In honor of the 2022 Major League Baseball season, which starts April 7 — and is actually a thing! — FiveThirtyEight will be focusing our attention on the most intriguing team in each division. Today, we take a look at the National League East, home of the defending world champions, but also several of the most expensive teams east of Los Angeles.
As is almost always the case, the NL East gives us plenty of reasons to pay attention. The Atlanta Braves are coming off their first championship since 1995, and they could be even better after adding new pieces and welcoming Ronald Acuña Jr. back from injury. (Though they won’t be returning Freddie Freeman, as the longtime franchise icon signed with the L.A. Dodgers after Atlanta made surprisingly little effort to bring him back.) The Philadelphia Phillies have built up an impressive lineup and overhauled their bullpen (yes, they really mean it this time); and eventually those big payrolls have to lead to a playoff berth … right? Even the Miami Marlins and Washington Nationals could be interesting if you stare at their rosters long enough.
But only one team in the division perennially holds the greatest potential for both fabulous feats and — more often — fantastic failures: the New York Mets.
The Mets never lack for hype or star power. Since 2016, New York has spent more than $992 million on players — ninth-most in MLB. The team has had nine players selected as All-Stars over that span, including all-time ace Jacob deGrom and home run machine Pete Alonso. Playing in the historical epicenter of baseball, the Mets are one of the most recognizable brands — for good or bad — in the sport. But despite all this, wins have been hard to come by.
Although the Mets made the World Series in 2015 — losing in five games to the Kansas City Royals — their winning percentage ever since (.486) ranks 13th-worst in MLB, making New York one of only two teams (along with the Los Angeles Angels) to post a sub-.500 record since 2016 despite spending at least $900 million on payroll in that time. Over the same span, the Mets have been among baseball’s saddest of sad sacks according to two separate measures of what we might consider bad fortune: costly injuries, and an inability to convert stats into victories.
Using data from Spotrac, we find that Mets players have spent 9,053 cumulative days on the injured list since 2016, costing the team a total of $267 million. In that regard, only the crosstown New York Yankees have had lousier luck with stars staying healthy than the Mets, though at least the Yankees have five playoff appearances to show for that period. (The Mets have one, a wild-card-game loss in 2016.) In that same time period, only the Baltimore Orioles and Houston Astros had a greater negative differential between their actual wins and the wins we would expect from their total wins above replacement,1 the product of untimely hitting and pitching or other ways teams find to fumble away victories (something the Mets specialize in).2
|🚑 Worst Injury Luck||🍀 Worst WAR Luck|
|Team||Days on IL||Salary Spent||Team||Wins||Exp. W||Diff.|
|Red Sox||7,420||$185,675,961||White Sox||407||421.8||-14.8|
New York has had some master-class seasons in both areas recently. In 2018, the Mets spent nearly $70 million on injured players, including Yoenis Céspedes, Noah Syndergaard, David Wright and A.J. Ramos. (They finished 77-85 despite a strong final month of the schedule.) And in 2020, the Mets won 6.2 fewer games than WAR said they “should” have, even though the season was only 60 games long. (They finished 26-34 and out of the playoffs, despite an expanded postseason that year.) Prorated over an entire 162-game schedule, that differential works out to a 16.8-win shortfall, which would easily be the unluckiest season by any team since at least 1985. The wonderful MLB YouTuber Foolish Baseball recently devoted a whole video to just how hapless the 2020 Mets were:
The Mets will test your statistical faith if you believe these factors will someday even out and work in New York’s favor. Who knows? Maybe some teams truly are just cursed. But that hasn’t stopped the Mets from trying to power through on the brute strength of owner Steve Cohen’s pocketbook.
After shelling out for numerous expensive stars in the 2020-21 offseason, Cohen was at it again this year, signing free agents to another $259 million in total contract value — a haul that included starter Max Scherzer (three years, $130 million), outfielders Starling Marte (four years, $78 million) and Mark Canha (two years, $26.5 million), and infielder Eduardo Escobar (two years, $20 million). Throw in a recent trade for ex-A’s pitcher Chris Bassitt, who has averaged 4.6 WAR per 162 team games over the past two seasons, and the Mets added more incoming talent — based on 2021 WAR — than any other team this past offseason, on top of a roster that already had its share of big names.
But is this the year that big-time talent finally wins out in Queens? Or will the 2022 Mets prove to be snakebit again? It’s a question that will come down to factors like deGrom’s health, Francisco Lindor’s bounce-back ability and plenty of other unpredictable elements like the luck we mentioned above. For right now, the blend of projections we use to set preseason Elo ratings,3 thinks New York still has some distance to go before catching the defending-champion Braves in the East, although their range of projections from the various forecast systems is wider than any other team in the division (or the entire National League, for that matter).
|New York Mets||78.0||91.1||89.9||81.9||84.9|
Using that blend as its input, our prediction model gives New York a 23 percent chance of winning the division (second behind Atlanta’s 55 percent) and a 57 percent chance of making the playoffs after six seasons of futility. The Mets’ massive payroll — $252 million, second in MLB behind the Dodgers — clearly indicates the team’s expectations for better outcomes than it has seen in recent years. The potential is certainly there — but as is always the case with these Mets, turning potential into results is a trick they have not yet been able to figure out.