>I want you drop whatever you’re doing right now, and take a minute — just a minute — to think about Brian Schneider. Remember that guy? Go ahead. Think about the man who was the Mets Opening Day catcher in 2008 and 2009.
I did it right now. The only mental image of Brian Schneider that sticks with me is just him batting: left-handed, open stance, chewing gum with a sly half-grin which always seemed to be present on his face, as if he was in on a joke the rest of us haven’t figured out yet. That’s all I have for Schneider — just him batting, funny grin. Not throwing out a runner, or hitting a dramatic home run, or pulling an amusing prank on a teammate. Just his batting stance.
Well, that’s not really everything I remember. The other thing about Brian Schneider’s tenure that sticks with me is his batting song — for most of 2008, Brian Schneider’s walk up music was “In the Air Tonight,” by Phil Collins. You know: DOO-DOOM–DOO-DOOM–doo-doom–doo-doom—DOOM–DOOM . . . I can feel it . . . coming in the air tonight. That song. I found the song choice odd for two reasons: (1) Schneider bears a passing resemblance to Phil Collins and (2) I believe that song, sung by Mike Tyson in “The Hangover”, the song that has an 80s-cheesy-karaoke factor on par with something like “Livin’ on a Prayer,” was used by Schneider without any trace of irony.
Now, obviously, I don’t actually know that for a fact. I’ve never met Brian Schneider, and everything I know about him comes from what he did while on the playing field and sitting in the dugout. He could very well have been using “In the Air Tonight” ironically . . . but I didn’t think so. It’s not as if Brian Schneider’s Mets career was littered with anecdotes about his dry sense of humor and his encyclopedic knowledge of music. It’s not littered with much of anything. The only things I can come up with to describe Brian Schneider’s Mets years are his batting stance and that he used a funny song, most likely without realizing the humor.
That’s the thing about Brian Schneider. He was boring. Schneider may very well be a fascinating person off the field — again, I have no idea either way — but between the foul lines, he was uninspiring. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and that’s not to say that I disliked Schneider, or that I rooted against him because he was sort of dull. It’s more that I just didn’t find him a particularly compelling character. I didn’t find myself getting excited about Brian Schneider one way or the other. I didn’t particularly root for anything about him, other than the name of the team on the front of the jersey. Schneider’s ultimate legacy is to be the catcher people repeatedly miss on future Mets-related Sporcle quizzes.
Now think about the Mets current starting catcher, Rod Barajas. He’s a big, resilient, huskily built catcher, but one who also seems to fit into the stereotypical laid-back Californian mold, always loosely smiling about something, or just loosely smiling about nothing at all. He’s just happy to be here. He serves as the clubhouse DJ and has excellent taste in music; his walk up songs are 2Pac‘s “California Love” and War’s “Low Rider.” On the field, Barajas tries to send baseballs to strange, new worlds with a swing more appropriate for beer-league softball than professional baseball. He seems like an interesting, relatable sort of dude. He’ll be easier to remember in ten years for trivia games.
I bring these two catchers up not to point out that Rod Barajas has done more interesting things in two months than Brian Schneider did in two years, or that’s he’s more exciting, but more to point out that for all the endearing qualities of Rod Barajas . . . he hasn’t been that much better than Brian Schneider. This is important.
Now, Barajas does have 11 home runs in his first 50 games as a Met, and Schneider had 12 in his entire Mets career, and for that reason alone, Barajas has been more valuable than Schneider . . . but he hasn’t been that much more valuable. Barajas has thrown out just 2 of 21 (10%) base stealers this season; Schneider threw out 31 of 92 base stealers (34%) in his two seasons. Barajas has 4 walks against 25 strikeouts and a .281 OBP this year; Schneider walked 60 times and struck out 74 between ‘08 and ‘09, putting up a .323 OBP. Through 185 plate appearances, Barajas is sitting at 0.8 WAR; using what he did in 2008, Brian Schneider would be worth roughly 0.7 WAR in the same number of plate appearances. Schneider’s better defense and plate discipline makes up for his comparative lack of power. Barajas and Schneider have been practically equal in terms of measurable contributions.
That doesn’t change who the more compelling player is. Barajas, giving us long bombs along with bomb beats from Dre, is still far easier to become attached to than the bland Schneider. Still, in terms of actual on-field contributions, it’s hard to see a significant difference between the two. The difference exists mainly in their batting songs and levels of self-awareness. One player is just easier to grow attached to than the other, but not because one is dramatically better than the other.
These emotional differences between Schneider and Barajas, and not on-field differences, mirror exactly what is happening with all of these current Mets. They are an easier team to root for — but it’s not because they are better, or at least not because they are that MUCH better. The 2009 Mets, through 63 games, were sitting at 33-30, two games out of first place; the 2010 Mets are 35-28 through 63 games, one-and-a-half games out of first. If you are what your record says you are, then these Mets have been better, but not that much better. I’m not sure if the difference in record fully explains why this bunch is SO much more likable than last year’s.
There are some other possible answers. These Mets seem to be playing a better quality of baseball, specifically in terms of running the bases, fielding, and not doing dumb things. Baseball Prospectus ranks the 2010 Mets as the best baserunning team in the majors; on the other hand, they were among the better teams last season as well, 8th best in baseball. They also may (or may not) be playing better defense. Defensive metrics have this squad playing either way better to just slightly better defense this season — depending on which ones you look at — though they are turning balls in play into outs slightly less often (.690) than they did last season (.693). At the very least, it certainly looks like they’re playing better defense. They’re also doing less dumb things. The Mets index of Obviously Outrageous PlayS! (OOPS!), an index I made up just now that has this formula — (errors + times picked off + base running outs + pitcher’s HBP + bases loaded walks + balks) / games — is lower. There were 1.65 obviously infuriating plays per game in 2009, against 1.55 per game this season . . . but I just made that statistic up right now. They’re certainly not playing sloppier baseball this season, but they’re not playing THAT much better either. I would guess that it means far more to us fans watching the game than it does in the actual standings. So that may be part of it, but I’m not sure it’s all of it.
So does it come down to this group just being more relatable than the previous teams? Barajas, Henry Blanco, R.A. Dickey, Chris Carter, Jeff Francoeur, Jesus Felicano and Angel Pagan are a group pulled right off the island of misfit ballplayers, each one easy to pull for in that underdog sort of way. The return of Jose Reyes is certainly exciting, as is the renewed success of Mike Pelfrey. The continued greatness of David Wright. The opening notes of Jon Niese’s and Ike Davis’ careers. Everyone used their shaving cream for pies and threw away their razors — al
l that helps. Generally, I find this group is easier to root for than the Brian Schneiders and Carlos Delgados of teams past, even if they’re not really any better. It could be that, too.
So it could be that the Mets are playing better baseball, or are just being more cuddly . . . but what I really see happening here is something else. It’s a team, and a fan base, liberated from the weight of expectations. In 2007, the Mets were supposed to take care of business and win the World Series; they came up short. In 2008, they were supposed to avenge the collapse and win the World Series; they came up short. In 2009, they were supposed to avenge everything, and Sports Illustrated picked them to win the World Series; they came up hilariously short. They fell short of expectations each time. To quote Phil Collins, “it’s all been a pack of lies.”
This year? The Mets were supposed to finish fourth, the whole team was supposed to catch the bubonic plague, Citi Field was supposed to burn to the ground, but the fans would just shrug it off again. Or something like that. It’s difficult to come up short when fourth place is the goal. This team really had nowhere to go but up, and I think that alone is the biggest difference between this year and last. They’ve been a pleasant surprise this year, though just about anything would be a pleasant surprise after last year. They’ve been a pleasant surprise because they were allowed to become a pleasant surprise.
I don’t know if this team is that much better than any recent incarnation of the Mets. I do know that the expectations are dramatically different. This bunch is certainly less sloppy, has better taste in music, and is more bearded. That all probably helps to make them likable. Sometimes though, when the pressure is taken off, it becomes easier to see the good that’s happening. This is an easier group to like, but it’s also easier to just sit back and like them.