13 Down on the Quest to 90 Wins

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FROM MY RECLINER, NJ – Before the season, New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said the team could win 90 games. It didn’t take long for the media to jump all over that; no one took it seriously, and it became a running joke.

The start of the season did nothing to change the narrative. The Mets were swept by the Washington Nationals in the first series, striking out a record 31 times in the first two games  and featuring a bullpen that looked like it could be the worst in the league. News that closer Bobby Parnell was going to miss the season certainly didn’t help. I got more texts with this clip than I knew I had friends:

But something changed. Even with that disastrous start, the Mets are actually three games above .500. At 13-10 they’re on pace to surpass that 90 win prediction! But being a Mets fan is all about the unexpected punch to the gut. This team reels you in with false hope, before flaming out in the worst possible way.

So can the Mets realistically continue to play this well? Let’s start by looking at what they’re doing right. 1) They have the tenth best starters ERA in MLB. 2) They’re eighth in the league in defensive runs saved (DRS). 3) They’re fourth in the league in stolen bases.

There is nothing else they do that ranks in the top half of the league. Even if you remove that awful first series, their bullpen ERA does not land in the top half of the league. Offensively they’ve been well below average: they rank 26th in home runs, 23rd in runs scored, 29th in average, 26th in OBP, last in isolated power (ISO), and are tied with three other teams for the second worst strikeout rate in baseball. Like bullpen ERA, none of those numbers improve much if you remove that first awful series, or even look at their production over the last two weeks when they’ve posted a 9-4 record.

So for the Mets to continue this level of production they don’t need to hope for an unexpected offensive explosion, or a dominant bullpen to emerge. Knowing that, let’s look at what the Mets did do well and see if those numbers are maintainable.

10th Best Starting Pitcher ERA

This was always the presumed strength of the Mets. The team has been stockpiling arms for years with the belief that strong power arms and defense are the best way to win a championship. Right now the rotation consists of Zack Wheeler, Jenrry Mejia, Jon Niese, Dillon Gee and Bartolo Colon. Watching these guys pitch, they all pass the eye test. Well, except Colon…

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The advanced stats back them too. In the last 14 days the Mets are seventh in the league in fielding independent pitching (FIP) and ninth in true ERA (tERA), two stats that try to calculate pitchers performances while removing the element of chance. The only number that works against them is their low batting average on balls in play (BABIP).

The idea behind BABIP is once a ball is put in play there is a great deal of chance involved with whether it becomes a hit or an out. So if your BABIP is low the thought is you’ve gotten lucky (or unlucky if you’re a hitter), and the opposite if your BABIP is high. For the most part the theory holds up with the number averaging around .300 with most teams falling between .290-.310. The Mets currently have the tenth lowest number, but even that is .280 so it’s unlikely a return to the norm will affect the staff’s numbers much.

On the flip side, the Mets have been above average in both home run rate, and home run-to-fly ball ratio, suggesting the Mets will give up less home runs as the season progresses. Certainly makes sense since they play their home games at pitcher-friendly Citi Field.

All these numbers hold up when you look at the individual pitchers. While Mejia and Niese are likely to regress, Colon and Wheeler should see improved numbers — which keeps the Mets overall numbers more or less in line with what they’ve been.

Speaking of Mejia, he has quickly worked his way into a prominent role with the Mets. Years ago he was one of the team’s top prospects, but mismanagement and injuries forced him to the background. Now he’s showing everyone how great his stuff is with ridiculous strikeout and swing and miss rates that has led to a sparkling 1.99 ERA and 3-0 record. But that ERA isn’t exactly sustainable. Both his FIP and tERA are right around league average. He’s being helped by a BABIP of .250 that’s allowed him to strand batters at a LOB% of 92 percent!

There is good news, though. His BAA of .193 is so incredibly low that even if the BABIP evens out, he should still be able to limit hits. For example last year his BABIP was .329 and he still kept batters to a .259 average. What’s hurting Mejia in advanced metrics is a ridiculously high BB% of 14.4 percent which has led to 5.56 walks per nine innings (BB/9). But those numbers are by far the highest of his career. Last year, in limited action, he had a 1.32 BB/9, and has mostly had a BB% below 10 percent for his career.

As for Wheeler, despite a relatively average 3.99 ERA, he actually has improved his numbers across the board from last season. He also has the best FIP and tERA on the team at 2.98 and 2.95, respectively. No one disputes how great his pitches are, and when he was in AA a scout said he might be the best pitcher in the minors. In fact, most people thought he’d prove to be better than Matt Harvey when the two were still in the minors. But his problem has always been control, and last season his main black mark was a BB% of 10.7 percent.

This season he’s lowered that number to an acceptable 8.7 percent. What’s been killing him is a BABIP at .349, by far the highest on the team, which has allowed hitters to bat .267 against him — the worst number of his career. Those numbers will drop and, if Wheeler continues to show his improved control, he’ll morph into the ace the Mets were expecting he’d be.

8th Most Defensive Runs Saved

This is another area the Mets were supposed to be good at. Last year they were awful in the outfield to start the season. It certainly didn’t help that Lucas Duda was one of their outfielders:

Duda Outfield

But out of necessity the Mets switched up their outfield, and that part of their defense became one of the best units in the league. They also found Juan Lagares, who has statistically been the best center fielder in baseball.

Lagares ranked sixth in the majors last season in DRS, even though he played, by far, the fewest innings. The only center fielder ranked ahead of him was Carlos Gomez, who played over 400 more innings than Lagares.

This season the Mets added two great defensive outfielders in Curtis Granderson and Chris Young. The three outfielders are tops on the team in terms of DRS. In fact, the only players with more than one DRS this season are outfielders, and that’s with Lagares missing the past few weeks due to injury. So what was supposed to be a great outfield has been playing great, with no one surpassing their career averages. Yeah, I think that’s sustainable.

Now for those of you who don’t think fielding is important, give this a read. Yes, that’s right, fielding looks to be almost as important a tool as hitting. Both arm strength and fielding was graded as 0.43 in relationship to wins above replacement (WAR), while average and power was 0.53.

4th Most Stolen Bases

There are only three players on the team with more than one stolen base: Granderson (2), Daniel Murphy (4), and Eric Young Jr. (11). Murphy is on pace to steal 32 bases, while he set his career-high at 23 last season. EYJ is on pace for over 80 stolen bases and, while he led the NL with 46 stolen bases last season, over 80 is not happening. But two stolen bases is a modest number for Granderson who has stolen more than 20 bases three times in his career. And so far David Wright and Chris Young — two players that have proven to be good base stealers in their careers — have only one each. It wouldn’t be shocking to see the Mets keep on a similar pace for the rest of the season.

The one thing that could change that is less playing time for EYJ. He is the fourth outfielder, and has gotten a lot of his playing time because Young and Lagares have traded off DL stints to start the season. So even if Terry Collins continues to get him at-bats, it’s likely he’ll see less than he is currently. But if we refer to that same FiveThirtyEight article, speed only has a 0.13 correlation with WAR, making it the least important metric to the Mets start so far. So even if there is a small dip in their stolen base rate, it shouldn’t have a huge affect on their win total.

But what about the Mets opponents? Have they just been beating up on bad teams to start the year?

The Mets are 6-7 against teams above .500 and 6-1 against teams below .500, including a series sweep against the worst team in the majors, the Arizona Diamondbacks. Overall, Mets opponents this season are 78-83. So if there is a reason to temper expectations, the early schedule is it. But that 6-7 record includes an 0-3 number from their opening series sweep by the Nationals, a series that hasn’t proven to be truly indicative of their talent level.

Also, if you look ahead, the Mets schedule doesn’t get much harder. From now till June 5th they play 23 games against teams below .500 — The Phillies (9), Marlins (5), Diamondbacks (3), Pirates (3) and Cubs (3) — and just ten against teams above .500. Sure, the season doesn’t end in June, but the Mets can expect some reinforcements in June and July.

Right now they have several pitchers in their minor league system that will likely be added to the bullpen or rotation by then. There’s top prospect Noah Syndergaard — a pitcher many believe can be better than Wheeler — Rafael Montero, Jacob deGrom, Vic Black and Jeff Walters. Those guys can help stabilize the rotation, protect against injury, and improve a bullpen that’s been league average at best this season. And with such a surplus, the Mets may even be able to swing a trade for an impact bat if they remain in the playoff hunt.

We’re only 23 games into an 162-game season. It’s very easy to scream small sample size. Even the most optimistic fans have good reason to remain skeptical. But looking at the numbers, the Mets actually have a good chance of chasing that 90-win milestone and possibly snagging a wild card spot. So laugh all you want, but I like seeing the glass half-full that way.

JK who am I kidding. Mets aren’t winning 90 games.

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