by Paul West
Ladies and gentlemen, the New York Mets are officially a threat. They’ve taken control of their destiny, they lead the National League East by four games as of mid-August, and they’ve just completed a four-game sweep of the same Colorado Rockies that recently took two of three from the second-place Washington Nationals. The Mets have risen to seventh in ESPN’s newest power rankings, and and since late July they’re one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball. They’re also beginning to show signs of being more than a Cinderella story.
Pitching has been the Mets’ signature all season, and it continues to look better and better. At the start of the year, Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom looked like the surest thing on the Mets’ pitching staff since Matt Harvey‘s return from Tommy John surgery was the cause of uncertainty. Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz were as yet unproven. As of August 13th, the Mets might have the best top-to-bottom staff in the game.
As a team, the Mets are first in baseball in quality starts and WHIP. They’re second in team ERA, and fourth in batting average against. They’ve thrown an astonishing number of fastballs over 95 miles per hour, and on any given day they seem liable to pitch a shutout. Syndergaard has been incredible at Citi Field, as have Harvey’s past ten starts. Following up the Mets’ Big Four is veteran lefty Jonathon Niese, who was at one point the staff’s biggest wild card but has found his rhythm and is churning out quality starts. The bullpen has managed to be solid, and is improved of late, and closer Jeurys Familia seems to be over his post-All-Star-Break hiccups. Earlier this week, Rockies’ slugger Carlos Gonzalez said “deGrom is the best pitcher in the game,” and there’s actually reason to believe he might be right.
JUST ENOUGH OFFENSE
The Mets have been among baseball’s leaders in both runs and home runs in the past month, and they’re suddenly capable of scoring in bunches. They’re scoring with two outs more often and coming from behind to win games. They’re fouling off pitches and putting together good at-bats, but their selectivity isn’t just leading to walks–they’re making pitchers pay for mistakes after fouling off pitcher’s pitches. All of a sudden, it’s a pretty tough assignment to get all the way through the Mets’ lineup unscathed; they’re getting clutch hits from up and down the order, from Curtis Granderson at leadoff to Ruben Tejada‘s timely singles from the bottom third. The lefty-righty power duo of Lucas Duda and Yoenis Cespedes has created a ripple effect throughout the order, and Daniel Murphy recently credited his torrid hitting to the rest of the lineup. The Mets’ run differential, which was negative until quite recently, now stands at plus-32. And after their most recent scoring binge, the Mets have improved to a staggering 45-7 when they score four or more runs. This means they’re virtually a sure thing when they give their pitching a reasonable amount of support.
DOMINANCE AT HOME
Another situation in which the Mets have been a near-sure thing is when they play at Citi Field. The Mets are 42-18 at home, which is quite an accomplishment for a team’s that’s struggled at home in recent years. Being dominant in their own ballpark will come in handy in the postseason, especially if they hang on to the NL East and wind up with home-field advantage.
Yes, you read that correctly. After some wheeling and dealing by their beleaguered front office, the Mets now have viable depth at every position on the diamond. Newly acquired Kelly Johnson can play the infield and the outfield, as can the newly healthy Michael Cuddyer; they also provide power from opposite sides of the plate, and are veterans who can adjust to not playing every day. In Tejada, the Mets have a no-longer-underrated defensive replacement at three infield positions, as well as a capable singles hitter who can extend at-bats. Rookie Michael Conforto has been a pleasant surprise defensively as he’s looked confident and steady, with occasional power, from the left side of the plate. And Kevin Plawecki, Johnny Monell and Anthony Recker have been a solid rotating supporting cast behind the plate, allowing the Mets to rest the dangerous Travis d’Arnaud.
If winning and losing in October only came down to numbers and metrics, well, baseball wouldn’t be nearly as fun to watch. And for all their improved measurables, the Mets have one thing going for them that some might say trumps any numbers: momentum, and the power of belief. The Mets are playing with an increased sense of possibility and optimism, and that can go a long way. The emotional roller-coaster surrounding the failed trade and subsequent redemption of Wilmer Flores seems to have been the springboard for the Mets’ increasing mojo. D’Arnaud recently spoke about how fun it is to come to the park the expecting to win; manager Terry Collins is openly discussing managing pitchers’ innings with an eye toward October. Whether down to their last strike or their last out, the Mets never seem to panic or press because they never seem to think they’re out of it until the last out is recorded.
There’s still a lot of work to be done, but the Mets have begun to look very much like a team designed to win in October. They have dominant pitching, and they’re dominant at home. When they score a little as four runs, they’re nearly a sure thing. They have versatility and depth, they’ve got youth and experience, and they’ve had the kind of rallying-point event of which magical seasons are often made. And as one longtime Mets nemesis recently pointed out, they’re becoming a team nobody wants to have to face in the fall.