The Mets entered the 2017 season expecting to battle the Nationals for the National League East title. Coming off a wild card appearance and an 87-win season, New York was returning with all their everyday starters while getting several key players back from injuries.
Thirty games into a new season, however, any trace of optimism has evaporated in Queens. The Mets’ best pitcher is out indefinitely. The Mets’ best hitter is on the disabled list. The team is struggling to keep its record over .500 while an improved Washington team is already running away with the division.
The injuries are the most obvious culprit, and the Mets are all too familiar with this story. A pair of starters — Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler — have missed a combined 340 days since 2013 with various ailments, while oft-injured team captain David Wright has appeared in only 75 games since 2015.1 So losing the one star who has remained consistently healthy in that span, Noah Syndergaard, likely came with little surprise to fans.
By now, those fans surely feel cursed, destined for summers filled with news of MRIs and second opinions. But has this team really been any worse off than any other club when it comes to injuries?
In truth, the Mets’ injury luck is, by modern baseball standards, normal. The average team loses about three wins above replacement per season to injury, by our estimates.2 Since 2010, the Mets have lost 31.9 wins above replacement, or 4.0 per year, which makes them the eighth-most injury-plagued team in this span. To be sure, that might be the difference between winning and losing a division, or between making the wildcard and dropping off into the also-rans. But the Mets’ spread in total team WAR lost to injuries isn’t much bigger than you’d expect by chance.
Injuries are the least-understood factor in predicting baseball. We know that pitchers tend to get injured more often and more severely than position players, and that a history of injury tends to portend future problems. But beyond that, the reasons why some players are perpetually on the disabled list while others are never hurt are unknown.
But while they are mysterious, injuries can dramatically alter a team’s season. I combined information on the number of days each player has been on the disabled list with their expected production (in terms of WAR) in a given year to determine how many wins each team has lost due to injury in the last seven years.
|TEAM||TOTAL WINS ABOVE REPLACEMENT LOST|
Any frustrated Mets fan should remember that some other teams have been hit by injuries much worse. The Los Angeles Dodgers lead the way, losing 42.4 WAR since 2010, which is partially a consequence of the fact that they have been very good (they have more WAR to lose), and that they have often focused on acquiring injury-prone players. Making a strategy out of buying risky pitchers such as Brett Anderson and Brandon McCarthy worked well, but it also led to an abundance of injuries.
The total WAR lost doesn’t tell the entire story because most teams are equipped to overcome a handful of DL stints. But there are also cases where everyone or everything breaks bad: Twenty-one teams (roughly the top 10 percent) lost more than seven wins because of injury, enough to drop a solid division winner to a roughly .500 team. (Meanwhile, the luckiest 10 percent lose a win or less.) Here are the teams that were hit the hardest.
|TEAM||YEAR||LOST WINS ABOVE REPLACEMENT||NOTABLE INJURY|
|Blue Jays||2013||13.1||Melky Cabrera|
|Red Sox||2010||9.1||Kevin Youkilis|
But no team lost more WAR than did the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays, who sent a whopping 13 wins to the DL. Not only did their prize trade acquisition (shortstop Jose Reyes) go down, but their hyped free agent (Melky Cabrera) suffered a season-ending injury, as well. And the vaunted Blue Jays lineup was hampered by short but significant absences from Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista. Even the pitching staff was affected, from starters Josh Johnson and J.A. Happ to reliever Brett Cecil.
This season’s Mets aren’t likely to get close to the 2013 Blue Jays’ record. The Mets’ most significant loss is that of Syndergaard, a flamethrowing ace and likely Cy Young contender. Even the most optimistic projection called for Syndergaard to be worth around 5.6 wins, and the Mets already got 1.4 of those wins in his first five starts. Assuming he misses the rest of the year, they would lose a whopping four wins from his absence.
That’s a lot, but the Mets’ other injuries aren’t nearly as severe. The starting pitcher duo of Steven Matz and Seth Lugo may have been young and exciting, but the projections were more skeptical, suggesting they would earn only three wins between the two of them. If both make it back at some point this season, which seems likely, they could cut down on the loss significantly.
And on the position player side, Wright’s extended absence hurts the most. As a symbol of the Mets and one-time likely Hall of Famer, Wright exerts an outsize influence on the team. But as an on-field contributor, years of injury woes trained the projections not to expect much from Wright. Even if he misses the whole year, the Mets will be down only about a half a win’s worth of value.
Injuries are a convenient scapegoat, but the Mets actually owe many of their losses to ineffectiveness rather than to absence. (Ineffectiveness can be a consequence of injury as well, but that kind of loss of performance can’t be quantified with disabled list data.) From Jacob deGrom to Wheeler to Robert Gsellman, even the Mets starters who have showed up have disappointed to various degrees. Between ailments and suspensions, Matt Harvey has been downright bad (5.14 ERA), as well. Even the relief staff, which was the second best in baseball last year, has been merely mediocre (13th) so far this year. Add up all of their run prevention woes, and you have a team whose playoff odds have almost been cut in half (from 67.5 percent to only 39.7) over the last month, largely by allowing a run more per game than the projections expected.
While this season may look increasingly hopeless, next year is not yet lost. The silver lining for Mets fans is that there was almost no correlation between the WAR total a team lost one year and what they lost in the following season.3
No matter how you run the analysis, teams seem to exercise very little control over how many of their players get injured and for how long. As tempting as it is to scapegoat the Mets’ training staff, there’s little evidence that they are to blame. So although the injury bug has hit the Mets hard, there is no reason to suspect it will return so dramatically in 2018.
Neil Paine assisted with research for this story.