What we’ve learned about the Mets through a quarter of the season

If baseball season ended on Thursday – well, that would be a little confusing. But if the season ended Thursday, the New York Mets would be champions of the National League East and make the playoffs for the first time since 2016. Those were the expectations when owner Steve Cohen opened his proverbial wallet to build this $279 million list. In about a quarter of games, the Mets have exceeded those expectations. But they didn’t proceed in the way the front office envisioned.

Because the Mets played the entire season without their hometown ace Jacob deGrom. And they’re preparing for at least another month without their offseason import of an ace, Max Scherzer. Billed as a two-man show with a strong supporting cast, the Mets have so far demonstrated the power of their ensemble. With Atlanta and Philadelphia getting off to a slow start, the Mets have built up a sizable early lead in the east.

Cohen’s club emerged as contenders in 2022. You go into June as a division favorite.

But the baseball season is long and full of terrors. The team has occupied this space before. The Mets were tied for first place on May 26, 2021; The team held first place well into August. The team, of course, didn’t make the playoffs in 2021 — or even finish with a winning record.

Flushing players, coaches and leaders insist this group is different. Manager Buck Showalter keeps pointing out how special this group is. We will see. The coming weeks will bring clarity. The Mets enter a dangerous phase of the schedule, including a 10-game outing in the West against three strong teams, the Dodgers, Padres and Angels. And they will have to do without deGrom or Scherzer, at least in the short term.

Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer in the Mets dugout during an April game. (Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

With that in mind, here are some takeaways from the first quarter of the Mets season:

1. The starting rotation withstood the first wave of injuries*
*for now

The health and stability of the rotation figures will be a prominent storyline over these next few months as deGrom and Scherzer redeem themselves through their ailments. DeGrom continues to play catch, but may not make his debut until after both Scherzer and Tylor Megill (biceps tendonitis) return. Until then, a heavy burden rests on the shoulders of veterans Chris Bassitt, Carlos Carrasco and Taijuan Walker.

Of course, those three only make up sixty percent of the rotation. The Mets need to plug the holes with depth in their big league roster and farm system. So far the group has met the challenge. Before she was injured, Megill was an admirable replacement for deGrom. Another backup arm, David Peterson, has posted a 2.16 ERA in five games. Trevor Williams was less productive, so Thomas Szapucki got the promotion for Wednesday’s series finale in San Francisco.

The performance of Szapucki, a 25-year-old left-hander who had a 2.86 ERA in Triple A, was a cause for concern. The Giants treated him like batting practice. He gave up five runs before accumulating three outs. He gave up the ninth heat before pulling out a fifth. Showalter drew it after San Francisco hit its fourth home run, with an out on the second. It was a terrible start. It would be hard for the Mets to justify giving him another one.

This injury-induced period of uncertainty can be a temporary conundrum, a paltry six weeks for the team to survive. But it could also become permanent if deGrom’s shoulder stops progressing or Scherzer’s oblique stretch hits a setback nearing his 38th birthday. Mets fans understand this drill better than most. things can go wrong.

And things already have. The rotation is not split yet. You have to hold it together until either the cavalry arrives from the casualty list – or from the trade market.

2. The Mets are baseball’s most improved offense

Baseball spent April pondering the ramifications of a juiced baseball, but not only were the Mets immune to the larger offensive trends, they totally undermined them. In 2021, they ranked 27th in runs scored in 2021, averaging 3.93 runs per game — or more than a half run short of the major league average. A year later, in 45 games, the club was averaging 4.70 runs per game, which ranked sixth in baseball and nearly a half run better than the league average (4.19 runs per game). The turnaround can be credited in many directions, including new hitting coaches Eric Chavez and Jeremy Barnes (who brought new ideas and voices), Jeff McNeil (who embraced his best skills), Pete Alonso (who has had the best season of his own ). Career if you factor in the offensive environment) and owner Steve Cohen (whose wallet helped lengthen and balance the lineup).

Overall, the Mets did it with a contact-laden approach while still carving out professional at-bats. During Monday’s games, the Mets made contact on 78.5 percent of their swings, which ranked second in baseball behind the Guardians. They placed 23rd in strikeouts while still making it to 11th in walks draws. They were also opportunistic, hitting .275/.350/.425 with runners in goal position. If you’re the type of fan who likes to panic, the last stat might read as a warning. The Mets sacked just .238/.334/.370 with runners in goal position last season, and this year’s team posted a BABIP of .319 with runners in goal position. Perhaps they could see some regression in this area, although they could see some minor gains in other areas (Francisco Lindor, Eduardo Escobar, whoever catches, etc.).

3. Bassitt was a bargain

Yes, Bassitt was knocked down in San Francisco Tuesday night, absorbing an eight-run throb that ballooned his ERA from a 2.77 to a 3.91. It happens. But Bassitt provided the necessary ballast for the rotation, made all the more important by the instability around him.

Last weekend, Bassitt and the Mets avoided arbitration by agreeing to an $8.8 million contract for 2022, his last season before reaching free agency. Bassitt makes the case for significant free market bucks, largely by replicating the results he achieved during his tenure at Oakland. His teammate Adam Ottavino recently teased him about a possible $100 million deal. Bassitt might not crack nine figures this winter. But he should be paid and he deserves it, especially in the last two months.

4. The Mets outfield was one of the best

It’s not just Brandon Nimmo who is healthy and leading the team in WAR. The Mets’ left fielders — largely a combination of McNeil and Mark Canha — were the most productive in baseball, amassing 1.0 WARs, according to the Baseball Reference. And the only team that’s gotten more out of midfield is the Angels, who still keep Mike Trout busy. Overall, the Mets outfielders started Tuesday with a baseball reference 2.9 WAR, level on points with the Minnesota Twins and slightly ahead of the Angels (2.6).

5. The bullpen needs backup

Competing appraisers — and Mets executives, for what it’s worth — were feeling that way even before Tuesday’s pitching debacle at Oracle Park. Drew Smith presented an enchanting story in the first month of the season as a key cog in Showalter’s late-game strategy. Smith didn’t allow a run in his first 12 appearances. In his last six appearances, he has given up six. Emergency workers are a fickle bunch, of course, so it’s unclear if Smith has what it takes to bring Edwin Díaz closer.

Díaz has caught far too many in the last 10 days, blowing a save against St. Louis and suffering a loss in San Francisco, but his peripheral numbers and long track record suggest he will be fine. There are bigger questions about the rest of the Auxiliary Corps. Adam Ottavino, Seth Lugo, Joely Rodriguez, and Chasen Shreve all have field-independent ERAs that are lower than their actual ERAs, indicating regression toward better future results. But all four have allowed regular traffic on bases, suggesting they are playing with fire. This tends to work poorly in high leverage situations.

Of course, the Mets will be looking for relief as the trade deadline nears. The best offers for helpers often lack fanfare. It’s up to Billy Eppler and his baseball operations department to scour the market for upgrades. Another southpaw wouldn’t hurt.

6. Nimmo plays like a stealth MVP candidate — and he’s capable of making money

Nimmo, a post-season free agent, is on less strikes than ever and running (slightly) less. For one simple reason, it swings in and out of the hitting zone a little further, making more contact than ever. The result: Nimmo is batting around .300 – .295/.389/.443 in his first 40 games – and he was a valuable defender in the middle, leading all midfielders in the FanGraphs Defensive Runs Above Average statistic. Of course, the defensive is outstanding: where Nimmo was once classified as a below-average center fielder, he now acts like one of the best. When you combine the on-base skills, offensive production, and defensive value, you get a WAR machine, a player capable of being a real catalyst on a competitor.

(Photo by Pete Alonso, Brandon Nimmo and Francisco Lindor: Al Bello/Getty Images)

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