Unqualified excellence

Any Mets fan will tell you that one of the big positives this year — one of the few shining beacons of goodness in this otherwise crummy season — is the breakout performance of Angel Pagan. Pagan showed talent last year, of course, but not like this year. Too often in the past he frustrated everyone with his mental mistakes, silly baserunning blunders and terrible routes in the outfield. In 2009 he played like a fourth outfielder overwhelmed, they’ll say, and now he is proving himself a real Major Leaguer, and a good one, to boot.

And look: Maybe Pagan has learned a thing or two. There’s some empirical evidence to back it up. We know he studied under Carlos Beltran this offseason. And we see him chat up umpires during at-bats, asking about the strike zone, questioning always about the location of pitches at which he swung and missed. Pagan clearly appears to be a ballplayer intent on bettering himself.

But the stats don’t show any improvement. Not at all, actually. According to nearly every measure, Pagan hasn’t had a breakout season because he’s almost exactly the same excellent player he was last year.

Pagan hit .306 in 2009 with a .350 on-base percentage and a .487 slugging while posting a 7.0 UZR across the three outfield positions. This year, he has hit .301 with a .356 OBP and a .460 slugging with a 8.3 UZR. He has been appreciably better on the basepaths this year, mostly because he is stealing bases more frequently and at a higher rate. But otherwise, he has remained remarkably consistent across the seasons.

So what could account for the perceptual difference? Certainly Pagan has made some adjustments, and perhaps he was just a few tweaks away from winning the hearts of Mets fans everywhere. But maybe the audience has adjusted to Pagan a bit, too.

Consider when Pagan first began playing every day. We saw him a bit in 2008 and last May, but he didn’t break into the lineup for good until July of last season, a couple of weeks after Carlos Beltran went on the shelf.

It seems natural, I think, to compare Pagan to Beltran. Pagan looks up to Beltran, as we know. And they’re both multidimensional, switch-hitting Puerto Rican center fielders, and Pagan in effect replaced Beltran in the Mets’ outfield last year.

But it would be difficult to find two players with similar skill sets (though not identical, since Pagan lacks Beltran’s power) at the same position with aesthetic differences so severe. Beltran’s game, I have written, is at its best like minimalist art. It is efficient and understated, subtle. Even his blunders are quiet ones. The Blame-Beltran set will remind you of the time he failed to swing, the time he didn’t slide.

Pagan, we now know, is the Crazy Horse. His game is kinetic, almost theatric — though he’s hardly a ham. Pagan unfurls in the batter’s box, his stride strong and his backswing massive. And he does a funny thing with his batting helmet when he reaches base safely, grabbing it with his hand and tucking it towards his shoulder, kind of like Michael Jackson did with his hat. In the field, he continues his gallop long after he has snared fly balls in the gap and seems to throw his whole body weight with the baseball on outfield assists.  Pagan’s mistakes, the ones we lamented last season, come from too much energy: overrunning the base or the baseball.

So while it seems like Pagan has cut down on those mistakes, for sure, I wonder if Mets fans have taken to Pagan this season because we understand those mistakes a little better when they do happen, now that we’ve grown more accustomed to his style and more appreciative of his excellence. In other words, we now have a large enough sample of Angel Pagan to know what he is about, and we see that it is good.

On Oct. 3, the Mets will walk off the field after their last game. If I’m there, I’ll think, hey, David Wright, he didn’t have his best season but at least he hit more than 10 home runs. And hey, Jose Reyes, he might not have had his best year on paper but at least he came back healthy and finished strong. And I’ll go through each guy like that, and bargain and brightside and make myself feel better because I’m a Mets fan and that’s my nature. I beat myself up all year long then rationalize it at the end.

And then I’ll get to Pagan and think about the way he played this season, the talent he demonstrated and the consistency. And there’ll be no buts or at leasts or qualifiers of any sort.

2 thoughts on “Unqualified excellence

  1. I think the perception is the way it is for a couple reason. 1) being that hes proven he can do it for a full season. Like you said, his stats, the ratios anyway are the same as last year, but people now believe in them as they have been sustained. 2) the mental errors. People beat those mental errors like a dead horse last year in trying to qualify Pagans successes on the field. Now they cant do that.

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