When the Mets stuck Jacob deGrom with his second loss of the season on Wednesday afternoon, it was their 10th defeat in 11 games. DeGrom, who has been the best starting pitcher in the National League, allowed just one earned run and struck out seven over seven innings. The Mets didn’t get a hit off Mike Soroka over the first six innings and managed just six baserunners all game; they have scored 10 runs in their last 87 innings of play. Over his last 10 starts, deGrom’s ERA is 0.87. The team has somehow won just two of those games. This is not nearly everything when it comes to how bleak and zombified the Mets have been since starting the season 11–1, but it’s probably a good place to stop for now. You do not have to be a student of the game to understand that these numbers belong to a very bad team playing its worst. You just need to know how to count.
The stark numbers of a shitty stretch like the one through which the Mets are currently meandering—it’s not just those last 10 games, they’re 11-27 since May 1—inevitably tell their own story. Nothing about the Mets’ collective numbers is exactly misleading: they illustrate that the starting pitching has been on balance pretty good, the bullpen notably not, and the offense one of the most punchless, impatient, and roundly ineffective in all of baseball. But while the team’s aggregate slash-line of .228/.306/.364 effectively answers the question What If They Made The Whole Offense Out Of Daniel Descalso, the numbers are insufficient. It’s worse than it looks, and it feels even worse than that.
At this point, Jose Bautista is officially and undeniably a Met; if his season ended tomorrow he’ll have nine hits, nine walks, and a dozen strikeouts as a Met to show for it. By the most generous definition of the term, Bautista had been a Met before—he was traded to New York by the Royals in exchange for an Australian-born DH named Justin Huber in 2004 and then traded that same day to Pittsburgh in a deal that brought Kris Benson and Jeff Keppinger to Queens. The Mets were, at that point, the fifth Major League organization to employ Bautista. He was 23 for almost all of that year, and logged big league plate appearances with four teams, putting up an extremely fragrant .502 OPS. He was even worse the next year, which he spent with the Pirates and the Pirates alone, backing up Freddy Sanchez and Tike Redman on a team that lost 95 games.
It’s remarkable that Bautista became one of the best power hitters in the sport five years later, in Toronto. It is maybe just as remarkable that he hung on long enough to get a shot. By Baseball Reference’s accounting, Bautista accounted for more wins above replacement in 2010 and 2011 alone than all of the players he’d ever been traded for or with put up in their entire careers. Anyway, at the end of Wednesday’s loss, the 37-year-old Bautista found himself playing second base for the first time since 2006. How he wound up there helps explain how the Mets have wound up here.
Bautista pinch-hit for Luis Guillorme, a slick minor league shortstop who was at second base because regular second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera, who is playing through a hamstring injury of unspecified severity, had the day off. The Mets could also have used the 35-year-old Jose Reyes to spell Cabrera, but Reyes has been one of the worst players in baseball this year—he has an OPS+ of 17 in 80 plate appearances and has already committed two errors apiece at second, third, and short. Wilmer Flores, who has faked it at second before, has a back injury that got progressively worse over weeks of spotty use; when Flores reached a point where, in manager Mickey Callaway’s words, “he feels like he can’t really bend over,” the team finally put him on the DL. Ty Kelly, a regular organizational yo-yo dude who recently rejoined the team after a flurry of transactions following Sunday night’s game against the Yankees, could have played the position if Callaway had wanted him to, but Callaway didn’t. Jeff McNeil, a 26-year-old former 12th-round pick who is finally healthy after two years lost to injury, has been one of the best hitters in Double-A so far this season, but is also still in Double-A. Bautista, whom the Mets picked up after the Braves waived him earlier this season, is the best hitter of the bunch and made sense as a pinch-hitter. He stayed in the game at second because the team somehow didn’t have a better option.
None of this is great, but it’s the last part that’s worst. The Mets got the hard part right, on Wednesday and in general—they had a young ace with a team-friendly salary on the mound, and he shut down one of the league’s best offenses for seven innings. But the reason they ran poor Joseph Bats out there at second base at the end of a 1-0 game is because they have, this year and for the last several years, gotten virtually everything else wrong. More specifically, it’s because they have persistently mismanaged how they handle injuries and roster construction, because they have been both conservative and cheap about the drafts and trades and minor league scouting that should have provided organizational depth, and because they have continued to use their bench as a sort of hospice for aging veterans looking for a quiet and moderately dignified place to spend their last few MLB innings. All of those failures, to some extent or another, can quite readily be traced back to the strange, stubborn, curdled laziness of the people in charge of the franchise.
In 2015, the Mets went to the World Series on the strength of a young pitching staff that was by broad consensus the best in baseball. With the exception of Matt Harvey, who broke shortly after, those pitchers are still on the roster. But after an injury-degraded version of that World Series team snuck spunkily into a wild card spot in 2016, nothing has worked. There is really only one way for a competitive window like the one that the Mets opened in 2015 to close so completely and so quickly, and that is by doing things the way the Mets have during the years in which the Wilpon family has literally and figuratively owned the club.
The Mets have a general manager who built this team and a manager who runs it from one day to the next, and both deserve some blame for the team’s current state. The team’s approach to the draft is weirdly recursive and predictable for something that has not worked very well, but it probably reflects organizational malaise and lassitude more than it does a meddling owner. Still, a half decade of near-identical failures, especially in early rounds, have kept the team from building the young depth necessary for sustained success. It surely didn’t help that, when GM Sandy Alderson attempted a Yankees-style sell-off of his team’s veteran contributors around last year’s trade deadline, the Wilpons refused to pick up any of the outbound salary, but the haul of unremarkable minor league relievers—the sort of players the team should have been developing themselves—might still have been better. And while Callaway has struggled mightily with some extremely basic shit as a rookie manager—Mets relievers have already gotten more at-bats this year than any team’s relievers should all season long—he has also been stuck with shortened benches and a roster that was obviously hobbled by organizational cheapness.
The single biggest reason that the Mets are bad is that their best players haven’t played well or played enough, although again this misfortune is owed to familiar causes. There’s Yoenis Cespedes being forced to play through an obvious injury until it got worse, and then his rehab being mishandled until he hurt himself again; there’s Michael Conforto coming back from the bizarre injury that ended his season in 2017 ahead of schedule, screwing up his timing, and enduring threats of a demotion and the team’s trademark cattiness in the tabloids; there are a host of crucial veterans currently trudging manfully if ineffectively through injuries instead of resting up on the DL. None of that is really new, and all of it comes from the same place. The Mets are surely not as successful as their owners want them to be, but they are in every other way a reflection of what the Wilpons want them to be.
You can perhaps see the conflict, there. A co-founder of the Mets podcast Good Fundies compiled a sprawling compendium—like, “42-minute read” sprawling—of Wilpon-related fuckery, and while I can’t recommend it as a jaunty read for the casual fan it is still a remarkable document. Every self-thwarting and inexplicable Mets tic is in there, from Jeff Wilpon’s fetish for forcing players to play through injuries to Fred Wilpon’s persistent and persistently misguided favoritism. Every otherwise inexplicable organizational decision from the team’s bizarre recent habit of going into the offseason without giving the GM a budget on down is explained, at least insofar as it’s revealed as ownership’s preferred way to do things. It is not surprising that none of this works, short-term or long, mostly because these are very strange and stupid ideas. You probably do not need to be a baseball fan to know that it is harder to build a winning roster when it’s unclear how much you can spend on it, or that it is unhelpful when professional baseball decision-makers can’t make even minor personnel decisions without the input of some crabby Long Island real estate scion or other, or that it is bad for the brand when bosses to constantly lodge carping anonymous complaints against employees in the newspaper. You need only to have spent time in a dysfunctional workplace ruled by an unaccountable boss to get all that.
To build a team like the one that the Mets had in 2015 requires some brilliance and some luck and a tolerance for risk. That rotation was built around successful first-round draft picks, players acquired in deals that sent stars to contenders, and players whose success was the result of savvy scouting and player development. Before he was once again the guy who took a loss because his teammates get three-hit every time he pitches, Jacob deGrom was the Mets’ ninth-round pick in 2010.
Building a rotation as good as the one that the Mets built is just about the most difficult and most valuable thing a baseball team can do, because a rotation of young stars that give their team a chance to win every day is the most important thing a team can have. That those young pitchers are paid less than they’re worth opens up the payroll for adding stars or complementary players via trade or free agency, which is something the Mets have done either cautiously or not at all; signing those young pitchers to extensions, which the Mets have also not done, locks in a crucial portion of the future. In 2015, that brilliant rotation and a few hot hitters and some old-fashioned baseball weirdness was nearly enough to get the Mets a championship. Nothing the Mets have done differently since that near-miracle season explains why they’re one of the very worst teams in baseball not even three years later. It’s everything that they’ve continued to do the same.