What Just Happened in Flushing?

On August 19, after a brutal 8-1 loss to the San Francisco Giants, the New York Mets, defending champions of the National League, were 60-62. Their playoff odds were 6.7%, per Fangraphs. 6.7%! It wasn’t quite the home stretch to the 2016 season the Mets had visualized when they entered the year looking to defend their pennant and complete the path to redemption in the World Series. When they re-signed Yoenis Cespedes on January 26, they looked poised to do it, with a rotation that was being hailed as potentially one of the greatest of all time, and a mostly-intact offense from last season’s number one NL offensive team in the second half. Baseball wouldn’t have it that way.

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The Mets’ dream of throwing out a different ace every night hasn’t transpired to reality.

  • May 23- Lucas Duda (27+ HR & .830+ OPS the past two seasons) hits the disabled list with a back issue. He would later be declared “likely out for the season” on August 3.
  • June 16 – David Wright (team captain, 7-time All-Star, 2-time Gold Glove winner, 2-time Silver Slugger winner, Mets’ all-time leader in runs, hits, doubles, walks, etc.) ops for season- and potentially career-ending neck surgery in addition to his spinal stenosis (and age).
  • June 25 – Michael Conforto (.841 OPS in 2015 rookie campaign, hit two HR in the World Series) is demoted to triple-A after underperforming. He would be demoted again on August 12.
  • July 1 – Zack Wheeler (promising young pitcher with a 3.50 career ERA)’s original planned return date from Tommy John surgery. He never pitched this season.
  • July 8 – Matt Harvey (2013 All-Star, 2015 Comeback Player of the Year) opts for season-ending surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome.
  • July 27 – Juan Lagares (2014 Gold Glove winner and likely the only plus-defending center fielder on the roster) tears a thumb ligament making a diving catch.
  • August 14 – Steven Matz (4-0 with 2.27 ERA in 2015 rookie campaign) pitches his final game of the season amid both shoulder and elbow problems.
  • September 2 – Neil Walker (2014 Silver Slugger who was working on career-best marks in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage) opts for season-ending surgery for a herniated disk in his back.
  • September 10 – Wilmer Flores (infield swiss-army knife who had a 1.093 OPS vs. lefties this season) injures himself sliding into home plate. He today was ruled out for the season.
  • September 20 – Jacob deGrom (2014 Rookie of the Year, 2015 All-Star) opts for season-ending surgery for an ulnar nerve issue.

If you didn’t read that entire section, I don’t blame you. It’s far too long and repetitive. The Mets’ once vaunted rotation ended up surrounding still-alive Noah Syndergaard with 43-year-old Bartolo Colon, Seth Lugo (6.50 ERA in AAA this season), and Robert Gsellman (5.73 ERA in AAA this season, which he began in AA). As expected, today New York clinched a home playoff game. Wait, what?

Cult hero Colon was an All-Star and has debatably pitched even better in the second half of the season. Unheralded prospects Lugo (34th round draft pick) and Gsellman (13th round) have probably been the league’s best duo of starters not in a team’s original rotation. Amazingly, New York still has the third-best team ERA in baseball.

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Seth Lugo (left) and Robert Gsellman have been unbelievable stepping in for the Mets, combining for a 2.70 ERA in their 13 starts.

Offensively, the Mets have turned a very stark corner to complement the incredible performance of the pitching “ReplaceMets”. After ranking 28th in runs in the first half, New York has ranked 9th in the second half, bringing shades of last season’s ridiculous All-Star break turnaround. Last season, though, the Mets acquired Yoenis Cespedes – people were murmuring NL MVP despite his only playing 57 games (he hit 17 home runs), called up red-hot Michael Conforto from the minors, and got David Wright and Travis d’Arnaud back from injury. This time around, they’ve been ravaged by injuries, but they’ve gotten unexpected boosts from multiple places. Even-less-than-veteran-minimum-making Jose Reyes (under team control next year too, by the way) has made his mark in his return to New York, providing a spark from the leadoff spot and playing a solid third base in stead of his onetime costar Wright. Asdrubal Cabrera dyed his hair and became superman.

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An example of simple cause-and-effect.

Oh, he also had one of the greatest bat flips in recent human history. But Cabrera isn’t the only Met to have a crazy offensive turnaround to spark New York’s improbable run to the Wild Card. Curtis Granderson had fans begging for his benching with a .727 OPS on August 27 – his OPS is 1.024 since. Midseason acquisition Jay Bruce was Mets fans’ public enemy number one and inciting Jason Bay chants after going 3 for his past 39 on September 22. Since, he’s 10-20 with 4 home runs. TJ Rivera, a mostly unheralded infield prospect, has absolutely raked for New York in his 33 games replacing Neil Walker and Wilmer Flores, hitting .333 with a RBI-every-other-game pace. Even Lucas Duda and Juan Lagares have returned and look like potential playoff contributors.

What has caused this team’s amazing awakening in the final stretch of the season? Perhaps not even the locker room knows for sure. And of course, the mercuriality of the one-game Wild Card format could easily end New York’s season after just a 9-inning tryout. Even if they win that game, they’d then have to face the 100+ win Chicago Cubs in the NDLS – Fangraphs currently rates the Mets’ chances of returning to at least the NCLS at just 14.6%.

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Hey, they’ve seen worse.

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University

 

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