When the season started, the Mets were heralded as a contender to knock down the Braves but weren’t seen as likely to do so. Although projection sites such as PECOTA had the Mets easily winning the division with 96 games, the Braves were still viewed as favorites by many. As we stand here today on June 3rd, the Mets are currently first in the division in miraculous fashion.
The team has faced tons of adversity early on with a combination of injuries and underperformance from key bats. Despite that, the team has found a way to win games. Many times with starting lineups that were more fitted for the Syracuse Mets rather than the major league club. Thus, despite all the injuries, rainouts, and games missed, the Mets have held their own. They continue to be serious threats to win their division in a miraculous fashion to this point.
Optimism Prior To Season
Coming into the season, the Mets were viewed optimistically by pundits and fans alike. While the change in ownership may have had a lot to do with that, the team was built to win. With a starting staff headed by Jacob deGrom and followed by Marcus Stroman and Taijuan Walker, the Mets felt good that their rotation could compete with anyone in baseball. Carlos Carrasco and Noah Syndergaard were supposed to join the rotation in May and June, respectively, however, setbacks pushed both of them back.
The Mets also felt very confident in their offense, built around their young core of players. This included Michael Conforto, Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil, Dominic Smith, and Brandon Nimmo. The acquisition of Francisco Lindor gave the Mets a big name to have as the face of the franchise. His long-term extension became the new owner Steve Cohen’s first big extension as the owner of the club. Although Lindor has been disappointed to this point, we haven’t even hit the halfway point of the season to be fair.
Mets Have Rocky Start To Season
The optimism around the club reached levels that had not been seen since 2016. The team was coming off an NL pennant and World Series appearance, so the optimism was justified. The fans were ready, the players and coaches were ready, and of course, the team’s new owner, a proud Mets fan was also ready for the season to begin. Things got off to a tough start when the Nationals were hit with a COVID outbreak, leaving the series postponed.
The team then opened up in Philadelphia with Jacob deGrom on the mound in what turned out to be a typical deGrom game. He dominated the Phillies for six innings and then was pulled after only 77 pitches. It caught many by surprise, who began to question manager Luis Rojas and his thinking. The Mets bullpen was then tasked to hold a measly 2-0 lead, which they ultimately failed to do. The season did not get off to a good start. Then, the injuries followed and the optimism began to dwindle. However, after a May in which the team won 17 games, many fans are starting to believe again.
The Rise of The Bullpen
Then, there’s the bullpen, which has been a pleasant surprise, despite being viewed as a liability prior to the season. Luis Rojas has seemed to manage the bullpen somewhat well, with a few hiccups, however. The backend with Edwin Diaz has been electric, though Diaz recently blew a save in Arizona. The Mets have seen many arms come up and succeed for the club, which attests to the team’s depth developed by Sandy Alderson and co.
Jeurys Familia has seen a major bounceback due to better control and a return to his nasty sinkers and sliders circa 2016. Robert Gsellman has also seen an improved season after being a DFA candidate last year. Miguel Castro has become a reliable backend arm as well as he has put up a 2.91 ERA and has 31 strikeouts in 21.2 innings. Aaron Loup has proven to be the right choice from the left side over both Brad Hand and Justin Wilson, who has struggled. Trevor May, aside from a few tough outings, has been solid, though not as good as expected. With Seth Lugo returning to the bullpen, it seems the Mets have weathered the worst stretch without having Lugo and surprisingly succeeded really well.
Defense, Defense, Defense
Lastly, there is the defense. There is the old saying that defense wins championships, and while it isn’t the be-all, end-all, it plays an important role. It’s no coincidence that the teams at the top of their divisions and baseball are simultaneously some of the best defensive teams in baseball.
In fact, three of the top four teams in defensive runs saved, a statistic used to measure team and player defense, are all in the first place. That happens to be the Padres (36), Rays (30), and Mets (25). In third place, there is the Houston Astros, who are just a half-game back of the first place in the AL West, who have 28 DRS.
The Mets made it a key part of the offseason to determine ways to improve their defense. In turn, they hoped to improve the fortunes of the team. The Mets were successful in doing so and here’s how they did it. Number one, the acquisition of Francisco Lindor. Lindor is viewed as one of the best defensive shortstops in the game, which made him a viable trade candidate. The Mets knew that they could not take a step forward without an improvement in the team’s defense. The Lindor acquisition accomplished just that and it has paid off for the club.
Mets Success In Previous Years Held Back By Defense
Over the course of his seven-year career, he has amassed 42 defensive runs saved, and already four this season. His single-season high of 9 in 2016 and 2019 has a chance to not only be matched but broken. He currently has four, and if he continues on his current defensive pace, he could surpass nine. As for the team, they are on pace to finally be in the positive with defensive runs saved for the first time since 2016.
Given that 2016 was the last year that the Mets were in the playoffs, it’s no coincidence that the team has been held back by its defense. Starting in 2017, the Mets ranked 30th, 27th, 28th, and 26th in defensive runs saved. It further emphasizes the importance of fielding a strong, defensive-minded team that helps all involved. This includes the defensive players as well as the pitchers, especially ground-ball pitchers like Marcus Stroman and David Peterson.
Mets Increase Their Reliance And Usage Of Analytics
Stroman struggled when he was first acquired by the Mets due to their weak infield defense. He has seen his numbers improve, mostly due to the Mets’ shocking turnaround on defense. The Mets and Sandy Alderson attribute this to a couple of factors. First of all, the Mets completely overturned the front office and put an increased emphasis on analytics. It seems to have paid off. The team as recently as last year had one of the smallest analytics departments in all of baseball. The team had 6 members before 21 and that number has now tripled to 18.
With the increased reliance on data and analytics, they have shifted more than twice the amount of last year. They have gone from shifting 20.9% of the time (27th) last year to 56% this year (2nd). Their defensive efficiency has improved from .688 to .699 and their BABIP has decreased from .317 to .288. All these factors have made them a more defensive-minded team and brought increased success. It has also resulted in more success for the Mets pitching staff, despite several injuries in that regard.
Mets Pitching Sees Effects Of Improved Defense
The Mets were one of the worst overall pitching staffs in 2020, which was the main reason for their downfall. This is despite the strong offense that the Mets deployed. Injuries could be attributed as a main reason for the pitching failure, but the defense played a key role as well. The Mets have achieved a complete 180 defensively this season and that is why they’re as successful as they are. They are currently 2nd in team ERA (3.11), just behind the San Diego Padres, who are at 2.80. They are also fifth in WHIP (walks, hits, innings pitched) at 1.13 and fifth in the opponent’s batting average against (.219).
Additionally, they are fifth in strikeout rate per nine innings (10.12), have the 2nd-best home run rate (.74), and have the third-highest ground-ball percentage at 46.2%. The latter statistic exhibits how far the Mets have come. The infield defense has become a strength for the club, rather than a weakness, and the pitching staff has benefitted. Lastly, the Mets have the lowest FIP (fielding independent pitching) in all of baseball at 3.08. They have also accumulated 9.0 WAR, tied for first in all of baseball with the Chicago White Sox. When you consider that the Mets have only played 47 games due to a variety of factors, it’s incredible what the staff has been able to pull off.
Alderson Stresses Collaboration In Extraordinary Defensive Turnaround
While the increase in shifts has come back to bite them on a few occasions, it seems the increased shifts have resulted in much more good than bad. Alderson also stresses the importance of the manager in these decisions to shift and play defense, which talks to Luis Rojas’s importance on the team.
Lastly, he emphasizes the importance of collaboration between the front office and the coaching staff. The job is to make these decisions together and field the best defensive team. Alderson has his views on how the defense should be run, but he successfully incorporates the data and other perspectives to bring about the most success.
Luis Rojas mentioned two names, Jared Faust and Ben Zauzmer when talking about the defensive improvements. Both have been hired in the past couple of years and have helped make huge inroads for the Mets analytical department. Zauzmer is a former Dodgers employee and his goal is to help the Mets develop a new and improved strategy and system.
Mets Hope To See Success Through Analytical Improvements
He wants one that outpaces what we have seen from teams like the Dodgers and Yankees. In doing so, he wants to be able to put the Mets at the top of the analytical pedestal. Both of those teams can attribute their success due to their innovation and creativity concerning analytics. Zauzmer wants and aims to achieve the same in NY.
The quick turnaround of the team’s defense demonstrates the immediate positive impact that Steve Cohen’s purchase of the Mets has already brought to the team. He has given Alderson the green light to completely revamp the analytics department.
He has also pledged to bring some of the analytically driven materials from his own firm, Point72, to the Mets to help in any way he can. This represents a stark contrast from the prior ownership and it shows why the Mets are currently in the first place. It’s also why the Mets are in a good position to hold their place there. This is despite all the injuries and adversity that the team has faced.
Injuries Hit Mets Hard Early On
Speaking of the injuries, it’s been incredible to see just how injured the Mets have gotten just 48 games into the season. Before the team activated three players on Monday, the Mets had 17 players on the injured list. The Mets have somehow been able to weather the storm and have not relinquished first place despite the continuous injuries.
The Mets, fortunately, got good news on the injury front on Monday when Pete Alonso, Kevin Pillar, and Seth Lugo were all activated. However, in the last week, they received some unfortunate news on Noah Syndergaard, Carlos Carrasco, Michael Conforto, and Jeff McNeil. Carrasco had a setback with a hamstring tear and was transferred to the 60-day IL. His timeline to return is around early July, though the Mets will evaluate Carrasco on a week-to-week basis. Syndergaard got a setback in a minor league game in which he experienced right elbow soreness. Fortunately, there was no structural damage, but he will not be throwing for six weeks.
Both Michael Conforto and Jeff McNeil are out till the end of June/early July due to “significant” hamstring tears. J.D. Davis had appeared in some rehab games before halting due to increased pain in his hand. His status to return is currently unknown. The same applies to Brandon Nimmo, who is struggling with a nerve issue in his finger. He recently tried to swing a bat and there was still pain, which is some discouraging news.
Mets Pitching Depth Truly Tested As Injuries Pile On
Luis Guillorme and Albert Almora also went down with injuries, though both should be beginning rehab assignments relatively shortly. Even those who joined the club due to these injuries have had themselves placed on the IL list. Tommy Hunter, Johneshwy Fargas, and Jordan Yamamoto were both placed in the IL in the past couple of weeks. Hunter should be beginning a rehab assignment soon, while Fargas suffered an AC joint sprain and there is no timetable for his return. Yamamoto is also out long-term as he was already placed on the 60-day IL due to right shoulder soreness.
Unfortunately for the Mets, all the pitching depth there was projected to have already taken a huge hit. The Mets have succeeded to this point, but there’s no telling as to how long this could last. But for now, the Mets remain a true threat in the east because of their ability to win, despite these injuries. The “bench mob” or “Syracuse mob” as it has become to be known has truly stepped up for the Mets.
Tomas Nido has earned himself a chance to split playing time with offseason acquisition James McCann. Jonathan Villar has become a key cog defensively at third base and has provided some pop at the top of the lineup. Brandon Drury, Jose Peraza, and now Billy McKinney have become valuable pieces in the outfield and off the bench. The Mets have been able to succeed in ways that no one could’ve imagined given the circumstances. As the team continues to get healthier, they will only become more dangerous in a weaker division.
Competition in NL East
The last portion of this article will be about the division. Had the Mets been in say the AL East or the NL West, these injuries piling on may have been the death of the team. However, in the NL East, the Mets have more breathing room. As has happened the past couple of years, this division has not lived up to the hype.
The NL East has been viewed as one of the toughest divisions for the past few years now before the season. However, it has generally not worked out that way at all. Fortunately for the Mets, it gives them time to get healthy, while in the meantime be ahead in the division and first place.
All four of the other teams, the Braves, Phillies, Marlins, and Nationals are all under .500. All of those teams are also dealing with some kind of injury problems as well, though not to the scale of what has happened in Queens. Thus, many say the Mets are “fortunate” to be in the NL East or else they would not be where they are. The other teams also have an optimistic approach as well since no team has truly run away with the division yet.
Braves Still A Threat In The East, Phillies, And Nats Not So Much
A team like the Braves has the potential to be major threats for the Mets. Although they have struggled, they are the three-time reigning NL East champions. . The other teams are threats to a much lesser extent. The Phillies have not made the playoffs and even been over .500 since 2011. The Marlins made their first playoff appearance last year for the first time since 2003. And although the Nationals were World Champions in 2019, they have declined and struggled for the past couple of years. Therefore, Mets fans are not panicking as much as they normally would, given the current state of the division.
This works out for the Mets because they can hopefully get healthy and make a run. This is barring any run that another team in the division could make. However, at this point, it is unlikely. Therefore, the division is there for the Mets to take. It is the Mets to lose as we stand here on June 3rd, 2021.