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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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A Capricious Game

The Reds’ Joey Votto said something wonderful Saturday night, after just missing his bid for a record-tying home run in his eighth straight game. Here’s Votto on his streak, how it began, and how it ended:

I’m a bit of a StatCast nerd and it started with a .090 expected batting average home run on a 98-mph weak fly ball that carried into the first couple of rows into Cincinnati. And it ended on a 109, 110-mph line drive off the wall and that’s baseball.

If you love baseball, you should love Votto – because baseball’s maddening capriciousness has rarely been described so well, and to hear an actual player wade into the existential murk to describe it is rarer still. This isn’t to say ballplayers are dumb, though it is true that few of them are wordsmiths; rather, it’s to note that a philosophical bent can get in a player’s way, which is the last thing he needs when the game’s hard enough as it is. Ballplayers need to be able to instantly flush away the past and any doubts that might have accumulated with it, living in the present and possessing an unshakeable faith in themselves and the future that will entail. Votto is the rarest of breeds – a multi-WAR talent in the batter’s box and in considering what does and doesn’t happen within it.

Sunday’s game left me returning again and again to Votto’s quote, because it was pretty goddamn capricious game. Less than two weeks ago the Mets faced Vladimir Gutierrez and beat him up pretty thoroughly, with Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil and Michael Conforto homering as the Mets hung six runs on Gutierrez in four innings. But if the Mets arrived at Citi Field licking their jobs about a rematch, they soon discovered they were the meal. Gutierrez flashed a terrific changeup, located his pitches well and throttled the Mets over seven outstanding innings. Meanwhile, Marcus Stroman hit a bump or two, which wouldn’t have been enough to derail him on a day when the offense was clicking, except the offense was decidedly not doing that, and the lack was enough for Stroman find himself behind Gutierrez on the scoreboard.

Votto was a spectator Sunday, spelled by the less-than-heralded Max Schrock – another matchup that looked like good news for the Mets but proved anything but. Schrock went 5-for-5, with the man he’d replaced for the day leading the cheers for him from the dugout. Add in the Mets’ bullpen imploding – Miguel Castro walked in a run by issuing four straight balls to Gutierrez, while Geoff Hartlieb chose a different but equally unsuccessful strategy by following three walks and a single with a two-run double to Tyler Naquin – and the Mets were doomed. The game was a logy slog, no fun to watch even before the scoreboard yielded its final verdict.

So it goes during this stop-start stretch of season: The Mets have gone 20-23 since being 10 games over .500 on June 16, with nearly every reliever springing a leak at some point and the run of injuries to starters and position players showing no signs of abating. Yet they’ve somehow lost just a game and a half off their lead in the National League East while doggy-paddling around haplessly, thanks to the division being a yearlong festival of mediocrity. Which is both kind of a miracle and the sort of thing you sense not to trust even a day longer than you can avoid it.

I can squint a little and see the Mets holding off the flawed, remade-on-the-fly Phillies and the injury-riddled Braves, finding themselves with reinforcements in time for September and then proving healthy and incredibly dangerous in October. But I can just as easily see them getting run down by the Phillies, Braves or both, undone by their chronic lack of offense, by fatigue and injuries dragging down the rotation even further, and by bad luck catching up to them.

Who knows? Baseball is capricious, after all. All you can do is hope that the dice wind up loaded in your favor – and promise that you’ll keep your sense of humor if they don’t.

* * *

The Mets seemed to have scored a coup with Vanderbilt’s Kumar Rocker fell to them as the 10th pick in the draft, and news that the two sides had agreed to a $6 million signing bonus came as another welcome indication that the Steve Cohen era would be nothing like the Wilpon years.

But then came reports that the Mets hadn’t liked something they saw during Rocker’s physical, rumblings that the team and Scott Boras weren’t talking, and then word that Sunday’s 5 pm deadline had passed without Rocker’s signature on a contract. He goes back into the draft and the Mets get a make-good 11th pick next year.

The next few days will probably deliver more details about what exactly the Mets might have seen, what Sandy Alderson and Boras and Cohen thought and said, and the rest of the ingredients for the mess. Maybe Rocker never has a pro career worth noting, undone by too much mileage as a college pitcher. But maybe the Mets let a shot at a premier talent go in a squabble over a relative modest outlay of money.

The reaction among Mets fans, myself included, was swift and brutal, with the lost pick pilloried as a slide back into skinflint Wilponism. And I get why we all thought that way. First off, it’s going to take a long time to recover from the grinding cheapness and serial dishonesty of the Wilpons and their goons; second, the fanbase is rattled by the team’s unsteady play and disappointment that the trading deadline failed to address the needs for credible starting depth and/or better options in middle relief. What’s a billionaire owner for, if not to throw money at problems?

But after a couple of hours of reading and reflecting on Rocker, I’m choosing to do something all too rare online, which is to say that my take is I don’t have a take, because I don’t know enough about what happened.

I don’t find it credible that the Mets were cheap or negotiated in bad faith. Not even the Wilpons would have engineered their draft around going $1.3 million over slot for a first pick as a clever ruse to save $6 million; in fact, drafting was the one thing the Mets were fairly good at even during the Wilpons’ red-giant phase. If you eliminate that conspiracy theory, whatever happened comes down to questions about Rocker’s health and the Mets’ cost-benefit analysis in deciding between the pitcher and whatever might be wrong with his arm and picking an unknown quantity 11th next year. Which turns the argument into asking whether the Mets did their due diligence on Rocker and/or assessing whatever player they draft next summer instead of him. I don’t know enough about the first point and nobody will know enough about the second point until around 2026. So I’m choosing to move on and save my gnashing and wailing for clear and present dangers to first place and a happy October. There isn’t exactly a lack of them.

11 comments to A Capricious Game

  • mikeL

    i’ll go with your squinted optimism for now jason, but damn :
    the reliever’s three batter minimum is absurd and anti-baseball … and may very well lose the mets enough games to get passed on he homestretch, if not sooner.
    i miss the days when a manager could dispatch a control challenged reliever mid-batter. castro deserved just that *before* he could walk guiterrez. he would have been in his rights to do so. clock time be damned.

    bummer about rocker. hope it was indeed for a legit concern about that mri not performed and damage not reported.
    but crap, doesn’t anybody who vets these picks do their homework?

  • Lenny65

    The 2021 Mets are just maddening beyond words. A handful of “timely hits”, a few big innings and this bunch is running away with the NL East right now. But they’re still just punchless in that inexorable infuriating way of theirs, with the crushing strikeouts and feeble first-pitch grounders to second. It’s inexplicable.

    Now I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on this whole Rocker thing but let’s face it. If they signed him there’s no question that the kid would immediately need some sort of major career-altering surgery and they be getting roasted over the coals for their lack of due diligence. Yes, the whole affair looks bad in that annoying clown-shoes way of theirs but I gotta give them the benefit of the doubt here and assume they felt they had legit and major concerns re: this kid.

  • open the gates

    So the Kumar Rocker thing is a tantalizing little mystery. Given my expertise on the baseball draft (which is to say, less than none), here are a few observations:

    1) Even with my aforementioned lack of expertise, I wondered at the time why the supposed golden boy of college baseball was passed on by nine other teams before the Mets grabbed him.

    2) In this year of injuries, no one wants a kid who has (may have?) physical issues. No one wants to be known as the discoverer of the next Steve Chilcott.

    3) The Boras factor. While Steve Cohen is fabulously rich, he is more than willing to walk away from a deal if he feels he is being conned – witness his dance with the Wilpons before finally agreeing to buy the team in the first place. If Boras tried to hold him over a barrel, that could have been reason enough for Cohen to kibosh the deal.

    4) Given the Rocker fiasco, as well as the quick descent of Pete Crow-Armstrong from no-miss prospect to rental bait in the space of a year, maybe the scouting department is due for an overhaul.

    Again, I’ll admit that I don’t know what the heck I’m talking about. But it’s fun to ruminate about it. Maybe more fun than watching the actual team playing some days.

  • My understanding is that teams can’t evaluate medicals ahead of the draft. That seems archaic. One would assume the Mets had plenty of time to go over his medicals since draft day, and I’m going to trust in that this time around.

    • There’s a pre-draft MRI program in which potential draftees get checked out and the medicals are shared with interested teams. Rocker chose not to take part, which isn’t uncommon but certainly added to the unease about him. And it’s another Rorschach for what the Mets should or shouldn’t have done.

  • Eric

    On the radio call yesterday, Howie Rose wondered to Wayne Randazzo why the home crowds were still low despite other MLB home crowds picking up and the Mets having been in 1st place for the better part of the season. I think it’s because the Mets aren’t playing like an exciting team that has dominantly claimed possession of 1st place. With deGrom out indefinitely, the constant injuries and roster patches, the hitherto stalwart pitching hitting a wall, the offense still comatose, the trade deadline deals falling short of both team needs and division rivals, and the muddling ~.500 mix of same-old losses and smoke-and-mirror wins, fans aren’t convinced they’re a legitimate contender and genuinely good team. We know the Mets are in 1st place mostly by default while no other NLE team has stepped forward (yet) to pluck the division out of the Mets’ increasingly shaky grip.

    I was hyped for Kumar Rocker. I was picturing him bolstering the Mets rotation by September 2022, mid-2023 at the latest. Maybe even this season if he was an immediate hit in the minors and a big-league hole needed patching for the stretch run. Letting that go is a disappointment. I’m curious what issue the post-draft medical reports revealed given that recent or imminent Tommy John surgery has not been a deal breaker for top picks. Harvey-esque thoracic outlet syndrome maybe?

    The Mets do look incompetent given that other teams passed on Rocker, so the Mets look like they were ignorant of something everyone else knew on draft day. Or worse, the Mets knew, chose to drive over the cliff anyway, yet seemed surprised when their choice fell through.

    Of course, if Rocker’s interrupted pro career proceeds as promised and as healthily as Boras says it will, the Mets will look worse.

    There’s also the esoteric “over slot” criticism that the Mets picks after Rocker were less talented “under slot” picks to compensate for the “over slot” dollar allotment set aside for Rocker, and they didn’t reach in the later rounds for a high-ceiling HS player otherwise headed for college whom they could pay the “over slot” dollar allotment set aside for Rocker if he failed to sign.

  • Seth

    Grounders to second? Some of the balls the Mets were hitting weren’t even getting past the pitcher’s mound. It’s embarrassing, really.

  • Dave

    Whatever the reason for not signing the guy they thought highly enough to consider themselves fortunate to take him with the 10th pick in the draft, the situation sucks. There are no shortage of people who have a PhD in baseball draft analysis and policy from the University of Twitter, I will let them lecture us all on why this was OK or a disaster. All I know is that the Mets came out of it looking pretty bad, because they were supposed to have one 1st round draft pick and now they have none.

    But in the meantime, Boras of course also represents Mr I’m Going To Pick My Walk Year to Completely Suck, Michael Conforto. Boras already hates the Mets. Not that I am in the habit of missing guys who are hitting .196, but we know that Conforto is just as likely to go 30/90/.290 next year as he is to do anything else because he’s got that level of streaky inconsistency. Say goodbye to him at the conclusion of the 2021 season, and don’t be surprised if he winds up in the Bronx or in Philadelphia just out of spite.

    • Seth

      It’s possible he could succeed somewhere else of course. But he’s no Daniel Murphy. Murphy, despite all his flaws, was our most consistent hitter. Conforto is our most inconsistent hitter. He gets hot for 2 days every other month.

      • Dave

        Conforto has performed well enough in the past to make his extremely poor performance this year perplexing. He’s not Mike Trout, but he’s a better player than we’re seeing now and likely to do better next year. But my gut tells me that Boras will make damn sure he does it in a different uniform.

  • Richard Porricelli

    The team is a bit dull now. Trip to Miami is coming at the right time, although over the years its been a hell hole there.. Not scoring runs , no Jacob , and the season not quite at the stretch.. Better name team would have had a better crowd over the weekend..