You hear things. Rumblings and dark intimations, whispers that skitter down corridors on ghostly little feet. People say that there’s something there, something hard to name, some kind of power. Something that doesn’t listen or bargain or play by the rules that hold the rest of us fast, something strange and dark that changes its shape but somehow remains as fixed and unyielding as the white of Mr. Met’s staring eyes. There is something that happens to the players in Queens, something powerful and old that works and wears on them and sits heavily on their chests at night screaming chaos into their dreams. You do not need to believe that there’s a malevolent spirit haunting the New York Mets to wonder what has happened to Edwin Díaz this season, although both his and his team’s broader performance does suggest that the team has disturbed at least one and quite possibly several ancient and vengeful godheads.
There are the bad things that happen to players when they join the Mets, and then there is the collapse of Edwin Díaz, who was by many measures the best reliever in baseball by a decent margin last season, into someone roughly as bad as everyone else in the Mets bullpen. He has already allowed more home runs and earned runs in 37 appearances than he gave up in 73 last year, and is allowing more than twice as many hits-per-nine this year as he did last; his ERA+ has gone from 210 to 74, which is striking even if you do not understand quite how that statistic works.
The Mets do have longstanding issues with implacable and sadistic ancients, as it happens, although also that is a very rude way to describe principal owner Fred Wilpon. Mostly, though, they have the normal problems that badly run baseball teams have—they’re alternately impatient and weirdly passive, too sentimental and too spiteful, and averse to accountability in all the ways and places that accountability might help. Given the disparity between his performance and his salary—Diaz was worth 3.5 WAR with the Mariners in 2018, per Fangraphs, while making the league minimum—he really was one of the most valuable players in the game. It’s not remotely his fault that he’s also the kind of player the Mets would overestimate.
The team’s biggest offseason move was very Mets for a bunch of reasons, and reflected a confluence of the organization’s abiding belief in the occult powers of their rivals in the Bronx, their manifest inability to scout their own system, their fetishizing of The Elite Closer, and the broader inability to think long-term. It has not worked for the usual reasons. It was easy to see why trading two of the team’s recent first-round picks for the last five seasons of Robinson Cano’s decline might be a bad idea, and it has worked out very badly so far; the two prospects the Mets traded were in the Futures Game, and Robinson Cano has been gimpy and lame in roughly equal measure.
Díaz was the real prize of the deal, though—an authentically elite closer who is still just 25 years old and not yet eligible for arbitration, acquired fresh off a brilliant breakout season in Seattle. His 57 saves were in part the result of the Mariners generating an unusually high number of save opportunities, but he really was that good—his fastball can run up to 102, and his slider was just about the nastiest pitch in all of baseball in 2018. Díaz made a significant leap from inconsistent-but-electric to outright dominance in 2018, but there was nothing in his underlying statistics or the eye-popping game tape to believe it was anything but legitimate. “An awe-inspiring pitcher,” Jarrett Seidler called him at Baseball Prospectus after the deal, “and much closer to a unicorn than any of us who usually talk about the fungibility of relievers would like to admit.”
And for the first few weeks of the season, Díaz was just that—a little wild and a little weird as a result, but also dazzling and dominant in the ways great closers are in converting each of his first eight saves. And then the unicorn’s horn fell off, rolled into a gutter, got wrapped up in an old plastic CVS bag, and then one thousand rats ate it.
Díaz took the loss on July 5 after entering a tie game in the top of the ninth and delivering a now-familiar combination of misplayed nubbers and outright lasers. It was Seinfeld Night, and fans in puffy pirate shirts watched helplessly as Díaz took his second loss to the Phillies in nine days. He converted a save opportunity in his next game, amid rumors that the team was considering removing him from the closer role. The Mets’ bullpen’s collective 5.57 ERA is slightly worse than Díaz’s own 5.50 mark, and given that Mets-Certified Second Proven Closer Jeurys Familia has been much worse than Díaz in every way, it’s hard to imagine Díaz ever being on the receiving end of a colder dis.
Because these are the Mets, and because one of their core organizational values is Make The Injured Guy Play, it’s sensible to wonder if Díaz is hurt in some way. He and the organization say that he is not, which opens onto even stranger possibilities; Díaz himself admitted to being out of answers after the loss. He’s not alone: given his projected outcomes, there is basically no way a pitcher as good as Díaz could pitch worse without being badly hurt. In a season of remarkable turnarounds—Lucas Giolito was the worst pitcher in the A.L. last year and is now an All-Star; Jose Ramirez finished third in 2018's AL MVP voting and then saw his slugging percentage fall by 208 points in the first half—Díaz’s collapse is arguably the most dramatic and most surprising in the sport.
The reasons for this do not all resolve to issues with the Mets, although the team’s worst-in-class defensive positioning and inept defensive personnel certainly haven’t helped. Díaz is, as MLB.com’s Mike Petriello put it, “pulling off the neat trick of getting hit WAY harder and also having everything go wrong.” The Mets have only one above-average defender on the field most nights, but Díaz’s batting-average-on-balls-in-play hovering around .400 all year can’t all be blamed on Cano playing second base in a Hoveround scooter or Dominic Smith lugging a parking boot around in left field. At FanGraphs, Devan Fink identifies the areas in which Díaz has been much more unlucky than his underlying stats suggest he should have been; most crucially, his flukishly bad HR/FB rate suggests he’s allowed about twice as many homers as he should have, all of which leads Fink to place him among the unluckiest pitchers in the sport. “Díaz does remain in elite territory when it comes to strikeouts and walks, and that’s really good,” Fink concludes. “But where he truly differs in 2019 is his ability to limit hard contact, which could be a combination of things: poor luck, natural regression, or a drop in talent level.” Fink sees reason to believe all three are at work.
Which brings us back to the Mets and their ghosts. What’s happening to Edwin Díaz is both unlucky in the extreme and predictable insofar as this is a sport in which unpredictable things happen. There’s reason to believe he’ll straighten it out, if also some reason to believe that last year’s dominance wasn’t his true level. Again: this is baseball stuff. The Mets stuff is everything else—the mortgaging of the team’s farm system in search of The One True Closer to sit atop a shallow and uninspiring bullpen, the haphazard arrangement of galoots and out-of-position tryhards behind those pitchers, the willful and weird ways in which Díaz has and hasn’t been used. Baseball is very hard, and it’s the nature of the game that even great players fail. It is also not in the Mets’ nature—not in some cosmic way, but because it is what their owners reliably do—to make it easier for anyone in their uniform to succeed. Díaz is learning both lessons.