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What Are The Padres Trying To Tell Us, With Justin Halpern

Matt Carpenter of the Padres looking distraught during a road game against the Phillies in July of 2023.
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

It is not remotely the worst thing about what has been a pretty miserable waste of a season, but the New York Mets have not been bad in an especially interesting way. They've done what I guess you'd have to call Some Mets Stuff—losing to the Royals on a walk-off balk driven by a PitchCom cock-up, things of that nature—but mostly they have just been bad because their most important players were either (uh) badly injured during a postgame celebration in the World Baseball Classic or just kind of bad in ways that the team categorically had no idea how to fix. Some of that is Some Mets Stuff, but most of it is just normal bad-team things. And then, in a shockingly normal turn, they realized that they were bad and traded away everyone they could in what looks like a strikingly successful attempt to restock a terrible minor league system. It's not what you want, but it's not really anything new except for the parts where the Mets behaved in the ways that other baseball organizations behave.

The San Diego Padres, on the other hand, are different. They have also been roughly as bad as the Mets, but they are bad in ways that are different not just from the Mets, but basically every other team in MLB history. And so we had returning champion and San Diego Padres lifer Justin Halpern on to talk about that.

Given that Justin is also the executive producer of the very different but similarly beloved Harley Quinn and Abbott Elementary, and on the board of the Writers Guild Of America, West, we also talked about the union's ongoing strike and the ornate and dispiriting pattern of fuckery that has come to define the studios' approach to those negotiations. But as fraught and ominous and important as that is—and, my own politics aside, I tend towards the opinion that corporate bosses attempting to drain the culture's strategic dream reserve on pure principle is pretty important—there were also the Padres to talk about. And so, after about ten minutes of labor talk, we got to what matters—the question of whether Ji Man Choi is even still on the Padres. (Yes, but he's hurt.)

We'd discussed this as a sort of Pathetic Off between a Padres fan and a Mets fan, but I quickly realized that I was outclassed. Not just because Justin brought some truly astonishing stats with him—I don't want to give too much away, but everything that feels like it's true about a bad baseball team has quite literally been true about the Padres this year—but because the Mets never figured out how to be pathetic in a very interesting way. They just went from a team with a bunch of future Hall of Famers on it to one with a bunch of waiver-claim dudes coming out of the bullpen to walk the bases full, a group so bereft and so obviously looking forward to next year that only the presence of ovoid minor league free agent signing DJ Stewart in the lineup has come close to sparking joy.

Now does that make them more pathetic than the Padres, somehow, in some double-bank meta sense? I don't know, maybe it does. But I never quite made the argument in this episode, and while I did my best to lay out the extent to which the Mets have been bad and continue to be an expensive but not terribly convincing simulation of a Major League Baseball team, it was clear that I was outgunned. Not just because Justin came ready to make his case to the absolute max, which he absolutely was and absolutely did, but because the Padres really are doing some new, different, awful stuff. They are nine games below .500 with a +60 run differential; they have not won an extra-inning game all year, in 12 tries. The ways in which they are similar to the Mets—cheap around the edges, wedded haplessly to an outmoded and obviously ineffective organizational philosophy—pale in comparison to the ways in which they're different from every other team in baseball, and nearly every other team in history. Their abjectness has a faint whiff of Tungsten Arm O'Doyle about it. It is astonishing, and if I got drubbed in the Pathetic Off—another checked out loss for the Mets, I guess—I very much enjoyed listening to Justin break it down.

I should say that while most of this podcast was about Those Amazing Padres and the less Amazin' Mets, it was not entirely that. The conversation expanded to include the relative but distinctly pathetic Angels, the broader vagaries of baseball economics, and, inevitably, the one Simpsons gag that I have returned to the most often when permitted to talk about the Mets at length. I was a little unfair to Jake Cronenworth, and Justin was very rude to him. It was what you might call an old-fashioned cryer's duel. There's a lot of football in our future, and also a small but valuable amount of much better baseball than the Mets or Padres are going to play. We'll get there when we get there. This time, this week, it was a pleasure to wallow.

We are going to be doing a live Distraction at Littlefield, in Brooklyn, on October 4; if you would like to get tickets for that, you can do so here. And if you would like to subscribe to The Distraction, you can do that through Apple PodcastsSpotify, or wherever else you might get your podcasts. Feel free to discuss this week's episode in the comments below. Thank you as always for your support.

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