Edwin Díaz And Francisco Lindor Aren't Busts Anymore — And Neither Are The Mets
The New York Mets may not be playing the best baseball of any big-league club at the moment; the Los Angeles Dodgers, at least, would have something to say about that. But after six consecutive series wins — started by a two-game sweep of the then-rolling Yankees in late July and continued, over the last two weekends, by four-of-five and two-of-three triumphs over the division-rival Braves and Phillies — it’s hard to argue that any team is having a better time. Pete Alonso racks up his own RBIs and darn near catapults himself over the dugout railing to celebrate his teammates’. Luis Guillorme uses the late moments of a tense game to break out the gutsiest piece of infield trigonometry you’ll see this season. Jacob deGrom returns to Citi Field after 13 months away, proves that “getting misty to Skynyrd” is not yet an entirely barren tract of human emotion, and fires 5⅔ perfect innings.
Of all the examples of excellent vibes lately emanating from Queens, my favorite was the sequence of faces Taijuan Walker made — translatable in print as proceeding from Yeah? to Hell yeah! — when informed, on the first night of the recent Atlanta series, that closer Edwin Díaz would come back out for the ninth inning after firing two strikeouts (via two sliders at the kneecaps) in a 1-2-3 eighth.
That right there is the story of the Mets’ year, which has seen them get out to a torrid start, fend off long-term injuries and some midsummer doldrums and, like a rock climber trusting a foothold enough to hoist themselves up, come to believe that the good things happening will continue to do so. The National League East, a toss-up three weeks ago, now has the 75-40 Mets 5.5 games clear of Atlanta; FiveThirtyEight gives them a 95 percent chance of making the division series.1 Among the biggest reasons? That Díaz and shortstop Francisco Lindor — who prior to this season looked like the latest in the franchise’s tradition of sunk-cost disappointments — have turned into the cornerstones they were brought on to be.
The Mets traded for Díaz before the 2019 season as the headliner in a bizarro blockbuster that also brought Robinson Canó to Queens, and Díaz — who had led baseball with 57 saves in his last year with Seattle — set about stinking up the joint. He blew seven of his 33 save opportunities, and his ERA swelled from 1.96 to 5.59. Across 58 innings, he gave up 15 homers, a pair of them coming during a nightmarish outing in Philadelphia in late June, when the Phillies plated five ninth-inning runs in a walkoff win. “I always try to stay positive,” Díaz told the New York Times a couple days after that loss, whose saving grace was that it came on the road and therefore shielded him from what had become customary home-crowd nastiness. “I’ve had a couple ups and downs this year.”
Over the seasons that followed, Díaz mostly staved off disasters of quite that scale, even if he couldn’t regain his perch among baseball’s preeminent closers. In the COVID-19-shortened 2020, he managed a 1.75 ERA, with walk-heavy underlying stats that suggested the kindness of sympathetic angels. In 2021, the ERA leveled out at 3.45 and seemed like it would stay about there going forward. Like so many shooting-star relievers, Díaz was able to access his former dominance only occasionally.
In 2022, though, there has been nothing occasional about Díaz’s dominance. At Citi Field these days, he emerges from the bullpen to a strobing trumpet while everyone in attendance loses their mind. On the mound, he hikes his knee up to his jaw and unleashes one of two pitches: a four-seam fastball that spits flame at its edges, like a meteor hitting ozone, and a slider that simply ceases to exist when it approaches the plate. Two little changes have changed everything. For the first time in his career, Díaz is throwing that slider — the 11th-best pitch in all of baseball at drawing swings and misses2 — more than the fastball, and he’s throwing first-pitch strikes at a higher clip than he ever has. Embarrassment has hardened into zone-filling fearlessness: what could go wrong that hasn’t already?
The numbers are audacious. Across 47⅓ innings, Díaz has allowed 42 baserunners and struck out 94 batters. More than 52 percent of the hitters who have faced him have fanned. His ERA, 1.33, is something Mariano Rivera never matched; his WHIP, 0.866, Mo bettered twice in 19 seasons. As you might guess from the immediate reach for high-grade historical comps, no other reliever this season comes close to what Díaz is doing.
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Díaz talks about his phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes act in simple terms, as if it were expected. “I changed my mechanics, confidence — I put everything together. I just try to throw strikes,” he said during his return appearance at the All-Star Game in July. But Mets manager Buck Showalter acknowledges the rarity of what his star reliever has pulled off, working his way back to greatness in a sport (and city) that tends to bar readmission: “A lot of people don’t rebound from that here, or anywhere.”
Showalter might as easily have been talking about Lindor, who after six unassailable years as Cleveland’s all-everything shortstop put on a Mets cap in 2021 and got real assailable, real fast. Back in Ohio, Lindor had been the five-tool prototype, having gone four straight All-Star seasons winning either a Gold Glove (2016 and ’19) or Silver Slugger award (’17 and ’18). His first year in New York saw his OPS drop to .734 (from .833 over the pre-New York portion of his career), while his defensive WAR, 1.9 at its peak per Baseball-Reference.com, got sliced almost in half. Because he played for the Mets, for whom no downturn is complete without drivetime-radio fodder, he also responded to booing in kind, at which point any hope for a happy introductory season went kaput.
Lindor’s rejuvenation in 2022 isn’t as gaudy as Díaz’s; he’s not leading the league in anything, nor was he one of the four Mets among the NL All-Stars. But in its sum, it may be even more meaningful.
Although a quarter-step slowed from his early 20s, Lindor remains a defensive asset, all quick trackdowns and loopy, well-angled releases. And after a start to the season that seemed to roll over 2021’s Queens curse — he fractured a bone in his finger slamming it in a hotel door in early June, and by the end of that month his OPS had dwindled to .735 — he’s found himself at the plate. Since July 1, the switch-hitting Lindor has slashed .322/.404/.537, the kind of cross-category excellence (lefty and righty, bloop singles and bombs) that can’t help but place him at the center of things as the contests get bigger. Over those five games against Atlanta, Lindor walked three times and racked up eight hits, the grooviest of them a double that he belted dead to center and bounced off the orange stripe atop the outfield wall. It earned him a pair of RBIs, but the fuller indicator of Lindor’s right-place-all-the-time knack is that he scored at least one run himself in each game of the set, part of what became a franchise-record-tying 13-game streak.
Now, Lindor’s numbers scan less as “salvaged production” than “MVP darkhorse.” His 4.9 wins above replacement3 doesn’t just give him the top perch among Mets; it leads all major-league shortstops and places him sixth among position players across baseball. His OPS is up over .800, for the first time since he got to the NL East. With a third of the season to go, he’s already matched last year’s mark of 20 home runs, and if you take recent form into account, 30 seems like a low estimate for what he’ll end up with. Back in June, after he hit a pair of bandaged-finger homers with his mom in town, Lindor predicted good days ahead, speaking in the third person of a superstar getting back to full self-regard. “The real Lindor’s always been there,” he said. “I just struggled, and this year I’m playing a little bit better.”
That’s one lesson from the Mets’ blessed season: If a player is worth paying for, he’s also worth being patient with. Sports in general, and baseball in its cruel particulars, produces cynics; you’ll never sound dumb predicting that something going bad will stay that way. But talent misplaced is not the same as talent expired. The pitcher who used to be untouchable can wake up one day and remember what that feels like. The shortstop who lost his verve amid expectations and vitriol can find it again. And the franchise where careers have historically gone to die can, against all odds, revive a couple of them.
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