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We Ain’t Half-Bad

OK, actually half-bad is exactly what we are. But compared to what we were not so long ago….

It turns out nothing can stop Dillon Gee except thunder, lightning, lunatic gales and cruel but sensible precautions related to long rain delays and surgically repaired labrums. Our favorite advanced-stats conundrum mowed down the Braves for four innings, scratched only by an Alex Gonzalez double, but was denied a chance to go 8-0 because he couldn’t go five innings. (The win, arbitrarily, went to Bobby Parnell.)

I remain fascinated by Gee [1], who’s a confounding specimen whether you’re an advanced-stats guy or fan who talks intangibles. ESPN New York’s Mark Simon did a nice job digging into Gee’s numbers today [2], and you can still see the red flags: Going into tonight’s game, his fly ball:home run rate was 16:1, where 10:1 is typical; his xFIP was 3.91, not bad but not matching his otherworldly ERA; and his BABIP was .244, a lot less than the typical .290-to-.310 range.

If any or all of those numbers regress to the mean, Gee won’t look so fantastic, and writers and fans will start intuiting negative things from how he carries himself on the mound, where right now we see positives. I liked Brian Costa’s Wall Street Journal piece [3] on Gee, which came complete with wise quotes from R.A. Dickey and Terry Collins about how nothing fazes him, but I worry such analysis is a variant on a timeless baseball Just So story: If you’re a young pitcher who doesn’t outwardly fret about things, a 7-0 record means you’re cool and mentally tough, but an 0-7 record means you’re bloodless and selfish. This isn’t a shot at Costa, who’s a lively writer with a nose for interesting tales. Rather, it reflects my worry that we’re all hard-wired for this kind of storytelling, for constructing narratives and sniffing out motives to fit whatever facts we think we have. It’s very hard not to do it, even when conclusions may be premature.

But whether Gee is just on a lucky streak or has qualities that will become clearer and more appreciated as we amass more information, he’s a joy to watch and wonder about. (I could have waxed rhapsodic for 400-odd words about whether Manny Acosta is average and unlucky or actually bad, but you’d have lost interest and gone back to watching Canadians behaving deplorably on YouTube.) Gee can throw his change to either edge of the plate, his location is generally terrific (Bill Miller handed out several unwarranted balls to veterans), and he throws harder than you think. He works quickly and unfussily, with the little pause in his windup the only thing about his motion that stands out. The way I’d describe Gee is uncomplicated, which I mean as a compliment: He conducts himself like a man who knows he’s doing something inherently difficult, the outcome of which is out of his control to an aggravating degree, and therefore thinks he should go about it with a minimum of mechanical and emotional fuss and bother.

That’s storytelling again. I don’t know if it’s true, but it seems to fit the facts we have. And I sure want it to be true.

* * *

With the rain falling for a second time, the Mets yielded to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, then very politely returned a couple of minutes after the Bruins finished dismantling the Canucks. Gee was gone, but D.J. Carrasco, Parnell and K-Rod all pitched beautifully to finish what he’d started, shutting out the Braves on two hits, two rain delays, about 35,000 empty seats, one bobblehead and an excess of lightning. The Mets played a crisp game in the field and on the basepaths, with one Angel Pagan Class of ’09 headscratcher the only real blemish. Daniel Murphy played a beautiful game at third, Jose Reyes was his habitual dangerous self with the bat and in the field, Lucas Duda looked surehanded at first, Jason Bay looked sounder at the plate and all was well [4] — a winning road trip is assured, and the Mets are back at .500 despite all their missing players and payroll.

Which leads us dangerously close to storytelling again. The Mets are getting terrific starting pitching and riding a Beltranesque salary drive by Reyes [5], and it wouldn’t be much of an oversimplification to stop there. But OK, beyond that they seem a bit like my characterization of Gee: They’re playing unfussy, sound baseball and as a result they’re winning a lot more often than not. Baseball is always fun, but it’s a lot more fun when you begin to trust your team. I was genuinely surprised that the Mets didn’t beat the Pirates [6] on Monday night, not because the Pirates are the Pirates (they’re having a glass happily half-full season just like we are) but because I’d come to expect the Mets to not make mistakes and beat themselves. When they did, I wasn’t angry so much as I was startled.

When your team’s playing like that, you see the familiar ghosts are made of tissue paper and string, and you dismiss apparent portents as mere noise. Frankie Rodriguez came in for the ninth against the heart of the Braves’ order in a non-save situation, which historically has coincided with his attention being a bit fitful. He calmly retired Dan Uggla and Brian McCann on fly balls to Bay, then faced Chipper Jones.

Chipper, in the Mets’ traditional house of horrors.

He struck out, at Turner Field no less. And I realized I hadn’t been worried.

* * *

Some things to note: