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Scooter and the Solar Bear

The Mets kept their heartbeat faint but detectable by beating the Reds [1] on Sunday afternoon — a game I started listening to on the Tripper Bus back from D.C. and that ended with me standing in my living room in Brooklyn. (First comment: “I know they’re throwbacks, but the Reds really need to retire those uniforms.”)

Your orange-and-blue heroes: Michael Conforto [2], who tagged Trevor Bauer [3] for a first-inning three-run homer; J.D. Davis [4] and Brandon Nimmo [5], whose solo shots shoved the Reds back in a way the Mets needed to do but couldn’t [6] on Saturday; Marcus Stroman [7], who outlasted both the Cincinnati hitters and his own rebellious guts; and Brad Brach [8], who entered to retire Eugenio Suarez [9] on a single very important pitch.

Speaking of nausea, the Cubs finished being dismantled by the Cardinals, the finale of a late-season sweep that leaves them just a half-game ahead of us and four behind the Nationals and Brewers, currently tied as wild-card leaders. That one will leave a mark in Chicago that will last quite a while. The Nats are stumbling around up there on the leaderboard, having lost to the Marlins, while the Brewers just keep winning, despite being without Christian Yelich [10]. It helps that the Brewers got to play the Pirates, who decided to play a 140-game schedule this year. Pittsburgh has been roiled by clubhouse fisticuffs and revelations of vile behavior by players, and the Pirates’ braintrust will have to find a way to move on from the fact that, to put it bluntly, this year’s club quit.

Add up all that and you have an odd scenario in which the Mets are behind the Cubs, Brewers and Nationals but it really only feels like they’re chasing the Nats, since the Cubs are Icarus plunging towards the Aegean of the offseason and the Brewers don’t seem interested in ever losing another baseball game.

The Mets emerging from that scenario to play a 163rd game is unlikely, to put it mildly, but “unlikely, to put it mildly” is not the same as “impossible,” and the fan-emotion rollercoaster has looped back around to the point where the chase is fun again, which is what baseball ought to be and what Mets baseball too often hasn’t been in the final week of seasons.

I was struck by Conforto and Davis being front and center in the Mets’ Sunday win. Both have become favorites of mine — Conforto a few years back and Davis recently — but both are at least mildly confounding to assess as players.

Conforto has endured a lot as a New York Met, a soapbox I’ve climbed on before [11] and a rant I’ll largely spare you this time. (Short version: The Mets did everything possible to wreck his development as a hitter and then repeatedly set him up to fail as a defender, only to wind up with a 3 WAR player despite themselves.) The only thing I’ll add is that Conforto has to be the unluckiest hitter in baseball — if you turn on Howie and Wayne just in time to hear them lament a ball that hung up or an enemy fielder’s tricky catch, odds are Conforto was at the plate.

After writing that I did some nervous Googling, waiting to discover that I’d succumbed yet again to confirmation bias. But no, Conforto’s BABIP this year really is a head-scratching .283, the lowest among Met regulars. (For the uninitiated, the average MLB batting average on balls in play hovers around .300 year to year.) Conforto attracts more than his share of Met fans somehow dissatisfied with 30+ homer/90+ RBI seasons; if he’d like to silence them, his best bet would be to figure out some ceremony that will propitiate the BABIP gods and make them torment someone else.

(I find BABIP one of the more interesting “advanced” stats for its value finding players whose current circumstances may owe a lot to luck, whether fair or foul. Looking at other Mets, the BABIP leaders are Jeff McNeil [12] and Amed Rosario [13], both at .338; Wilson Ramos [14] is at .315, and down there with Conforto you’ll find Pete Alonso [15] at .284. McNeil had a starry BABIP last year too and Rosario is helped by his speed, but the Ramos and Alonso numbers are pretty interesting.)

As for Davis, we all know him as the adorable Solar Bear [16], Alonso’s goofy, endearing sidekick. (“WHADDYA GONNA THROW ‘IM? WHAT NOW?”) He’s also a guy without an obvious position, unless “boy can he hit” counts. Baseball Reference has J.D. at 0.8 WAR, which is shorthand for “this player needs to be kept out of your starting lineup.” That surprised me, as I would have thought Davis would net out as at least a useful piece. The statistical shortcoming is all defense — he’s worth a highly useful 2.8 WAR as an offensive player, but gives back most of that with the glove.

Defensive stats are still something of the wild west in baseball, with the formulas and methodology in motion. (Which is part of the process, and not a reason for anyone who wants to be taken seriously to dismiss them.) I’d love to know more about Davis at different positions and over time. But outfield defense is also where I put the least faith in the eye test — catches are made or not made based on instinct, footwork and first steps, which are the hardest things for a non-scout to assess and a broadcast to break down.

Barring a miracle (and hey, they’re not unknown in these parts), the 2019 Mets will be remembered as a team that came up just a little short of October baseball, undone by its bullpen and its defense. (Having a dunderheaded manager didn’t help.) The Mets need to improve defensively and have a glut of outfielders — of whom, unfortunately, only McNeil nets out as a positive contributor by defensive stats. Could the Mets improve by packaging Davis for help they need elsewhere?

That would make me sad — I want J.D. Davis to play 20 years, create a long playlist of goofy celebratory moments with Alonso, and retire as a Met with an on-field ceremony that ends with one of his squeaky-voiced calls to arms and Alonso sneaking up from behind him to tear off his jersey one last time. But then I always want that ending (or, OK, something like that but a lot less specific) for a player I’ve come to enjoy, and the construction of baseball teams is a job for the head, not the heart.

For now, the Solar Bear is here, hammering dingers and doing whatever he does in the outfield, and it’s a story I’ve found compelling and entertaining and thrilling and even heart-warming, and I’m going to enjoy the heck out of the last week of it.

And then, as always, we’ll see.