On June 16, 2021, the New York Mets beat the Chicago Cubs and moved to 11 games, a season record, over 0.500. They were also sitting at a 5 1/2 game lead in the NL East, the only team remotely living up to expectations in a confusing division division.
But in the course of that game, the ace of the world Jacob deGrom left with a pain in his shoulder.
We know how things went from there. The Mets dropped back into the pack, the Atlanta Braves redid their outfield on the trade deadline. The Mets finished third in the division at 77-85, then fired manager Luis Rojas and eventually GM Zack Scott following a DUI charge (on which he was later found not guilty). The Braves won the World Series.
Fast forward a year, and the Mets again find themselves clinging to first place as the Braves, who start slow and charge hard, close in.
Everything on this team looks different. For starters, that’s 21 games over 0.500, the best record in the National League, rather than de facto leaders of a slow division. They’ve also done it without deGrom stepping foot in a regular season bunch, and have managed to hold out for a month so far without Max Scherzer’s signing. On the top rung of the bench, they have Buck Showalter at the helm, a seemingly revealing leadership change that made the 2022 Mets feel competent in a way few recent editions have.
But being the Mets, and the NL East being the NL East, there would always be a stress test. The Braves kicked off June with a 15-game winning streak that finally ended on Friday. The lead from 10.5 games has shrunk to 6.5.
So the specter of summers past looms. Are the Mets going to be the guy who lands on his face in The Freeze (again), or is this team really different?
Is it Buck or is it luck?
It’s been a bumpy year for MLB’s old managerial guard. Joe Girardi and Joe Maddon were excused from piloting their respective poorly built starcraft, and Tony La Russa’s Chicago White Sox faltered frustratingly enough that some fans screamed for him to be fired.
Showalter hasn’t been able to since 2018, when the Mets picked him up this winter, but his seriousness and attention to detail have been hailed as transformative.
Perhaps no franchise needed a steady hand in the captain’s office more than the Mets. In the previous four seasons under rookie coaches Mickey Callaway and Rojas, this team has been incredibly prone to chaos. Many of the reasons to feel positive about the management of Showalter’s team have nothing to do with how he is handling the team. Simply by being so prominent, he is providing relief that previous managers did not. Like a grandfatherly lightning rod, it absorbs or deflects considerable external energy directed at the team rather than sending it through the clubhouse.
In other words, even if the Mets can’t make the playoffs again, maybe they won’t publicly shame themselves along the way. That would count as progress, unfortunately.
But that is not the real objective.
Armed with the second-largest payroll in the sport, owner Steve Cohen and Mets faithful hope to play in October.
Attributing a team’s success to a manager, or projecting its future success based on a manager, is largely a silly task in 2022. Major league managers don’t stack their cards in one house in the modern game – the front office. they do it. Their job is to keep watch, to navigate in the heat of the moment without taking a critical card. To protect against collapse.
There is reason to believe that Showalter also diverged from previous regimes on this front.
The defining moment of his Baltimore tenure – leaving Zack Britton in the bullpen when Ubaldo Jimenez missed the 2016 AL wild card game – was a clear mistake. But it was always unfair to judge your general acumen or bullpen management in this game.
During their run in Baltimore before the front office blew up, the Orioles had one of the best bullpens in the league – reaching a park-adjusted top five ERA from 2010 to 2017 and winning more games than any other relief corps.
On the question of when to use his best reliever, Showalter has clearly evolved and said so in an interview with The Athletic. In recent weeks, he has twice positioned Edwin Diaz in the eighth round to face the heart of the opposing order.
Showalter has transferred one trademark in particular: he goes to great lengths to avoid using relievers on consecutive days. Between 2010 and 2017, only one team deployed fewer zero-day rest relievers than their Orioles. In 2022, only two teams managed to avoid back-to-backs more than the Mets.
This is not an inherently positive thing, but it is a sign of strategic thinking well suited to a long season where new bullpen restrictions may eventually be implemented.
And it took some concerted effort. The launch team has not been the team’s strength, nor a beacon of health. Scherzer and Tylor Megill lost time. Chris Bassitt and Carlos Carrasco were solid, but stepped on the occasional landmine. Showalter has likely sacrificed some runs – and some overall numbers – in favor of protecting the long term.
It will get more difficult. It’s getting harder now. Especially if Scherzer and deGrom aren’t healthy, it will require reinforcements.
But crucially, these Mets seem inclined to prioritize depth.
Offseason investments pay off for Mets roster
If you really want to delve into a reason why this Mets squad can overcome the shadow of recent meltdowns, you need to start with roster depth.
By the day deGrom fell in 2021, injuries had already stripped the Mets outfield of major league players. The players who appeared in the outfield that day were Dominic Smith (a first baseman, ideally), Kevin Pillar, Billy McKinney and Mason Williams. For a rival team, these should be the fourth outfielders, not the four outfielders.
This offseason, the Mets and new GM Billy Eppler invested in consistent, robust major league players when they brought in Starling Marte, Mark Canha and Eduardo Escobar. This made Robinson Cano superfluous, JD Davis a bench bat and Smith a minor league player at the time.
The outfield, where a team can and should prioritize attacking more, has been a consistent source of base players. The Mets outfielders have an MLB-leading 0.356 base percentage this year after ranking 23rd with a 0.317 OBP in 2021. They have lifted the Mets roster to the top of the overall leaderboard at base and contributed to the feeling that the team is never out of games.
It’s the races being driven by Pete Alonso, who is paving the way for a potential career year. As deGrom and Alonso can attest, it’s never been a lack of top talent that dooms the Mets. It was a lack of structural integrity.
There are still obvious areas for improvement. Even with James McCann returning from injury, the Mets could improve their catching situation. They will almost certainly need rotation and bullpen support. Given the positional flexibility of Jeff McNeil and Luis Guillorme, they could add a useful cue almost anywhere without scruples.
In a clear indicator of success, making contact, the Mets’ offense is among the best in the league. In another, hitting homers, they are average. With the weather heating up and the balls flying farther, the Mets may need to strike a more even balance to maintain their advantage.
To stay ahead of the Braves, they may need to do all of the above. Preseason projections are still more predictive than results so far, and preseason projections saw a toss between the Mets and the Braves.
Now, the Mets are in a strong position to make the expanded playoff field anyway – their odds are 95.4%, according to FanGraphs – but truly marking a new era in Queens means running strong to the end. It means finish first.
As the Mets are well aware, arriving in mid-June in first place is only a good start if that pace can be sustained.