their ace is nothing new. That the Mets could barely lay a finger on Bumgarner, who was last seen at Citi ending our very brief postseason in 2016 [5], is also a tale as old as time. Maybe the elements were not in place for those of us who visited Flushing on an otherwise beautiful late summer day to come away satisfied. Yet satisfaction seemed within reach when Thursday started. My wife and I spent the morning at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, enjoying some free “Fan Week” admission to qualifying matches and hitting practice. Judging by what we saw of the latter, Novak Djokovic stood a better chance against Bumgarner than half the lineup Mickey Callaway deployed in ostensible support of deGrom. The tennis, Stephanie’s idea, was a novelty; usually I rail against the US Open hordes encroaching upon the 7 train, taking our seats and daring to enjoy something other than baseball. Today I forged rapprochement with an event I otherwise consider a high-priced racket.

Did I mention it was free? Also, did I mention it provided an excellent excuse to be in Flushing Meadows prior to 1:10 PM, and since we were already in the neighborhood…yes, my wife knew where my sudden interest in the sport of strings was coming from. But it was actually a fine appetizer to our main course. We strolled the grounds, we sat in on some qualifiers, we lingered over the many photographic tributes to Arthur Ashe (during the twelve Augusts they overlapped, I loved that stadiums that were anagrams for each other — ASHE and SHEA — were separated by only a boardwalk) and I looked forward to first pitch.

Yeah, Thursday was pretty good when the first half of its agenda had not morphed into its second.

As Jacob deGrom has said repeatedly in some form or fashion, you can’t worry about what you can’t control. I was delighted to take in the final midweek matinee Citi Field was offering for 2018; I was elated to be sharing it with my ever-indulgent spouse (this was our first non-weekend summertime afternoon game together in a dozen years [6]); and, y’know, deGrom vs. Bumgarner is nothing to sneeze at, even when their respective teams are allergens for excitement. I got a particular kick out of sitting practically directly behind Jose Bautista [7], who spent his defensive day doing what appeared to be tai-chi to stay loose. Jose had no putouts but was a crowdpleaser between innings, consistently reaching fans with balls and smiles. That stuff goes a long way when batting averages no longer climb very high.

So it was a great day to be at a ballgame — just maybe not this ballgame the way it went. The deGrom portion was valiant as hell. The rest was just the usual fourth-place nonsense. The phrase I heard myself mutter to Stephanie as we trudged through the Field Level foot traffic toward the Rotunda when it ended was, “It is so unrewarding to be a fan of this franchise.”

Certainly no reward was forthcoming for our proxy on the mound. Masterful Madison outpitched him a little and the home plate umpire, the eternally inept [8] Tony Randazzo, undermined him a lot. From where we sat in right field, I was pretty sure I saw the strike three that was called something else cross the plate, and I definitely watched Jake begin to leave the field, secure in the knowledge that he’d K’d Nick Hundley to finish the fourth. The helpful monitors hanging above Section 102 confirmed that deGrom, not Randazzo, was the one who wasn’t hallucinating.

With the third out taken away from him, deGrom walked Hundley, then gave up an RBI double to Bumgarner. Bumgarner may not be directly involved in this year’s Cy derby, but he is something special, dammit. In the aftermath of Jake’s departure (he went six, struck out ten and deserved little linked to today’s outcome), I allowed myself to grudgingly admire Bumgarner from across the outfield grass. This is the most spectacular postseason pitcher of my sentient baseball lifetime. We saw for ourselves how quickly he can end an October. Today he quite possibly threw a crimp into this November’s award season.

If Scherzer and Nola were producing a miniature version of Spahn vs. Marichal in Washington, Bumgarner reminded us he can still do a pretty decent Koufax. Sandy, incidentally, went 25-5 in 1963, accompanied it with a 1.88 ERA and took home that year’s Cy Young. We can assign any historical doppelgänger we like to Jacob deGrom, but I’m pretty happy with him being exactly who he is. Jake’s ERA is lower now than Koufax’s was then, for goodness sake. You can gripe with the umpiring and curse the luck of the opposing rotation’s draw, but you can’t ask for more than what deGrom is giving us.

That 8-8, though. Wish we could do something about that. Tennis would give it an appealing name like “deuce” or “love”. Maybe somebody could dash across the boardwalk on Friday and get some advice. Jake can use all the help he can get.