It’s not even close to a new story, and it won’t be the last time you hear or see it. Star player signs gigabucks deal and presses out of the season gate to have first month about which “terrible” gets applied liberally. Anywhere else it might be merely alarming. But New York isn’t anywhere else, alas.
You’d think the watchword of the New York sports fan is, “To err is human, to forgive is not New York policy.” They’re not going to sink—yet—to the reputed depths of Philadelphia fans who inspire such gags as the Philly wedding clergyman pronouncing a newlywed couple husband and wife before telling new husband and gathering alike, “You may now boo the bride.”
New York fans have their own expectations and demands, evidence and actualities be damned, even if they’re not going to go Philadelphia just yet. (Or are they?)
Yankee fans, of course, have the patience of a barracuda whose three squares of the day are delayed; to them, anything less than an annual World Series ring is treason. When the Yankees lose it’s God’s will, somebody else’s fault, or time to throw out the first manager of the season. And that’s with George Steinbrenner gone to the Elysian Fields for over a decade.
Who’d have thought they’d see the day when Yankee fans make The Boss resemble Job? Who’d have thought another Steinbrenner (Hal) would epitomise calm seas compared to (a favourite phrase of his father’s) the fannies in the seats?
Met fans are a little more patient. It’s in their DNA. The team was born making edgy comedy while finishing below the basement. They’ve won a few pennants and a couple of World Series, experienced times troubled enough to make the Black Plague resemble the Paisley Underground, watched excellent teams collapse, and survived team overseers and administrations that could be tried in court for premeditated malfeasance.
But even the most patient, good-humoured Met fan has limits.
It’s one thing for the Citi Field boo birds to beat their wings and squawk every time Jacob deGrom pitches knowing there’s no jury on earth who’d rule against him if he files non-support papers on his mates—or entertains even microscopic thoughts of post-game manslaughter.
They’re watching virtuoso pitching on behalf of a team whose bats are so inexplicably paralysed on his game days deGrom himself has to think about delivering base hits (the outlier has six in thirteen plate appearances) and even runs batted in (he has two), when he checks in at the plate and sees the unlikely presence of a man on base ahead of him.
Come to think of it, Met fans are probably unsure what to make of a segment almost as bright so far as deGrom is virtuosic continously: the bullpen that once caused seven-eighths of New York to consider filing arson charges. The five main bulls—Edwin Diaz, Miguel Castro, Trevor May, Jeurys Familia, and Aaron Loup—have a combined 1.46 ERA/1/49 fielding-independent pitching rate in 41 collective gigs over which they’ve surrendered a mere (count them!) seven earned runs.
Right now, they’ll cheer and holler wildly for that livestock. Let those April showers turn into Mayhem, however, and Met fans will treat that cattle like burnt meatloaf almost in the same time it takes to snap their fingers for the waiter.
The bad news is that Mets bats not belonging to Pete Alonso (.837 OPS), Brandon Nimmo (.870 OPS), and J.D. Davis (1.089 OPS) are a stalled production line. None is singled out more for his season-opening plate futility than a freshly-minted import shortstop.
Getting used to deGrom pitching like a Hall of Famer with his mates hitting like Hall of Shamers in his starts is one thing. But flapping and squawking over Francisco Lindor is something else entirely. They didn’t quite bargain on SuperLindor showing up with only half his A-game calibrated for the new season.
Let’s get the contract business out of the way first. Lindor wouldn’t be the first gigabucks player to sign his first serious big-bucks deal and press it at the plate trying too hard to live up to it. If you want a single example, hark back to Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt. He signed his first big multi-year deal starting in 1978—and had a rather down season at the plate to start that term.
The most cynical of the most cynical Phillies fans dismissed Schmidt as dogging it. Those who paid the closest attention to him knew he was only too anxious to live up to the new deal’s notices and implications. Even if he did win one of his ten Gold Gloves that year. The following year, Schmidt hit like his usual self again (40+ home runs, 210+ runs produced, etc.), led the National League in walks, and made one of his twelve All-Star teams.
For all his pressing at the plate now, Lindor’s still an above-plus study at shortstop. He’s still helping save runs with the leather, legs, and arm. He still has a fielding average 22 points above the rest of the league’s shortstops, and his range factors are still about 30-35 points above the rest. He’s also turned fourteen double plays thus far, well enough on pace to get near his career average 72.
He’s also picking it up when it comes to ducking the strikeout at the plate. Now, I don’t go as nutshit as too many others seeing high strikeout totals, if only because I’d rather see a batter strike out than whack into a double play, but Lindor’s striking out only 11 percent of the time he’s at the plate . . . and taking walks 11 percent of the time. The strikeout rate is lower than his career percentage; the walk rate, higher.
Lindor’s been hitting about as many ground balls as fly balls and that may equal hard batting luck, since he’s not hitting too many weak balls so far. When he does reach base, so far he’s taking extra bases on followup hits 88 percent of the time—his career such average is 47 percent, which is more than just a good rate.
Joe and Jane Fan forget something about baseball players. Allow me to remind you: They’re not automatons or holograms, they’re human beings. No two of them are alike entirely. For every Mike Trout or Mookie Betts who lives up to the implied mandate of a new gigabucks deal right out of the proverbial chute, there’ll be ten struggling powerfully to live up to such deals at the outset or even through the first full season after they sign them.
“It’s interesting and it’s funny, and it sucks,” the usually ebullient shortstop told reporters on a conference call last week. “It doesn’t feel right, for sure. Interesting because it’s the first time that it happened in my career. And funny because I’m getting booed and people think I’m going to go home and just think, oh, why am I getting booed? I get it. They’re booing because there’s no results. That’s it.”
Derek Jeter would empathise. He was as close to a Yankee god as you could get and ended up in the Hall of Fame. But even he took it on the nose and in the brain on the bad days and nights. “I don’t blame them. We would have booed ourselves tonight,” he often said after such games. Jeter understood only too well how quickly a ballplayer might go from hero to villain—sometimes before 24 hours passed.
Don’t kid yourself that it doesn’t really sting. Lindor’s learning fast enough: Come up short as far as New York Fan is concerned and you’re the worst thing to hit town since the November 1965 power blackout. Come up long, you’ll find fewer places more ready to shower you with their love, affection, keys to the city, and maybe first born children, too.
If the right to boo, hiss, catcall, hang snarky banners, or flood Twitter indignantly comes with the price of a ticket to the ballpark, there’s an implicit correlation that says you don’t really know whether a player is just dogging it or is driving himself to nineteen nervous breakdowns trying to deliver.
The appropriate answer when Joe or Jane Fan huffs, “For x hundred bazillion dollars I could hit the you-know-what out of that slop,” is to reply, “If you could, you’d have been there instead.”
“I can’t hit like Vada Pinson,” said a social media baseball group member discussing the old Reds outfielder, “but he can’t make strawberry shortcake like me.” Lucky him. By age fifteen I couldn’t even hit like Strawberry Shortcake. I made a major leaguer with a paltry .200 hitting average and a mere .300 Real Batting Average (RBA) resemble Mike Trout.
A shortstop with a .537 lifetime RBA (once again: total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances) might also suggest that if one must endure a slump for any reason, it’s better to slump in April than down the stretch of a pennant race.
New York Fan still needs to be reminded that pennant races won in April and May are the exceptions, not the rules, outside a closet full of Yankee pennants in the last century plus the 1986 Mets. That one player won’t make or break a pennant except in very extraordinary conditions. Not even if he signs for nine figures over the ten years to follow this one.