by Paul West
After a first half filled with challenges, disappointments and pleasant surprises, the New York Mets have made it to the All-Star break with a 47-42 record, and only two games out of first place in the NL East. Widespread speculation about potential trade moves continues, but for now, the Mets have to continue working with what they have. What they have is a mixed bag of proven and to-be-determined quantities.
The Mets might have the best top-to-bottom pitching staff in baseball. The face, and nominal ace, of the Mets’ staff is Matt Harvey, who’s been excellent in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. Harvey’s racked up 109 strikeouts in 111 innings, and his 3.07 ERA and 1.09 WHIP are especially impressive in light of a brief multi-game slump he experienced a few weeks ago. Lefty Steven Matz is currently sidelined with a torn lat muscle, but he was dazzling in his initial starts with the Mets: he’s 2-0 with a 1.32 ERA and a microscopic .88 WHIP, and drove in four runs in his winning debut at Citi Field. The rotation’s other lefty, Jon Niese, experienced a slump even more troubling than Harvey’s, but has still posted an overall 3.61 ERA and has come on strong of late. Veteran Bartolo Colon hasn’t been as great at he was last season, but his 9-7 record and 4.46 ERA are a solid option for the back end of a rotation. Moreover, Colon is a crafty competitor who usually makes it deep into games and rarely has a really bad outing. Last but far from least, Jacob deGrom is the Mets’ lone All Star and is having a spectacular year. DeGrom has 112 strikeouts in 113 innings, along with a 2.14 ERA and a ridiculous .92 WHIP for half a season. The deGrominator made history in his first All Star appearance, becoming the first pitcher ever to strike out the side in ten pitches in an All Star game. There’s now serious discussion about whether he or Harvey is the de facto ace of the Mets staff. But labels aside, the top of the Mets rotation looks like a murderer’s row to opposing hitters. It’s also the biggest reason the Mets are being discussed as a threat to make a deep playoff run if they happen to make it into the postseason.
The Mets’ bullpen has taken numerous injury hits this season. To make matters worse, closer Jenrry Mejia was suspended for most of the first half for a PED violation. They’ve nevertheless been able to be effective via a mix-and-match approach, anchored by outstanding new closer Jeurys Familia. Familia has had an All-Star caliber season, converting 27 of 29 save opportunities and posting a 1.25 ERA and .90 WHIP. Despite diminished velocity, Bobby Parnell has been effective since his recent return from Tommy John surgery. Mejia was jittery but effective in his return from suspension, and is reportedly at peace with a setup role. The Mets’ bullpen had a strong first half despite numerous obstacles; with the return of two former closers as setup men, it looks like it will be even stronger in the second half.
The Mets’ hitting has as times been timely and has at times been explosive. And to be fair, Travis d’Arnaud ignited the lineup while healthy but has since been felled by yet another random injury. But Michael Cuddyer has been a disappointment, and despite coming around of late, Curtis Granderson was a glaring hole in the lineup for quite a while. Pressured to carry the lineup almost by himself for weeks, Lucas Duda began to expand his strike zone and look increasingly frustrated. He’s since rebounded, and it bear noting that despite his slump he’s still among the league leaders in hard-hit balls as well as doubles. Individual Mets have gotten warm for stretches, but except for when d’Arnaud, Duda and Daniel Murphy were briefly all healthy at once, it seems like the Mets have never had multiple hitters dialed in at the same time. A telling and troubling statistic: streaky, injury-hampered bad-ball hitter Juan Lagares leads the Mets with a .256 batting average.
Hampered by a damaged throwing elbow among other lingering tweaks, Juan Lagares hasn’t been the same player defensively. he still has excellent reads, jumps and closing speed in center field, but he isn’t quite the supernatural force he was last year when he won his first Gold Glove. His elbow trouble has taken away his right-field cannon of a throwing arm and rendered it simply above average. In left and right field, Michael Cuddyer’s mediocre range and Curtis Granderson’s middling range and pop gun of a throwing arm have made the outfield defense an overall liability. On days when Kirk Nieuwenhuis or Darrell Ceciliani fill in, the outfield defense is upgraded significantly–though these days have been generally rare. On the infield, moving Wilmer Flores to second base and Daniel Murphy to third base has made quite a difference. Murphy looks more comfortable and less clunky at third, and is actually capable of impressive plays at the hot corner. Ruben Tejada has returned to the everyday lineup at shortstop, silencing his doubters with steady play. Kevin Plawecki has performed well behind the plate, rating as an above-average defensive catcher with a good throwing arm and excellent management of both his pitchers and the strike zone. And when deGrom is on the mound, his athleticism upgrades the entire defense up the middle.
Terry Collins can’t be blamed for all of the Mets’ struggles. One could argue that in many ways, he’s made the most of what he’s had to work with. But his in-game strategic moves can at times be baffling, and his sense of whether to leave pitchers in or take them out seems questionable. His future with the Mets almost certainly hinges on their performance in the second half, especially if they make a move before the trade deadline and bring in an extra bat.
The Mets have one of the best home records in baseball, and have shown that they’re never quite out of a game. They’ve won in comeback fashion many times, despite an oft-anemic offense and a negative run differential (it’s worth noting that they had a surprisingly positive run differential for most of last season, despite having a worse record at the break and missing the postseason). They have a pitching staff with several starters who can dominate any lineup, and they’ve repositioned their players to make their defense more acceptable. It seems equally believable that the Mets will slide out of contention, or glide into the playoffs and turn dominant pitching and timely hitting into a Cinderella run.
Overall Grade: B