Think the 2014 Mets Can Make a Run? Here Are Some Things You Should Know First

By: Brian Mangan

Well, well. It’s June 5 and the Mets, although under .500, are within a few games of first place in the NL East. This is both because a) the Mets have been slightly better than expected and b) no team has run away with the division just yet.

In light of that fact, rumblings have begun in the tabloids that the Mets ought to make some moves and “go for it.” Joel Sherman of the Post implored the Mets front office yesterday as follows:

Opportunity, I learned, does not often come with advance warning. Boom, it is here. Then it is about if you can seize it, capitalize upon it, translate opportunity into something bigger and better.  And that brings me to the Mets — believe it or not. They have opportunity right now that we could not have readily predicted. 

* * *

There are four months of the season left, so maybe the Nationals get their act right. Maybe. Perhaps the Braves’ power bats overcome all. Perhaps. But there is opportunity here for Alderson and the Mets. If the Marlins are trying to get their team better, Alderson should be proactive as well. Ownership needs to stop talking about the money it is willing to spend and open wallets.

As distasteful as it might be to agree with Joel Sherman, he has a point.  He admits in his article that he thinks it is “unlikely” that the Mets will make the playoffs – but nonetheless, the team has been good enough so far to begin to entertain the notion that with a patch here-or-there and some really good luck that the team could get close.

You can decide for yourselves.  But before you do so, here are some things that you should know.

1.  Despite how it seems, the offense has been good and the pitching has been mediocre.

It’s 2014, baby.  Time to readjust your expectations for run scoring.

All year we’ve heard how bad the Mets offense is, and how the pitching will have to carry them.  Turns out, that is not the case.  At present, the Mets position players have been worth 5.4 WAR while the Mets pitchers have been worth 1.5 WAR.  Part of this is due to the fact that the Mets have an above-average defense (ranking 6th in the NL in Defensive Efficiency) but the much larger factor in our perceptions is that there is a lower run-scoring environment today that we have not adjusted for in our minds.

The Mets are presently 8th in the NL in runs per game, at 4.03 compared to an average of 4.00.  They lack pop (14th in HR) but are exactly league average in doubles and lead the league in walks by a large margin, with 223 walks (next closest is 203, average is 175).  Altogether despite an OPS which ranks 13 out of 15, the Mets have the 7th best on base percentage and have held their own offensively.

Want even better news? After ranking 14th out of 15 in the NL in offense in April, the Mets ranked 6th in the National League in offense in May:  (click to enlarge the images)

mets offense may

Despite the rigorous extra-inning filled June, the Mets have ranked 7th so far.  What this says to me is that the Mets we’ve seen for the last couple of months — with extra doses of Abreu and Flores, and less of EY Jr. and the bad version of Tejada — is actually a pretty decent hitting team.

The pitching on the other hand has been decent, but not great.  Although the Mets rank 14th out of 15 in pitcher WAR (which is based off FIP, not ERA, a topic for another day) they presently rank 9th in ERA.  FIP is fielding-independent pitching and, although it’s useful to predict things going forward, it doesn’t account for what actually happened on the field.  At present, partially thanks to their good team defense and potentially also thanks to pitchers who tend to outperform their peripherals a bit (like Dillon Gee lately) the Mets have the fourth largest gap between ERA and FIP.  Oh, and not for nothing, the Mets pitching has been 8th in the NL in FIP in the last 30 days, showing that even that statistic has come around some:

pitching 30

In sum, the Mets hitting has been better than expected and the Mets pitching has been pretty good too.  With both units operating around the middle of the pack in the National League, there is no reason to think the Mets can’t hang around this race.

2.  The Mets are hitting fine with runners in scoring position

All year we’ve heard how terrible the Mets are with RISP.  This, again, is just a function of how much less offense there is in baseball now compared to the last fifteen years.

The current NL team average with RISP is .241/.323/.372, for a 695 OPS.  The Mets are hitting .235/.328/.355, for a 683 OPS, an almost identical line.

Yes, the Mets have struggled more with RISP and 2 outs or with the bases loaded, but these are such small sample-sizes that, over time, they should even out.

3. Wilmer Flores can play shortstop.

The Flores defense story has been beaten to death, so I’ll get to the conclusion here: he can play shortstop well enough in the big leagues to stick.  In his 108 innings at shortstop so far this year, Wilmer has an UZR of 2.0, which translates to a UZR/150 of 24.8.  A UZR that high would rate with the best defenders in the league (which he is not) but he has at least proven at this point that he has a floor as a league-average shortstop for now.  He will make the occasional error, his but his grades for range have been superlative.

4. I Still Think Chris Young is Ok…

I am a big Chris Young believer.  Not that he’ll be great, of course – but that he can be good enough to be an asset to this team.  A few weeks ago, on the heels of a hot streak that nobody acknowledged existed, I wrote that Young was showing signs of turning his season around.

Young batted .289/.385/.533 from April 27 to May 13.  His fly ball distance had gone up to levels comparable with guys like Christian Yelish, Ryan Howard, and Ian Desmond:

CY

Ultimately I concluded that he has been a little unlucky with his balls in play, and that he was due for some home runs if he kept hitting that way, saying “The players around him in fly ball distance have all done well in the home run department: Howard (7), Desmond (7), Yelich (5), Dominguez (7), and even Ackley in his pitcher’s park (4), and Jaso who only has 23 fly balls (4).”

Unfortunately, he picked that day to enter a huge slump.  Young is 5-for-32 since that day.  What perplexes me is this:

CY needs some low pressure at bats, and he needs them now.  If not, when Lagares returns, Young will be relegated to being a full time (ineffective) pinch-hitter.

5. Granderson Has Been Great

It’s not all bad news though!  Since the calendar turned to May 2, Curtis Granderson has been excellent, batting  .279/.383/.468 with 5 HR and 20 RBI.

He looks good under the hood as well.  We wrote an article on April 15th pointing out that Granderson’s swinging strike rate had exploded to 16.3%. A month and a half later, his season rate is down to 11.8% — and only 10.2% over the last 30 days.

Whatever Granderson has done, he’s fixed himself up quite nicely.  He is unlikely to be the Yankee Stadium monster that he was before, but if he can be a .250/.350/.440 guy the rest of the way, the Mets offense will have filled out nicely.

6. The Re-Emergence of Jon Niese

This is the story that nobody is talking about – Jon Niese with the 2.69 ERA, 3.39 FIP.  Niese has been the ace that we were all waiting for to emerge in 2013, leading the Mets rotation in WAR despite beginning the season with injury.  Niese won’t keep this up, but he has limited home runs, gotten 46.2% ground balls, and kept hitters defensive by pitching in the zone (52.2% zone%, first among starters).

7. The Bullpen, Behind Mejia and Familia, is Fortified

I think this says all you need to know:

Over the last 30 days, Mets relievers have posted the following FIP: Black (2.06), Torres (2.10), Familia (2.69), Mejia (3.15), Edgin (3.54).  Add in Scott Rice or whoever else you like to that mix, but having four+ guys in that pen dealing like that (plus Germen when he returns) makes for a formidable endgame.

Overall

Are the Mets buyers?  Are the Mets sellers?  Do they stand pat?

It is my belief that the Mets overall are about what you’d expect them to be right now.  The Mets have scored 238 runs and allowed 235 runs, making their pythagorean record a tidy 30-29.  Would you have signed up for 30-29 after a hellish April schedule and two long road trips?  You can bet that I would have.

I believe that the Mets roster, as presently constructed, is even better than we’ve seen so far.  The Mets have dealt with a struggling Granderson, a struggling Tejada, Parnell’s injury (leading to Valverde/Farnsworth), and Gee’s injury (leading to Montero’s struggles) in the opening months before coalescing to this semi-permanent roster.

A lineup of: Lagares, Murphy, Wright, Granderson, Abreu, Duda, Flores/Tejada, Catcher will be an above average offensive unit.  The starting rotation has been solid and the emergence of DeGrom gives the Mets another great problem when Gee returns.

The bullpen is essentially brand new when compared to April.  The Mets have blown 18 leads so far this year, compared to Atlanta’s 10, Washington’s 10, and Miami’s 12.  With the bullpen finally clicking on all cylinders, the Mets will hold on to more of those leads.

Baseball Reference has something called their Simple Rating System, which uses run differential and strength of schedule to come up with a ranking of teams by their general strength.  The Mets so far this year are tied with Baltimore for 15th in the  Major Leagues.

In the spring, I wrote the following in my season preview article: “I believe the Mets are going to be pretty good this year. Now when I say good, I don’t mean that they will win 95 games and contend for the pennant – I mean that I believe they will be above .500 (84 or 85 wins to be exact). This might not sound like a lot, but 84 wins is about nine wins more than predicted by the advanced forecasting systems used by Fangraphs and, more importantly, by the rarely-wrong Las Vegas oddsmakers.”

Do you believe?  I do.

One more thought to leave you with:

(Just for September, and just if the Mets are still in it… we can dream, right?  It’ll keep his innings down, is technically within his recovery timetable, will bring his energy back to the team, and give us one more incredible arm in the pen)

*          *          *

Brian Mangan is an attorney who lives in New York City.  He grew up basically in the shadow of Shea Stadium and has been a die-hard fan since the days of Rico Brogna, pride of Watertown, CT.  Rickey Henderson gave him the finger once.

*          *          *