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Sympathy for a Jonah

Welcome to A Met for All Seasons, a series [1] in which we consider a given Met who played in a given season and…well, we’ll see.

Every Met roster seems to have one — a guy who slumps around under a little black cloud, trailed by misfortune both chronic and mysterious. Mysterious because he doesn’t seem to deserve what happens to him over and over again, or at least not the “over and over again” part. And because he doesn’t strike you as devoid of ability, or as a bad teammate.

There are words for this kind of player and for this kind of person, as this isn’t just a baseball phenomenon but an unfortunate aspect of life.

“Schlemiel” is the Yiddish word, with the added context (helpful for those of you who vaguely remember Laverne & Shirley) that the schlemiel is the guy who spills his soup and the schlimazel is the guy whose lap it lands in — which, in baseball terms, makes all of us groaning in the stands or on our couches the schlimazels. But the word I’ve always used is Jonah, which is sailors’ lore for a passenger or crewmate who brings bad luck. I think I prefer that one because a baseball team is like a ship’s crew, isolated and trying to get along in a little self-contained world beset by dangers.

The difference between a Jonah and other crewmates not quite fit for duty can be subtle — it’s easier to define what a Jonah isn’t than to nail down what he is. A Jonah needs a certain modicum of talent — your overmatched emergency starters and stone-fingered infielders don’t count, because they shouldn’t have been put it that position in the first place. A truly tragic or star-crossed player isn’t a Jonah either, because when a Jonah screws up your reaction should be more of a sigh than remote-throwing, drywall-punching rage. Life with a Jonah is a grinding, corrosive series of letdowns, not a sequence of blowups that leave craters in the soul. And a Jonah need not be universally viewed as such — the identification can be completely subjective, with one fan’s Jonah another fan’s guy to merely shrug and grumble about.

Which brings us to the 2017 Mets, and Paul Sewald [2].

The 2017 Mets, in case you’ve forgotten, were deeply terrible in a boring way that you could feel gnawing at your fandom day after day after identical day. This was a team that gave five starts to Tommy Milone [3], a reliably horrible starting pitcher. (He posted an 8.59 ERA.) Neil Ramirez [4] was a living metronome of suck that ticked and ticked and ticked until I wanted to ram an icepick through both eardrums. Jay Bruce [5] was the top guy in most offensive categories, which might define damning with faint praise. David Wright [6] spent the entire year on the shelf with what turned out to be spinal stenosis. Michael Conforto [7]‘s season ended when he dislocated his shoulder swinging and missing. With every ambulatory outfielder traded or injured, Nori Aoki [8] was brought in late to supply basic competence and felt like a savior. A fire sale of formerly useful players brought back nothing but identically lousy right-handed relievers. Tomas Nido [9] collected his first big-league hit in a meaningless game against the Cubs and ended that game about two minutes later by being tagged 25 feet shy of home plate by the pitcher. The highlights of the year were the presence of Jacob deGrom [10], cameos by Amed Rosario [11] and Dominic Smith [12], and the fact that the season actually did end.

The first new Met of 2017 was Sewald, a 25-year-old right-hander from Las Vegas who’d looked perfectly useful over five seasons in the minors, working exclusively in relief. Sewald made his debut on April 8 at Citi Field, entering in the eighth inning of a game the Mets were losing to the Marlins, 4-1. Facing the bottom of the order, he gave up consecutive singles to Adeiny Hechavarria [13], Dee Gordon and J.T. Realmuto [14], then retired his only batter when Miguel Rojas [15] sacrificed home a second run.

Not a great debut, but many debuts aren’t great. Sewald looked better in his next outing and again when summoned back to New York in May, but June was a disaster and he finished the year with a 4.55 ERA and an 0-6 record. There’s a blinking light of early onset Jonahdom — no lucking into a win, plenty of stumbling into a loss. In 2018 the Mets were better but Sewald was not — he posted a 6.07 ERA and an 0-7 record, running his career mark to 0-13.

That 0-13 mark probably makes you think of poor Anthony Young [16], who infamously went 0-27 from 1992 into 1993. But Young, while deeply, improbably and tragically unlucky, wasn’t a Jonah. During his year of misery, your primary thought was that he deserved better. A Jonah rarely elicits such sympathy. Armando Benitez [17] and Braden Looper [18] and Edwin Diaz [19] weren’t/aren’t Jonahs — they had too much talent for that tag, and their failures induced too much rage to qualify. Jason Bay [20] wasn’t a Jonah but a player whose sky caved in on him.

My first Jonah might have been Jose Vizcaino [21], a relatively blameless player in a statistical sense who nonetheless struck me as beset by deep flaws that were somehow communicable to his teammates. Call that weird prejudice, but weird prejudice is part of Jonah-hood. (Greg has always had a bone-deep loathing of Danny Heep [22], for no reason I can tell.) If you’re wondering, Vizcaino’s dagger into the Mets’ heart in the 2000 World Series in no way invalidates his Jonah status — Jonahdom is team-specific, and can be escaped with a change of affiliation.

Roger Cedeno [23] was a Jonah, though I consign him to that status a bit reluctantly — he had more talent than your typical Jonah, but was dragged down into the Jonah spectrum by his chronic, sighworthy lunkheadedness.

Aaron Heilman [24] was perhaps the Jonah-est Jonah who ever Jonahed, at least in orange and blue. Enough said.

Jose Offerman [25] counts as a mild Jonah — he was pretty much cooked by the time the Mets brought him in, which isn’t his fault, but still managed to underperform a decent big-league track record.

Some people would call Mike Pelfrey [26] a Jonah, but I blame the Mets for taking ace stuff and producing a pedestrian pitcher.

I detested Jon Niese [27], but dislike alone doesn’t make a Jonah — if anything it works against it, since a Jonah isn’t someone you want to root against.

Anyway, back to Sewald. After his unassuming start his win-loss record got worse and worse, eventually achieving Curious Factoid status. But the accumulating badness crept up on us — it’s not like anyone was rushing off to update the Sewald Watch, as had happened with Young. You’d be surprised to learn Sewald was now 0-9 or 0-11, but the surprise lay in the specific number, not in the general futility. That was thoroughly expected.

By 2019 Sewald was a known quantity, summoned for long periods from Triple-A but never quite securing a place in the bullpen. We knew his repertoire — meh fastball and changeup, good slider undermined by his lack of another pitch and his tendency to hang that slider at key moments. We had no objection to him as a teammate. We knew him as a standup guy in clubhouse interviews. We read that he was a smart player, interested in scouting reports and sabermetrics and always looking for a way to make his run-of-the-mill arsenal play better. The fact that his preparation never seemed to work? Classic Jonah indicator.

Sewald finally won a game last year — he was the pitcher of record when the Mets beat the Marlins on a bases-loaded walk in the 11th inning at Citi Field in late September, breaking his losing streak at 0-14. He made one final appearance that season, giving up the first of Hechavarria’s deeply annoying home runs in the finale won by Dom Smith. There’s yet another another telltale of Jonahdom — any rare bit of good news is followed immediately by a reminder of who you really are.

Sewald has plied his trade with the Mets during this weirdo season, and while he hasn’t lost a game, at least not yet, he’s sporting a 13.50 ERA. When he takes the mound I sigh, not because I dislike him or root against him, but because I can guess that the kind of things that cause guys to have 13.50 ERAs are in the offing. He’s Paul Sewald, doughty and doomed. He’s a Jonah. It’s not his fault, but the fact that it isn’t his fault doesn’t change what he is.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1962 [28]: Richie Ashburn
1963 [29]: Ron Hunt
1964 [30]: Rod Kanehl
1965 [31]: Ron Swoboda
1966 [32]: Shaun Fitzmaurice
1967 [33]: Al Schmelz
1969 [34]: Donn Clendenon
1970 [35]: Tommie Agee
1971 [36]: Tom Seaver
1972 [37]: Gary Gentry
1973 [38]: Willie Mays
1974 [39]: Tug McGraw
1977 [40]: Lenny Randle
1978 [41]: Craig Swan
1981 [42]: Mookie Wilson
1982 [43]: Rusty Staub
1983 [44]: Darryl Strawberry
1986 [45]: Keith Hernandez
1988 [46]: Gary Carter
1990 [47]: Gregg Jefferies
1991 [48]: Rich Sauveur
1992 [49]: Todd Hundley
1993 [50]: Joe Orsulak
1994 [51]: Rico Brogna
1995 [52]: Jason Isringhausen
1996 [53]: Rey Ordoñez
1998 [54]: Todd Pratt
2000 [55]: Melvin Mora
2001 [56]: Mike Piazza
2002 [57]: Al Leiter
2003 [58]: David Cone
2004 [59]: Joe Hietpas
2005 [60]: Pedro Martinez
2007 [61]: Jose Reyes
2008 [62]: Johan Santana
2009 [63]: Angel Pagan
2010 [64]: Ike Davis
2011 [65]: David Wright
2012 [66]: R.A. Dickey
2013 [67]: Wilmer Flores
2014 [68]: Jacob deGrom
2019 [69]: Dom Smith