Friday, October 16, 2015

Mets v. Cubs

We could think of this series as "New York v. Chicago," but of course that would not be fully accurate -- I doubt if White Sox fans are pulling for the Cubs, and I'm certain Yankee fans are not rooting for the Mets.  And besides, "New York v. Chicago" is too complicated -- for most of the 20th century, these were the two largest cities in the United States, and they have competed in almost every sport for over 100 years.  To really do justice to "New York v. Chicago," you'd have to talk about the great National League pennant race of 1908, and the first two NFL title games in 1933 and 1934, and the Bulls/Knicks battles of the 1990's.  Suffice to say that after the Civil War, Chicago made a real effort to challenge New York -- in sports, in the culture, and in politics -- as the dominant force in American life.  That effort ultimately failed, in part because New York found allies in the South and elsewhere to promote policies that weakened the manufacturing sector on which Chicago's power and influence relied.  But to this day, good old Chicago symbolizes what many Americans think of as "American" in a way that New York will never do.  The fact that President Obama was from "Chicago" instead of "New York" -- or, for that matter, "Hawaii," gave him a sort of Middle-America cred that has been extremely valuable in his career.

But let's set all of that aside, for now, and focus on the Mets and the Cubs.  The New York Metropolitans came into being in 1962, as a replacement for the Dodgers and Giants, who had decamped for the West Coast.  It was probably impossible for any one team to replace both the Dodgers and the Giants, and in any event the Mets have not enjoyed the spectacular success of their legendary predecessors.  After 53 years, the Mets have won only two World Championships, while the Giants have won three since 2010 and the Dodgers won three with Sandy Koufax.  The Mets have claimed but four pennants, and none since 2000.  Only once did the Mets reach a Subway Series, and the Yankees hammered them four games to one.  Through the end of the 2015 season, their all-time record is 352 games under .500.

And yet -- and yet -- the Mets have certainly carved out a place for themselves in baseball culture.  They have an intelligent and passionate fan base -- much of Roger Angells's best writing was devoted to the Mets, and Jerry Seinfeld is another famous supporter (watch the two-part episode of Seinfeld where Jerry meets Keith Hernandez.  Their two World Championships -- in 1969 and 1986 -- each came in a sort of spectacular fashion that would have been memorable no matter where the club was located.  And as someone who has spent his life rooting for National League teams other than the Mets, I can say that there is always a special drama in seeing your heroes go up to New York.  On the whole, the Mets and their fans have nothing to be ashamed of.

The Cubs, of course, are famously cursed -- they haven't won the World Series since 1908, and they haven't won the National League since 1945.  But they have carved out their own place in the culture -- Ferris Bueller went to a Cubs game, and Back to the Future II predicted a Cubs' World Championship in 2015.  And they are deeply, amazingly loved, in a way they shows the sentimental side of our friends in the Midwest.  (It's hard to imagine Southerners being so forgiving of any team with such a long history of failure.)  And now they have Theo Epstein as their General Manager -- the same Theo Epstein who built a World Champion in Boston.  If he can do the Red Sox/Cubs double, he should go straight into the Hall of Fame.

From 1969 through 1993, the Cubs and Mets were both in the NL East, but they spent most of that time serving as cannon fodder for the Phillies, Pirates, and Cardinals.  The one exception was in 1969, where the Mets were famously 10 games behind Chicago on August 13, only to come from behind and win the division.  This story is usually told as a choke by the Cubs -- who did go 18-27 down the stretch.  But the Cubs still won 92 games, by no means a poor season.  The real story, in my opinion, is that the Mets went 38-11 after August 13 -- they won 100 games that season, and then crushed the Braves and Orioles in the playoffs.  The Mets won that pennant much more than the Cubs lost it.

It should also be noted that the Cubs beat the Mets by six games to win the division in 1989 -- although the Cubs lost 4-1 in the NLCS to the Giants, so that victory was forgotten rather quickly.

Here are the five best Mets of all time by Wins Above Replacement:
1.  Tom Seaver:  74
2.  David Wright:  50
3.  Dwight Gooden:  46
T4.  Jerry Koosman:  36
T4.  Darryl Strawberry:  36

Here are the five best Cubs of all time by Wins Above Replacement:
1.  Cap Anson:  84
2.  Ron Santo:  72
T3.  Ryne Sandberg:  67
T3.  Ernie Banks:  67
5.  Billy Williams:  61

And here is how each team has done in the NLCS (wins in bold):

New York Mets (4-3):  1969, 1973, 1986, 1988, 1999, 2000, 2006

Chicago Cubs (0-3):  1984, 1989, 2003


  1. I always think of Gary Carter as being the best Met after Tom Seaver, so I'm surprised by this ranking.

    Also, I loved Leon Durham.

  2. For the record, Cap Anson played his last game for the Cubs in 1897. He was 45 years old.

    Leon Durham's Wins Above Replacement in eight seasons with the Cubs was 15.

    Gary Carter's Wins Above Replacement in five seasons with the Mets was 11.3. Gary Carter is the all-time leader in Wins Above Replacement for the Expos/Nats, with 55.6.

    Walter Johnson is the all-time leader in Wins Above Replacement for all Washington teams, with 165.

  3. Top 10 all-time players in Wins Above Replacement:

    1. Babe Ruth: 183.6
    2. Cy Young: 168.4
    3. Walter Johnson: 165.6
    4. Barry Bonds: 162.4
    5. Willie Mays: 156.2
    6. Ty Cobb: 151.1
    7. Hank Aaron: 142.6
    8. Roger Clemens: 140.3
    9. Tris Speaker: 133.7
    10. Honus Wagner: 131.0

  4. I consider Rickey Henderson to be the best baseball player I've ever seen.

  5. Henderson's career Wins Above Replacement is 110.8, which puts him in 19th place, behind Lou Gehrig. If we only count players who started their careers after 1970, the list looks like this:

    1. Barry Bonds: 162.4
    2. Roger Clemens: 140.3
    3. Alex Rodriguez: 118.8
    4. Rickey Henderson: 110.8
    5. Greg Maddux: 106.8

    I totally agree with that list -- those are the five best players I've seen who started after 1970, and I would put them in that order.

  6. I also like how those numbers underscore the fact that Bonds and Clemens were on a completely different level from everyone else. I've never seen anyone as good at any team sport as Bonds was in the early 2000's.

  7. It's also uncomfortable watching Alex Rodriguez but in a different way than it's uncomfortable watching Pete Rose.