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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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Scooter and the Solar Bear

The Mets kept their heartbeat faint but detectable by beating the Reds 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, who tagged Trevor Bauer for a first-inning three-run homer; J.D. Davis and Brandon Nimmo, whose solo shots shoved the Reds back in a way the Mets needed to do but couldn’t on Saturday; Marcus Stroman, who outlasted both the Cincinnati hitters and his own rebellious guts; and Brad Brach, who entered to retire Eugenio Suarez 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. 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 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 and Amed Rosario, both at .338; Wilson Ramos is at .315, and down there with Conforto you’ll find Pete Alonso 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, 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.

11 comments to Scooter and the Solar Bear

  • Greg Mitchell

    Your J.D. comments (which could also fit Dom Smith) finally makes me take a look at wait-till-next-year.

    1B: Alonso of course but like rest of team needs defense improvement–look at errors which do not include at least half a dozen should-be errors when he knocked down balls headed straight to second-sacker.

    2B: Stuck with Cano? If put McNeil here then what do with Cano? (Panik and Luis G good reserves).

    SS: Rosario full time, thank god.

    3B: McNeil here if Cano stays? But don’t forget our pal Jedd Lowrie. And what if JD works all winter and comes to camp very very competent?

    LF: Isn’t Cespedes signed for one more year? Would at least be part-timer. Can JD and/or Smith be allowed to play out there again–or would they be okay with full spring of practice? Conforto here if McNeil full-time in right?

    CF: Can we count on Nimmo at all given low batting average despite walks and HBP? At least get a super righty platoon guy who could also play fulltime if required.

    RF: McNeil if not playing 2B or 3B? Conforto if not needed in LF? Or do we need to sign one superstar for somewhere in OF or 3B? Yes, we have guys to package.

    C: Of course, can keep Ramos but his high average might be more than canceled by poor catching skills, horrible throwing arm, lack of extra base hits in era of…extra base hits. Maybe should re-sign D’arnaud, ha ha. Or trade Ramos and sign an all-around good C.

    Well, should have a heck of a bench, anyway, in contrast to this year…

    • Fitz Cave

      I think the one thing that is overlooked is how good Brandon Nimmo is. Remember that ~2/3rds of his plate appearances this year were hindered by whiplash. He was 7th in OPS+ in 2018 — for the entire major leagues. He was also 4th in the NL in oWAR — 2nd if Arenado and Story’s “not discounted enough” Colorado stats are ignored. He has good speed…not great, but well above average. He is a savant at getting on base and is an ideal leadoff hitter — especially with McNeil batting behind him in the two hole. He must occupy one of the outfield spots. His arm is below average but his instincts are good. I like him in left field, moving JD Davis and his strong arm to right. Conforto plays center.

      Shattered ankles are tough to recover from, so I’m discounting Cespedes’ contribution, although he’ll make a nice DH nine times a year.

      As far as the infield, Alonso 1B McNeil 2B Rosario SS Lowrie 3B. Cano rides the pine. If Lowrie is ineffective, then some combination of Smith, Davis, Cano, McNeil for one outfield spot, 2B, and 3B.

      At catcher, I would start Ramos but ask Mesoraco if he’d like to come out of retirement and carry a third catcher with the rosters expanding to 26 next year.

      Re-sign Wheeler and add one good arm to the bullpen. For some stupid reason, I think Diaz will turn it around next year — can’t say the same about Familia.

      Oh, and pray for a five game sweep by the Phillies.

  • Seth

    If the miracle does happen, hopefully they’ll be recovered from their bruised toes, tummy aches, and other serious maladies.

  • Fitz Cave

    Conforto low BABIP is a function of the shifts employed against him.

  • mikeL

    yea, it would be nice to see JD emerge as part of core of young mets hitters well into the future and i’m hopeful he may be a workable option at third. he’s too clutch and has too much power to let go of easily.

    it felt over and done on saturday, top of ninth. it reminded me of the queasy sensation in the bottom of the ninth on shea’s final day (minus the inexplicable choice of doing the commemoration AFTER the game).

    i still hope for a total phils sweep/nats collapse as the mets run the table – but i’ve let go. now is for 7more times to see some good ny mets baseball.

    i’m proud of this team’s unwillingness to quit after so many solid hits to the gut.

    this will serve them well next year and beyond when they, presumably, won’t be undone by their ‘pen with such regularity for so long. we’ve already seen that the awful losses suffered recently haven’t scarred our young stars for their baseball lives. i’m already stoked for spring training.

    in the meantime, lets win one every day Mets, one smart at bat at a time!

  • open the gates

    I don’t think I can express fully how thoroughly I loathe the Marlins. Just putting that out there.

  • Daniel Hall

    Man, if not for the mentioned atrocious defense, bullpen ablaze, and the dunderheaded Manager each costing what felt like five wins over the course of the season, this might have been a 100-win team.

  • 9th string catcher

    I have to think if you have a home run champion, a cy young finalist and a challenger for the batting title, you need to be better than .500. Truly an abomination for a bullpen, but still…

  • mikeL

    aw brach!!
    came home just before the GS against matz.
    rosario summoned the magic.
    then brad brached a potential game-saving play.
    i temper my animus as the awful phils proved useless in helping us both.

    too many little deaths and gut punches this season for full recovery but agreed : the elements were all there for a huge season.

    pitchers and catchers are just on the opposite side of december. i’m bummed but i no longer feel like the mets are decades away from real success.

  • Since64

    This baseball decade is coming to a close. May I remind you that the Mets have appeared in the World Series every decade with the exception of the 90’s. 5 out of 6 decades is a lot better then many MLB teams. This season, no doubt, had given us fans hope that we are not far from doing it again.

  • Since64

    This baseball decade is coming to a close. May I remind you that the Mets have appeared in the World Series every decade with the exception of the 90’s. 5 out of 6 decades is a lot better then many MLB teams. This season, no doubt, has given us fans hope that we are not far from doing it again.