THE YEAR OF ZAPPE, TOLL OF THE TROLL… When calling up your rookies works and doesn’t work

I want to discuss a couple of rookies who, over the past couple of weeks, have had to fill big shoes in their respective sports. One of these rookies was not considered a means to an end at any point before he got called to play on the gridiron. The other rookie was considered a power hitter, a household name, the future of his team. The first rookie helped his team tie up a tenuous game, and even though they lost, it was still a better performance than anyone expected. The second rookie got out any way he could, not able to showcase the masterful hitting skills on which scouts, the press, and fans had built so much hype.

The first rookie is Bailey Zappe of the New England Patriots. The second rookie is Francisco Alvarez of the New York Mets.

Now, Will, you ask. Why compare two different rookies from two different sports? What’s the point? Is this just an excuse to distract yourself from the trappings of the day? Of course. But I have little trappings from which to escape. I write this because as I watched my sports games on Sunday, I paid attention to the performances of Zappe and Alvarez because – well – I had no choice. Zappe was thrust into my attention. Alvarez had been there, but seeing his name pop up in the chyron was starting to leave a bitter taste in my mouth.

Let me start with Zappe. Anyone watching the Week 4 game between the Patriots and the Packers saw Zappe come in as quarterback when Brian Hoyer had to depart due to a head injury. This gave pause and angina to many Pats fans such as myself. We’d lost Mac to a high ankle sprain, now we lost Hoyer… Were we really going to put up a third-string QB – a rookie, no less – against Rodgers, Jones, Dillon, and the Packers defense? We had no choice. We have no other QBs, not even on the reserve list or the practice squad. It was Zappe or nothing, and at the time, we all thought: “Well, at least he’s better than nothing.”

And you know what? Zappe was so much better than nothing.

Zappe made 10 of 15 completions – 66.7 percent, about similar to his average performance in college – and passed for one of the Pats’ three touchdowns. Sure, he got sacked three times, but I’ll give that a pass. When you’re a 23-year-old fourth-round pick getting thrust into the spotlight, you’ve got to play under an incredible amount of pressure. All eyes are on you, kid. 78,317 people are at Lambeau expecting the Packers to tear you and your team apart, and millions are watching at home not knowing you from Mac Jones. And you know what, kid? You may not have won the game, but you got it to a tie and held it until the last possible moment. You did everything you could. You zapped the Pack. They didn’t expect that.

The stellar performance of Zappe in that split-second shoo-in made fans like myself ask: Should Zappe get the start for Week 5? Well, consider this: Mac Jones has completed two out of every three passes so far this season. So has Zappe. Mac Jones has only thrown for two touchdowns in three games. Zappe’s already one for one. Mac has a passer rating of 76.6 so far this season, which is slightly better than average. Zappe’s passer rating? 107.4. That’s a fantastic debut for a rookie. Yes, Brian Hoyer’s rating is 92.4, which is also good, and he’s completed five of six attempted passes. But in Hoyer’s only game – the same game in which Zappe covered for him – he passed for just 37 yards, and his longest pass was 27 yards, meaning that Hoyer stuck to mostly short throws. His average was 6.2 yards per attempt. Zappe passed for 99 yards, and his pass average? 6.6 yards per attempt. That may not look like a big difference, but it shows that over Zappe’s 15 attempts, he made longer passes than Hoyer during his time in the game. Zappe’s longest may have been 25 yards – less than Hoyer – but over the course of the game, he tried going deeper more often.

That was a lot of numbers. What do they mean? Does it mean that Big Bill shouldn’t rush Mac or Hoyer and put Zappe in for Week 5 to face the Lions? Does it mean that there might be a future for Zappe as Mac’s second string, or – depending on how Mac does when he returns – the star QB? You remember what happened when Drew Bledsoe got hammered. An unknown upstart came in to cover for him and eventually that young buck took the top spot in the Pats roster right from under Drew’s cleats. That buck was Touchdown Thomas Brady, and he went on to terrorize the NFL, the world of sport, and the observable universe to this very day. Can we say the same for Zappe? No. There is only one Tom Brady. But then again, there is only one Bailey Zappe.

And now, let’s shift from the gridiron to the diamond and discuss Francisco Alvarez. Like Zappe, Alvarez got called into the big league spotlight as a necessity. The New York Mets needed a designated hitter to fill in for Darin Ruf, who had gone on the IL with a neck injury. Alvarez was a name on everyone’s mind. He put up a .941 OPS in 2021, when he played for St. Lucie and Brooklyn and hit 24 home runs. In the beginning of this season, he got called up to Double-A Binghamton and smashed 18 home runs in just 67 games and sporting a .277 average. There had always been talks of bringing him up to Triple-A Syracuse or even the bigs and giving him the chance to show his stuff where it mattered. But wiser minds said not to rush that talent. Push him, they said, and he’ll ultimately disappoint.

Well, three games and eight at-bats of no-hit ball later, what else can we tell you?

Look, I don’t doubt that Alvarez – or the Troll, as folks sometimes call him – will have great success on the field, whether he goes back to Triple-A next year or sticks around in Queens. He can definitely hit the ball and he has a great personality. But he was showing signs of balancing out or even exhaustion when he got to Syracuse. His numbers dropped, he was striking out more often, and he was swinging with reckless abandon in situations where he should have been clutch. To call him up to the Majors at this point was not a matter of his skill, but as a matter of the team’s need. Like with Zappe: We don’t have anyone else, so let the kid play.

And the kid played on the biggest stage during the biggest moment. Alvarez took the plate eight times during the Mets’ final series against the Braves, the one where it was for all the marbles. The Mets had to win just one game to control their destiny in whether they would land in the Wild Card or the top of the National League East. They couldn’t get their bats together. Their star pitchers couldn’t keep the Braves at bay. And Alvarez struck out three times, ground into a double play, and hit the ball out the other four times he was up to bat. Eight chances to turn it around. Eight chances, missed.

That might be too hard on the Troll. It’s not his fault that the Mets lost all three games against the Braves when they had to win at least one of them. It’s not on him that Jake, Max, and Chris gave up runs when we couldn’t afford to give up runs. It’s more on the front office for making the call to give Alvarez the bat. Why not call up guys who you know have had clutch moments? Why not bring Dom Smith back up to Queens? I have always vouched for the Secret Weapon Dom Smith. He didn’t hit well during the first half of the 2022 season, and it almost got him traded, but thank goodness he’s still hanging around in Syracuse where he’s hit .284 and smashed ten homers. We all remember what Dom did at the end of the 2019 season. Even though his clutch pinch hit walk-off homer didn’t get the Mets into the playoffs, a destination they’d missed a long while before that moment, it felt like Dom had just sent the team to the World Series. I think too many people expected that from the Troll. I think the Troll expected it from himself.

That’s the problem with expectations, isn’t it? When you have them, the end product doesn’t materialize. When you don’t expect anything, you get blindsided. Who knows what would have happened if the tables were turned? If we all figured that Zappe would flummox the Packers, would the game have ended with such a close score? If no one had counted on Alvarez for anything, would he have homered all eight times he went up to bat? No. That’s not how the world works. Things happen because they happen simply because they happen, and sometimes you can’t count on the numbers or the science for any explanation. And for that reason, we can’t use the debuts of both Zappe and Alvarez as a barometer for their futures. Zappe could fall off and become second fiddle to Hoyer again while Alvarez could heat up in the postseason and many seasons to come.

But we don’t know that. All we know is what we know. We didn’t count on Zappe for anything and we got more than we could have asked for. We counted on Alvarez for everything and we got suffering. Of course, when I say “We”, I mean the strange cross-section of American sports viewers who root for both the New York Mets and the New England Patriots, of which there are… let me look here… two? So if I’m one of them… Who’s the other shmuck? Show yourself, coward. Meet me atop the mountain. There can be only one.

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