When I was a boy, I read every sports book I could get my hands on. I read more than my share of disposable biographies on baseball players and rooted for the hero of the story, regardless of what team he played on. It wasn’t unusual for me to read a book about a player who played in, for example, the 1965 World Series with the Twins and cheer relentlessly for that player and team to win it all. And then a week later read a biography on a Dodger player from that era and cheer just as hard for LA to win the same series.
I love narrative storytelling and I do not pretend otherwise.
What I’m not such a big fan of is when people use narrative as analysis. If a veteran team wins the World Series, it’s because they’ve been there before and knew how to handle the moment. If a young team wins the World Series, it’s because they didn’t realize the pressure of the moment. That’s but one example – you could undoubtedly think of many, many other instances when this type of stuff is passed off as pearls of wisdom.
These narratives are twisted to fit the moment. It’s not that they are 100% false – rather it’s an after-the-fact attempt to give mystical powers to things that likely played tangential parts to the ultimate outcome. Maybe it made no difference that the winning team had a bunch of veterans. Perhaps it was three players who posted a 1.500 OPS that was the deciding factor. Maybe it wasn’t kids who didn’t realize the significance of the moment but rather two pitchers who combined to throw 30 scoreless innings.
And maybe in addition to talented players performing well, it can also be a guy enjoying good or bad fortune at a key time.
Gary Carter’s legend includes starting the winning rally in Game 6 because he didn’t want to be the guy to make the last out in the World Series. Contrast that to Carlos Beltran getting called out on strikes to end the 2006 NLCS. Some people believe that Carter willed himself to succeed in a position where Beltran just didn’t want it enough. That’s ridiculous.
There’s no doubt that Carter didn’t want to make the last out. But if he had this mystical power – why didn’t he use it all of the time? If he could will himself a hit on demand, why didn’t he use it in Game 5 of the 1988 NLCS when he came to the plate as the tying run with two outs? Why didn’t he get a hit against the Cardinals in October of 1985 with two outs and two runners in scoring position in a game that if the Mets had won, would have put them in a tie for first place?
Carter getting a hit with two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning in 1986 was not a reflection of his character, no matter what people might try to tell you, just like him making key outs in the other two big situations above did not reveal anything about him, either.
While it might be great storytelling to pretend otherwise, it’s lousy analysis.
This brings us to today and the legend of Eric Young Jr. When the Mets picked up Young, they were 13 games under .500 for the season. Since then, he’s played in all 21 games and the Mets are 13-8. I have heard from more than one fan that Young’s addition has been the driving force behind the team’s recent success and that he brings much-needed emotion to the team.
Young’s addition came shortly after the demotion of Ike Davis to the minors. Davis had a .500 OPS before being sent to Triple-A. The Mets replaced Davis with Jordany Valdespin, who put up a .261 OPS in his six games as a starter. Two days later Young is playing everyday and he puts up a .766 OPS in his first 20 games.
If you ever saw Davis react after a strikeout, it’s clear he plays with some emotion. If you’ve ever seen Valdespin, well, do anything on a baseball field, it’s obvious he plays with a lot of emotion. So, what’s special about Young’s emotion?
It reminds me of a line attributed to football coach Bobby Bowden, who when asked about the importance of emotion in football, allegedly responded: “No one’s more emotional than my wife and she can’t play football worth a darn.”
Young has been a catalyst. He’s gotten on base in 20 of the 21 games he’s played for the Mets and he’s scored 14 runs and driven in 10 more in that span. He’s an MLB-quality player enjoying a nice hot streak. It happened to Justin Turner in 2011, it happened to Kirk Nieuwenhuis in 2012 and now it’s happening to Young.
Turner had a .914 OPS over a 20-game stretch in 2011. He’s a lifetime .673 OPS player. Nieuwenhuis had an .861 OPS over a 22-game stretch in 2012. He’s a lifetime .684 OPS hitter in the majors. And now Young is doing his version of this same thing. He has a lifetime .681 OPS.
It’s possible that at age 28 Young is going to enjoy his best season ever in the majors. He’s in the prime of his career, so it wouldn’t be a big surprise if he exceeded his lifetime numbers to this point over the rest of the 2013 season. But if he does so, it will not be because of his “emotion” on the field, unless he suddenly took some type of PED emotion pills.
A sinkhole in the lineup (Davis/Valdespin) was replaced with league-average production. The same thing happened at shortstop. The Mets gave their starting catcher not hitting his weight some days off and that has paid off, too. The starters are giving innings and the bullpen isn’t imploding on a daily basis. There’s a lot of moving parts to explain how the Mets have gone from a terrible team to one that is playing above .500 over the past three weeks.
It’s actually a really good story all on its own. It doesn’t need any embellishment or myth-making to be worthwhile. In fact, I’d argue the exact opposite was true, that claiming Young’s emotion has played a key role in the team’s strong play detracts from what is already a pretty gripping tale. The real storyline is how the Mets have overcome both a roster low on talent due to ownership’s financial problems and the daily managerial blunders to play at a .619 winning percentage.
The Mets have 74 games remaining in the 2013 season. If they continue to play at that .619 percentage, they’ll finish the year 46-28 for a final record of 86-76. That probably wouldn’t be enough to make the playoffs but I would argue that not only would that be a story worth writing, it would be one that all Mets fans, even impressionable kids, would enjoy reading.