Kick-up at a hazard table

The following is a drawing from around 1790 by British caricaturist and illustrator Thomas Rowlandson. It’s called “A kick-up at a hazard table!” Hazard was a dice game popular in London in the 18th century — an earlier, more complex version of craps.

The drawing caught my eye at the Met a couple of months ago. Mostly, I like it because it seems like a good, funny time capsule, and because it appears to be drawn with the type of confidence and enthusiasm that I generally enjoy in all forms of media. Partly, I like it because I am a baseball fan who appreciates the staggering power of randomness.

I don’t know many particulars of 18th-century British society beyond wig-powdering. Maybe the melee depicted above ensued after harsh words about King George III or the changing political tide in Europe. But I assume the conflagration in Rowlandson’s drawing came in response to a costly run of misfortune at the table.

Constructing a baseball team is hardly a game of pure chance. Teams can scout and analyze and coach to improve their odds, and the probabilities are never as discrete or obvious as those in a dice roll. But because its outcomes are impossible to accurately predict, it always requires a series of gambles.

The Mets started 2012 with calculated risks all over the field. They inked young players with short resumes into spots up and down their lineup. Two of them were coming off season-ending injuries. Two were playing new positions. Two had never spent a full season as a Major League regular before. To boot, all starting pitchers come with a significant chance of injury. And given the fluctuations in performance typical of relief pitchers, bullpens are often labeled a crapshoot. Undoubtedly, with more offseason resources to play with, the Mets’ front office could have better hedged some of its bets. But every team enters every season relying on some degree of good luck for success.

For most of the first half, the Mets rolled sevens way more often than snake eyes. Or something. I don’t really know craps or hazard and I’m growing rather tired of this metaphor. Two of the team’s surest bets — David Wright and R.A. Dickey — paid off more than anyone could have expected. Johan Santana, coming off a surgery that ended many careers, pitched like an ace for two months. The bullpen sucked and some of the young players struggled, as you probably know, but the team’s wins were more than enough to outweigh its losses.

Since the All-Star Break, their luck has turned. Santana and Dillon Gee got hurt and left the Mets relying on pitchers with much longer odds of success. The bullpen still sucks, some of the young players have continued struggling, others have struggled to new lows, and role players that contributed more than expected in the first half have done the opposite in the early parts of the second. Everything, it seems, went wrong at exactly the same time.

Now fans — myself included — are kicking up like a bunch of 18th-century British dudes after a series of unfavorable dice rolls, except hopefully without the pistols. We’re yelling, pointing fingers, smashing chairs, and scurrying for the exit with our hands above our head, drowning in woe-is-mes and I-told-you-sos. We’re blaming Terry Collins for the same decisions we often celebrated in the first half. We’re faulting Alderson for his actions and inaction. We’re questioning the team’s once-heralded chemistry, and we’re pinning almost everything on Miguel Batista or Jason Bay or Lucas Duda or Andres Torres.

Some of those gripes are legit, no doubt. The Mets counted on some bad bets, and in hindsight we can squint and see how they were bad from when they were made. But I suspect, for most of us, if we were shown in early March the Mets’ baseball-reference page in late July, we’d raise eyebrows at some parts and nod knowingly at others, concede that 47-50 sounds about right even if we hoped they’d be better, then scan down the pitching column and say, “whoa, wait: Mike Pelfrey got hurt?”

It’s the timing that’s killing us. Or killing me, at least. Even recognizing what I do about chance and small samples, the Mets’ early success seemed so reliable that I started believing they had figured out a way to buck the odds, or, at the very least, that their good fortune could continue through September.

It didn’t. Such is fortune. Such is baseball. Every year, a couple of teams enjoy a seemingly magical run of good luck, and fans of all the others lament all the bets — safe and silly — that didn’t ultimately pay off.

Here are your 2012 Mets, 47-50: Bad in the bullpen, short in the rotation, awful on defense, and with an offense that doesn’t appear quite good enough to overcome all that. The good news, if you’re searching, is that every game provides the team more information with which to make better bets in the future.

The best news, I suppose, is that their luck can change again as swiftly as it did at the All-Star Break. There’s still plenty of time. Santana could return and pitch like vintage Johan Santana again. R.A. Dickey could enjoy another ridiculous run of dominance, David Wright could continue performing like the very best player in baseball, and, hell, maybe the guys in the bullpen could even pitch to their career rates and maintain a damned lead just once. The team’s mid-season gambles could bring back massive and unexpected returns. It doesn’t seem likely, but then I guess outside of a few glorious weeks, it never really did.

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